Ross Williams isn’t known for resting on his laurels. Since starting XRATS productions a decade ago he’s built up a catalog of accomplished short and feature length work, and has deftly taken advantage of rare – and occasionally unusual – circumstances that have come his way. Whether this involves editing documentary work for self-help guru Anthony Robbins or turning the birth of his first child into a feature length documentary, Williams has continually honed his skill while taking on passion projects and “for hire” work. His latest short SELF INFLICTED is a darkly comic look at a sweet masochist who is looking for love in all the wrong places.
Sweetback (SB): Tell me about the creation of XRATS PRODUCTIONS. What were your initial motivations for creating it, and what do you see as the ethos for your company as a whole?
Ross Williams (RW): XRATS came about in a couple stages. When I made my very first film eRATicate I wanted a production name attached with it. I was a huge X-Files fan and a rat lover, so I connected the two to become a unique name. I kept it over the years years as I worked on various projects. About 5 years ago I created my own production company in Southern Oregon, making commercials, short documentaries, taking freelance editing projects, etc; it was natural to keep the name.
I’m a fan and filmmaker of all genres, but when I’m making exactly what I want to make, it is dark-comedies more than anything else. Life tends to be a dark, evil thing much of the time, but we might as well laugh about it.
SB: You spent several years compiling the footage that eventually became your documentary THE TURNING POINT, which covers both your own life and the eventual birth of your child. What was going through your head when you started compiling that extremely personal footage, and was there a fear that you wouldn’t be able to find a proper story to tell?
RW: It started as a purely personal project. I wanted to put together some footage of what my wife and I were going through, what our life was like, then create a short film out of that to show our coming child. Our kid was born and like any new father, I kept on shooting and eventually realized that there was probably enough story to make a feature documentary out of. It took me almost two years to edit the 100+ hours of footage into something that somebody outside of our family might enjoy or learn from. I wanted to tell the story of becoming a first time parent from a father’s perspective. Something that I don’t think has been done a lot, at least in film form. I “released” it a few years ago into the festival circuit, but it never made its way to DVD because of some music rights issues. It’s something I’m still planning on releasing. I’ll distribute it personally, and hopefully it’ll find a bit of an audience. But first I’d really like to re-edit it, as we’ve had a 2nd kid since then and I’d like to add all those new perspectives to the film. It’s something that always seems to be on my back-burner, I’ve always got more pressing projects. So by the time it finally comes out, it’ll cover more than a decade of my life.
SB: I was fascinated to read that you’ve done a lot of editing work for Tony Robbins’ INNER STRENGTH FILMS. How did you find yourself working for one of the world’s most renowned motivational speakers, and how did that experience change the way that you work?
RW: I met a guy here in Ashland, Oregon who was responsible for producing and releasing Tony Robbins films on DVD. He was looking for an editor and I was hired on a freelance basis. I worked with him for about 3 years. Through that job, I was really able to hone my documentary editing brain. I cut around 25 feature length films, most were shot live at Tony Robbins conferences, which take place all around the world. Usually it’s Tony talking one on one with somebody in his audience who was having a major life issue and Tony helped them work through it. I had to learn what parts worked and what was essential to keep in.
Going in, I thought of Tony Robbins as a cheesy late-night infomercial guy, but I really learned to appreciate his life philosophies from constantly listening to him talk. There’s a lot of science and psychology to how he works with people. He’s amazing at reading people, it just takes him a few sentences, he sees it all in how they talk and present themselves. I still use a lot of his teachings to this day.
SB: Do you find it difficult to balance doing freelance work for others with your own projects? Do you find it frustrating to try and fulfill the creative vision of others, or do you find that just makes your own work more fulfilling?
RW: I like working with people that have an artistic vision, unfortunately that’s not a lot of the paid projects that I get to take on. Most people just see video as another tool to get their stuff sold, their ideas across, etc., the bulk of my paid work is in that arena.
I love working on my own passion projects, telling a good story, trying to create a bit of art, while keeping an audience entertained. I’ll often volunteer my time & equipment to help out on projects of a similar nature. I love to shoot and/or edit other directors visions. It takes a lot of the stress off my back, and I get to focus on what I consider the fun creative stuff. Usually that’s unpaid. I could keep doing this non-stop, there’s so many projects floating around, but I’ll work with people who I know I get along with and we have a similar vision or sense of humor. It’s another way to sharpen my skills. There’s always something to be learned from how another filmmaker works.
Ultimately, I want to make a living at directing my own feature films, but that’s a long, hard road and I’m not even sure if I’m on the right street.
SB: Let’s talk about the genesis of SELF INFLICTED. What made the concept of a lonely masochist interesting to you, and how did the project first develop?
RW: I met the writer, Kristopher Horton, at a local filmmaker get together. I was looking to make something new and hadn’t written anything of my own that begged to be made. We got to talking and he told me about a few scripts he’d written. When he sent them to me later, SELF INFLICTED jumped out as something that I had to make. It had a similar dark sense of humor to my own work, and I’ve always liked anti-hero stories. Being dysfunctional is part of the human condition, some of us hide it better than others. Our protagonist Jim, wears it right on his face, with all his cuts and bruises. He’s screwed up, but ultimately he just wants to be loved and accepted. The film’s dark and twisted, but at it’s center, I think it has a good heart. I’ve really fallen in love with this character, and I want to see where we can take him next. I’d like to develop it into a web-series or hopefully something larger.
SB: So often in microbudget productions the thing that most reveals the budget is the quality of acting. Thankfully, you have Levi Anderson taking a character that could easily be off-putting and really bringing a sweetness and legitimacy to the roles. How did you get get Levi on-board, and was the casting process fairly smooth?
