He is the man behind Popsy Dollar Baby Film.
SKSM: Could you start with telling me a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Richard Fleming: My official job title is “Visual Storyteller.” I think it accurately describes what I do: I make narrative-style commercials, telling the stories of small businesses and some Fortune 500 companies – highlighting what it is that makes them unique. The main thing I learned in doing commercials is how to elicit an action from viewers.
I also volunteer my time as the Board President for a nonprofit that helps local, independent businesses succeed. I average about 110 hour a week with work, but I love what I do.
SKSM: When did you make Popsy? Can you tell me a little about the production? How much did it cost? How long did it take to film it?
Richard Fleming: I shot “Popsy” toward the end of October 2013. I chose that time of year because I wanted to utilise the golden colours of Colorado to give the film a Halloween feel. It took us three days to shoot, with an extra day for some of the driving shots, underwater work, and a little ADR for Elias (the child actor).
The production was pretty streamlined, but there was a lot of multitasking: applying for grants and fundraising, directing, writing, shooting, editing, sound design, acquiring permits and props, location scouting, securing a venue for screenings, et cetera. I had some great help – people who believed in the project and believed in me. Without them, this short wouldn’t have happened.
I was still working on my commercial stuff while shooting “Popsy,” but in retrospect, I wouldn’t do that again. Making a film, even a short film, takes a lot of time and attention. The edit wasn’t completed until 5 months after we shot the film. It took so long, largely because I was trying to manage my day job at the same time.
The film cost under $10,000 to make and send to festivals. $10K isn’t cheap, but the film looks more expensive.
I’m an NPS (Nikon Professional Services) member, so I got to borrow a loaner camera for free. I chose the D600 but I wouldn’t actually recommend buying it if you’re in the market. It has a lot of problems – including the shutter flicking oil onto the sensor. Nikon claims they’ve fixed it, but there are plenty of better options out there.
I chose a full-frame camera because I wanted the field of view. A lot of indie projects are shot too tight. It’s great for web, but I knew I was going to show “Popsy” in theatres. The relative size of the characters – especially given the immensely widescreen format – was maintained so they were neither too close nor too far away. In designing a minimalist frame, I wanted the weighting to be pronounced while maintaining detail; having a full-frame perspective allowed me to do this.
Initially, I had planned on using a generator to light the night shots. As I started working with the visuals and selecting a colour palette, the logistics of getting a lamp as large as I needed starting making less sense. Ultimately, I chose to light the second half of the film as day-for-night. I think it was a better choice and I love the way it looks.
SKSM: How come you picked Popsy to develop into a movie? What is it in the story that you like so much?
Richard Fleming: I chose “Popsy” because I liked it that the child was strong – posed a real threat to the protagonist, Sheridan – and wasn’t just a victim. In addition, Sheridan’s character seemed to be forced into a questionable moral circumstance: desperation led him to choices he didn’t really want to make, and yet he still had to pay the consequences of his actions. This raised an interesting moral question, and I tried to expand on it by making the child into bait. It creates a kind of ambiguity around who’s really evil and who should be feared.
In addition, I saw an opportunity to add my own metaphors to the story. Vampires are great metaphors. Historically, they spawned from fears of immigration and racist attitudes toward eastern Europeans. I wanted to use them as a symbol for the growing disconnect we have with our food. I thought the food chain – particularly, how vampires treat humans – was a good place to start. It both parallels the relationship/power dynamic we have with livestock and questions the necessity to consume meat for nutrition.
Vampires are conventionally violent to people, but how many people eat a hamburger with that kind of malice? There’s a certain reverence we hold toward our food, and I wanted to include some of that affection in the character of Popsy. He practically pets Angus before tearing his throat out. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance with food.
Further, I’m always surprised that vampires in shows like “Vampire Diaries” or the Twilight series never carry themselves with any kind of maturity. Would a 200- or 300-year-old person really care about going to a school dance? I get that I’m not the target demographic for these shows, but these caricatures make for an incompatible character profile – which ultimately ruins the fun of the fantasy. It takes you out of the story. Although I haven’t seen it yet, I understand Jim Jarmusch has addressed this misrepresentation in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
SKSM: Are you Stephen King fan? If so, which are your favorite works and adaptations?
Richard Fleming: Probably my favourite Stephen King film adaptation is The Mist. It’s great. The atmosphere is so ominous that it hits the viewer on a visceral level. The tension carries very well; the mood is palpable. Plus, like most great movies, it shows and doesn’t tell.
SKSM: How did you find out that King sold the movie rights to some of his stories for just $1? Was it just a wild guess or did you know it before you sent him the check?
Richard Fleming: I’ve known about the Dollar Baby series for quite some time. I looked through the catalogue, but already knew I was going to do a version of “Popsy.”
SKSM: Was there any funny or special moment when you made the movie that you would like to tell me about?
