Welcome to a new edition of FlixChatter Interview! Typically I’d do a spotlight on a certain film, whether it’s shorts or features, but today we have something special in that I’m showcasing an indie filmmaker and talk about his experience as a filmmaker, as well as highlight some of the projects he’s working on.
I’m thrilled to have LA-Based, British filmmaker Michael Driscoll to kicks off FlixChatter’s Indie Filmmaker Spotlight.
I’m such a big fan of the historical drama show BORGIA (the one by Canal+ which you can watch on Netflix). Watch its international title sequence below that Michael himself shot (beware, it’s NSFW given the rather graphic and provocative nature of the show):
This year, Michael was chosen to be a part of the BAFTA Los Angeles Newcomers Program 2018/2019, a four-year new talent initiative, recognizing and supporting international professionals and students who have recently moved to L.A. to further their development and career. He’s one of the 15 directors to be a part of this prestigious program. You can read more about it in Variety, as well as Deadline.
I had the privilege to have an extensive chat with Michael both via email as well as Skype last week. We had been planning to do the interview for months but due to his globe-trotting schedule and me working on a new short film, I’m glad we’re finally able to do it. It was already 11PM in London when we did the Skype, yet Michael was still excited to talk about his work [sign of a passionate filmmaker!] and we ended up chatting well over an hour.
Given the length of this interview, it’ll be broken up into multiple sections. We start with the conversation about his involvement with working as the 2nd Unit Director of the BORGIA series, created by Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide Life On the Street, Oz, etc.).
Q. Firstly, I’d like to commend you on your tremendous work in BORGIA. It’s one of my fave shows ever, it’s bold, brutal, beautiful, and indelible. How did you end up being involved on that show?
I was lucky to work on BORGIA. I had a girlfriend who was hired on the show during preproduction of season 1, so every weekend over a long summer I flew from London to Prague to see her. Naturally, I met several producers from Canal+. Before long they got to know me, and at some point I’d heard they’d seen my Gil Scott Heron documentary that I shot at RSA Films, and were impressed with it. They asked me to shoot a similar thing of Tom Fontana as promo material for BORGIA.
Before I knew it, I was on a flight from Prague to New York, meeting Tom at his office. The next stop was Paris to meet Canal+ and Atlantique productions. It was a bit of a whirlwind at first, I had no idea if I’d got a job on the show. Just before the start of shooting, I got a call saying I‘d been hired; I had to fly back to Prague immediately and get myself on the set. A baptism of fire, so to speak. Excuse the pun…
To end up as 2nd Unit director, it was a variety of reasons. Firstly, I loved the scripts, and working on the show. I was already a massive fan of Tom’s work; I watched OZ as a teenager when it was broadcast on Channel 4 on Friday nights in the UK… I was very keen to be involved in BORGIA and I think he knew that. I mean, I think my constant enthusiasm on set on a daily basis must’ve been quite irritating!
Aside from that, I was familiar with the content. Being a Fine Art graduate, I’d studied the early Renaissance, and knew about the Borgia family, including the other great houses of Italy of that time. I was already quite well versed in the subject matter and I remember being interested to see where production would take it, how far they would push it and so forth. Also, coming from a background in the Art Department, seeing the production design evolve, kept me so much in the loop and close to production. I think people knew I cared a lot about the show and wanted to contribute more.
I also think that by directing ZDF’s commercial campaign first, before doing any 2nd unit, I showed I could collaborate with the cast and crew, and handle the full strains of the responsibilities. It was intense, we were mostly handling everything separately from the BORGIA production, having to deal with the necessities that ZDF needed, yet still working around the main unit schedule. This was all with my own crew, which in a way was a kind of second unit in itself… with the success of that campaign I had confidence to do more.
During season 1, I was asked to shoot a scene with Dearbhla Walsh, a director I really looked up to. She wanted me to capture certain elements and angles for a stunt, which turned out well. When season 2 came along, I had a chat with Tom, he wanted to utilize me on a separate unit for several scenes in Italy, and it just kicked on from there. He trusted to put me on a larger role, as did Dearbhla, and other directors like Christoph Schrewe. In a way I was kind of shadowing them on set in the first place, I had become accustomed to their shooting styles and their way of working, so it felt only natural to kick on and use their advice for my 2nd Unit work, which was for their episodes as well. I definitely had my own approach to what I wanted to shoot, but I was very lucky to have the backing of Tom and the other directors. We were all so close from working together for so long, the trust was already there. We were like a huge family, working on the most amazing production in the most incredible locations, all eating together in fantastic restaurants and traveling across Europe… We were definitely spoiled.
