By Jonathan Minkoff | October 2, 2015
Stages is a new independent student film directed, edited, and co-written by Dan Purcell, featuring an all a cappella score from its Executive Producer, Ithacappella. Jonathan Minkoff interviewed Dan, the current president of Ithacappella, about the project for RARB.
RARB: Where did the idea for this project come from?
Dan Purcell: The genesis of the Stages film actually came about as Ithacappella was in the studio recording our EP. As we were laying down the tracks and developing the concept of the album, Ted Trembinski and David Longo were pushing for us to brainstorm ways in which people would be able to listen to the entire album. Since the album itself is continuous, we wanted our listening audience to not focus on one song, but the collection of songs as a complete experience. A suggestion was to put the entire EP up on YouTube for a limited period of streaming, but I thought that was too simple and didn't lend to the idea of the album being an "experience". It needed to be something more.
I've been honing my skills as a filmmaker through the Cinema Production major at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, so my mind immediately drifted to the medium that I was so familiar with in order to craft the ideal "experience" that Ithacappella was looking for. I pitched the idea of an entire film spanning the full length of the album to the music directors responsible for creating the album concept, Ben Van DeWater and David Allen. The film would incorporate aspects of traditional music videos, serving as a showcase for Ithacappella, while also incorporating aspects of a traditional movie, with a plot and characters. In addition, I would also make this in conjunction with my Junior Year film production class, "Advanced Cinema Production: Fiction." So, not only would I be making this for an a cappella group that I was incredibly passionate about, but Stages would also be a big stepping stone in my studies as a film major.
RARB: Why the title, "Stages"?
Dan Purcell: Stages is also the title of the EP we made! That title was a constant throughout the album's production, as we framed the arc of the album around Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' Five Stages of Grieving (hence all the titles of the various spirits). The Prologue serves as the introduction to the Five Stages, Don't Stop Me Now represents Denial, Only When I Walk Away represents Anger/Wrath, Pompeii represents Bargaining, Say Something represents Sadness/Depression, and Timshel represents Acceptance, with My Heart With You serving as a sort of Epilogue. The conclusion of Timshel also contains references to all of the other Stages of Grieving, as a way of tying the album's themes together. It also features spoken word done by The Vocal Company's Jonny Stewart reciting a poem entitled My Way Home that was actually commissioned to music for us in my Freshman Year by a grad student named Christopher Harris, who attended Ithaca College during my first two years at the college. The idea of the EP is that the listener would be able to interpret and experience the album in his or her own way and recall and channel their own grief through the experience, whether that grief be over the loss of a loved one, or a failed relationship, a falling out with family, etc. I think in the end, the album doesn't necessarily serve as a "solution" to coping with grief, but more as a way for us to say to our audience that we, as the brotherhood of Ithacappella, have also experienced some form of grief, and that we use the bonds of music, love and family to carry each other through life. We wanted to open ourselves up to our audience and let them share in that experience, to know that there are always people that will carry you through difficult times in your life. The movie does a very similar thing towards the end in which it expresses this sentiment; the majority of Ithacappella comes together to support and guide the protagonist Matthew, played by Johnny Shea, towards the acceptance of his own grief, after this wild adventure through the other stages over the course of one night out on the town.
RARB: Can you tell us about the creative process? You have songs, transitions, and video. What came first? Was there a back and forth process or was one area completed before beginning the next?
Dan Purcell: So in initially writing the film, my writing team (myself, Josh Toomey, and Mark Farnum) came to the decision that dialogue was unnecessary; the only dialogue that would be "spoken" are the lyrics that are sung by the various characters. The visuals of the film in conjunction with the music of the EP would be the only element that would inform the viewer of the story that was unfolding. With that consensus, we wrote a visual outline that served as our "script." Basically we broke the album itself down into the various beats (based on transitions, changes in the arrangement of each song, etc.) and sort of wrote visual descriptions of each moment that happened over the course of each song, as well as between each song. I also decided to create a noticeable difference between what was happening in real time and the flashback scenes by making the flashback scenes entirely on 16mm film stock. We're very fortunate at the Park School to have access to incredible 16mm cameras, and I actually had to get a separate Cinematographer who knew how to work the camera just to film those sequences.
Since we were dealing with the subject of grief, I really liked the idea of exploring the aftermath of a relationship. Too many films have explored and retread the subject of falling in love and young love, and I was curious to figure out what falling out of that young love would feel like, so we decided to focus our interpretation on that subject. The working story that we came up with is that our protagonist, Matthew (Johnny Shea) has recently gone through a difficult breakup with a girl he had fallen in love with named Anna (played by Halle George). In order to rid himself of the torment of this failed relationship, he goes out for a night on the town, which starts innocently enough with a couple drinks at the bar. From the first moments we enter the bar however, Matthew's subconscious takes over, and projects not only memories of his relationship with Anna throughout the film, but manifestations of the Five Stages as human avatars, portrayed by all of the soloists who sang on the album. We're then taken on a wild journey across various locales as Matthew experiences these Five Stages. By the film's conclusion, Matthew has arisen from his experience as something new and exciting, ready to take on the new challenges of a world without Anna in his life.
