TCFF 2018 Interviews: Steve Zahn


Not everyday I got the opportunity one of my favorite actors… so imagine my excitement that I got a one-on-one interview with Steve Zahn! I’ve mentioned a bit about Mr. Zahn in my TCFF gala recap last week. A Minnesota native who’ve carved out a fantastic career in Hollywood, Steve is as humble and funny as you’d imagine, no movie star pretense whatsoever and he still looks incredibly young for being 50 years old (in fact he certainly could pass for 35!). Before the interview started, he remarked to me and a rep from Showplace ICON Theatres that it’s ‘f***ing’ bizarre’ to be doing the red carpet, press, etc. as he usually does the glitz and glamor stuff in L.A. and he comes home to Minnesota to be away from all that. He actually stays with his parents while he’s in town, in the same house he grew up in in New Hope (Minneapolis suburbs) instead of at a swanky hotel.

Steve Zahn with his TCFF Lifetime Achievement Award

Once we sat down, I asked him when was the last time he was in MN and he replied ‘A month ago for my 80th birthday.’ Apparently he’s also home every Christmas, splitting his time between his family ranch in Kentucky where he lives with his wife and two teenage kids. I congratulated him on the Lifetime Achievement Award he’s about to receive from TCFF. It’s hard to believe he’s got over 70 projects under his belt listed on IMDb, spanning over two decades since he got his big break in Reality Bites in 1994. One of Hollywood’s best and most versatile actor, he’s a self-described character actor who can easily transition into leading roles. He’s one of those talents who’s great in everything he does. He always stands out and you’d remember him matter how small the role is.

Below is a photo of Steve receiving the award from TCFF’s executive director Jatin Setia last Thursday, Sept.6:

Thanks TCFF photographer Dallas Smith for this awesome photo!

When I mentioned the Lifetime Achievement Award, Steve had this to say… ”As an actor you do one gig and it’s over and you do another. It doesn’t connect, it’s not like it’s a continuous thing. I just got a text from my cousin. She drives snow plows in West Central Minnesota, she’s worked for the state for 30 years and she got a watch. I mean it doesn’t happen in my business. So it’s weird to look back at things you did that you think they don’t connect but they do connect in a weird way.”

 You got started doing theatre work here in Minnesota and New York City. Do you miss doing theatre work?

Oh yeah, absolutely. For me, it’s weird because of where I live, the commitment to theatre would take me away from my family too long. Film commitments are shorter. I can work for three months, and you can come home during that time and then I’m done. As opposed to theatre commitments which is like 8 shows a week and one day off. For me it’s more logistics and family [that prevents him from doing more theatre work].

Steve with Ethan Hawke in the 1993 play ‘Sophistry’ – Photo courtesy of Playwrights Horizon

You have been doing a lot of TV work recently (he’s currently filming Valley of the Boom, a docudrama that’ll air on National Geographic focusing on the 1990s tech boom and bust in Silicon Valley). Are you enjoying that?

Well yes, both TV and film. It’s the trend of the business, the TV medium has expanded beyond belief. Writers have gone from film to tv to tell these intricate, character-driven stories. It used to be the opposite when films are the ones doing that, so it’s interesting to see the change. There was a time when talents sort of get labeled as a ‘TV actor’ so if you want to be a film actor you don’t do TV. It’s totally different now, that stigma is gone completely. For me, I just want to do good stuff, tell good stories with compelling characters. That’s what I look for, I don’t care what the medium is, whether it’s for the small screen or big screen, no matter what the budget is.

You’ve done SO many projects but we don’t have time to go over all of those. I have my favorites you’ve done such as You’ve Got Mail, That Thing You Do!, Shattered Glass… but one I’m curious about is Rescue Dawn. It must be super challenging. How was it working with Werner Herzog?

Oh amazing. He’s an unusual guy but that whole project one of the highlights of my career. Having to physically change and to dive into a character that rigorously. To work with someone that eclectic, y’know, he’s really an interesting guy. Really simple, he was phenomenal. Every day was completely different. The fact that there was no trailers for actors, he doesn’t really like comfort… he loves chaos, he thrives off it, that’s when he’s most creative, not when things are comfortable.

I heard you lost 40 pounds for the role? And this wasn’t a big studio project right, so you must have to have done it on your own?

Oh yeah, Christian [Bale] and I did it for Werner, and because the story was amazing.

Another film I want to ask you about is War For the Planet of the Apes because I love motion-capture (mo-cap). How did you get involved in that project?

I was doing a TV show down in Puerto Rico and [director] Matt Reeves was interested in me playing the part so we have a conversation via Skype for over an hour about Westerns and stuff and he asked me if I would be willing to read for it. So he gave me three days, and I read for him over Skype and he loved it and wanted me to do it. I just said I needed a week at home in between jobs and then I was off in Vancouver running around for a couple of weeks playing an ape. That’s the closest thing that I’ve done to theatre on film, despite the huge budget [$150mil]. It was phenomenal. It was so physical and so difficult and challenging. Mo-cap captures your performance. It doesn’t make you an ape, it makes you look like an ape. So if you don’t move like one, you’re not going to look like one.

Down to the tiniest movement, you’d have to analyze how an ape behaves. We [humans] have a lot of pretense, we hold ourselves a certain way. But apes don’t do that. When we look at something, we do it in such a way, but apes do it totally differently. So you have to embody that, then forget about it so you have to be able to play a character with emotions.

Did you work with the ‘King of Mo-Cap’ Andy Serkis who played Caesar in the ‘Apes’ franchise?

Oh yeah he’s amazing. I really think Andy should’ve been nominated for an Oscar. I mean I voted for him when it was award season, it’s really difficult work. It’s harder than playing a regular cop, ‘cause now you have to play a cop that’s an ape, for example. If it weren’t for my theatre background, I really don’t think I would’ve been able to do that job.

In your illustrious career, you’ve worked with SO many people. Which of your co-stars you’d love to work with again?

Oh man, there’s so many. Ethan Hawke is a good friend of mine, all he has to do is call. Richard Linklater. Sam Rockwell, oh too many to mention.

Speaking of Ethan Hawke who’s gone into directing more and more. Is that something you would like to tackle in the future?

I don’t know. I’m not as bold… he’s an amazing artist. I mean, if there’s something I’m really passionate about, yeah maybe.

Last question. You mentioned that you lived in Kentucky, which is far from Hollywood. Is that a deliberate choice that you want to have a work and life balance?

No. It’s just another passion in life [to live as a rancher]. Even when I was doing theatre in New York I was living in a cabin in Pennsylvania. I always enjoy living outside, outdoors, I just enjoy that. I hunt, fish, farm, that’s who I am. Yet indirectly, as I get older, I think it’s nice to be able to go from one extreme to the other, that is the contrast of working in Hollywood and living in a ranch. I think it helps me as an artist. It may not be the best for someone else but for me it’s perfect. It keeps me ‘naïve’ and every time I go to every job it feels fresh, like the first time. I’m always on location in a way, I never work at home.


Soon after our interview, Steve was whisked away to the Rooftop Bar at AC Marriott Hotel. But thanks to TCFF Managing Director Bill Cooper who took the time to snap this photo of us before he left.

Thank you Steve Zahn for taking the time to chat with me… and Jatin Setia & Bill Cooper for the opportunity!


So what’s YOUR favorite Steve Zahn role(s)?

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Indie Filmmaker Spotlight: Michael Driscoll – Q&A on his short films ‘Two Black Coffees’, ‘To The Boats’ & more

Hello everyone!

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):

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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.

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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.

Marta Gastini

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!

Art Malik

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.

Stanley Weber

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.

Michael on set with Marta Gastini

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.

Coco König in TO THE BOATS

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.

Danny Szam in TO THE BOATS

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!

Indie Sci-Fi Film Spotlight: HOVER – Review + Q &A with director Matt Osterman

HOVER takes place in the near future, where environmental strain has caused food shortages around the world. Technology provides a narrow path forward, with agricultural drones maximizing the yield from what land remains. Two compassionate care providers, Claudia and her mentor John, work to assist sick farmland inhabitants in ending their lives. After John dies under mysterious circumstances, a group of locals helps Claudia to uncover a deadly connection between the health of her clients and the technology they are using.

Starring: Cleopatra Coleman, Shane Coffey, Craig muMs Grant, Beth Grant
Written by: Cleopatra Coleman
Directed by: Matt Osterman

Available on VOD (Amazon) and iTUNES: July 3, 2018
Running Time: 1h 26min
Rated: Not Yet Rated

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It’s always a pleasure to chat with writer/director Matt Osterman. He suggested we went to a boutique coffee shop called KOPPLIN’S in St Paul’s Merriam Park Neighborhood. We chatted over the refreshing Iced Chai about his new sci-fi film HOVER. It’s been over two years since I chatted with him about 400 Days, which he wrote and directed. It’s always fun to chat about movies with someone who’s passionate about storytelling and the filmmaking craft. Just like Debra Granik, Matt also lives ‘off the grid’ away from Hollywood, as he and his family resides in a Twin Cities suburbs, but that hasn’t stopped him from making movies wherever it takes him.