TWO BLACK COFFEES
A desperate woman has one moment of chance to escape her domineering husband, and into the arms of her secret lover.
Q. So the cast of Two Black Coffees are all from that show. How did they get involved in this short?
TWO BLACK COFFEES was my first short film. I was inspired on many levels. I was living in Prague, an stunning city, working on BORGIA with so many brilliant actors, and a great crew, I just wanted to capture what it was like for us all to be living and working over there in such a timeless and unique location.
Having access to this cast was a real treat. It started at Art Malik’s apartment, which was in the old town of Prague; he encouraged me to start writing a script. So every weekend, after shooting BORGIA in crazy cold weather locations, I went over to his place and he inspired me to jot down some ideas. Thinking of what BORGIA cast could work for distinctive roles in the film was basically easy because we were all good friends on and off the set.
The cast were all supportive and enthusiastic about making this film. Marta Gastini was the lead, and the prime focus of the story; so without her on board I wouldn’t have done it. She was really happy to be involved, and her approach to the character was amazing. All the cast said yes immediately. Mark Ryder was probably the trickiest to convince to do the film, only because his shooting schedule on BORGIA at that time was intense, and he was worried about fully committing to this project. We ended up shooting around his availability, which added a day to our schedule. As soon as he stepped on board, he really hit his stride and made the role his own.
Working with the cast prior was a major plus for this film. Obviously, it was my first short; I had a clear visual idea and quite an ambiguous approach to each of the characters, so I relied on them to add elements themselves. At first I thought this’d be difficult, but it was the opposite – all the cast refined their roles and worked on spins for each character. I think they were also intrigued to see what I was cooking up for my first short. Marta in particular put in a lot of time and energy into the film, she was amazing. It was a physically demanding role for her; we definitely put her through her paces!
I was lucky that they were all keen. In fact, when word on the BORGIA set got around that we were making this short – several other actors suddenly asked me to write them parts! I actually had to turn down quite a few big-name BORGIA cast!
As soon as we got permission to use the cast by Tom Fontana and Michael Schwarz from the BORGIA production, it literally was all systems go.
How was your experience with Stanley Weber? He’s quite well known to US audiences from his work in Outlander 2. Did you have him in mind to play the bad guy because of his role as Juan Borgia on the show?
Yeah, Stanley was great, it was a no-brainer to ask him to do it. I‘d helped him shooting several of his auditions on tape when we were in Prague, so we already had fun working together. We had yet to shoot a scene together On BORGIA, at that particular stage, so it was more exciting for me to get to collaborate with him solely for TWO BLACK COFFEES.
He actually wanted to play the bad guy! He had his heart set on that role from day one, and we discussed how to refine the character with his stoic looks, malevolent actions, things like that. He had a very clear idea on his costume, which looked great in post when we had refined the grade to monochrome. He created a stylish character with real spite and dark intentions. It was great.
He was also a good laugh on set. We actually shot his bathroom scene first before anything else, which was at Barrandov Studios in Prague, directly after Stanley had shot a long day of shooting on BORGIA. I had to wait until he’d wrapped, then his makeup and hair was changed for us, and then we finally shot the scene.
On Stanley’s main shoot day in the cafe, he had a lot of fun with the role and enjoyed working with Marta. A lot of the shots in his scenes were precise and technical due to the nature of the noir feel of things. But it was great! He’s also super happy with the final film.
Q. The setting in Prague is absolutely stunning. Did you already have the script ready before you find the location or did the location drive the story?
It was all about the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the beauty of the city by shooting there. It was perfect for a film noir. All the pieces were just nicely in place for a nice short production like TWO BLACK COFFEES.
The location drove elements of the aesthetic: Prague has such a unique look and feel to it, a beautifully low-hanging light as well which highlights the architecture. It’s also really easy to film there. I found that a lot of the crew there are masters of their craft. Costumiers, lighting technicians, grips – they have a wonderful working ethic there.
Shooting across the city wasn’t a problem at all; we had no interruptions, no interference, even with the well-known actors like John Doman and Art Malik on the set. In terms of the story, yes, Prague has that moody copacetic feel to it, so we adapted the location to the script, which kept evolving right up to the shoot.
Q. What made you decide to set it in Black & White with no dialog?
I’m a huge fan of film noir and black and white movies. I don’t think there are enough these days! Perhaps there was a concern that contemporary black and white films wouldn’t get a decent box office, but there’s been a change in the trend recently. I watched the monochrome versions of Logan: Noir and Mad Max: Fury Road in ‘Black and Chrome’ and thought they were amazing. I had several influences for this film. The Third Man, elegantly shot, full of surprises, copacetic and enigmatic, has a lingering sense of dread. Coppola’s Tetro was another key reference, in terms of its slick style and deeply troubled characters. The disjointed narrative in Martha Marcy May Marlene had the audience constantly guessing. Memento was great in it’s nonlinear storytelling. The aim was to apply and combine these elements to a femme fatale story.