Here’s something really important that I think most people don't realize when viewing the finished product. While the above concept remained a constant throughout production, the script we had originally written out changed drastically. Things were cut, shot in a different way than intended, edited in a different way. Heck, characters ended up looking way differently than originally intended. An example: I had envisioned the characters of Bargaining (Pompeii) originally being dressed in this macabre, "dark circus" street performer attire, but it ended up becoming just creepy dudes in white formal shirts. The guys who were portraying those characters ended up putting in killer performances though! There were a lot of things that translated directly from script to screen, including a few choice moments in Say Something and Timshel.
I also served as the picture editor for the film (since the sound was already edited and mixed, all I had to do was edit the visuals), and I'll say that was also definitely a big challenge. Since I had a hand in developing the concept and musical arrangements in the studio, I was very much married to the material and hesitant to cut chunks of songs out. However, I realized that if I didn't make cuts to the music, the visuals would just end up becoming very repetitive and boring. There was some resistance from Ithacappella in regard to the song cuts as well, but I convinced them that the cuts served as improvements to the visuals onscreen. As a result, I think I ended up getting a more cohesive, streamlined story, in addition to it being more vague, with some elements of the story being left up for the viewers to interpret for themselves.
RARB: Ithacappella is credited as the Executive Producers. How did that work? Did the group vote on anything related to the film?
Dan Purcell: Ithacappella has the executive producer credit because they were the ones that ended up commissioning the idea I pitched to them, and were also responsible for partially funding the film in addition to our Indiegogo supporters. Ithacappella is very fortunate to have the opportunity to tour schools around the East Coast every year, and because of this touring, we are able to raise the necessary funds for opportunities such as the Stages film. Mark Farnum's job, in addition to serving as a Producer and Writer on the film, was the representative of Ithacappella that was on set every weekend, making sure that a film was getting made. Otherwise, Ithacappella trusted me to be able to craft the story in an ideal way that would both tell a story and showcase the group, so they gave me a large amount of creative control on the project. I just had to let them know what I was doing, and about 99.9% of the time they gave me the thumbs up.
RARB: How long did it take to make Stages?
Dan Purcell: My writing team did initial conceptual drafting and spitballing for a couple months during the summer of 2014, and then we wrote the script from September to about November. I was actually taking courses at Ithaca College's satellite campus in Los Angeles during the scripting process, as well as serving as an intern at a production company, so that was a bit of a challenge trying to coordinate things amidst a lack of physically being in Ithaca! I actually also hired all the cast and crew while in LA as well, with the help of Mark Farnum putting out calls for people to get involved with the project.
Production lasted from the end of January to about April. We had a terrible winter this year, and since most of the shoots were outdoors, we had to keep postponing shoots due to a typical Ithaca winter of extreme cold and snow. In some instances we even shot in the extreme cold — the coldest it got on set was about -18 degrees. I think the entire cast and crew put some hairs on our chest that day!
Finally, post-production needed to be sped up to meet the May deadline for my class screening, but extra coloring and editing extended all the way through to its June 12th release.
RARB: There are some unusual make-up choices in the film, like the green stripes on the Spirit of Denial, and the red stripe you have as the Spirit of Anger. Was there a special meaning to those choices?
Dan Purcell: Strictly speaking, the makeup was so that audiences could clearly identify a noticeable difference between the Spirits of Denial and Anger from the crowds they were in. We imagined that both of those Stages of Grieving would just be very extreme in their attitudes, and that's sort of reflected in their make-up.
RARB: Did anything particularly unusual, challenging, or funny happen in the making of this project?
Dan Purcell: Aside from the extreme cold and having moments from the script being directly translated to the screen as mentioned above, one of my favorite moments in making this film was when we found the birds for the flashback sequence in the park. We drove into the park that we were filming at, and by sheer happenstance that massive flock of birds that you see in the film was just sitting there, hanging out in the park. It was a very serendipitous moment, and I took advantage of it by having my cinematographer film Johnny and Halle running through the crowd of birds on this beautiful 16mm color film stock.
RARB: You had over 40 Indiegogo contributors. How much money did you have to raise to make this project a reality?
Dan Purcell: The original plan in the crowdfunding process was to raise a budget of roughly $4000 for all the expenses, which ranged from transportation, to equipment rentals that weren't available at the Park School, to feeding cast and crew, to anything else that might come up in the process of filming Stages. Unfortunately, we didn't meet the budgeting goals, but we raised enough to cover all the necessary costs for production. We were also very fortunate that we didn't have to pay our locations any fees — the City of Ithaca definitely treats its student filmmakers very well!
RARB: Your movie is scored almost entirely with original arrangements of extremely popular cover songs. Permission isn’t needed to record these for an album (just payment), but getting permission to use songs in a movie can be difficult, and requests often get refused. Can you describe your experiences getting clearances? Do you have any advice for other groups making videos?
Dan Purcell: Ithacappella bought the rights to use the songs on our album. We went through Loudr and they handled all the clearances for us. That’s just audio rights — making a video requires a sync license, which we didn’t have, and LOUDr doesn’t handle for you.
