Interview: Xackery Irving

Xackery Irving, director and writer of Nothing Without You, has been producing and directing film and television for over fifteen years.

His first feature film, a documentary entitled American Chain Gang competed in several international film festivals, won awards, and enjoys widespread DVD distribution and foreign television distribution in Europe, Canada, and Central America. Xackery has produced and directed over seventy hours of documentary programming for such series as the Emmy Award-winning Trauma: Life in the ER (TLC), The First 48 (A&E), Paramedics (TLC), Extreme Evidence (Court TV) and Dallas SWAT (A&E).

Writing, producing, directing and post-producing these long-format film and television projects has given Xackery extensive experience overseeing the operational and creative challenges required to put such complex projects together and oversee all elements through to completion.

As well, his experience crafting the these visual stories highlights his training in narrative, visual story-telling but also his ability to execute a complex and clear creative vision.

Xackery studied filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

So, since you have the honor of being our first interview, I wanted to start by asking you a few general questions about your filmmaking preferences, but instead I’ll just roll them all up into one and simply ask if you could tell us some of your directorial influences?

Thanks, I am delighted to be your first interview.

I really love to watch any good film, but when writing and pre-producing Nothing Without You, I looked at as many thrillers as I could. Watching the work of René Clément, Carol Reed, Brian De Palma and Hitchcock was a great diet of inspiration when developing this story.

Did you always want to be a filmmaker or was it something that you discovered later in life?

Since I was about 16, I was very focused on filmmaking and very focused on coming to New York to study it. At as an undgraduate at NYU, I got to explore the crafts of writing, shooting and directing narrative and documentary films.

I met some great filmmakers and developed a sense of confidence that showed me that all you need to make a good film is a good idea, a strong team and a plan for telling an interesting story in an interesting way. I think that is a New York thing in general. That is probably why it is the world capital of independent filmmaking.

What are some key pieces of advice that you have been given over the course of your own filmmaking career?

Three things I can pass along:

First, I would say that now more than ever, just get started. Equipment is affordable, and there are great resources for finding your audience. Write a script, put your team together and shoot. Do not wait for the right circumstances to line up. It has never been easier or less expensive. Make it happen for yourself.

Second, build your team. Find the right people and work with them as often as you can. Making a film has been compared, rightly so, to fighting a war. Make sure your trenches are filled with people you can trust and rely upon to get the job done. Develop good professional relationships by working on their projects as well. Meet as many actors, writers, DP’s, editors, line-producers, art directors, publicists, etc. as you can. Always be selective about who you work with, but meet as many as you can. Once you have your team, stay close to them.

Third, learn how to write a good business plan. If you ever hope to get a project off the ground, you will need to become adept at the financial side of things. Even though this film was self-financed, we still drew up a business plan to keep our focus on our expenditure and our goals. Each film is a business, not just a creative project and you need to communicate how you will make a profit. Crowd-funding is very exciting, filling gaps or getting you seed-money. If you want the kind of budget that will attract name talent, then a business plan is the first step in getting the investment.

In your opinion, describe the New York City filmmaking community and how it differs (if so) from other areas that you have been. What are some of the advantages of being an NYC based filmmaker? What are some of the disadvantages?

New York City film crews are the sharpest and the scrappiest we have ever come across. They have usually worked on many films, so they are experienced working on every level budget of film. They are motivated to work very hard and can keep things moving at lightning speed.

The city has the greatest pool of talented, well-trained actors in the world. Actors who share a passion for independent film. You can find the artist who will bring your characters to life. It is just a matter of looking.

Finally, New York has every location you can imagine in one city. Production value is built into your shoot.

The only limitation, sometimes, is cost. The city is many things, but rarely is it inexpensive.

Your latest film, ‘Nothing Without You’ is described as being “a fast-paced thriller.” Describe some of the techniques you used in order to keep the action of the film moving along at a comfortable pace?

A good deal of the action in Nothing Without You comes from the police as they chase down our main character Jennifer Stidger.

I shot and produced many episodes of a documentary television series called The First 48 (A&E.) This show features real police officers hunting suspected killers during a homicide investigation. I had developed friendships with many of the officers, having filmed them for weeks through every step of their real-life murder investigations. I got approval to cast a few detectives in our film as the police officers that chase after Jennifer. Having them involved gave these scenes an incredible sense of realism. Many times the officers came up with more authentic ways to hunt down our main character. It made so many of our scenes move and ‘pop’ with tension.

Nothing beats the real thing.

‘Nothing Without You’ also utilizes a viral marketing campaign, featuring short video’s adding to the overall world of the film. How did this idea come about? Did you consciously make the decision to go down the increasingly popular Trans Media route?

We always knew we would use the internet to promote our film. Without any marquee names in our cast, we knew we would have to come up with a novel way to hook and engage our potential audience.

Our idea was to videotape our main characters in pseudo therapy sessions to explore the mysteries of their back stories. Once an audience sees these videos, it deepens their understanding of the characters, giving tiny clues to the many twists in the film.

Transmedia was not a term we were familiar with when producing these videos. It is certainly a great tool to hook potential viewers of the film. If you go to you can see of the videos that we have rolled out.

Can you tell us some of the technical specs of ‘Nothing Without You’? i.e. Camera, Lens, Post Production Workflow, etc. How did these specifications play into the overall tone, feel and look of the film you wanted to put out?

I shot the film myself with the Red One camera. I shot my last film, American Chain Gang on 16mm, and using a digital cinema camera felt extremely liberating. We could light quickly, know we had the take and make company moves extremely fast. That was important as we were shooting 188 scenes in 24 days.

Producers Rick Santos and Laura Wilson and I decided to go this way for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I shoot for a living and pretty comfortable with a camera on my back, so one less line on the budget seemed appealing. But for the gritty visual tone of a psychological thriller with a mentally-ill main character, a hand-held almost vérité style really seemed like the way to shoot this film.

I used Nikkor lenses and pulled focus myself. We did not notice any issues with ‘breathing’ or finding focus. A nine inch SmallHD screen helped us know that we were getting what we needed quickly.

We shot on 4K Raw, triplicated the footage nightly, edited on Final Cut Pro 7 and output to a 2K color-corrected master. We love the Red workflow. It is extremely stable, versatile and efficient.

What was the most difficult part (so far) about getting this film made (excluding funding)?

Getting the script just right. My writing partner and producer Rick Santos and I went through dozens and dozens of drafts. You know when you have it. You can’t stop until it’s working. The film you spend all that money and time making will never be better than the best draft of your script.

Can you give us an idea of your marketing strategy once the film is ready for release? 

What we are doing now is building our presence in social media. We have 15,000 likes (and counting) on Facebook. We hope that with a growing presence on the internet, we can shepherd the engaged audience to come to screenings and ultimately to purchase the film when we are ready to release it.

At the end of the day, what do you find as being the most satisfying part about doing what you do?

Sharing a story with an audience is the best part — especially one that you put so much time, effort, and creativity energy to make. Once you are finished, it is there for the audience see for years to come.

With so many resources and affordable means of production, it is certainly the most exciting time to make films.

by Steve Rickinson


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