Mar 28, 2017
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Ehren Koepf: Man on a Mission
by Doniphan Blair
Producer, writer and soon-to-be director Ehren Koepf takes a break at a studio in Oakland. photo: D. Blair
Ehren Koepf is a young man on a mission to make movies and in San Francisco. Instead of going to film school, he went to LA. Instead of settling into the rat race, he came back, and got to work, notably of late on "
The Singularity Is Near
), but also much more.
Originally from Elk, a tiny coastal town south of Mendocino (born 1976), he was cursed with an odd Gaelic sounding name (not unlike this author). But it's actually German, meaning honorable, and he has stuck by it despite the schoolyard ribbing. He took his BA in 1998, majoring in writing at Saint Mary's College, Moraga, and moved immediately to LA to work in the film business, as he had planned.
"Little did I know that 'working in the film business' meant making photocopies, getting coffee, 100 hour weeks," he remarked to me with a grin, although he was also accepted to Fox Studio's competitive Searchlab program—a distinct leg up. He studied acting for a couple years to better relate to actors as a director.
He eventually became an art department coordinator, on studio projects like "Mission Impossible 2" (2000), but his focus remained screenwriting. Thus far he’s had three scripts optioned, making some money and joining the Writers Guild of America, but his scripts have yet to make it to the big screen. In 2007, he wrote, produced, and directed the short, "4u," which did well in festivals, 17 screenings in all.
After doing LA for six years, he tried New York for a year, before moving back to San Francisco and drifting into a little non-conformity—literally, he lived on his sailboat for three years. Since then the film business has also taken him to Sydney, Australia for three months and Northern India for six weeks writing a screenplay, although he is dedicated to making movies in San Francisco. His goal has always been to write and direct his own films.
Aside from "The Singularity is Near" (2011), he line produced the Indian film "Mee Sindutai Sapkal" (2010), and the indie feature by Megan Siler "And Then Came Lola" (2008). He also assistant directed "Harimaya Bridge" (2009) by Aaron Woolfolk (see
), "Friends and Lovers" (2009) by Ronald Pike, "The Dead Sleep (2008) by Vicki DeMey, and "Where's My Stuff?" (2008) by Sam Burbank, not to mention working on numerous shorts, music videos and corporate videos.
A friendly and good-looking guy, in a non-prepossessing impish sort of way (he could have become an actor, if he so chose), Koepf took time out of his frantic schedule to drop by CineSource's office for a chat.
The book was published in 2005, when did the film idea emerge?
I believe the idea for adapting Ray's book into a film was conceived around the same time or shortly after the publishing of the book. But I could be wrong. Ray has such a knack for thinking ahead, it's possible he could have conceived the idea for our film long before 2005.
Who roughed out the film script and developed the Ramona story?
Our film has always been Ray's film. Everything about it has his imprint on it. He's always been a keen listener of other's input, but in the end, it's Ray's film. Ray wrote the Ramona script that is interwoven with the documentary interviews. And Ray led the direction of the interviews. Without a doubt, Ray has always been the driving force behind this project.
Ehren Koepf also sometimes shoots, seen here with a RED. photo courtesy: E. Koepf
Why did you think [a fiction element] was necessary?
A movie that we've often been compared to is '
What the Bleep Do We Know?
' . This is not by accident. Although our film is much different in terms of content, themes, and the many elements involved, we do have one main thing in common. 'What the Bleep' interweaves a documentary with a fictional story. In 2004 when 'What The Bleep' came out, most people found this to be a completely new and creative way of explaining a documentary. It was a style that appealed to a larger audience and I'm sure it was highly influential in determining the direction Ray took with our film. Without a doubt, our film wouldn't be the film it is today if we didn't have the Ramona story interwoven with the documentary.
How was that shot, all green screen I guess at a small studio in town?
The narrative portion of the film was shot in a combination of ways. The majority of the scenes were shot at a small studio in town. Close to half the scenes were shot on green screen and close to half the sets were designed and built in Oakland and then later pieced together on our stage. Our courtroom scene was shot inside the Oakland courthouse and the surrounding exteriors.