When we released the film on YouTube, we took a chance: either YouTube’s own sync licenses with major publishing houses would allow our video, or the rights holders would take it down and no one would ever see our movie. That gamble has worked out for us so far and we’re pretty happy about that!
Now, if we choose to enter the film in a festival or sell it, we'll have to revisit the permissions issue and get our own sync licenses, but so far we haven’t found the right festival so that may not be something we have to deal with.
My advice to groups (collegiate groups specifically) who are looking to make a music video or film is to make sure to read up on the distribution and licensing rights. There are usually some processes that student/amateur filmmakers can use to secure the rights to use copyrighted music in their films. Also, if you have a film program at your school, definitely look and see if you have a lawyer that deals with music licensing in film. If you're releasing this project on a site like YouTube, you do take a chance. But if you're aiming to put it in a festival somewhere, I'd make sure to have the necessary sync licenses.
Another great way to avoid all this is by producing your own original music, which would be sweet, because who DOESN'T want more original music in the a cappella genre?
RARB: What are your hopes for this project?
Dan Purcell: I'm hoping that Stages inspires vocal groups, especially collegiate groups, to think about creating more personal experiences for their audiences through their music. In the era of social media, people are looking to connect with others and communicate their ideas and opinions to create communities in both a physical, experiential sense, and also a virtual sense. A cappella is the most personal and human musical instrumentation we have, so already vocal groups have an immediate, direct way to connect with an audience, both on a physical and virtual level. The next question groups need to ask themselves is how that initial connection can be expanded upon and presented to an audience in new, exciting ways, while still keeping that personal experience in mind. Stages was one of the ways Ithacappella did just that, because as I mentioned above, we crafted and presented a musical experience in both the album and the film that drew on a common emotion of grief that we all experience during our lives.
RARB: What do you think fans should know about this project?
Dan Purcell: Stages was a challenge for me as a filmmaker, but I think it definitely gave me the chance to develop my own personal style of what I like to call "professional storytelling." Everyone connects with a great story, and the best works of art often tell us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. Although it's only a stepping stone for me in developing my personal filmmaking style, I'm hoping that fans of music and film alike can connect with and appreciate the story Ithacappella is trying to tell in this film.
I also want to stress that people should definitely read through the separate credits video (and not just for the bonus track that rolls during the credits). While Ithacappella and I were responsible for the genesis of the film, there are so many others that lent their time, energy, and creative talent to crafting this film. This film would not be here if it weren't for those people, and I have an incredible appreciation for what they've done for me and will continue to do for other films beyond Stages.
RARB: What’s the next project for this group?
Dan Purcell: As the current President of the group, I can confidently say that we have a lot of new and exciting projects coming this year.
We recorded the follow-up EP to Stages at the end of last year at Sled Dog Studios with Ted Trembinski, and that's currently in the process of being prepared for release in the fall. In addition, Ithacappella is entering its 20th year as a group, and we're in the midst of planning festivities and special events with our alumni association. We really want to celebrate a milestone year in the best way possible!
Lastly, and I think this is one of the most important things that's coming this year, with the 20th anniversary on the horizon, we've definitely started looking to the future and are planning a complete overhaul of Ithacappella's branding and visual appearance. I'm very excited for this, because it's definitely going to bring Ithacappella into the modern era; I’m looking forward to showing everyone what we've been working on.
In the midst of all these exciting plans, I'm currently scripting my Thesis Film (the follow-up to the Stages movie) that will be produced during my senior year. It unfortunately doesn't have anything to do with a cappella music, but I'm planning on featuring some members of Ithacappella in some of the character roles. One of the best things about the group is that we draw a variety of majors from our college, so I'm very fortunate to have close friends who are acting and musical theater majors. I'm looking forward to hopefully working with them again on this project!
Directed by Dan Purcell
Written By Dan Purcell, Josh Toomey and Mark Farnum
Produced by Mark Farnum
Executive Producers Ithacappella
Starring Johnny Shea, Halle George and Ithacappella
Spirit of Denial: Josh Fogerty (lead on Don't Stop me Now)
Spirit of Anger: Dan Purcell (lead on Only When I Walk Away)
Spirits of Bargaining: Paul Tine (lead on Pompeii), Anthony Cubbage and Ryan Kennedy
Spirits of Depression: Chris Frost and Dan Purcell (leads on Say Something)
Spirits of Acceptance: Ned Singh, Taylor Smith, Dan Purcell (and Mike Mattar) (leads on Timshel)
Prologue by Ben Van De Water
Don't Stop Me Now by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Roy Thomas Baker
Only When I Walk Away by Justin Timberlake, Tomothy Mosley, Jerome "J-Roc” Harmon, and James Fonteleroy
Pompeii by Dan Smith, Kyle Simmons, Will Farguarson, Chris "Woody” Wood and Mark Crew
Say Something by Ian Axel, Chad Vaccarino, Mike Cambell, Dan Romer and Christina Aquilera
Timshel by Marcus Mumford, Wiston Marshall, Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Markus Dravs.
Credits Theme: My Heart With You by Kyler Englad, Rob Giles, Adrianne Gonzalez and Gabriel Mann.