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Views from a Micro-Budget Filmmaker - Paul Awad

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Paul Awad is a director/cinematographer who grew up in Richmond, Virginia and earned a Bachelor’s in Theatre Arts and a Master’s in Film. His screenplay for 'A Savage Nature' won the Hollywood Screenplay Grand Prize Thriller Award, and his directing and cinematography for the internationally viewed Western web series 'Thurston' has won awards from the Telly Awards, Indie Series Awards, France’s Web Series Mag, and was nominated by the International Academy of Web Television. His work has also received recognition from the ADDY Awards, The Kodak Company, and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is currently in post-production on the documentary 'Bicentennial Bonsai'. Paul is also a film professor and licensed private investigator.

Q1: Having studied film and theatre and produced your own film work, what would you say is a good route for people to follow looking to get into the industry?

I had always planned to work in film, but I originally studied theatre because I thought it would give me a good understanding of acting and directing. I think everyone who wants to be a director should take at least one acting class.

Personally, it did not make me a good actor (lol) but it really made me appreciate what a difficult job acting is and the acting process. Sometimes as filmmakers we don’t always think about that. Studying theatre also helped me understand how to block a scene for stage and, in turn, it has made it easy to block scenes for camera.

Q2: You worked on a web series, ‘Thurston’, how did this come about and what were your considerations in making a we series?

We began doing the web series in 2011 (almost 10 years ago) and it was more of an experiment back then. We filmed on HDV. I had some difficult experiences in the industry and my wife (Kathryn O’Sullivan) and I wanted to make something just to make something. Back then it was very DIY, but the web series community was amazing! We all know each other and we would often work on each other's projects and cheer each other on. After the first year, we began to have a little bit of a following and we really tried to up our productions. We acquired some new equipment and expanded our cast to include two well-known soap opera actors. (Walt Willey and Colleen Zenk). We ended up producing 21 episodes and were nominated and won several awards which was a nice surprise. It turned out to be one of the best production experiences I have ever had. I would strongly recommend the web series format for anyone looking to create on a micro-budget.

Q3: ‘A Savage Nature’ is inspired by true events, what was your exposure to the story prior to writing it and what attracted you to creating the film?

I have worked on all sorts of projects, but my true love is film noir. I have always wanted to make a film like “Blood Simple” or "The Grifters." A producer asked me if I had any scripts he could read. I said yes, but it might take me a week or so to get it to him. In truth, I had nothing; but I talked to my wife and writing partner to get ideas. We thought a film noir story would be the most economical script to film. We also decided we would set it in one location. We wrote the first draft in ten days. The true events are a little bit of an amalgam of a couple of true crime stories we had read about. Like many people, we also watch a lot of true crime television. I don’t want to get into specifics of the story as it might give away the plot. The script won the Hollywood Screenplay Grand Prize Thriller Award and made its way to Hollywood, but in the end nothing happened so we decided to produce it ourselves.

Q4: The film is largely set in a single location with minimal characters, was this an influecing factor due to working with a smaller budget or did it not come into your thinking when developing the film?

Story and budget were dual considerations. The film takes place over one day in (mostly) one location and the cast was very small (7 actors). We had always planned it that way because we knew it would be far more affordable. In a lot of ways it is like a stage play in the size of the cast and the development of the characters. I have also always been fascinated by stories that take place in a short period of time. The story was a chance to explore how much your life can change in a 24 hour period.

Q5: What process did you follow working with a small number of actors?

The actors were great to work with. The Washington, DC area where we live has a fantastic theatre community with some incredibly gifted professional actors. However, because it is DC and not LA, they don’t have a lot of camera work opportunities. That meant we had great actors that were available to work with us. One of the actors, Joanna Whicker, had actually been a student of mine in an on-camera acting class. We had workshopped scenes from the script in class. She was so wonderful in the scene that she pretty much had the role by the time we got to filming. Working with the small cast was a collaborative process and because they were such pros they were able to adapt quickly to script changes that happened on set. The actors also were lodged at the house where we filmed so it provided them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the location and atmosphere.

Q6: With having a limited budget, what did you see as the key areas to invest in budget-wise?

The most important investment was in the cast. Without a solid cast, I knew the film wouldn’t work. We also had a very small crew but they worked tirelessly and we couldn’t have done the film without them. The film was shot in 12 days for about 17,000. As everyone knows, that is really difficult. On more than one occasion I thought we might have to pull the plug. At some point just before we were scheduled to start filming, we lost our original location. Fortunately, we found an even better location and it worked out great. Then there was the issue of securing a police car. That was something I really worried about. It’s one of those things that micro-budget filmmakers typically have to fake and I really didn’t want to do that. Fortunately, we found a local company that supplies film production companies with vehicles. They gave us a great rate and were wonderful to work with.

Q7: What advice would you give to any filmmakers looking to get their film out there in respect of the festival circuit?

As you know, the festival circuit can be grueling. It can be difficult for micro-budget films like ours to find a home. I have always found it really helpful to look at the mission statements of each festival and see how closely they align with the mission or goals of my films. Those are the festivals I submit to. In truth, an incredibly small number of films get into Sundance but there are many, many wonderful festivals out there. It is possible for every filmmaker to find a festival where their work will be appreciated so don’t give up.

You can read more about Paul's film, 'A Savage Nature' on the website

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