In terms of zero dialog – again, the aesthetic of the city helped, it made me think, well why don’t we go FULL noir and try and make it even more nostalgic?? It also gave me more control on the set – without sound department, I could just concentrate on getting the shot composition and working directly with the actors.
Q. Your short deals with a woman trying to escape her domineering husband and meeting her secret lover, but given that your film is silent. What’s the biggest challenges in storytelling sans dialog?
There are definitely several challenges shooting without dialogue. It was a good lesson in performance direction – I was dealing with such high-level acting talent, my first short, I wanted to make it right, y’know? I wanted to make sure I could get the best performances and work on delivery without dialogue. The actors appreciated that and I think it was a good exercise for them.
When you shoot without dialogue, you really have to make sure the story is tight. Another important aspect was to heighten the characters reactions in certain scenes. They are literally telling the story with their actions, expressions and movements, we knew where to be expositional and where to be ambiguous with their movement. And I think they loved that. It was good exercise for them.
To make things even more confusing, this film has a nonlinear timeline. So I storyboarded everything, to make it all clear to the cast what was happening in each scene. They got it pretty much straight away.
Tell me a bit about the music used in this film, which is so perfect and adds so much to the atmosphere.
Music is extremely important, especially on a production where there’s no dialogue. I had a specific style in mind of what I wanted for the score. The fact that the film isn’t told in a linear way, made it important to highlight in the music. For this film, I was looking for something quite close to 1930’s or 40’s French jazz, but something a little colder and more hollow.
Something like Hermann’s themes in Taxi Driver. These elements needed to merge with darker synths and droning, pulsing beats.
Some references I had in mind were Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien 3 soundtrack, The New Division, who had some excellent atmospheric and almost dream-like tracks with wind chimes and harps. This kind of stuff with a Trent Reznor-feel was what I was after. Popul Vuh was also a major influence, and something our composer Nick Donnelly immediately used as a key reference.
The results are really cool. Nick had created a fantastic score, with so much atmosphere and depth. It was brilliant working with him, he was actually recommended to me by Scott William Winters, one of the actors in BORGIA. Nick and I have continued to work on two more shorts together. As for sound design, we worked with Ivan Oberholster, who did a phenomenal job in bringing everything together.
TO THE BOATS
Q: Can you tell me a bit more about the premise about a post-Brexit civil war film? What inspired you to write that story?
Obviously, with Brexit looming on the horizon, this is a story about a worst-case scenario. In this world, it’s dystopian, it’s bleak, it’s basically our nightmares come true. A civil war! What was important when we were developing the film was that we wanted to show how divided the country would still be, even years after Brexit itself. We have characters in this story, that even in war, are extremely divided, which of course is an allegory for the current state of affairs in the UK right now. Also in this story, which I think is pretty ironic, is that immigrants are the forces who choose to rise up and fight against the British government, in an effort to take Britain back into the EU.
So we have characters that are forced into a war that they may or may not have even wanted, literally stuck in an almost apocalyptic-style country. On top of that, we wanted to show high levels of desperation in each of these characters. Another thing that was interesting to me was, if you’re at war, and faced directly with your enemy on an even level, in an isolated setting, what would you do? Would you have empathy? Would you help? We definitely wanted to address that in this short story.
The other thing that was quite inspiring was the location itself. The producers had scouted Lewes, on the south coast of England, and found some otherworldly shooting locations, which were so awesome. At the time we had a really cold Spring season, which made all these places look quite eerie on camera, it was a perfect setting.
Tell me about the casting process for this one, particularly about the lead actress Coco König?
I’m really proud of the casting for this project. It’s a small cast but worked out nicely. I’d always wanted to work on something with Danny Szam, who I met on BORGIA when he played the role of Michelangelo. In this film the role of Ben needed anxiety, paranoia and aggression, which Danny could definitely play around with in his performance. A chunk of the story is told through Ben’s perspective, who’s forced to hide his past actions. Danny was brilliant at harnessing these multilayered emotions on camera.
I met James Robinson a few years ago through Danny, and always wanted to work with him. I thought he could bring a balance of power and sensitivity to the role of Jonny. James is a fantastic actor to collaborate with, he really pushed the role and offered a broad and interesting insight into one of these torn characters.
