Homegrown Filmmaking and Keeping the Process Personable

Director Kimberly Levin and Producer Kurt Pitzer on Runoff

Movies Features

Everyone has an idea for a movie, a majority of people actually want to make a movie, and I’d say a small minority of the population would be down to try. So what keeps the filmmaker hopefuls (especially congregated in L.A. and N.Y.C.) from actually producing work? Well, there are plenty of excuses. You guessed it—money is at the top of the list. Next might come manpower, then time, then that excuse only the more honest people use—I’m not good enough.

Kimberly Levin is not one of these people. For every roadblock to making a movie, she seems to have a likely path. When Paste sat down to chat with Levin and her producing partner (and hubby) Kurt Pitzer about their film Runoff, it was hard not to be impressed, especially since this is Levin’s feature debut.

An NYU Grad Film School alumna, Levin had a short, Between Baronovskys, under her belt and had also collaborated with Johnny Depp’s production company Infinitum Nihil on a TV pilot. Levin’s script for Runoff was initially pinpointed by producer Julia Chasman (Quills) while judging the Nicholl screenwriting contest. She then came on board to executive produce. With a few champions behind the production, Levin and Pitzer have completed a film that, since premiering at festivals like L.A. and Sarasota, has received critical praise, an audience fan base, and a theatrical release (if you know indie film, you know this is the coveted trifecta), and they’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting themselves.

With the help of others, of course, collaborators they’re immensely enthusiastic about, Levin and Pitzer have become part of that tiny minority to create a film they can call their own. There’s no studio title slapped on this one, no star-studded cast or script penned by an Oscar nominee. It’s just focused indie filmmaking.

Runoff centers on Betty Freeman (Joanne Kelly), a woman who runs a farm in Kentucky along with her husband Frank (Neal Huff). The setting has no shortage of bees, mud, and hogs—to which they’re feeding pharmaceuticals. The pressure to keep the family farm intact is substantial. They’re up against a corporate competition, Gigas. We smell a buyout. As the story moves along, Betty discovers more financial hardship than she expected and is forced to ask herself what she’s willing to risk for her land.

The film delivers wonderful performances from the actors, a tone that takes its audience on unexpected turns, and a pace that’s just slow enough to be eerie but precise enough to keep the film engaging. Before we give anything away (this is one of those films it’s best to see knowing only a little about), let’s get to the big question we’ve been building to: How did they do it? Paste was invited over to the Levin-Pitzer household in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to find out.

Their bohemian home is an artist’s dream. The living room is lined with tall windows, the floors with intricate rugs, and art fills the space. Levin is welcoming, asking guests to remove their shoes and then offering a glass of chilled wine. Soon her outreach crew introduces themselves, setting down their laptops to take a break and have a handful of almonds. Levin and Pitzer have recruited three ladies to their promotional team: There’s post-production art supervisor Kathy Bates (no, not of Misery), outreach coordinator Sarah Cavanaugh, and marketing assistant Katherine Harrison. The film is being released and publicized by Monterey Media, but Levin and Pitzer have put extra oomph behind their theatrical opening. It’s nearly midnight before the interview is over—and the women are still sending out emails. Talk about dedication.

Being in the space, I can see why the team feels comfortable to work late hours. Levin even edited the majority of the film in the apartment. She takes me on a tour, showing me the guest room where many a friend has crashed after staying late to work on the project. Levin’s desk and computer face an array of windows, and the bed is across the room. This is New York, people—there’s so much space! For an editor, it’s always nice to be able to breathe. Levin worked with both Michael Taylor (Love is Strange, The Comedy) and Francesc Sitges-Sardà (Toastmaster) on the edit before taking over herself. She explains, “With all the love and care you put into every word you choose, the colors, the DP [Hermes Marco shot the film], that same love and care is part of the post process.”

That said, Levin had never edited her own feature before. But she is resilient and—I forgot to mention—has an affinity for science: “Coming from biochemistry, I’m certainly not intimated by any of the tech. I’m intellectually curious about those things, figuring out how the scientific parts of it and the artistry come together.” Of course, if Levin continues on to bigger projects, she may not have the luxury of editing from the comfort of her own home, or taking over the edit at all. She admits, “Hopefully I’ll be able to find a balance.” It’s no surprise studio filmmakers like David Fincher and indie ones like Alex Ross Perry usually stick to the same editor, Kirk Baxter and Robert Greene respectively. When making a film and being immersed in postproduction, Levin admits that’s “when you meet those people that have to be in your life for the rest of your ride.”

After the Levin-Pitzer apartment tour comes a chat around some wine and cheese and an olive here or there. This is when everyone gets to the meat of things: process.

