Interview: TREEHOUSE Director Michael Bartlett Shares His Top Ten Movie Making Tips


Treehouse was a highly impressive horror film that surpassed all exceptions, coming across as The Goonies meets Halloween. Movies In Focus reached-out to the film’s director Michael Bartlett to discuss his Top Ten Moviemaking Tips. Bartlett seems eager to share his behind-the-scenes knowledge of the film-world (he has his own site Making The Film) and these tips will make interesting reading for those wanting to direct their own films and for those who watch on the other side of the screen. Enjoy…

1. Cast is 50% of a director’s job.

If the most talented director in the world works with amateur actors, their film is likely to struggle.  We all remember what a great film Gran Torino was until one of the kids let out such a terrible performance we found ourselves cringing.  To be sure of the best cast, get a good casting director on board who will help you reach out to talent you would otherwise not have been able to find.  Most are willing to cut deals for good and interesting projects.  I hired Heather Laird (based out of Kansas City) for Treehouse who cast Winter’s Bone  She found me my two leads through Breakdown services and hand-picked a number of local actors to audition for me – one of whom was Daniel Fredrick who played Crawford.  Casting directors tend to know most of the agents and are able to negotiate with them on your behalf.

2. Find a good payroll company.

If you are going to be using Screen Actors Guild (SAGAFTRA) actors, it is important to find a good payroll company who can make sure all of your payments are made with the relevant Union fringes (pension, health, etc) and made accurately and on time.  I worked with Falcon Paymasters out of Chicago who were recommended by SAGAFTRA.  They will ask the right questions to determine the fringes (It varies by Actor’s state of residence) and will also provide Worker’s Compensation insurance.

3. Get Your Contracts Right

If you get your contracts from a film-making book then be prepared to have them re-made, re-signed and pay for it. If your movie gets a U.S. Distribution deal, you will be required to provide something called ‘Errors and Omissions Insurance’.  This is a type of insurance that has to be signed off by an Entertainment Attorney who basically puts their reputation on the line to sign-off that all of your contracts are tight.  If they are not, they will make new ones for you and you will need to have them all re-signed.  And don’t be surprised if some people try to renegotiate rates before signing, if you got a nice juicy U.S. Deal.  People change when money is involved, so it’s best to get this right. The actual clearance work will also cost money on top of the policy. Expect to put aside about $10,000 (US) for the cost of the policy plus any clearance work.  It might be more, though, depending on how much work needs to be done.

4. Be conscious of the ‘M&E’ mix when shooting.

If your movie gets distribution you will be required to provide a sound stem containing just music, and another containing just the effects.  When mixed professionally these are known as the ‘M&E mix’ but you must provide the stems. The reason these are needed are so that foreign distributors can dub your film in a foreign language.  So basically the M&E mix is everything minus your dialogue.  The U.S. Distributor will also likely need this so they can cut a trailer. When you wrap a scene in your film, have some stand-ins quickly re-enact the scene without speaking any of the lines and log this as such.  Follow the sounds closely with a mic.  Footsteps; car doors closing; doors opening, etc. Whatever sounds make up your scene.  That way you can construct your M&E easily and even have banks of foley should you need them.

5. Perform ADR in the same location if possible

ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) recorded in a studio is always going to sound a little fake. But if you can go back to the location and record the dialogue, it will match much better than recorded in a booth.
It will also be much cheaper.

6. Get an Assembly Editor

Having someone edit your film while you are in the process of shooting is a great way to keep an eye on anything that might need to be re-shot.  You can view the previous days’ edits when you are done shooting for the day and the editor can even drop temp music in so you can get a feel for if there may need to be re-shoots.

7. Limit movement in Long Scenes

If you have a scene that is more than 2 minutes in running time, and which contains a lot of dialogue, minimise the movement.  The reason I stress this is because if you need to cut down the scene for any reason, the positions of your background characters may seem to ‘jump’ abruptly.  I was tired at the end of TREEHOUSE and this caught me out
during one of the last days.

8. Take possible changes in location into consideration

On Treehouse we had a scene that took place on an empty road that happened to be full of icicles on one side.Despite facing resistance, I made sure we shot out all camera angles facing in their direction first.  This was to avoid some potentially horrible continuity errors.  This is one of those small gotchas that can catch anyone out on a busy and stressful schedule.

9. Shoot 5 day weeks.  

Everybody needs two days off.  Any less and people will start to get run down, make mistakes and morale could even start to drop.  Having two days at the end of each week is also great to allow some time for the production team to look at any lessons learned from the previous week and address.

10. Don’t hire the best person for the job if the best person is also an asshole.  Also don’t hire spouses.

I’ve seen what egos and negative attitudes can do to a film set.  If you have a shortlist of candidates for any role in your film, hire the best person who is not an asshole.  Also, if possible, try not to hire someone’s spouse onto the production.  If the spouse ends up in some kind of altercation or disagreement, it could affect the ability of the other spouse to do their job.  Because their relationship is always going to be a higher priority than your film.