Richard Fleming: I love my cast. They’re all great people. Elias, our child actor, livened up the set a lot. He’s incredibly energetic and his stamina outdoes most of ours. Andy Hankins, who played Popsy, is a great guy and Elias really liked him. Throughout the shoot, Elias only referred to him as “Popsy.” I’ve worked with them both a lot since then, and he never calls Andy by his actual name – only Popsy. It’s hilarious and adorable.
SKSM: Do you plan to screen the movie at a particular festival?
Richard Fleming: I’ve submitted the film to several festivals, and I’m waiting to hear back. I also had a free screening for friends, family, and my local community. I’m submitting largely to local festivals and a few bigger ones.
Many filmmakers seem to think they have a shot at Sundance or Cannes. I didn’t even bother submitting to those. A part of me felt it was the wrong market. With that said, I’ve seen some surprises make it through these highly competitive festivals. I wouldn’t discourage an artist from submitting their film, just that they should try to be as objective as possible. Watch your film like a critical viewer, not a creator.
SKSM: How does it feel that all the King fans out there can’t see your movie? Do you think that will change in the future? Maybe a internet/dvd release would be possible?
Richard Fleming: I understand why the rights are restricted. I don’t mind. These projects are really just portfolio pieces. You can still have up to 2 minutes online. You can create a great film in 2 minutes, and I would make that a goal if I choose to do another Dollar Baby project.
The real disadvantage is in fundraising. If you’re doing a crowdsourcing campaign like Kickstarter, it’s difficult to get people excited to invest when they can’t see the final product. That narrows the contributor pool, which makes it harder to crowd source funding.
SKSM: What “good or bad” reference have you received on your film?
Richard Fleming: Some people missed the connexion to factory farms and the references to the treatment of livestock. I was worried it was already over-the-top! I thought people would perceive it as propagandist. I mean, the main character’s name is “Angus” and the boss, Mr. Metzger (German for “butcher”), talks about grinding him up into hamburger. A few people said they didn’t get the metaphor, which was disappointing. The challenge is to communicate an idea so it’s clear and easy to understand, but still feel like a discovery, not a lecture. I could improve on that.
Overall, I’m very happy with my artistic choices, especially the more subliminal ones. This film is largely about power relationship. The scene between Metzger and Angus in the RV was figuratively and literally about who was “in the right.” During this scene, Metzger regains control of the situation and dismisses Angus’s whining – forcing him into the next job. We emphasise this point by doing a complete 180-degree cut. This was very intentional. After the private screening, a local filmmaker who makes ultra-low budget films came up to me and complained. He could not get over my attitude that you’re allowed to break rules – just not to ignore them. The transition was definitely disruptive, but it was not disorientating. That’s what’s important here: it didn’t take them out of the story. Yet, he took it as some kind of cardinal sin. I get this a lot, especially from those who are dogmatic about structure.
I had the opportunity to watch an audience react to the film. There is a scene where the child is lured into a car, handcuffed, and punched in the face. It’s pretty intense and it shocked the audience. It was a hard effect to pull off with a 6-year-old actor. He did very well: they all gasped. Their reaction was a testament to his hard work; and it was incredibly rewarding. As a filmmaker, I really want to impact the audience. I wanted them to feel something while they’re watching. I think in a movie like this, shock is a good thing.
A lot of people complimented me on the cinematography and the colour theme. That made me happy.
SKSM: Did you have any personal contact with King during the making of the movie? Has he seen it (and if so, what did he think about it)?
Richard Fleming: I did not have any direct contact with Stephen King, but the terms and conditions of using his story require sending him a copy of the finished product. The last email I received stated that he has not watched the film, but I hope he does. I am deeply curious, but understand he’s pretty busy.
SKSM: Do you have any plans for making more movies based on Stephen King’s stories? If you could pick – at least – one story to shoot, which one would it be and why?
Richard Fleming: Not at this time. There’s a convenience in working on material that’s already crafted (and well-written). I didn’t spend any time worrying about how “Popsy” should end; I knew how it ended…it had already been written. My task was merely to decide how I would represent that ending. I’m not a writer by any stretch, but I’m looking to do some original work as well as adaptations of works I admire – particularly science fiction.
SKSM: What are you working at nowadays?
Richard Fleming: I like films with social commentary. Currently, I’m working on a short film about two, desperate immigrants who hijack an 18-wheeler thinking it has precious cargo. The “valuables” are actually radioactive waste from a medical facility. Exposure to this deadly material results in a tragic and horrible end. This is a true story that occurred in Mexico.
The dramatic premise is that no matter how desperately they want to improve the quality of their lives, they will still be confronted with obstacles that keep them in dire straits. Even if they try to do the right thing, their situation is determined irrespective of their moral standing. On some level they know this, but think that if they go to great lengths or turn to crime, they’ll be able to improve their situation. It doesn’t work out for them. I don’t necessarily agree with this attitude, but it makes for an interesting story.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you want to say to your fans?
Richard Fleming: I have fans? 😉
SKSM: Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Richard Fleming: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my film. I’m glad networks like this exist for independent creatives.