May 27, 2014

SCA Family Stories: David McCracken

The Director of OstrichLand discusses his process

David McCracken ‘13, the director of the award-winning 546 student film OstrichLand, recently hit the real world running. In this interview with SCA Family Stories, McCracken discusses the importance of selecting a good crew, how tough lessons can help a filmmaker develop a voice, and why students should have material ready before they graduate.

For more information on David, please visit: www.david-mccracken.com

Let’s start with your name and graduation year. David McCracken. I graduated from the Film & Television Production MFA program in May 2013 with an emphasis in Directing and Writing.

We’re here to talk about your short film OstrichLand. Can I get a quick pitch on the film? It’s a poignant road trip comedy about two estranged brothers who are driving across the country in a truck filled with their dead dad’s UFO memorabilia.

Was this produced as part of a class at USC? Yes, it was for Production III, otherwise known as a 546. It’s one of the most intense and involved courses at USC.

The way it works is, writers submit their scripts, producers submit their resumes, and directors submit their reels. The faculty whittles the selection down, and then the students create teams: a director, a producer, and a writer (and his script). There ends up being about twelve groups, and those groups then pitch the faculty on their projects. Finally, three projects are chosen, and those films are made the following semester in the 546 class.

As a director, what drew you to OstrichLand? It was a couple of things. First, I was just coming off post for a feature I had directed, written, and produced called Daylight (www.daylightindiana.com). That was a supernatural thriller about a team of Indiana Child Protective Services workers investigating a series of bizarre child abuse cases that end up being linked by demonic possession. It was a dark film with a challenging subject matter, so I was looking for something much lighter in tone. OstrichLand also just hit all the right buttons for me--I really love road trip films and stories about families. But it also wasn’t schmaltzy. It was rough, it was ruthlessly funny, and it was heartfelt. The script felt very authentic.

It also helped that the writer was someone I had worked with before. The writer, David Haskell, had produced a 546 film called Paulie, which I edited. Paulie was a successful short that won a bunch of awards and had a lot of festival play. So with OstrichLand, David and I had already shared that rare combination of success--success in a working relationship that led to a great movie. I’m happy to say we had the same results with OstrichLand.

David McCracken

Part of the process of getting a Film & Television MFA is developing your voice. What did you learn on OstrichLand that moved you forward as a filmmaker? It’s imperative to entertain an audience. Most of us go to movies to be entertained, but then, when we finally set out to make a film of our own, that objective can get lost very easily. When we were making OstrichLand, I considered myself a filter--the ideas that were entertaining, whether they were funny or heart-warming, those were the ideas that made it into the movie.

In my mind, though, the movie wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t have a team of dedicated and talented crewmembers seeing the project through to the end. We had a number of challenges with OstrichLand--driving stunts, a predominantly desert-set shoot, almost every crewmember getting sick--but when you have a great crew, all their positivity and determination in the face of these challenges win out.

A lot of directors say that their job is pretty much done if they cast the film right, and that’s true. Luckily that was the case with OstrichLand. But the other side of that coin is you have to cast your crew well too. That means crewing up with talented people you can trust, people who communicate well. All of us saw the same movie, so weirdly, it felt like OstrichLand  was already made. We just had to dig it out of the dirt, spit-shine it, and show it off.

Making OstrichLand was without a doubt the best moviemaking experience I’ve ever had, and I made a lot of long-lasting relationships during the film.

When you’re crewing up, do you go mainly on reputation or do you go on gut? It’s a little bit of both. I had taken a semester off to direct Daylight so it felt like I had missed out on some relationships. When crewing up for OstrichLand, I was playing catch up.

I didn’t know most of the crew of OstrichLand previously. Producers Peter Siesennop, Matt Montgomery, and I spent about two weeks having ten-hour meetings a day with anybody and everybody. When we had a good gut feeling on someone, we’d talk to people who had worked with them before. We also looked at their previous work, but at the end of the day, if a person seemed pleasant, hard-working, and straight-forward, we usually went with them.

Where can people find out more about OstrichLand? We have a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OstrichLandMovie) and an IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2706458/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1), and I also have my own website  (www.david-mccracken.com), where I keep all my writing and directing projects up to date. If you want to watch OstrichLand, email me, and I’ll send you a password-protected link to the movie.

What advice do you have for students who are just starting out at the School of Cinematic Arts? Just realize that your reputation means everything. Not only your reputation for making good films, but who you are as a person. How do you treat your friends and coworkers? Are you a clear communicator? Are you responsible with budgets and safety? How you handle yourself and how you treat others has an enormous impact on the course of your career.

What advice do you have for people transitioning into the real world? When you’re in school, no matter what you’re doing, think about what you want to do when you get out so you can hit the ground running.

I, myself, want to direct and write, both my own projects and others’. So if you like writing, have scripts ready. If you like directing, work on your reel and develop scripts to direct. Whatever the discipline, use your time in school to your advantage so that when they hand you that diploma, you can steer your career in the direction you want it to go.