For this project we were working with Louise Collins, a casting director I’d worked with on THE PERFECT ORCHID in California. Louise set up a casting for the role of Sam, and we saw so many different actresses. A lot of the auditions were great, but Coco König definitely stood out – she offered a completely different approach to the role, and a range that I was really impressed with, immediately she was my first choice. The character was originally written as a tough girl, almost Lara Croft type, but Coco gave us a totally contrasting portrayal that worked perfectly: a character who seems naïve, trusting and a little vulnerable at first, and then switches into something else entirely. It was precisely what we were looking for. Her performance had realistic conviction; in the script her character negotiates with two random men, so she needed to have a mixture of iron will and nervousness – and she performed this superbly. We were very happy with her work.
An initial idea was to not introduce the two guys to Coco before the shoot, and not do a cast rehearsal, to create a degree of separation, to see if we could get any raw animosity or heighten the element of surprise with these characters on the shoot. Louise disagreed and suggested we do a rehearsal beforehand, which was a way better idea! The cast rehearsal perfected the timing of the scenes. These characters have a lot of layers to them, and have to express that, along with the exposition of the storyline, yet obviously trying to keep some things as ambiguous as we could. The timing proved crucial because on the actual shoot day, of course due to schedule constraints we had only a certain amount of time to do their scenes together.
Some casting choices obviously don’t work out as well as you might have planned, especially in short film productions with intense quick turnovers, but for this film I couldn’t have been happier. I definitely want to work with these guys again; they’re my good friends now.
Q. What are some of your films and filmmakers influences? How do you stay inspired and motivated as an indie filmmakers?
To be honest, I try not to do the same thing twice: ideally I want all of my films to be completely different to one another. Danny Boyle is a great example of this. His films are wildly different; he is able to jump into completely contrasting genres, which I think is amazing and inspiring.
My style is constantly evolving. I started off as a visual director and now I feel I can contribute more substance to storytelling. I wouldn’t put myself in a particular bracket of style, but then it’s hard for me to judge. Obviously I’m currently focusing on several genres; mystery, thriller, noir… I’ve been told by my DPs that I have quite a classic, 1970s style approach to my camera setups, which is definitely a compliment! Most of my projects are high-tempo, high-intensity dramas with characters stuck in a scenario that gets worse, over their heads, causing them to fall into desperate measures. Maybe that’s the best way to describe my style at the moment.
I stay motivated because this is what I love doing! I can’t imagine doing anything else. I grew up in this industry, my dad and my granddad both worked in the Art Department, so it’s all I’ve wanted to do. I keep up with current trends and I’m always on the lookout for a cool story to turn into a film.
Q. What’s next for you? Are you working on another short film or tv series?
In terms of stuff that’s finished – I have another short called BE RIGHT BACK, which is a dark comedy about a really bad dad.
I’m currently working on several other projects; some are due for release in 2018. POD DAMNED, a short rom-com about a couple trying to get it on listening to podcasts, BREAK IN BREAK OUT, an 80’s themed, short horror/thriller, about a house burglary gone horribly wrong, shot in Toronto, a film I’m looking forward to finishing. It has over 150 VFX shots and a noticeable John Carpenter style to it. These two are very close to completion.
Aside from TO THE BOATS, I have one other film that I’m working on; a western called THE PERFECT ORCHID. It’s set 10 years in the future and is about the opioid issue in America. It’s shot on super16mm film on location in Joshua Tree, and also has Mark Ryder and Diarmuid Noyes back from BORGIA and TWO BLACK COFFEES. This one is going to have a really unique look to it.
In addition, we’re also in development with several projects that I’m writing and directing. Hopefully you’ll see one in a festival soon!
If you could choose only ONE of your short films to be made into a feature with a budget up to $30mil, which one would you choose to do?
That’s a good question. I think the easiest to turn into a feature would probably be the horror film BREAK IN BREAK OUT, it’s a short story that can easily be expanded, and would definitely be a very tense, suspenseful horror / thriller, which would be really cool…. But, if I had a budget of $30 million (which would be amazing), I’d probably say the best one to turn into a feature would be THE PERFECT ORCHID. It’s a western detective story with so many varied elements and complex characters; the plot would be ideal for a feature. Coupled with the fact that the storyline is about the opioid problem in America, and its set in the future, there’s so much more that could be explored in that project. I think it could be well served to expand into a full-length film; it would be really cool to see. Plus, it’d be awesome to put on the cowboy boots and shoot a western again!
HUGE THANKS to Michael Driscoll for the insightful & fun interview!
Hope you enjoyed this Indie Filmmaker Spotlight series…
there’s more to come!