Quick Thoughts on HOVER:

Hover is a sci-fi thriller set in the near future. The two main characters we saw are Claudia (Cleopatra Coleman) and John (Craig muMs Grant), two caregivers who help terminally ill farmers ‘transition’ as they call it. There’s an air of mystery that something isn’t quite right, which gives that unsettling tension throughout the movie. Without giving too much away, soon Claudia has to face her suspicion about the flying drones and uncovers a conspiracy that’s more sinister than meets the eye.

What I like about HOVER is that the film doesn’t feel like a sci-fi in the traditional sense. The characters inhabit a world we’re familiar with, with a few futuristic elements thrown in. The fact that it’s set in a rural dystopia, it sets it apart from most sci-fis that are set in urban areas and immediately feels more grounded. It helps too that both Coleman and Grant are instantly likable, which makes you want to know more about their journey.

There’s genuine tension in the initial built-up, the flying drones hovering above certainly gives that voyeuristic feel. In the world we live in now, there’s that fear of ‘Big Brother’ watching over us that is relatable. There is also a subplot about Claudia involving someone she works with that adds more complexity to her character.

I do wish there’s more to the characters. It’d be great if the relationship between Claudia and John is explored a bit deeper. Shane Coffey and Beth Grant turned up midway though the film, and both add interesting dynamic to the story, though the finale gets a bit too bombastic for my taste. The flying drones also don’t seem all that menacing, though the design itself is pretty cool looking, as is the way it kills (or you could say ‘fry’) its prey.

Overall HOVER is an enjoyable sci-fi that at 86 minutes moves at a relatively breezy pace. It’s a cautionary tale about the misuse of technology, especially deadly when mixed with corporate greed, without making it feel too heavy-handed. This is the first time I saw Cleopatra Coleman and she’s certainly got a charismatic presence on screen, as well as screenwriting talent. I certainly would love to more of her work in the future.


Here’s my Q&A with Matt:

How did you become involved in this project?

I was sent the script by a producer by the name of Travis Stevens. I’ve known Travis, we’re friends of friends for a few years. He’s kind of a big deal in the indie genre world, he’s got a great taste and he’s been producing stuff that pushes the boundaries so I’ve always wanted to work with him. He approaced me with the script and later on SyFy got involved. I had heard of Cleopatra Coleman, and when I read the script I knew I wanted to play in that world, in that sandbox, so that’s why I signed on.

So Cleopatra Coleman wrote the script and did you collaborate with her?

Yes she had written the entire thing, she built that world. When I got the script, both Travis and Cleopatra said to me, ‘Hey we need some input. We’re running into some problems here, we want to flesh this out more, etc.’ So it’s a great team approach to take it to the next level.

The theme of rural dystopia is not something that’s rarely explored in sci-fi films. Movies of that genres tend to be set in a metropolitan or large cities. What’s the inspiration behind setting this story in a rural area, especially in farmlands?

Part of it is the fact that we don’t see things set in rural areas. I mean it’s easy to set things in the future in an urban setting and I find it boring. We want to make something that showed the haves and the have-nots, something that plays out in today’s society. People who have one foot in the future, one foot in the past, we wanted to explore that kind of dichotomy a little bit further.

Cleopatra actually started with these two care providers that helped transition people, but then in the rural environment there were these farm drones. She thought those farm drones were pretty interesting and she started exploring more about the drones and how they’re affecting the farm community.

So I’m curious about how you worked with this cast, especially given the fact that the lead actor also wrote the film. How did the collaboration process go in this filmmaking scenario?

Well to be honest, that was my first concern. It could go sideways in a hurry. If you butt heads, how do you work your way out of it? But luckily for us in this case, she’s an amazing collaborator. She’s totally open to ideas. On set, performances comes first for her and that’s how I wanted it to be. Every now and then, a problem or an opportunity came along and we’d have a little powow and discuss ‘Hey what can we do here? What can we do for that? So it works in our favors quite a bit and she’s able to wear multiple hats.

Cleo came from an improv background y’know, having been in the show Last Man on Earth, so she’s really quick to turn on a dime. Because she knows her character so well, having written it, it’s easy for us to play. It helps that she’s already inhabit her character when she wrote it.

Let’s talk about the drones. They look like something we’d see in the world today, it’s not too futuristic. Did you help design the drones, capturing the movements and all that?

Yeah. We wanted the technology in this world to feel utilitarian y’know, like it’s actually being used. It’s not as if some production designer just sketched something really cool and say, let’s make that a thing. We wanted the world in our movie to feel lived in and real, because when you talk about fantastical things like killer drones, we have to ground it in as much reality as possible. So we ended up hiring a technology designer, a great artist Calder Greenwood out of L.A. He built the drones, hand-built them out of found objects. The ‘eyes’ are lens from a camera, the rotors are from slide projectors, so he built them by hand. He was able to found parts so he could build multiple of them. We have a bunch of puppet drones that we could move them around in different ways, some on a string, or on a different rig and obviously the CG drone. So they did a 3D scan of the practical drone and they built things with CGI.

Where did you film this?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Lots of Agriculture down there. I lobbied to shoot it in the Midwest but we were shooting in February and March. It’s perfect to shoot there in that time, it’s not too hot but the bugs aren’t out yet. The shoot was 21-22 days so things happened pretty fast.

What’s been the biggest challenges on set of HOVER?

The first day, there was lightning storm nearby. And when there’s lightning, you have to stop and wait like 60 minutes before you do anything. This is the first time I shot Louisiana so I didn’t know if it’s going to be a daily thing. Luckily it only happened a handful of times, but an hour is kind of a big deal when you’re filming. But I would say the hardest part was dealing with all the action stuff, you always want more time and more money to do those. We used every tools in the books to shoot those truck chase scenes. We used actual drones following the truck, but we only shot that scene in less than a day!

Is this film a cautionary tale about technology? What message does the film want to convey about today’s technology and where it’s heading?

Yes and no. First and foremost, it’s a movie and we want to have fun with it. There’s a lot of liberties you can take with a movie, because y’know, it’s a movie, it’s entertainment. At the same time, we’re entering a pretty scary period in terms of technology. There are some people in power using technology in ways that can be awfully scary.  So if there is a message, it’s about unchecked technology and people in power without repercussions can lead to some pretty bad things. I mean, just how fast technology is moving right now, I think it’ll get worse before it gets better. I’m a technology guy, I want to see progressive technology happen ‘cause it can make the world a better place. Some people say it’s already being used for its intent and purposes, it’s gonna get more powerful, faster, smaller… well, it can get creepy. I’m not really a tin foil-hat type of guy but when it comes to drones… I’m a little nervous.

Rightly so, I feel the same way. Now, I’d like to switch gear a bit and talk about you as a filmmaker. You live here in the Twin Cities, but you make films out in L.A. or elsewhere. How do you juggle your filmmaking career and being a dad/husband?

Yeah, the hardest part outside the production is finding a way you live your life while keeping all the plates spinning at the same time, so to speak. Luckily I have an amazing wife and cool kids. They get it you know, daddy has a job and he’s not a coal miner with black lungs, he’s not a soldier going overseas. He gets to make movie, which is not so bad and they can come and visit. They came once because they have school and my wife also has to work. It’s not easy during [filming] but the rest of the year, I mean I’m a writer first and foremost and you can do that from anywhere. Staying outside of the L.A. bubble also has its advantages too, so you can bring something fresh and original.

Lastly, any advice for aspiring and emerging filmmakers, esp. those living in the Twin Cities, away from the filmmaking hub of LA/NYC/Atlanta.

This industry is filled with ego-driven jerks. Don’t be one of those. Be grateful, communicate and most importantly, finish something. There’s so many people that start projects, they ask for help and support and they don’t finish. Then those people are hesitant to help them again, or anybody else. You’re just wasting people’s time. You gotta walk the walk. Lots of people come for the glory, for the fame, but you gotta come in [to the entertainment business] for the right reasons and work your tail off. It’s not easy, so don’t expect things to happen overnight.


Don’t miss the Twin Cities Screening!

Friday, July 13th, 2018
6:30pm – Red Carpet Interviews/Photos
7pm & 9pm – Screenings

 Q&A with Director after each screening

Location
Emagine/Willow Creek Theater
9900 Shelard Pkwy.
Plymouth, MN  55441
TICKETS
Earlybird (13+ yrs of age) – $10
Same Day (13+yrs of age) – $12
(TCFF Members receive complimentary admission – must pre-register)

Get Tickets »

*TCFF Members receive FREE entry. Another reason to become a member today!

HOVER is currently available on Amazon, iTunes, and VOD

Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Leave No Trace’ review + interview w/ writer/director Debra Granik

It’s been a few months since I had the privilege to interview Debra Granik. I’m posting this today to coincide with the Twin Cities release of her latest film, Leave No Trace, tomorrow (July 6).

Thank you Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Festival for the amazing opportunity to chat with the Oscar-nominated writer/director (forWinter’s Bone), at the MSPIFF office no less. It’s so inspiring to speak to a filmmaker who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood’s hustle and bustle. It’s no surprise that her film deals with the subject of living ‘off the grid,’ as she described the characters as ‘non-conformist.’

A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.