Who art directed the background animation and who did the CGI?
There were many people who went into the design and final VFX and overall look of the Ramona story. Obviously there was our director, Anthony Waller who oversaw the entire look of the film. Along the way he received strong feedback from both Ray and myself. We were lucky to have a very talented group working with us. Anthony's brother, Nick Waller, did an outstanding job of storyboarding the entire Ramona story and getting Anthony's visualizations on paper.
Our art department was all SF based and they did outstanding work. As far as the VFX lead in the Ramona story, we would have been lost without veteran Bay Area filmmaker, Tony Hudson. Working under tight deadlines, with little pay, and even less help [ie he did it largely himself], Tony produced some of the best work on our project. And it's not surprising if you look at his resume. He's one of the best VFX Supervisor's in the business. Not independent filmmaking–in all of filmmaking. I'm really proud of all the outstanding work Bay Area filmmakers put into this project.
It is quite the hybrid of different types of movies, who was the ringmaster, Anthony Waller I am guessing, who also directed "American Werewolf in Paris?" Or was Ray kind of running the whole thing?
As I mentioned earlier the film has always been Ray's. But as you know, film is a collaborative business. Though Ray might have been the brains behind the film, Anthony really formed the film and put the pieces together. You have to keep in mind that Ray is not a filmmaker. First and foremost, he's an author, inventor, and thinker. He's an incredible mind, but he doesn't make movies for a living. Anthony's job—and my job as well—was to make Ray's vision come to fruition.
Who edited and were they local? Did they ever have trouble shaping it?
We started off with a local editor who worked hand-in-hand with Anthony. Eventually Anthony took over the editing revisions as it became obvious that Anthony had a clear vision for the film and how it would ultimately come together. When editing a documentary, and especially when editing a documentary that has an interwoven narrative, there's only about a million-and-one different ways to shape it. Anthony might be a director, but when it comes to editing, he's also a magician. He has a great knack for story and knows exactly how to achieve that story via his edit in the most concise and strongest of terms.
Did we have trouble shaping the edit?
No, I wouldn't call it trouble. There were always different parts of the story that we were aware of from the beginning that we knew would need special attention. After re-edits and test screenings, I don't think anybody was surprised with how the story came together.
When did you get involved and what was your principal duties?
I've been working on the production for over two years. Toshi Hoo, a fellow Bay Area producer and the director of the interviews on the project was at the time looking for a Bay Area line producer to help with the Ramona narrative and the overall completion of the film. Since I have a background in narrative filmmaking, I seemed like a natural fit. Shortly after coming onboard, Toshi was pulled in other directions, and needing a captain at the helm, I was excited to step into the producing role.
Since becoming involved, I've been involved with all facets of getting the film made: budgeting, scheduling, hiring of cast and crew, creative input, second unit directing, post-production, special screenings, distribution, and generally keeping the ball rolling. Since Anthony resides in Europe, and Ray in Boston, in essence I'm the glue that's kept everything together and organized—or at least that's what I've tried to do.
But the film wouldn't be where it is without certain people who really got this project off the ground. Toshi is one of those people. He did an outstanding job directing our interviews. Our film has a lot of interesting components to it, but without our scientists, inventors, and big thinkers discussing the ideas in the film, the film would really fall flat. Toshi did a brilliant job of making that part of the film a major success.
Was most of the production sort of virtual, lots of emails and sent files, or did you all get together and have meetings?
It was really a combination of the two, with more emphasis on virtual meetings via email, phone, Skype, etc. Based on Anthony being in Europe, Ray in Boston, and myself in SF, that seemed to make the most sense. That's not to say I haven't spent my fair number of days in meetings back in Boston. In fact, I think there's a Chinese restaurant there that knows me on a first name basis.
When I first became involved with the production, Ray was pushing to have it produced out in Boston. I dug my heels in however, and said I would only be a part of the project if the production took place in San Francisco. I'm glad I did. Given the choice, I always prefer working in my home city. And any time I can I push for productions to be based in San Francisco, I will.
Where there any major philosophical arguments or problems, like whether to edit down the Ramona story line or to exclude some fantastic statements or to cut down on the opposing views, like those of Bill Joy?