RW: Levi was a guy I’d worked with on some other projects, usually behind the camera, so he didn’t immediately jump to mind. But around the same time, I shot and edited a short zombie comedy called GOGDAWG which Levi starred in. Despite not saying much, just running from zombies and making goofy faces, I could tell he had a great screen presence. I think he’s got that rare character quality, that no matter how awful he is, the audience still wants to love him. (The kind of thing that just oozes from Robert Downey Jr. or Bill Murray.) I wasn’t 100% sure about his acting, but as soon as I talked to him about the film he told me that he really related with this character. He also wanted to jump on board as a producer, the thing I enjoy least about filmmaking, so I was happy to split some duties there. I knew he’d put the time and effort it needed to make it all work, so I couldn’t say no.
I’ve never done cattle-call type auditions, I usually just find actors that I like through other things and offer them parts. The other roles mostly fell into place that way. I’d worked with Danielle Kelly on a couple things, I knew she had the balls and the beauty to take charge in the leading lady role. Brian LeBlanc, who plays Jim’s best friend, is Levi’s best friend in real life, so they had the right chemistry. The toughest role to fill was Marigold, because she’s involved in a sex scene. I talked to a few actresses who said no, before Levi introduced me to Mig Windows… they’d worked on a film together, and she was willing to take the role.
SB: Was there a concern that the scenes of Jim’s masochistic tendencies might be a little too gruesome, or was part of the fun thinking of ways that he could purposely hurt himself?
RW: I was worried that the subject matter might be too dark for some people, but I honestly haven’t had anybody say they were disturbed by it. That’s usually the thing they want to talk about most. But I never intended for it to be gory or gross enough to turn off the audience. The opening shot of him slamming his fingers in the drawer is to get their attention, after that I tried to play it mostly for comedy.
We had a lot of fun coming up with ways for him to hurt himself. My aim was for him to do hurt himself in some new way in every scene. Most of them were written into the script, but the fork under his fingernail and pouring salt on his wounded knuckles, we came up with on the set. Those were some of the most satisfying moments during the making of the film.
SB: For those who might be looking to check out other XRATS productions, or keep up on your future work, what’s the best way to do so?
RW: I have a website http://xrats.net – that I try to keep as up to date as possible, but as it’s all on me, and I’m not much of a web-designer, it tends to get a month or two behind… but it’s the best way to see the bulk of my past work. The Facebook page is probably the best way to keep a constant watch on what we’re doing, I’ll post something whenever there’s news: https://www.facebook.com/XratsProductions – I’m also on Twitter: @xrats
SB: Anything else you might want to plug? What should we be expecting next from Ross Williams and XRATS?
RW: I always have about 10 irons in the fire, and never enough time or money to do all the projects I want. But I’ve just wrapped up editing a documentary that my wife directed called BE YOURSELF. It follows three people at various stages of their lives, trying to “make it” as an artist. A child pianist, a college age dancer and a professional singer Timothy Nishimoto, who’s in the fairly well known band Pink Martini. It’s a complete change of pace from SELF INFLICTED, but was a real joy to edit. We’re going to be entering that into festivals very soon, and it should make it’s online debut in the near future. (https://www.facebook.com/BeYourselfDocumentary?fref=ts)
I’m putting together a horror/comedy short that I’ll probably shoot this summer. Levi (who’s also a stand-up comedian) and some of his comedy friends are developing a web-series about a group of misfits all living in the same run-down apartment complex. I’ve been sitting in on the writing sessions of that, and will be lending a hand behind the scenes. I need to wrap up THE TURNING POINT someday, it’s a constant weight on my mind. I’ve been writing some feature scripts, that would require millions of dollars to make, so who knows if they’ll ever get made. And I’m trying to find the perfect idea for a low-budget feature, something that can be shot with a minimal cast, crew and locations, but not feel small, most likely in the dark-comedy vein.
I’m sure some other things will pop up, that will divide my attention even more, they always do.
SB: Finally, what advice do you have for young or inexperienced directors looking to tackle their first project?
RW: Plan, plan, plan. The better prepared you are going into the shoot, the better it’ll turn out in the end. Technology today makes it really easy to get a decent picture from complete amateurs, so filmmaking may seem like a very easy thing. But the more time you take storyboarding or coming up with shot-lists, getting all your cast, crew & equipment lined up before hand, the easier your shoot will go. Also make sure you’ve got a core group of reliable people around you. People will often volunteer their time, because filmmaking seems fun and easy from the outside, but once they’re in it, it’s often very hard work or they’ll find it boring. So you’ll have a crew of 20 the first day of the shoot, day two you’ll be down to 10, by day 5, you’ll be down to that core group of 3-5. Also, cast & crew if they’re not getting paid, will almost never show up on time, so always have a back-up plan or be flexible. Know the shots that you have to have to make the film work, get those, than build on that. I’ve been on so many sets, where we take 2 hours setting up one unnecessary shot at the opening of the day, then hurrying through 4 must-haves at the end of it.
Also, good sound is 100x harder to get than good picture. So try to have somebody who knows what they’re doing recording the sound. Bad sound is always the first thing to give away an amateur production.
That said, just have fun with it, learn by doing. Every project will make you better. Work every position on set; run cables, learn how to set-up the lights, listen to the buzz from a refrigerator ruining your dialog; know how hard everybody’s working, so you can appreciate it when you’re captaining the ship. I’m 10 years into making films, and I finally feeling like I’ve got a good grasp on it, but I’ve still go so far to go.
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