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One of the biggest headaches for indie filmmakers with no money (normally that statement is mutually exclusive) is music. Unless you’ve got a stellar friend from college who decides to try their hand at composing (looking at you, Dan Romer and Ben Zeitlin), you may find yourself in a bind. Levin turned to her surroundings for inspiration. She noticed buskers from the New York subway—many are quite amazing. Combined with the help of music supervisor Paul Hsu (Foxcatcher, Life of Pi), who offered to help because he was passionate about the project, Levin set out to produce some of the soundtrack. Levin thought to herself, I’m going to sit down and write a song. I wrote a movie, there’s no reason I can’t write a song. The film team then found a busker band, invited them into their home, and rocked out. For a homemade recording studio, the sound quality is great. Levin was also able to bring on composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans down the line. Known for indie favorites like The Wolfpack and Simon Killer, the duo crafted a score that, like the film, travels to unexpected territory.

Levin and Pitzer were also adamant about sound on location, using the music of their natural environment to reflect the haunting tone of the story. “The sound has to make up for the fear, the claustrophobia, what we felt like when we filmed it,” Levin says. The couple recorded every sound possible, even “bird beak on plastic.” Pitzer reveals, “The river sounds different at night than in the day.” They captured the Kentucky surroundings at all hours, trying to make it as authentic as possible and communicating with Paul Hsu throughout the process.

Levin was equally as specific with the visual design. When you’re making an indie film sometimes you play the role of production designer. “I usually use a painting that represents how I want to visually express the world in terms of color,” she says. Levin turned to Gauguin for inspiration. The French Post-Impressionist’s art is actually quite vibrant. It’s a surprise when Levin lists his work as a source for her film, with its fairly pale color palette. But Levin explains she desaturated the paintings, which represented Runoff’s setting before the town had the “marrow sucked from it.” She laughs when discussing how difficult it was to preserve this vision. If the color on location, on set, wasn’t in her planned palette, it wasn’t in the frame. She admits, “It was tough.”

Speaking of tough, Levin filmed one of the most difficult scenes the first day of the shoot. The crew had 45 minutes to shoot a crop duster flying over the camera; the pilot could only stay in the air for that long. With multiple takes needed and three setups, they had less than an hour. Again, another excuse not to try to get a shot like this off. Levin was persistent: “The only thing we have is red flags and green flags.” With the entire crew under umbrellas—the plane drenching them in water—Pitzer explains they just had to go for it. No one could see the plane, so they were “just going on sound.” They got the shot off with time to spare.

This is one of many stories Levin and Pitzer share of defying all odds on set. They even dealt with a hog attack. Yes, during one scene the hogs’ feeding mechanism broke. Pitzer recalls the animals were “like sharks circling” their actor, Neal Huff. The poor guy actually got bit on the thigh by one of them, too. Luckily, the injury wasn’t serious, but Pitzer admits he immediately started thinking of possible solutions: “How much insurance do I have and how much does it cover an actor’s ear?” Fortunately, the ear went unharmed.

Levin and Pitzer, though, owe much of their achievement to the community in which they filmed. Shooting in Levin’s native Kentucky, where she’s on the state film board, they were able to raise equity financing and employ the help of family and friends. The team also had extensive conversations with every farmer around. “They got to be a part of it,” says Levin. By the end of the shoot, the farming community became a vital aspect of getting the film made. Levin also realized how relatable their everyday struggles were, despite their rural lifestyle; whether you’re trying to produce a good crop or working on Wall Street, it’s all still survival. Levin and Pitzer even secured their main location for free: Two sons, after inheriting a lovely house, offered it to the production with no price tag. They only asked that the film provide the property with a legacy, preserved on camera.

Levin and Pitzer have translated this personable approach on set to the post process as well. Working with a team, and in their own home, they’re totally and completely involved in the way in which the film reaches the world. Pitzer is happy about Runoff’s distribution and has maintained a notable artistic control over the process. “Stay ahead of it,” explains Pitzer. He and Levin continually provide their colleagues with ideas, connections and solutions. It helps they have three ladies working hard to reach out to any and every potential viewer. From educational platforms to social and environmental organizations, Runoff is bound to reach a widespread audience.

The film may be Levin’s first feature, but it’s undeniably a stepping-stone. Now she knows how to do a majority of the work with her own two hands. Okay, more than two—there’s Pitzer, the outreach team, the crew, the actors, the collaborators, and don’t forget the farmers. The approach Levin and Pitzer have adopted has taken them far. As Levin puts it, “We choose to be filmmakers. If I weren’t interested in communicating with people, I’d choose a different medium.” It’s no coincidence the film finds its setting and subsequent success on a farm; Levin and Pitzer’s process feels certainly homegrown.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.

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