April 19, 2012

SCA Family Stories: Jay Gammill

The Director of Free Samples sits with SCA

It takes a truly dedicated filmmaker to take on the responsibilities of creating a feature film, whether it’s their twelfth film or their first. As the industry changes and offers more opportunities for new directors to emerge in the independent scene, these responsibilities are no less challenging and require the utmost commitment to complete. For Jay Gammill, these experiences came firsthand with Free Samples.

Jay Gammill '07

MFA Production alum Jay Gammill sits down with SCA to discuss his first feature film Free Samples featuring Academy Award nominee Jesse Eisenberg, his experiences as a DIY filmmaker and to offer advice for aspiring directors.

What is your name and graduation year? My name is Jay Gammill, and I graduated from the MFA Production program in 2007.

Tell us a little bit about the project you have at Tribeca. Free Samples is a film I just directed. It’s my first feature film, and it’s premiering at Tribeca Film Festival this year. The story is a dramedy about a law school dropout who runs an ice cream truck for a day in Los Angeles. It’s been about a three or four-year long process of getting it made, and I’m really happy that it’s finally getting out there, which is often difficult to do for a first feature. But I’ve learned a lot, and I feel like I’m going to get even better as I move forward.

So you began working on this roughly right after you graduated. Did you have the idea for it while you were at school here? No, but when I graduated in ’07 and just getting my thesis film out to festivals, I met a screenwriter out of New York; he had seen my thesis film and liked it. So we talked; I was trying to make my first feature, and we knew we wanted to work together, but my mindset was that I would not be able to get a studio budget for my first feature. He pitched me on the idea of this movie, Free Samples, which he then wrote. I spent about three years kicking it around, trying to meet with producers, getting various cast interested and so on, and we finally shot in December of 2010.

Without getting into too many gory details, what was the deal like? Was this one a good faith movie with lots of handshake deals? There were a number of good faith deals; however, coming out of school, the process I was aware of was to attach myself to a project and if I didn't write it, I would want to option it. So I started down that path.

Gammil on the set of Free Samples

Do you have a memorable or favorite war story while making the film? There were just so many challenges and struggles because we were shooting a low-budget feature. Much of the film takes place outside, and toward the end of our shoot, it rained non-stop for a week, so we had to postpone and finish a few weeks later, which was not ideal. One of the characters of the movie is the ice cream truck itself, and that broke down a few times. There were all these logistical things in the way, but nothing catastrophic on set. I would say that the three year journey leading up to it was not easy, finding the money and then not finding the money, when we’d think we would have a deal but it would fall through. But I stuck with it. You never know what’s going to happen, but I found that persistence would end up paying off.

It seems like your generation that comes out of the School of Cinematic Arts is kind of a DIY generation or is becoming more like the 1970s style of doing it on your own. Do you find that to be true among your peers? I think that when I was there, it was changing to be like that, with the availability of equipment and things like that, students are more able to make films and do it themselves. I do remember, though, when I was going in, there was still that motto of the film school if you make your student film and spend a lot of money on that, that you can eventually get a huge feature off of that. The culture was changing, and the industry was changing, and that this wasn’t really happening anymore. So now you kind of have to make a feature first on your own, someway and somehow, to get to that next level. Honestly, I’m still on that journey.

We shot my feature in 13 days. and I shot my thesis film in nine days. It’s just crazy to think about what went into it, but the story of Free Samples fit our budget, and that’s what I was aware of going in. I didn’t want to take on something I could not achieve. I could not have made a feature with the production, location, budget, and so on that I had used on my thesis film.

How did it feel to be a part of Tribeca? I’m really happy to be at Tribeca. I’m almost surprised how many films that I’m looking forward to seeing there. I know the festival has been changing during the past few years, and I hope it continues on the path it's on.

If a student or prospective student wants to know more about your film, where can they follow up with you? Right now, you can go to freesamplesmovie.com, which will redirect to our Facebook page. You can follow us on Twitter as well with @freesamplesfilm. That’s really how we’re getting the word out.

Who was your thesis professor, and do you carry any pieces of wisdom from that professor as you go on with your career? My thesis mentor was Carroll Hodge. My experience with Carroll was great in that I knew she really cared about the film I was making. I felt safe; she was a safe person, and that was important to the process. Coming out of that, what I’ve gained is that I need to find those kinds of people in my life and take all of these questions, issues, and problems that I have to work out with their help. If you don’t have that and you feel like you’re alone, that’s very hard.

A lot of MFA-Production students have some trepidation about taking 507. Do you have any advice for them? 507/508 made for the hardest year, and I think it’s because you’re thrown into it. I guess my advice is to just keep going and going. If you have something that doesn’t work or doesn’t land, don’t worry about it. You can still recover, and you can still make great work. Don’t let it get you down.

Do you have any advice for students who are about to graduate that are considering taking the DIY route of filmmaking or advice that you wish you had heard? I wish I had been more trained on how to go about doing the DIY approach. I essentially learned through trial and error. I did another short after film school, and I also remember going to independent film seminars, panels and things like that, one being AFM in Santa Monica, where they had panels on distribution and how to tackle doing a film on your own.

I had a hard time dealing with coming out of film school and remembering how to do it on the cheap like we did in 507/508.

What’s next for you? I’m working on a few different projects and am interested in working with the screenwriter of Free Samples again. I’ve got a few irons in the fire. It’s good to have multiple projects going.