Hello FlixChatter readers! Twin Cities Film Fest may have wrapped a couple of weeks ago, but today we’ve got another exciting indie spotlight!
Thank you director Rudi Womack for sharing his insights about his sophomore feature film. Apparently, this is the fifth collaboration between Womack and his lead actor Aleksander Ristic, set entirely in a single room.
Aaron, a petty criminal from the wrong side of the tracks teams with his girlfriend’s brother to rob a pawnshop. When the robbery goes south he barricades himself in a rest stop bathroom triggering a standoff with the police. As his reality slowly unstitches Aaron struggles to balance his unfaltering love for Laura with the inevitability of his situation. Featuring commanding performances from Aleksander Ristic, Angela Nordeng, and Marcus Johns, IN THIS GRAY PLACE is a memorable, beautiful story of a desperate man clashing with destiny.
Director: Rudi Womack (R.D. Womack II)
Stars: Aleksander Ristic, Marcus Johns, Angela Nordeng
Interview with director Rudi Womack
Q&A questions courtesy of Andy Ellis
1. What made you want to tell this story? Was it inspired by any other similar movies such as Ryan Reynolds’ “Buried Alive”?
IN THIS GRAY PLACE evolved from a number of different places. I had just finished with my first feature film and was dying to get back onto set. I knew recourses and financing would be limited so from the start the story was going to be contained. I also wanted to explore deeper philosophical themes; fate vs. choice, destiny vs. consequence, and I wanted to push the envelope of what a person could do in order to protect the ones they love. Soon enough the story started to take shape! All the while I referenced several single location movies; as you mentioned, “Buried” was one of them. Also “Detour”, “Locke”, “Exam”, “Circle” (why do they all have single word titles?) I also explored others films like “The Thin Red Line”, “Apocalypse Now”, and what may be surprising to some, “Oldboy”. While all of these films had a deep influence on me I worked carefully to make IN THIS GRAY PLACE a unique experience for audiences.
2. What are the benefits and challenges filming primarily one room creates?
The obvious difficulty is keeping the film visually fresh. You have one man in one location, so you need to think of clever ways to keep it moving without boring the audience. By far the greatest benefit was also the greatest challenge. The majority of the film was made with only myself, the cinematographer, and the lead actor on set. That’s it; just three guys making a movie. Without an entire support team to worry about we could take our time. We’d frequently go for as many as 20 or 30 takes!
Once we did 42 takes. Most independent filmmakers don’t have that kind of luxury. It spoiled me for choice and assured the best moments made it to the screen. But as I said, there were only three of us. Juggling all of the jobs on set between just three people was an incredible challenge. It meant we all had to pitch in and help. I remember once I was applying Aleks’ (the lead actor) make up, then holding the boom pole, monitoring the sound levels, looking through the camera, and since it was a phone call scene, reading the other character’s lines for him! Truly I couldn’t have done it without the steadfast dedication of the team.
3. Ristic is the only actor in the movie for most of it. What was it that made him stand out from the rest of the actors who auditioned?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Aleks on several other projects, so when the story started to shape up he was immediately at the top of my list. I pitched him the idea, he fell in love with it, and we started work-shopping the character. This is the real “audition” period, where you see what an actor can do with the material. You push them to every imaginable limit you can think of. Aleks has this natural ability to embody the character he’s playing; from appearance, to mannerisms, he really explores what makes a person think and act as they do. And he’s not afraid to really “go there”! For example in the tear gas scene, that’s not makeup! All that snot, sweat, tears – it’s gross, but that’s all him, and most actors wouldn’t be able to deliver. And while Aleks will obviously get most of the attention, I was just as lucky to have a rich supporting cast. Working with actors is one of the best parts of this job and it was my privilege to work alongside Angela Nordeng, Nick Moss, Phil LaMarr, and Marcus Johns. All great people who went above and beyond to round out the story.
4. Did you stick pretty close to the script when filming or were there some improv that made its way in there?
Every movie is different. Most the time I think of scripts as ideas and not gospel. IN THIS GRAY PLACE was no exception. Often times we’d get onto set, start working a scene and come up with a better idea on the spot. Sometimes we’d see an opportunity that you would have never predicted just looking at the script. Overall I think we kept most of the script in the final version of the film. The scenes that we did improvise kept the main idea intact, which is the most important thing. Watching a script evolve on set, and then again in the editing room is really a sight to see.
5. It’s broken into chapters. Could you expand at all on what the titles refer to?
This is my favorite question! As I mentioned before IN THIS GRAY PLACE plays on themes of fate vs. destiny but it also has themes of birth. The chapter titles (SPACE, LIGHT, AIR, WATER, EARTH, LIFE) follow a sort of “process of creation” of our universe; I.E. birth. (I also argue that the location itself is a womb, and Aaron’s journey from the start of the film to the end is also reflected in this theme) Within each chapter there is both a physical and metaphysical manifestation of each element. Since I already gave away the tear gas scene let’s talk about chapter three, AIR. In AIR Aaron is literally struggling for air throughout the entire chapter, which is one of many physical challenges he must overcome.
From a character perspective Aaron is realizing the gravity of the situation he is in and is looking for any way out… in essence, he’s looking for a pocket of air. From a thematic point of view we explore Laura’s influence on Aaron’s decisions, and if it was in fact his choices, and not hers, that brought them to this point; and visually we see her referenced with Air several times. Every chapter is loaded with moments like these so I felt it vital to construct the film with this kind of framing device.
6. What’s next for you?
I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. My next directing project is a proof-of-concept short film about a man investigating the death of his cousin. We’re planning on shooting in March 2019. I’m also lucky to be producing a feature film titled “The Stalking Fields” directed by Ric Maddox, and starring Sean Crampton. It’s an awesome action thriller with a very interesting military twist. This one goes into production in January 2019. Aside from those two I have another half dozen projects in development right now.
As for IN THIS GRAY PLACE we hope to lock down a distribution deal by the end of the year.
Thanks so much Rudi Womack for talking to FlixChatter about your film!