My review:

I saw this film about three months ago and it still stayed with me. As I was writing my review, it made me wish someone like Debra Granik would make more films. Leave No Trace is a film that could potentially be done in a sensationalistic way but she opted for a understated-but-effective narrative approach. Nearly a decade since her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, her latest narrative feature tells the story of a young girl Tom (Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father Wil (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

Yes it’s slow-burn but oh it’s so worth the journey. It’s also a very quiet film, reveling in its quiet grace of the wilderness around them. The main characters barely speak but yet their scenes speak volumes and emotionally evocative. It’s not a manipulative emotion, if you will, but raw emotional beats that linger long after you watch it. The performances are remarkable. Foster is a proven talented actor but it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie who blew me away. We’ve seen many father/daughter narratives but here it’s explored in an unusual way. I was quite taken aback by how things unfolds and the coming-of-age storyline is brought to life in a convincing and unpredictable way.

In my interview below, filmmaker Debra Granik (who wrote the script with Anne Rosellini) said she doesn’t want to judge her characters, that is Wil’s nonconformity. Instead she wants her film to ask questions about why he does what he does and the consequence of such behavior. It’s an evocative film that really allows you to immerse yourself in the characters, and analyze your own lives. It may not be a ‘fun’ film per se, but the emotional resonance is what I love about independent cinema. Truly a respite from the endless blockbuster offerings we’re overloaded with these days.


At the time of the interview of mid April, there was swirling news of the battle between the streaming giant Netflix and Cannes Film Festival organizers. You can read this Vox.com article that explains the controversy in details, which resulted in Cannes banning films with Netflix distribution to play in any section of this year’s festival. I can’t help asking Debra how she feels about that.

Ruth: Firstly, I’m glad that your film’s going to get [limited] distribution from BLEECHER STREET. I’m always glad when films get theatrical release. Considering the Netflix/Cannes battle going on now, what are your thoughts about the whole film distribution controversy?

Debra: Since I just came from the theatre [for picture/sound check before her film screening that night], I’d love for the communal film viewing experience not to get extinct. I’d like to ask for peaceful coexistence… why does one has to stamp out the other. Why does a certain corporate model have to disavow or negate this new attempt in the digital era? Some people say ‘oh we want to resist technology’ but part of it is ambition right? I mean we’ve accepted 90% of it [the new corporate model], why not keep 10% of something from the past?

But the other question from the filmmakers perspective is… why shoot a wide shot if you’re never going to see it on a wide screen. It doesn’t mean every movie can be on the big screen, and not every film needs to be. But I believe there’s power in wide distribution, especially in documentaries that have cultural changing material in it for example. I don’t think streaming should stomp on exhibition, I don’t think exhibitors should be bullied.

R: Now, transitioning to your film. You adapted the Leave No Trace script from Peter Rock’s My Abandonment novel. What drew you to that story?

D: There were many things, but the environment in which it was told was a huge draw for me. It’s very compelling to me. That area in Oregon has a very distinct geography and climate. It’s the largest temperate rainforests that stretches from the Pacific coast all the way to California, so it’s a really important piece of the planet’s geology. So there’s this magnificent part of the continent and there’s this story about forrest dwellers. In fact there are long tradition of forest dwelling among veterans, there’s a legacy of that from the previous wars.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film. I love that’s the main concern of the protagonist father in the film…how will we maintain our lives when we think our own thoughts? I love that he’s trying to relay that to his daughter. Plus I’ve always enjoyed stories about fully-fledged female protagonists, so stories involving young women in it always draw my attention.

R: That’s a great segue to my next question. You discovered Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (where she nabbed her first Best Actress Oscar nomination at the age of 20). Now you’ve discovered another great young female talent, Thomasin McKenzie. How did you find her and know she’s right for the part?

D: Well she auditioned. I did not know Tom. She’s a New Zealander and she lives in Wellington. She’s really interested in working in film, that’s her passion. She had some people who were helping her find work and they gave her the script. She responded very strongly to it, then she took the initiative and read the novel. So our initial discussion was very rich. It’s very different than just showing up to an audition where someone told you to show up at such and such time. She had wrapped her mind around the story. I knew right away she’d be very motivated to investigate the role and learn a lot of things, she’s a very un-jaded individual.

And when you’re working with young talents, you’re concerned how they’ll get support from their family. Well, her parents were remarkable. They were supportive and allowed her to travel with a friend of the family, a legal guardian, which made it so conducive to the filmmaking process. They had worked with her a lot, I mean discuss the book with her and everything.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film.

R: She also has a great chemistry with Ben Foster. Was he cast prior to Thomasin?

D: Yeah, there’s a lightness to her. I think people would really enjoy their relationship in the movie.

I think Ben and Thomasin were cast almost the same time. Of course in the traditional financing sense, the adult lead actor should be someone who’s ‘investible’ … someone who can be an anchor for the film, in terms of story and marketability.

R: What would you say is the main themes you want audience to come away with? I read some reviews that comment about the parenting style of Ben’s character, some say it’s a coming-of-age story.

D: I definitely didn’t intend this to be a commentary about parenting. It’s not something I’m interested in people coming away with. This is not about finding nonconforming Americans and judging them. To me, I want people to ask questions. For any work I create, I want to open a dialog. Why is he doing that? What is it about post-traumatic stress… what happens to soldiers many years after the war when they feel alienated. When the society they come from no longer offer them things they can navigate. Or the digital era comes into play and what would happen if you simply don’t want to be a part of it? I love to ask the question about kinship and loyalty. What happens if you have to diverge very distinctly from someone who loves you? How painful that would be. In fact, coming of age sometimes involves that, or you have to force yourself to emancipate because the relationship wasn’t working, it wasn’t healthy.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function. Why we do what we do. The Greeks did it, every culture has done it. Those same 26 stories are in every culture. We want to know why people treat each other well, and why we don’t treat others well. Why is that? What’s going on? Why we’re so sensitive, why we get hurt so easily? Why we experience bouts of courage? Those are all those why, we’re in permanent why state.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function.

R: I love thought-provoking stories that really made you analyze your own lives. Now, it’s been nearly a decade since Winter’s Bone (2010) and this is your first narrative feature since then. I know you did Stray Dog documentary and a documentary series (Independent Lens). What has been the biggest challenge for you in finding projects to do next? Or are you really picky?

D: I am picky. I have read stuff that don’t interest me and I’ve also been in meetings or get involved extensively in a certain project, but then the way they want to make it doesn’t sync up… or the nature of who might be involved feels a bit overloaded for my circuits, it would require working in a way that doesn’t interest me. Just like the character [of Ben Foster’s] maybe, I want to remain outside of the celebrity culture, the star system. Because I feel like there are stories that are told in the margin, I think we need biodiversity. I think it requires that some of us [filmmakers] remain at the margin and make our work there.

For narratives, it requires a certain amount of money, the union crews, there’s a price tag that you can calculate, right across the board on that. So narrative films does take a long time to garner that money, but for documentaries it’s a bit more immediate  to start, so I always like to have something in that world going so that I can keep working. So I can wake up at 5 in the morning and haul heavy equipment into the world and try to do my job. You don’t want to lose that part of your chops.

R: Let’s talk about the wilderness, the woods, which is almost a character in itself. I love how atmospheric it is, I could almost feel the misty air, the dampness. 

D: To work in a rainforest, it’s almost a miraculous photogeneity. You never get tired. The local crew loves their forests. They’d be like, ‘Debra you’ve got to capture this dripping moss.’ The B cameras were extraordinary, whenever they have down time they’d roll off some shots which was wonderful. The opening scenes have a lot of their photography. Our DP (Michael McDonough, who also worked on Winter’s Bone) liked to collaborate with his entire crew, he likes everyone to have their own creative moments when they can.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.


Thanks so much Debra for chatting with me.


LEAVE NO TRACE is currently on limited theatrical release.
It opens Friday July 6, at the Uptown Theatre.


Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Virginia Minnesota’ & interview w/ writer/director Daniel Stine

This was one of the films I most anticipated films at this year’s MSPIFF. Of course the fact that it was shot here in the picturesque Lake Superior coastline, but the story about fragmented friendship immediately grabbed me. So imagine my delight when I get a chance for a one-on-one interview with the director/writer Daniel Stine.

We’ve connected via Twitter already (thanks Helen Stine!) so we arranged to meet at the Filmmakers Lounge at MSPIFF office (one of the major perks of also being a filmmaker this year with Hearts Want as well as a press pass holder). It’s definitely one of the most fun interviews I’ve had and certainly a highlight of my MSPIFF37 experience!

Two young women, torn apart by a childhood tragedy, unexpectedly reunite and embark on an illuminating 24-hour journey, where they unlock memories of long-forgotten innocence and what it means to truly believe.

My review:

Sometimes a place in a film can be a character in and of itself. That’s certainly the case here in Virginia Minnesota, captured in such an evocative way by writer/director Daniel Stein. It’s obvious he fell in love with the northern Minnesota coastline, and it shows in the film. But he also filled this road-trip, coming-of-age drama with wonderful human characters who are fun to watch but also relatable.

