A lesson in perseverance. This is the best way to describe the challenges Danielle Katvan faced with unyielding determination – from obtaining the rights to the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. short story The Foster Portfolio – to directing this period piece on a low budget.
I spoke to Danielle Katvan, the writer and director of The Foster Portfolio, a poignant yet quirky 19-minute film, which had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in the shorts program section titled Your Heart’s Desire: The things you want most are often deeply hidden.
The Foster Portfolio is a story about appearances, and what lies beneath them. It is a study of human nature in a materialistic society, and the lengths to which one will go to indulge in their true passions. Based on the original short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Foster Portfolio is an offbeat, mid-century tale about a rookie investment counselor who discovers that his penniless client is hiding a million-dollar inheritance in order to conceal a strange, double life.
About Danielle Katvan
Danielle Katvan is an award-winning director, whose films have been official selections at festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest, and San Francisco International. Her work has been featured on MTV, VH1 and NBC Universal and her short film, Stranger Things, received an award from Kodak for Excellence in the Craft of Filmmaking. She was named one of Film News Briefs "Filmmakers to Watch" and was selected as a finalist in the 2016 HBOAccess Directing Fellowship.
KOUGUELL: What inspired you to adapt this Vonnegut short story?
KATVAN: I first read it when I was in film school about seven years ago. I attended a 16-month program in Berkeley, California at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute and that's where I met my producing partner and a lot of the people that I still work with today. I was looking for a project to make a short film. I'm a big fan of Vonnegut and I was reading his book of short stories 'Welcome to The Monkey House'. I came across this story I just fell in love with it right away. His writing style felt like just a perfect fit with my sensibilities as a filmmaker; that kind of offbeat, quirky, ironic tone. The visual descriptions were just so vivid.
I fell in love with the characters of the story, especially Herbert. He's such a complex character because he has this part of himself that he feels so much guilt and shame. And at the same time it means so much to him on such a personal level that he is willing to let his family live in near poverty in order to keep it hidden and compartmentalize his life, to maintain this double life that he is living.
KOUGUELL: How were you able to obtain the rights to the story?
KATVAN: I reached out to the Vonnegut estate and I was shot down right away because I was a student and they had no interest in collaborating with me. I spent the next five years harassing them with emails and phone calls. I eventually went over and met with them in person and brought over a bottle of wine. (Katvan laughs.) I think by that point they were so sick of me that they were like, go make your movie and leave us alone.
I told them that I was making it as a student project. I showed them some of my previous films that I wrote and directed, proving to them that I was serious and would do something good. My other shorts were screened at other festivals, including Palm Springs ShortFest.
KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the original material?
KATVAN: I tried to stay extremely close to the original story. Originally we had a couple of more scenes and more locations, but we had to pare it down for budgetary reasons.
KOUGUELL: Talk about the adaptation process. How many pages is the Vonnegut short story?
KATVAN: The original short story is 12 pages. One of the biggest challenges in adapting the story was that it was mostly written in first-person monologue from the perspective of the narrator. Bringing that to script form was a challenge without being too expositional. I wanted to maintain the literary feel in the film, which is why I kept the voice-over, although I didn't want the voice-over to push the story forward. I wanted to pay homage to Vonnegut and keep that in the script and keep a lot of the original dialogue. It was definitely a struggle because I already knew the story, so when I was working on the script it was hard for me to tell if someone watching it for the first time would have enough information or too much information and where that balance was.
KOUGUELL: How long was the shoot? The production values were very impressive.
KATVAN: The shoot was six days. We shot in Brooklyn and upstate New York and found a lot of historic locations. Because of budgetary constraints it was important to find places that already looked right. For example, we shot at a historic location in Brooklyn Heights called The Long Island Bar that was built in 1951, the same year Vonnegut wrote this story.
The interior of the Foster home we actually found on Airbnb. It was an untouched home with the original wallpaper and furniture. It was an amazing find.
KOUGUELL: How did you find the financing for your film?
KATVAN: We used the crowdfunding Fractured Atlas, and some of my savings and some of my family’s money. For postproduction we used Kickstarter. It's a testament to my producing partners; they were able to work magic with very little money and finding people who were talented and believed in the project and were willing to sacrifice. People got paid little or close to nothing.
KOUGELL: What's next for you?
KATVAN: I have a couple of feature film projects I am developing right now and some episodic concepts. In addition to writing my own material, I'm also looking for scripts and stories to adapt. I don't feel like I need to write everything I direct. I'm definitely open to finding a script that inspires me and that I can bring a vision to.
Learn more about the film here.
Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes!
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into