There have always been philosophical discussions as to the best way to handle the material. Some have argued for more critique of the Singularity ideas, while others have argued for less. Ultimately, it was a combination of Ray's vision and a lot of feedback from many, many individuals that led us to our current version of the film.
Did any of the team have any philosophical divergences? Did the crew stay up late discussing these things?
It's difficult not to discuss the future and where we're heading without people having differing views. Our staff has always been open to differing views. There are those who argue whether Ray's predictions will come true or not and those who argue whether his predictions are good or not. Regardless of what side you're on, one thing is for certain, technology is rapidly changing and tomorrow isn't going to look like today.
Although we've always been open to a healthy discussion on 'The Singularity,' for the strength of the film, we've tried to focus mainly on Ray's ideas. Doing otherwise would have created a different film altogether.
How long is it and do you release a budget?
The film is a little under an hour-and-a-half [currently at 79 minutes]. As far as the budget is concerned, we're a high budget for a documentary film [in the 2.5-5 million dollar range] but when you watch the film I think you'll see why. That being said our budget could have been easily have been twice the amount we've spent, if it was produced by a major studio.
Aside from playing SF IndieFest, what is happening with the film?
We had a special opening night screening at the Sonoma Film Festival last year. We've screened at a handful of smaller festivals and the Montreal World Festival, which is the largest festival in the world. We've also screened at Woodstock Film Festival and had a European premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. Aside from our festival run, we also had a special screening at the Time & Life Building in New York that was sponsored by Time magazine.
Regarding distribution, we are still weighing our options. I've been in direct contact with multiple distribution companies both domestically and internationally. We've been offered a theatrical distribution deal but we still need to make sure we follow the path that's the best fit for our unique film.
Ehren Koepf, with by fiancee Leah, at the the Sonoma Film Festival's special sneak premier of 'The Singularity is Near.' photo: D. Blair
What inspired you to get into film?
I could fill-up your entire article with this question but let me give you the Cliff Notes: I grew up as an only child, far out in the country, surrounded by a redwood forest. My closest neighbors were a 15 minute walk from my house, which my parents built themselves. My bus ride to school was an hour and 15 minutes each way. There were only two ways I could find escape: one was through sports, which I actively participated in; and the second was letting my imagination wander—imagining stories. I read a lot and I wrote a lot. And I always loved movies.
[In addition,] my mother and grandmother were aspiring actors. Growing up, Mom read and acted out stories on the local radio station. She was a great storyteller as was Dad. He's a professional writer and has worked in journalism and also written novels and screenplays. In high school, I knew I wanted to go into journalism or film. I wrote for several local newspapers and even started my own weekly paper. I continued writing in college but I was drawn towards filmmaking.
What do you feel about San Francisco as a film center?
I love everything about San Francisco. I've travelled quite a bit and I feel it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a great place to live. Unlike Los Angeles, San Francisco feels like a film community.
That being said, it's not necessarily the easiest place to get a film made. To begin with, San Francisco is not cheap. When you couple that with cheaper equipment and labor in Los Angeles, it's tough to compete. Furthermore, tax benefits in states outside of California pull productions away.
A lot of our young talent gains experience in San Francisco and then hit the road south for the 'big show' in Los Angeles. Hopefully, like me, they'll burn out and come back home. San Francisco has a rich tradition in filmmaking and has always seemed to attract the independent spirit of filmmakers, [although] there always going to be an ebb and flow.
San Francisco's film industry is far from dead. But I'd like to see it become stronger. And I think it will happen. I've been to Los Angeles and I'm not going back.
Do you have any projects planned?
Until 'The Singularity is Near' is completely finished and distributed, it's difficult for me to focus on other projects of significance. But when that does happen, I do have a few films in development. One, which I'm most excited about, will be my feature directing debut.
Do you want to tell us any more?
No, not really, let’s save that for the next article.
And with that Ehren Keopf was off, attending to the responsibilities of keeping all balls in the air of a zeitgeist-shaking film like "The Singularity Is Near."
Posted on Jan 19, 2011 - 12:55 PM