It opens with Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) driving to the North Shore of Lake Superior, accompanied only by Mister, a robotic suitcase that’s amusing but makes for an unreliable GPS system. She’s heading back to Larsmont Bluff Home for Girls (with troubled families) for a reading of the owner’s will. When one of the four former residents refuses to come for the reading, Lyle chases after her and we find the rebellious Addison (Aurora Perrineau) in Grand Marais. That’s when the real adventure begins.

I’m always skeptical whenever I see films where a lot of things happened in a single day. One could argue perhaps too many things happened in a 24-hour-period here, but yet the two leads managed to keep me engaged and curious to find out what’s happened between them. There are laugh-out-loud moments but overall the humor is not over-the-top and is organic to the story. In his directorial debut, Daniel Stine is able to weave a charming story that’s sweet, poignant, mysterious, and even surreal at times (that theatrical troupe bit comes to mind). The story certainly benefits from the talented cast.

Of course a Minnesota-based film critic can’t review this film without mentioning just how gorgeous the scenery is here. The cinematography by Pedro Ciampolini is absolutely stunning and it can be said this is a love letter to Northern Minnesota. Even the lovely animated sequence that bookend the film is a nod to the Minnesotan folklore and myth in which the plot is heavily rooted in. The music is also wonderful and adds much to the atmosphere of the film. I really enjoyed this movie and I hope Daniel Stine continues to make movies!

Ruth: I’m always curious about what inspires filmmakers in creating their work. Virginia Minnesota especially seems like a personal story, and I love that the story was female-driven. Where did the inspiration stem from? 

Daniel: I’m always inspired by locations first and foremost. When I’m inspired by a place I imagined what kind of characters I can drop into there and what kind of stories come out of that. My grandparents ran a home for troubled boys for about a year or two. It was in a big mansion and my grandfather was a strong lieutenant colonel type. So there were always telling me stories about these kids growing up in this mansion, some of the stories were sad, some were funny, but they’re all inspiring. As a kid I wanted to expand on those stories or tell something that’s kind of similar.

As far as the female-driven thing. I hadn’t thought about my characters being male or female. In the first outline or maybe even earlier drafts, Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) was a guy and Addison (Aurora Perrineau) was a girl, but for some reason it just wasn’t interesting to me, I don’t know why. But then when I saw Grand Marais for the first time, I fell in love with that town immediately. It was in the dead of Winter too so nothing was open. I wanted to do something like Short Term 12, where it was about a person and shot in a single location. So the more I kept driving around Lake Superior, the more I saw of all these incredible places that Minnesota has… Split Rock Lighthouse, Duluth, Silver Bay, and learning about the legends, the folklores…

R: And there’s also a mansion, Glensheen, in Duluth.

D: Indeed, Glensheen. So when we saw that all the pieces kind of come together. Then the story kept getting bigger based on the location. It kind of morphed into a road trip movie, even though it didn’t start that way.

R: Having done shorts in various genres. Is drama the genre you set out to make for your first feature?

Cinematographer Pedro Ciampolini with Daniel and 1st AC Evan Stulc – Photos courtesy of Rushaway Pictures

D: Actually I had a thriller lined up. It was a bed and breakfast thriller. We had big name cast, we even had a location locked up. I moved out of my place in L.A. to South Carolina to get ready for it. But we sort of got a bad deal, some of the money fell short. So we went back to our investors, some of them stuck with me. I said, well, we could wait a few years to get the thriller going. Or I have this other idea that’s simpler, a little bit more in the vein of stuff I’ve done with the short films and some of them ended up putting their faith into that idea. So Virginia Minnesota sort of accidentally became my first feature.

R: So it turns out to be a ‘happy accident’ then considering how well-received the film has been.

D: Yeah, that’s true. And now the thriller script now has a chance to develop. Looking back now I imagine if I had done that one, how badly I’d have screwed it up.

R: I’m curious about the beautiful animated scene that’s in the film. Did you set out to have animation be a part of the film given the plot having something to do with the characters’ childhood?

D: It’s always been in the back of my mind to do something like that, even though it wasn’t in the script originally. I initially wanted to do chapter headings, so perhaps to introduce a certain segment there’ll be an animated chapter heading. But it made it far more whimsical that way. So I did the film without the animation bits and see if the story could stand on its own without it. I think the story does work without the animation but having the film bookended by the [animation of a] childhood drawing it’s a nice way to introduce a child’s perspective and reminds you of what’s important that’s revealed at the end.

R: Now, there’s an amusing bit of a theatre troupe in the film. I learned that you have a theatre background. How has that helped you as an actor and writer/director?

D: I started out doing theater before I started doing film stuff. I almost went to a theater conservatory but I also wanted to do films so I didn’t want to be limited to that. But having done a lot of theater and directed plays, that gives me a bit of a shorthand with actors. They’re very much in the forefront of my mind when I’m making a film, making them comfortable and feel connected to the material, because I know how important that would be for me if I were doing that role.

On the downside, I think I tend to over-write, especially dialog. I’d say the theater background makes me want to write so much dialog. When I saw the final script, I’d say ‘Whew, that’s a long movie!’ So I’ve learned to shave things off. Some of my favorite movies are things like Before Sunrise by Richard Linklater which is just two people talking…

R: Oh I love that one. I mean, I love dialog-heavy films and the dialog is sort of the special effects of the film. 

D: Yeah, but of course it depends on the films you want to make. But back to the question about my theater background, I think it definitely helps me with the actors and what I want them to convey the story.

R: I have to ask you about filming in Minnesota. What’s your favorite aspects about filming here? 

D: The people, hands down. I mean, I know there’s the term ‘Minnesota Nice’ but I think it goes beyond that. People here are so proud to be from Minnesota, it makes you want to be a Minnesotan. I might have to move up here and become one. I think the pride is quite infectious. But then there’s the scenery. You can be up on a lighthouse one second and then you can drive inland, like Bemidji, I mean there’s so much variety of locations. Even in Minneapolis, I don’t feel like I’m in the United States here. I went to school briefly in Monheim, Germany, and it reminds me of that. And I love that it’s a big city with a lot of art. I mean, if you look at the Top 10 things to do while in Minneapolis, so many of them are the different art galleries!

So really it was the people and the great support that we got. It makes me want to come back and do another film, maybe that thriller that I was telling you earlier.

R: Yeah, well there’s a lot of bed and breakfast around here. Especially in the Winter time…

D: Yeah definitely.

R: Let’s talk about casting, particularly the two leads Rachel Hendrix and Aurora Perrineau. How did you find those two actors?

D: Rachel and Aurora are definitely the heart and soul of the movie. We had a lot of submissions came in, we used a casting company in Atlanta. There were about two thousands submissions for each of those roles. Rachel we cast pretty early on based on her audition. She was so much like what’s been described on the page that it was like, ‘yep, that’s her.’

As for Aurora, she came at it from a different angle. Actually, from both of them I learned more about my characters than what I’ve originally written. With Aurora, I had worked with her father, Harold Perrineau, one of my favorite actors. We had done a boxing film together (The Championship Rounds) so I was talking with him about the film and so then I talked with Aurora about it and it just seemed like a perfect match.

R: There’s a certain scene involving a boat in the movie (I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it), but can you talk a bit about filming that day? That must’ve been quite challenging to shoot. 

D: Well, we originally was going to have a rolling, trash can that was burning. But when we got to the set, I was like, no that’d be too subtle, it’s not going to be enough [of an impact]. So we told the producers that we need a bit of spike in the movie, so we had to [spoiler alert (highlight if you want to read it): blow the boat up]. So yeah, we had to do it in one take but we had the fire department there and everything for safety.

R: Your production company, Rushaway Pictures, is a family business. How was working with your parents on this film, the fact that they weren’t in the film business previously? 

D: Well, my dad is a retired army colonel so he handled logistics for 27+ years so it’s a natural progression for him on a movie set. It’s as if he’s meant to be doing that. My mom is a writer. In fact she’s got a book that I’m looking to adapt into a film one day. So both of them are just good with people, they’re good with numbers and all that. So working with them have been such a pleasure. I mean, I don’t really see them as my parents when we’re working together. We’re collaborators and they’re people I obviously can trust.

R: Ok last question. What’s next for you? 

D: Well, I have the thriller I mentioned earlier. But there’s that chicken and the egg dilemma you know. Between getting the actors attached and getting financing, which one you do first. Sometimes you just have to figure out who the investors are before you can start committing to the story that you want to do. So I’ll just see where the wind blows, and we’ll see how this movie does, hopefully it’ll make its money back. So far it’s been well received at film festivals, we’re thrilled about that. Whatever happens, happens. We’re keeping the faith.


Check out the trailer below:


Thanks so much Daniel for chatting with me.


VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is the Opening Night Film of Duluth Superior Film Festival

Wednesday, May 30th
Clyde Iron Event Center
Doors: 7 PM / Film: 8 PM

Director Daniel Stine and lead actress Rachel Hendrix in attendance!

BONUS SCREENING:
Saturday, June 2nd
9 PM at Zinema


RIP Margot Kidder – she shall always be my favorite Lois Lane

I just flew home from vacation today and as I was browsing the internet briefly as I boarded the plane, I read that Margot Kidder has passed away at the age of 69. I knew she had some health problems and that she had stepped away from acting and focused more on political activism in her later years. It seems that just like the most famous role she portrayed, Margot Kidder also courageously fought for what she believed in.

