The production and pre-production took four-and-a-half months. I moved to Chicago on Jan 4th. Sara Greenewalt, one of the film's production designers moved into the same apartment on the 7th. The apartment was bare except two chairs and a worktable. The day after Sara arrived, we plastered the walls with photocopies of biplanes, started making drawings of how the planes could look, and began building the first paper models. Neither of us had ever done anything remotely like that before, so every step involved trial and error. What makes the best paper mache? What makes a better wing support, balsa wood or drinking straws? How big should the tank model be? From that very first day, we were working 1o hour days (much longer towards the end), and could afford no days off. As Sara and I designed the planes we talked about every detail of the film, from the the angle of the planes' wings to the style of the extras' clothing. We discussed the color of every object in every scene, and how that contributed or distracted from the story. We struggled over how to depict a world war one trench or an American town circa 1911 without spending any money. Sara is also a RISD alum, and, like a lot of kids I went to school with, she gives pointed criticism. When my ideas became lazy or extravagant she would usually call me out. Our discussions forced me to think about the film from different angles. By the end of pre-production, many of my original intentions were changed. I wanted to make a film about the aburdity of mechanized warfare. It started out as a light comedy and ended up being a miniature version of Apocalypse Now.
Now I have to backtrack a little. Without Stephanie Dufford there could be no Magnifico. Stephanie Dufford was the film's cinematographer. We went to RISD together, but she transferred to Columbia College after her second year there. She was finishing up her degree at Columbia when she asked to collaborate on a film for a 35mm cinematography class. I am a terrible photographer, but love writing and directing, so it seemed like a good fit. I visited her in Chicago, and pitched her a few under-cooked ideas that neither of us were too excited about, and just as I was about to catch a bus to the airport I remembered a short script I had written that I really liked, but had nearly forgotten about. She laughed out loud at the pitch, and told me we had to make it. I was skeptical that it could be done, but she was unflinching. Without her enthusiasm, I would never have had the gall to attempt it. In retrospect, Stephanie might not have completely understood the enormity of the project we were undertaking.