I was saddened by this news particularly because how her portrayal of Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (my all time favorite Superman movie) and basically made the role as iconic as Christopher Reeve did as the Man of Steel. I mentioned in this 2011 post when Amy Adams was cast that Kidder was my favorite Lois Lane. Well, I think she always will be and I tell you why.

From the first moment we saw Lois in the 1978 Superman movie, we saw her in her element. She’s hard at work at Daily Planet, doing what she loves and does best, surrounded by people who relies on her and trusts her. We saw how her photographer colleague Jimmy Olsen adores her (probably has a secret crush on her) and how her boss Mr. White values her work. She’s the best reporter of the paper, and perhaps even the entire Metropolis.

This quote is from Superman II which best defines Lois according to her boss:

Perry White: If Paris is going to go kablooey I want my best reporter right in the middle of it… No offense, Kent. You’re good, but Lois Lane’s better.
Clark Kent: No, I mean uh, isn’t that a bit dangerous, sir?
Perry White: That goes with the territory, Kent. Don’t worry; if I know Lois Lane, she’ll not only come back with a Pulitzer Prize story, but a one-on-one interview with the hydrogen bomb titled “What Makes Me Tick.”

So when she meets Clark Kent for the first time at Mr. White’s office and he spills his new boss’ drink all over himself, she was focused on her work. Her career is the most important thing for her, not because she cares about being at the top, but because she is absolutely passionate for the art of journalism. In other words, she’s already a super woman before she meets Superman, and she doesn’t need a man (no matter how super) to define who she is.

Now THAT is what inspires me the most about Kidder’s Lois Lane. In fact, I was so inspired by her that for as long as I could remember I had always wanted to be a journalist. Never mind that I was barely in grade school when I saw Superman: The Movie, that film made such an impression on me I thought her Lois was (and still is) the coolest gal ev-er!

When I went to college years later, I even put down in journalism as my major on my I-20 (for those not familiar w/ being an international student in the US, that form is a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students). I ended up switching to Advertising with Graphic Design minor, but for one quarter, I did take journalism and broadcasting courses and I’m so glad I did! As I became a film blogger over a decade ago, the journalistic principles I learned in school proves to be quite beneficial.

So yeah, I did have a massive crush on Christopher Reeve’s Superman for years (he remains the only actor I’ve ever written letters to), but I was just as influenced by Kidder’s portrayal of Lois. I think to this day, no other actress can top Kidder’s portrayal of Lois, just as no actor can top Reeve’s Superman for me.

I mentioned in that 2011 article that I love the contrast of Kidder’s acting with Clark Kent vs. Superman. How she’s domineering and bossy to Clark, but then goes all googley-eyed in front of Superman. But what I didn’t mention is, that  Superman and his alter ego was just as mesmerized by Lois. I believe he’s drawn to her not only for her looks (though she’s indeed gorgeous), but because of her spunk, her no-nonsense attitude and simply her zest for life. Yes, Supes has saved Lois a few times, but no, she’s not some damsel in distress. She may be a bit ruthless when she pursues a story, but that’s because she always gives a hundred and ten percent to her work and is driven by the passion for uncovering truth just as Supes does.

All of those elements makes Lois Lane a heroine to me… who needs superpowers when you’ve got cojones like that?

No wonder Margot Kidder wasn’t enthused with the way DCEU portrayed Lois. As she mentioned in this article, despite casting a strong performer like Amy Adams, Lois was mostly relegated as ‘the girlfriend’ which seems like a step back in time.

Kidder’s Lois Lane was not ahead of its time, it’s timing was just right and therefore it’s timeless. She is strong as well as vulnerable, which makes her relatable. She is feminine (in her own sassy way), as well as a fierce feminist who’s comfortable in her own skin and knows her worth, no wonder Supes’ willing to give up his superpower just to be with her.

I feel like I’ve been rambling on when now all I want to do is rewatch Superman: The Movie. In sum, I just want to say THANK YOU Margot Kidder, for your inspiration and for defining a role of a strong woman for a generation and beyond.

May you rest in peace.


Have you been inspired by Margot Kidder as Lois Lane or otherwise? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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TCFF 2017 Interviews: TWIN CITIES’ writer/director David Ash and RUIN ME’s actor Alex Galick


It’s already Day 9 of the film fest! Whew, time sure flies when you’re having fun! Science, Relationship, Horror … definitely there’s something for everyone in today’s lineup!

We had the privilege of getting the insights from the people involved with two of the feature films playing today, Twin Cities and Ruin Me. So check ’em out below:

“Salvaging a marriage takes time and trust, two things that John and Emily no longer have. Emily is a writer with a career threatening case of writer’s block and deadlines approaching. The pressure to finish her novel grows when John sinks into depression and quits his job … right before their first baby is due.

As they head toward a mutual meltdown, John is given a terminal diagnosis that forces him to reassess his life and attempt to save his marriage—before it’s too late. However, inner peace proves elusive, the marriage might be too far gone, and John’s life may not be what it seems.”

At a glance, a film dealing with a troubled marriage, wife suffering from writer’s block, depressed husband haunted by his past, it sounds like a downer. But Twin Cities is actually a pretty entertaining film with plenty of humorous moments. It’s actually a lot funnier than you think, but also has a lot of poignant moments and spiritual matters that would make you ponder about your own life. Plus there’s also an interesting twist you won’t see coming. 

David Ash on set

Twin Cities is actually a sequel to David Ash‘s feature film debut 2021 (which premiered at TCFF a couple of years ago). Clarence Wethern and Bethany Ford were both in 2021, and they’re both excellent in the lead roles in this one as well. They both balance the dramatic and humorous moments wonderfully, Clarence has such a natural comic timing that’s fun to watch.

Clarence and Bethany in a still from TWIN CITIES

The leading man of my short film Heart’s Want, Peter Christian Hansen, also have a supporting role in this film. I can’t say too much about his character without giving too much away of the plot though, but he’s a terrific addition to the cast. Hearts Want‘s director Jason P. Schumacher also produced this film and did the extras casting as well.

Q: What would you say are the main themes of the film?

Q: When you finished ‘2021’ did you already have a plan/concept to make a follow-up to that?

Q: Did you have a lot of prep work with your two lead actors despite having done a film together before?

Q: Tell me a bit about your decision to cast Peter Hansen in the role of David?


THANK YOU David Ash for chatting with me about TWIN CITIES!

There is a TCFF screening tonight at 8:45 that’s sold out, but there’s a RUSH LINE so if you get there in time you just might be able to see this film on the big screen.


Thanks Laura Schaubschlager for this interview article with actor ALEX GALICK from Ruin Me:

Horror movies can be polarizing. It seems like there are either hardcore fans of the genre, or people who are too scared to watch even the cheesiest of slasher films, with very little middle ground. However, independent film Ruin Me (written by Trysta A. Bissett and Preston DeFrancis) has the potential to appeal to both sides. Since its premiere in August, the movie has received overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences at nearly twenty film festivals (including London’s FrightFest and Los Angeles’s Screamfest-the longest running horror film festival in the U.S.), several nominations and awards, and a current IMDB rating of 7.8 (an exceptional score for a horror movie).

I had the opportunity to chat with Alex Galick, Ruin Me cast member and local actor, to discuss the film, his involvement in it, and the horror genre as a whole.

While on the surface, Ruin Me is a traditional horror film with familiar tropes, there’s more to (what Alex and others involved in the film call) this “sophisticated slasher” than meets the eye. “It definitely pays homage to the genre,” Alex explains. “But the focus is less on the jump scares and gore and more on mystery and character.” Despite the story taking place at an extreme event that is essentially a horror movie-themed camping trip, the movie itself is more of a psychological thriller. The main character, Alexandra (Marcienne Dwyer), is not just the stereotypical “final girl,” but a multifaceted character with a complex background. “[She] has a checkered past that may or may not be involved with what’s happening,” Alex hints.

As for Alex’s character (listed only as “The Skinny Kid” on IMDB), you’ll have to see the movie to find out more, as going into detail might give away some spoilers. “What is it Jeff Sessions says? ‘I plead the fifth,'” Alex laughs. “I can’t give you the skinny on The Skinny Kid.” It sounds like his portrayal of this mystery character will be quite the performance, though; while the filmmakers were originally thinking of casting someone from Muskegon, Michigan (where Ruin Me was filmed), they were so impressed with Alex’s reel that they decided to go with him instead, even though it meant having him regularly make the nearly 9-hour drive for filming.

Ruin Me isn’t Alex’s first venture into horror. His first professional film role was in the 2013 thriller Fractured (starring Vinnie Jones and Callum Blue), and more recently, he wrapped on the upcoming horror comedy Ahockalypse, which was filmed here in Minnesota. While he isn’t necessarily a horror fan himself, he’s developed an appreciation for the genre through his work in it. “I think horror has an amazing fanbase,” he says. “The people who love to watch horror love it in a way I don’t think other genres enjoy…I have a great respect for the roller coasters these films take us on. They create visceral experiences, and that’s translatable, I think, across cultural boundaries.”

Based on initial responses, it sounds like Ruin Me will be a similar cinematic roller coaster experience. While the film may subvert some tropes, the writers were still very loyal to the horror genre, spending nearly five years researching and putting serious effort into making this something die-hard horror fans will appreciate.

Those of you in or near the Twin Cities have two chances to catch Ruin Me during TCFF at the Showplace ICON in St. Louis Park:

Thursday, October 26th at 10:15 PM and
Saturday, October 28th at 11:00 PM.

Get your tickets here


What’s in store for Day 10!

There are still a slew of great films playing in the last two days of TCFF! Some are starring Oscar winners (J.K. Simmons in The Bachelors) and Oscar-worthy films such as Darkest Hour (starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill).

Stay tuned for even more daily TCFF coverage!


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TCFF 2017 Interview: VICTOR’S LAST CLASS’ Director/Producer Brendan Brandt

One of the many intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s TCFF is Victor’s Last Class, documentary about an acting teacher getting ready to end his life, and a student who attempts to change his mind.

Our blog staff Laura Schaubschlager talked to producer/filmmaker Brendan Brandt on the journey to making his film, where along the course of the project became more than just a filmmaker asking why, but became a close friend trying to change his new friend and mentor’s mind.

1. How did you discover Victor and his blog (and, subsequently, his announcement of ending his life)?

I’m an actor in Los Angeles. I was at a cast party after having just closed a play. The host of the party was a little upset, and when I asked why, he told me that his friend Victor was getting ready to kill himself in two weeks, and he didn’t know what to do.
I was fascinated with the story and asked if Victor would be willing to meet me. I just wanted to talk to him. Before we met, I read all his blogs and got a sense of who he was. At some point right before we met I got the idea to document his story in some way. So I pitched him the documentary idea sort of on the fly.

2. Why were you compelled to make this documentary? How did you hope to challenge Victor’s decision through filming this?

“Why was I compelled” initially is tough to answer. I’m not great at psycho-analyzing myself so there may be some subconscious stuff going on that I’m unaware of. If I was forced to guess I would say I had never truly experienced a death at that point in my life (other than losing a grandpa and grandma). I hadn’t lost a close friend or parent, so I think I was perhaps a little curious about it. That was at first. Then after I met Victor, I bonded with him in a very intense way, and I was compelled to “save” him. I had a mission, to talk someone out of killing themselves. I think that’s how I saw it after awhile.I hoped to do it by asking him some super smart questions. I was on a righteous mission! It sounds incredibly naive and a little arrogant to me now, but I really thought I could get into the philosophy and logic behind the decision and perhaps find a flaw or crack. I was convinced there was a chance to unlock some previously undiscovered angle, and when we fully looked at it, we could come to a different conclusion.

3. Last year, Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You, which deals with the issue of assisted suicide and ending one’s life due to lifelong medical struggles, was adapted into a major motion picture. Have you read the book or seen the movie, and if so, how did you feel about the depiction of this situation after going through it yourself?

Oh man, I was not aware of that book or film. I will check it out when I’m ready to have a good cry.

4. Victor stated in the documentary that he didn’t believe ending one’s life has to just be due to physical pain (he gives the example of someone losing a wife and child in an accident and not being able to go on), but didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to say it would extend to mental illness.

What do you think? How do you feel it extends (or doesn’t) to mental illness? Where do you think the limit is?

Great question. Let me preface this with I don’t have a clear, concrete answer. One of the main lessons I got from this experience was that life is less ‘black and white’ and more ‘grey’. So you have to take it on a case by case basis. We can do a better job of seeking help for mental pain, and we can do a better job of treating mental illness. I didn’t like Victor’s car accident analogy in the moment. That seemed like an injury that, while horrific, would slowly, at least partially, heal with time, and deciding to die before giving it a chance to partially heal would be unwise. Maybe after 10 years, with no improvement in mental health, still devastated and unable to cope, I would be more willing to accept that.

All that being said, mental pain is often worse than physical pain, and ultimately an individual should be in charge of their own life. So, if a mental health expert could determine that someone who is suffering extreme mental pain and wants to die is not “crazy”, I would probably accept that. The main point would be to make sure they talk about it with experts and loved ones, and that we would get a chance to really explore that decision.

5. After going through all of this with Victor, what advice do you have for anyone who has a friend or family member considering ending their lives due to chronic pain or illness? You state toward the end of the film that while you understand his reasoning more, you still don’t agree with his decision; how do you come to terms with those conflicting feelings?

My advice would be to make sure you listen to the person. I’m very grateful I got to have this experience with Victor. And he was grateful I gave him that experience because we got to really investigate every facet of that decision. It was good for both of us, and I think it’s a healthy process to go through. Tell the truth, listen, question, and seek to understand. Not to be nit-picky, but I said: “I still don’t know that I agree”. I think that’s an important distinction. It goes back to my ‘things are grey’ point. I can’t say what he did was right or wrong. I don’t want to say that. But I do want people to look at it and think about it, and maybe make up their own mind.

When I made that comment toward the end of the film, I was hurting. I thought I made a pretty strong case to continue on. It was a little selfish of me to be honest. He was making my life better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It’s taken time and a lot of reflection, and the conflicting feelings are still there, but basically, at this point, I understand and accept. Wish it wasn’t the case, but I accept. Dealing with the conflicting feelings was interesting. As I spoke with his friends after the fact and heard their takes on it, I found myself swinging back and forth, and that continued for a while until I arrived at ‘there is no right answer. It just is.’


FILMMAKERS’ BIOS:

Brendan Brandt (Director/Producer), is a Los Angeles based actor who has been working professionally for the last twelve years in theater, film, and television. He’s appeared in prime-time dramas for CBS, sitcoms for ABC, Comedy Central, and CMT, and films that have been distributed by Netflix, Amazon, and Directv. In addition, he has been in over twenty commercials as a principal actor. His book “Waiting Tables, Dodging Bullets: An Actor’s Guide to Surviving Los Angeles” was published in 2010. Although he’s worked in the industry for twelve years, this is his first time directing a film.

Arielle Amsalem is an Emmy Award winning editor of feature length documentary films. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program, where she apprenticed under the editor Sam Pollard, Arielle started her career working on Spike Lee’s award winning documentary “When the Levees Broke” (2006), a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She has since been the editor of many feature- length documentaries including the Edward Norton produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009) for which she won the Primetime Emmy for Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming. She worked as a Producer on Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”, which premiered at Sundance and aired on the Sundance channel. Additionally, she has consulted on the production and distribution of many of the documentaries which she has edited.


What’s in store for Day 4

Today we are screening lots of movies, there is something for everyone!

Victors Last Class, Instructions for Living, Ice House, Coyote, Cold November, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Beyond the Trek, Beauty Mark, and two blocks of short films (Age of Innocence – coming of age stories, and True Life Inspired– documentaries).


Stay tuned for my Day 3 & 4 recap tomorrow

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TCFF 2017 Interviews: Lea Thompson, Madelyn + Zoey Deutch AND filmmakers/ musicians Jack & Kitty


There are SO many things going on during Twin Cities Film Fest! It’s fun to see filmmakers and talents coming to present their films and see them do the red carpet interviews! This year I’ve a couple of bloggers helping me out not just in reviewing stuff but also in doing interviews. That’s super helpful as I can’t be in two places at the same time (can someone invent something that enables us to do that?)

In any case, thanks to FlixChatter’s blog contributor Andy Ellis, we’ve got an interview with Lea Thompson and Madelyn and Zoey Deutch, her two daughters and fellow collaborators in The Year of Spectacular Men. So the film is Lea’s directorial debut based on Madelyn’s script and the three starred in the film together.

Andy w/ Lea, Madelyn & Zoey on the red carpet

Take a listen to Andy’s interview below:

 


I first met filmmaker Jack Norton when his documentary Jug Band Hokum was playing at TCFF in 2015. I’ve seen Jack & Kitty at various events and film screenings since, but it’s so cool to see them back at TCFF, this time as musicians!

Copyright 2017 Brizo Media Group

 

Jack and Kitty are high school sweethearts that play Organic Vaudeville and Jug Band Folk for All Ages. They are an Emmy Award winning musical duo that also makes critically acclaimed films and television. Based in Minnesota, they love to perform concerts nationwide and play a variety of folk instruments including: banjo, guitar, ukulele, washboard, jug, kazoo, harmonica, whizbang, rumba box and much more. The Minneapolis Star Tribune hailed them as “one of the most entertaining groups in the midwest!”

I remember that when I talked to Jack a few years ago how much he admired filmmaker Sean Baker (who made his breakthrough with his film Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone). So I’m so thrilled that he ended up working with him on his new film The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe!

Take a listen below on how the collaboration got started… and also specifically about their music.

Check out their Facebook page for events in the area and around the country. Subscribe to their YouTube page too, while you’re at it.

Watch them share their incredibly inspiring story of how they went from homeless to having four songs in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.

Jack & Kitty are the loveliest, funnest people you’d ever be blessed to meet, so thank you guys for chatting with me!


Stay tuned for another interview post tomorrow with Victor’s Last Class’s filmmaker Brendan Brandt … thanks Laura Schaubschlager!


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‘Project Eden Vol.1’ Premiere Recap + Interview with filmmakers Ashlee Jensen & Terrance Young

Last week had been quite a whirlwind… but in the most wonderful way. Last Wednesday 2/15, my hubby and I attended the premiere of Project Eden Vol. I, part of Twin Cities Film Fest’ Insider Series event, with the cast and crew. It was a fun, festive night. It was lovely to chat a bit with the lovely lead actress Emily Fradenburgh, who arrived early to the event in a gorgeous dress, as I didn’t get to interview her in person. Everyone looked red-carpet ready, including the Twin Cities-based male lead actor Peter Christian Hansen, who was his usual charming self.

projecteden_premiere

I had met the duo filmmakers Terrance Young and Ashlee Jensen just hours before for our interview at Nina’s Coffee House. The screening ended with a fun Q&A with the cast and crew.


projectedenvol1

Quick Thoughts on the film:

Well, the first part of Project Eden got off to a strong start. The sci-fi thriller deservedly won Best Vision at the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival just a week prior. It’s an intriguing sci-fi that played more like a conspiracy theory, set in a familiar world like ours, but with a few twists. I have to say the visuals looked amazing, shot by Twin Cities based DP Christopher Lange. It looked more expensive than it was, which is always a feat for indie films. The film’s is quite enigmatic and made you ponder about what’s really going on, but that’s to be expected as we haven’t seen the whole story yet.

projecteden_emily_peter

The two leads Evelyn and Ethan (played by Emily Fradenburgh and Peter Hansen) are definitely the strongest performers of the film. We’re not sure just how their worlds are connected, but we’re given just enough to care about their journey. It’s always interesting when we’re not sure if the protagonist is a good guy or not, and Ethan definitely keeps you guessing. Evelyn and the mystery surrounding her catatonic son is the focal point of the story, and her exchange with Erick Avari’s mysterious character in the third act leads to a massive cliffhanger!

I do have a few quibbles, such as the stock characters and their hackneyed dialogue. There are also odd situations that don’t quite add up, which you could refer to as plot holes or continuity problems. But overall, it’s a pretty thrilling set-up that made me eager to see Volume II!

FCInterviewBanner

I met the duo filmmakers Terrance and Ashlee at another charming St. Paul coffee house called Nina’s. There’s a bit of logistical challenge trying to set up a time to meet, as they were only in town for a few days so no doubt their schedule is jam packed. But it was well worth the effort as they’re one of the nicest people you ever had the privilege to meet! They’re both from Sunshine Coast, Australia, and they certainly had such a sunny outlook on life. By the time I got there, Terrance had stepped out for a bit so I got to chat with Ashlee first.

me_terrance_ashlee

How did the concept/story idea of Project Eden first come about for you?

Ashlee: Terrance actually had the concept of the ending, this amazing grand ending, about ten years ago. And we’ve known each other for 11 years, so we talked about it back and forth throughout that time, but of course we ended up doing other things, including 500 Miles (Ashlee’s directorial debut that Terrance produced). Then we went on our separate ways, we did a bit of study and other projects in between. It wasn’t until we stopped here in Minneapolis on our way to Palm Beach for 500 Miles and we walked through the Stone Arch Bridge. And from one side of the bridge to the other we talked out the whole story of Project Eden.

Terrance: So the beginning and the end were always there. For some reason, I don’t know if it was a dream or something. So the idea was there but it’s a concept that was going to cost a lot of money so we put it off. I just weren’t at a point in my career yet [to make this]. So Ashlee and I did 500 Miles together in 2014, then a few years later we were here in Minneapolis and we came up with the whole story and started writing it. As we had the beginning and the end, we sort of weaved everything together. Then we decided to do it in two volumes as we know that if we’re trying to do it as one feature we wouldn’t have gotten the budget. It’d be too ambitious. But by doing part I, it opened up a franchise opportunity and we’re able to make Part I with a decent amount of money.

So are you saying the birth of the project is right here in Minneapolis?

Ashlee: Yes. It’s really interesting because when we had our final filming blocked, so this was a year and a half blocked in three different countries (Australia, New Zealand and the US), the very final scene that we shot was the one that happened at the Stone Arch Bridge.

You said you talked through the whole project as you both were walking in Stone Arch Bridge. Did you envision it to be multiple films instead of just one feature?

Ashlee: No, at the time, obviously we fell in love with the city, it has the right vibe and we’re like, ‘oh we have to film it here, it’s amazing.’ At the time we were hoping to get it into one story, but by the time it came down to to writing it all out and then of course being indie filmmakers, all the other things came into place. We didn’t have unlimited budget and all these political, behind-the-scenes stuff came up. But we knew in our hearts if we wanted to do justice to the story then we needed to separate it into two volumes. So the first one you’re really setting up the world of Project Eden and getting to know the characters in such a deep level, seeing all their flaws and the journey they’re about to embark on. But we ended it right at the point where things are about to kick off. It’s a massive cliffhanger.

You said Terrance had this grand ending idea initially, but did you have the characters in mind at the time? Or is it more about the concept?

Ashlee: We didn’t have the name but we knew the central core of the story is a young woman and her son who’s in a catatonic state.

In the concept video, both of you said that the world seems to think that spirituality and science are two separate things while you think it’s one and the same. Would you expand a bit on that thought?

Ashlee: Sure. Of course these are our personal perspectives how we view reality.. But we see time and time again where there’s always this opposing views that you’re either spiritual or you have this scientific belief. While we’re like, well why can’t it be combined? Because anything that is scientific has a spiritual element and vice versa. The nature of the universe and everything that we’re even sitting in today is so overwhelmingly vast and amazing, I don’t think you can pinpoint it down to just science. There is always this grander allusion of spirituality so we feel that the two are so complexly and deeply intertwined that it’s one and the same.

Terrance: I feel like our world today is governed by religion to the point of our detriment. We’re killing each other because of religion. At the end of the day everyone has a spiritual side, but we can still have science without discounting spirituality. That’s what we’re trying to do, with our science fiction [story], we do deal with science but there’s a spiritual element to it ‘cause I think that’s how the world is, physics and spirituality goes together. That’s our belief and people put in what they believe in into their own projects.

So did this film start out as a short film?

Ashlee: No, it’s a short film that Terrance and I did maybe about four years ago that has the same name. There are a few little themes that are similar to this feature film but it’s really more of a stand-alone story. If we’re ever going to expand on that little short, it’ll be more of a series. So no, this film didn’t originate as a short.

How about the financing aspect of this film? Did you go through crowdfunding route or did you talk to a bunch of financiers for this?

Terrance: Yeah, for the last film we did the crowdfunding route. It worked all right. But we knew we’d never raise the amount of money needed to make Project Eden. But we knew a guy who wanted to invest in our last film but the timing wasn’t right, so we went to him and he put in a bit of money. We also found a couple other investors so we’re able to put together some money to go and shoot the first half of the movie.

Ashlee: Yeah it’s a bit of an unorthodox approach. So we got a small pool of money and we knew it’s a catch 22. We need more money but we wouldn’t get more money until they see what we could do. So we took a massive risk. We came here [to the US] then came home with the first 20 minutes of the film.

Terrance: We had some money from investors but it was only like 50 grand here, 50 grand there, so we had about $150K all together to do the initial shoot. It’s totally unusual and a huge risk, because normally you don’t shoot the first 20 minutes in order. Then we presented that to the investors and showed them what it would look like. So we got more financing and went back to shoot the rest of movie in New Zealand and then back to Minnesota.

So in which country did you shoot the first 20 minutes?

Terrance & Ashlee: Here in Minnesota.

Wow, there’s a lot of Minnesota connection.

Terrance: Yes, we basically shot half the movie here in MN and half in New Zealand and a little bit in Australia.

The filmmakers w/ Twin Cities-based DP Christopher Lange + Helsinki-based Mark Hobson Source: Project Eden FB
The filmmakers w/ Twin Cities-based DP Christopher Lange + Helsinki-based Mark Hobson – Source: Project Eden FB

What made you decide to collaborate and co-direct this film?

Ashlee: This one is a huge… the premise of this concept is big, and there’s all these intricacies that work up to the grand ending. So for us, to make sure that we always have one another’s back that no one would fall behind, we’re always on the same page. Since we wrote this together, we decided to direct this together as well. We’ll do the same for volume 2, but this project is the only one we’ll do it like this.

Terrance: It was so ambitious that we knew that one of us could not just go and direct this. Ashlee is so great about working with actors and getting the performance out of them. My background is in post production so I’m more on the technical side. So we’ve got two different viewpoints but because we were on the same page when we wrote it, there was never any sort of clashes of creative ideas.

Yes, Peter mentioned that it was seamless collaboration that if it wasn’t the case, then you guys did a good job in shielding it from him and the other actors.

Terrance: Yes we sort of had this agreement that if they had questions about characters then they’d go to Ashlee. If they had other questions such as the logistical stuff then I can handle those. Of course there were times that we chimed in together, but for the most part I’d handle the business if you will, how we’d get everybody to New Zealand and all that. But yeah we both learned from each other.

So how was the experience of collaborating? Do you want to keep doing this, directing together again?

Terrance: Look, we’ll definitely would do this together for volume 2 but after that I think we’d go back to directing and producing as we have two different skill set. But I am looking forward to working together again for the next film.

Ashlee: It strengthened our relationship as well. I think the reason why we seemed like this united pair because at the end of the day, we’re always like ‘y’know what, we have respect one another, we listen to one another’s perspectives and we have trust in one another. Because we were the leaders, whatever energy between us would filter down, so we have to make sure everything’s good.

What has been the most challenging aspect about making this film, apart from the financing?

Terrance: Having not gone the film school route and being told about how to do things. There were certain things that I personally learned the hard way. Even though sometimes it’s the best way to learn, it was very stressful and there were times we thought the movie just wouldn’t get done. Because we had invested so much, so much of our personal lives and also financially and professionally. But of course there’s always the belief that we’d never not finish what we’d started, so definitely there has been a ton of great life lessons and next time we’ll know what to do. I mean there will be a new set of problems but hopefully then we’d know more what to do.

Any snafus/mishaps during filming that stood out to you?

Ashlee: Well, we came over to America and learned about the politics of how films are run here. Then we went over to New Zealand. It’s like it’s same same, but also totally different. So we learned a little thing the hard way. We did have one incident in NZ. I mean it happens but for us, it was the first big things that happened and we’re like, whoa! We were filming in this little place called Waipu, it’s in the middle of nowhere, about 2.5 hours drive [from Auckland] and in order to get there is this long mountain tracks, all gravel road. Then this generator truck pulled to the side of the road to let a car pass and after all the rain and everything the road gave way and the whole truck rolled four times down the side of the mountain. Fortunately the makeup artist who was in the truck only had this cut on his nose and that was it!

Terrance: I know, he could’ve died!

Ashlee: Yep, 50 meters off the road and he would’ve fallen into a massive canyon and it would’ve been completely different situation.

Terrance: Because of that we only had limited power so our unit base like catering and so on could only have limited power just to have the lights on to keep the schedule going. The thing is, we didn’t really have money for contingency days, so if the lights didn’t work for the shoot, we would be a day behind and we wouldn’t have the money to facilitate that. So it was bad, but we were lucky as nobody got killed. But yeah, the generator was gone, we had to have another one brought in from Auckland.

Peter Hansen, Ashlee Jensen, Paul O'Brien, Emily Fradenburgh prepare to step onto set on Day 1 – Source: Project Eden FB
Peter Hansen, Ashlee Jensen, Paul O’Brien, Emily Fradenburgh on set on Day 1 – Source: Project Eden FB

So about casting. How did you cast those sci-fi actors like Mike Dohpud, Cliff Simmons, etc as well as the Twin Cities actors like Peter and Emily?

Terrance: So Ashlee dealt with the casting of the Minnesota people, and I dealt with the agents of Mike Dohpud, Cliff Simmons, etc.

Ashlee: With the hierarchy of films, as we get further in our careers, casting directors would cast a lot of the actors. But I personally love the audition process, love it. Not obviously for the smaller, background extras but the key people, we want to be a part of that. So when it came to the leads, we’ve got this little tradition that we’re always going to continue doing because we believe in supporting emerging creatives. So we always wanted our leads to be up and comers rather than established actors. So when it comes to casting here, we did a round of auditions and then everyone we liked we’ve got call backs and we did a few little read throughs. I think the crux of it, and there were a lot of talents, but there were a set of people that we really liked so we just sat down and had a conversation with them. Because when you worked with in such a small level, the people you work with became your family. So you want to know that they’re good people, that you like them, and they’re true collaborators. Emily and Peter just hands down just stand out, they’re both just all around good people.

Terrance: And we saw a lot of people so it’s not like we just picked them because they were presented to us. Like for Emily we must’ve seen about fifteen people and I think Peter too, there were probably similar amount.

Ashlee: And people were sending tapes to us too, so there were quite a lot.

Terrance: One of our producers, Sallyanne Ryan, she connected us with a photographer named Dennis Alick [spelling?] who’s very connected with the sci-fi channel world. He’s friends with Mike Dohpud. And we actually initially talked with an actor by the name of Robert Knepper, he played the character T-Bag in Prison Break. He’s very well known for that. But then he ended up not being a good fit for us, so we said we wanted to speak to Mike. So I spoke to his agent and did the deal. He said the reason he wanted to do it was because he loved the script. And then, because of that, see I grew up watching Stargate-SG1 and I love Cliff Simon who’d be great for the Russian.

Erick Avari in 'Project Eden Vol. I'
Erick Avari in ‘Project Eden Vol. I’

Then we looked at Erick Avari who’s just perfect for the role of the Shepherd. So for the most part we dealt with their agents but I contacted Erick Avari on Facebook. I asked him, ‘I’d love to send you a script so who’s your agent?’ He said, ‘I don’t have an agent at the moment as I’m trying to retire from Hollywood but you never know what’s going to happen, so send me the script.’ So we did and he wrote back saying, ‘well I got to say you’ve got an ambitious script here and I’m sick of mediocrity.’

Ashlee: Yeah he said ‘I’d rather put my time and energy into something like this than mediocrity chasing mediocrity.’

Terrance: So we had a chat together, we had Skype sessions, we did hours and hours working on the script. We worked on the dialog, he got really heavily involved. He came to New Zealand and he shot his scenes. So I’d say those three guys (Mike, Cliff and Erick), who I called the Stargate alumni, really brought a whole extra layer, dimension to the cast. So we’ve got these emerging actors from Minnesota surrounded by veteran International cast. Mike is Canadian, Cliff was born in South Africa but now lives in L.A. and Erick is of Indian descent but lives in the US.

So this is Volume I. So have you set up a time for Volume II?

Terrance: Yes it’s in development. We’re already working on the treatment, we’re already working on the script and we want to head to it straight away.

Ashlee: Exactly. Ideally we’d like to shoot this in 12 – 18 months.

Is it going to be set in the same location or are you thinking of finding another spot?

Ashlee: A little bit the same but we’re thinking of diversifying the locations, so maybe Peru…

Terrance: It’s definitely still in North or South America, we’re not going outside of that.

And the same cast, too?

Terrance: Well, the thing is we don’t want to say yes, because then you spoil the movie as then you know who dies in the first film. We don’t want to give anything away.

Yeah I know, but I really want the MN cast to be in this again, they’re such good talents.

Ashlee: But let’s just say we would be very happy to work with them again.

Terrance: One thing we want to reiterate is that we purposely marketed this as Volume I. Because we felt that if we just call this Project Eden and they saw the movie and only saw half of the story, they might feel cheated. But if they go in knowing that this is Part I and it ends at cliffhanger, they hopefully won’t get mad about it.

Ashlee: Hopefully they’d leave feeling excited to see where it’s going.

Terrance: I know it is a risky move for an indie film [to do it as two movies] as you just don’t know. But we followed our instincts and ironically it’s sort of having an opposite effect where they want people to buy it to see part II.

How long was the shoot?

Terrance: If you add it all together, it’s only about 4-5 weeks of filming. But when we split it up, it took about 10 months if you spread it out. But from concept to the finished product [for Vol.I] it took about 2 years. As far as the number of days, about 24 days. With pick up it’s 24 days.

Ashlee: That’s the thing with indie films, we were fitting in 6-8 pages a day, where normally on a bigger set, you have the luxury of only doing 1 page a day.

One last question for you Ashlee. I’ve been a champion of female filmmakers for a long time, which I tried to do on my blog. So would you comment a bit about the lack of gender diversity in the industry?

Ashlee: It’s an interesting topic for me to talk about because I feel like, perhaps I’m just lucky but I also think it’s about the people you surround yourself with. Terrance and I, we hire people based on their skill set and nothing else. And so honestly, on most film sets that we’ve done we’ve actually got more women than men. And it just happens to turn out that way. I would love to see more women in higher up roles and I think it is slowly happening, there’s a bit more awareness there.

In fact there is a film festival recently that just had a gender blind [system] so that when people put in their submissions, there are no names nor gender attached. And within the first year, they went from 3% to 50% of female directors and producers as they base everything purely on merit, on the work themselves. Look I think it’s changing. I mean, Terrance and I, we naturally who we are, we’re pioneering for that [diversity] but we’re not seeking to stand up and put a fuss about it. We are who we are, and I think we stay true to who we are in hiring people based on their abilities then hopefully the perception will start to shift.

Terrance: Y’know I actually get angry when people go on and fuss about equality in films because I don’t even think about that. I just think, who’s good for the job, y’know. I mean somehow naturally, a lot of our crew are women. And again, that’s the way it should be. It should be based on the skill set.

Ashlee: So yeah, like Terrance said, we don’t want to make a fuss about it but we are going to be role models. Just by being who we are and doing what we do.

Terrance: So yeah, we’re not going to force it, we’re going to like count how many women we have in our crew. I think people can’t accuse us about gender discrimination. I think the proof is in the pudding.

The cast & crew of 'Project Eden' Source: Project Eden's FB
The cast & crew of the Waipu shoot of ‘Project Eden’ 
Source: Project Eden’s FB

THANK YOU so much Ashlee + Terrance
for the fun, insightful conversation!