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


Short Film Spotlight: ‘Classic. Becky. Party’ + Q&A with writer/director John J. Kaiser

Just two days away until Twin Cities Film Fest’s MN Shorts Showcase event! Today we’ve got yet another Q&A with a talented MN filmmaker whose film Classic. Becky. Party will be screening on Wednesday night (more info below).

I met first met John at the TCFF Gala in September 2017, thanks to his creative partner Jay Ness (one of the excellent camera crews who worked on my short film Hearts Want). John and Jay are the owners of CutJaw Film Co., a Minnesota-based film production company that’s done a number of short films such as Curse of the Invisible Werewolf and Bobby’s Run Off.

Check out my Q&A on his female-led comedy drama starring Rachel Weber, Larissa Gritti, and Anna Stranz, filmed entirely in Minneapolis.

Becky has arranged every detail for what’s supposed to be the perfect party. The food, the ambiance, the decor is all set, all that’s missing are the guests.

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Q: What inspires you to write Classic Becky Party? The premise sounds quite personal. Was it?

Classic. Becky. Party. really came from an insecurity that a lot of people I think have which is what do you do when you throw a party and no one shows up. It has happened every time I’ve thrown any sort of party. Fortunately none of those have ever been as disastrous as Becky’s party. But it’s definitely a kind of funny kind of sad scenario that lots of people identify with. An empty party is a level of loneliness that audiences can really empathize with.

Becky is the kind of person that desperately wants everyone to think she has her shit together, so it was fun to see how much she could unravel and lower the facade she presents to those around her. Having her sisters arrive to witness her embarrassment just adds fuel to the fire.

Q: You’ve written quite a number of shorts and you often direct your own work. What’s the biggest challenge for you as a director to do that?

The biggest challenge to being both writer and director on a project is you have one less person to bounce ideas off of. Film is a collaborative medium so it’s good to have input from your cast and crew, experts in their field, so when you’re directing your own script it’s even more essential to listen to those collaborators. Of course it’s a two sided coin and there’s something incredibly liberating and fulfilling about taking an idea to the page and then taking that page to the screen.

Q: Who are some of your filmmaking influences? Specifically for dramas.

When tackling a drama I think it’s incredibly important to find moments of levity and catharsis for the audience, so any writer/director that can incorporate that balance into their work is someone that I gravitate towards.

A few filmmakers that come to mind are Billy Wilder, Mike Mills, the Coen Bros., and on the writer front definitely Greta Gerwig and Aaron Sorkin. I’m sure there are a million more, but those are the first that come to mind.

Q:Your film was set in a single location (an apt), what’s the challenges you faced in filming in one confined space like that? On the flip side, what are the main biggest strength?

The biggest challenge of a single location film is finding ways to keep the location feeling fresh. Luckily the loft we filmed in had a few distinct areas, such as the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. This allowed us several options for us to block out the scenes in. It was also important to keep our characters moving around the space so that the audience doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

The biggest benefit of a single location though is saving on time and budget.  Once we “moved in” to the space we were able to stay put for the two days it took to film.  We didn’t have to worry about loading out and loading in to another location.  Using a single location also brings a theatrical quality to the film. It’s a script that could easily be adapted to the stage.

Anna & Larissa in between takes

Q: I love your three all-female cast. Would you tell us a bit about the casting process? Is it especially tricky since they’re playing sisters?

Top left: Rachel, Larissa & Anna on set | Top right: Filming the lead actress Rachel Weber

The casting process for this film was remarkably simple. I was familiar with the work of Rachel, Larissa, and Anna and knew instantly that they would work well as sisters. From our first pre-production meeting, it was obvious that the three of them shared a rare bond that was going to translate well to the screen. I was more interested in finding three performers that shared chemistry than three performers that looked like sisters. For me it was all about creating a believable relationship and rapport between these characters and Rachel, Larissa, and Anna were an essential part of that process.


This Is Home is screening on
Wednesday May 30th at 7:30 PM

Many filmmakers, cast and crew will be present representing their films and answering your questions.

6:30pm – Red Carpet Interviews and Photos
7:30pm – Screening
9:00pm – Q&A

Selected films include:

  • The Great White Storm – Directed by Jon Thomas
  • Deep Cover – Directed by Keith Langsdorf
  • Bite the Bullet – Directed by Ryan Huang
  • This is Home – Directed by Jason Schumacher
  • Classic.Becky.Party – Directed by John J. Kaiser
  • The Burial Plot – Directed by Chris Fletcher
  • Zomburbia – Directed by Nathan Wold
  • 2Bullets – Directed by Brandi Harkonen
$10 Earlybird*
$12 At the Door

*TCFF MEMBERS RECEIVE FREE ADMISSION!

Get your tickets! »


John is a Minneapolis, MN based screenwriter and film director and co-founder of CutJaw Film Co. His directorial debut, Bobby’s Run Off, premiered at the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2016 and has since screened in multiple film festivals and featured on filmshortage.com.

In 2017, John was awarded a Jerome Foundation Artist Grant in support of his first feature length film Only Dance Can Save Us. Slated to begin production in 2018, aiming for a 2019 release. CutJaw Film Co. is currently working on a sci-fi thriller feature film Dark Cloud, also scheduled to be released next year.


Thanks John for chatting with us!

Short Film Spotlight: ‘This Is Home’ + Q&A with writer/director Jason P. Schumacher

Going into its ninth year, Twin Cities Film Fest is launching a brand new initiative in its INSIDER SERIES program! As a first-time writer/producer who just made my first short film last year, I’m thrilled to see short filmmakers getting a platform to showcase their work. One of the eight outstanding short narrative films screening in TCFF’s first MN Shorts Showcase is a drama made by Jason P. Schumacher, whom many of you might know as the director behind Hearts Want.

Check out my Q&A with the MN-based filmmaker (who also directed the documentary Beyond the Thrill that’s screened at TCFF in 2016):

A coming-of age-story about a young boy realizing that his parents are alcoholics.

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Q: You’ve said that this is a personal film for you. Would you elaborate on that? Was it based on true events?

My co-writer, Jesse Frankson, and I have known each other since elementary school but never really realized we had similar experiences in our upbringing, when it came to our proximity to alcoholism. The film is a work of fiction, but it includes inspiration from things that happened to one or both of us, or things we’d heard from peers with similar experiences.

I’d also looked at the “Laundry List” created by the organization Adult Children of Alcoholics.  Those who grow up around alcoholics often share similar traits with one another; feelings of guilt and abandonment, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, suppressing emotions, and also a tendency to also engage in addictive behaviors.  In “This is Home”, the young boy is in the early stages of developing and showing these traits, as he begins to realize more and more that his parents are alcoholics.

Q: The film had a child actor (who was about 10 at the time of shoot), who’s terrific in the role. What was the biggest challenge(s) working with a young talent?

Honestly, we didn’t really treat Will Hugo too differently from the adult actors. Working with any actor, it is all about building trust – letting them know that you trust them and earning their trust. The first day of filming was the scene in the river and successfully getting everyone through a logistically challenging and uncomfortable scene like can really be a bonding experiences for the whole cast and crew. The river was also two and half hours a way, so we got to talk on the way with Will and his mom and build rapport and get to know one another more. Will is very involved in various activities in his own life and has great supportive community around him (and siblings too), so we asked him to imagine how different his life might be if he didn’t have those things, which helped him imagine the feelings of the character more.

Jason with Will on set

We’d often talk him through what his character’s feelings are at each moment. He’s a sharp kid and we threw a lot at him. The rest of the cast was really great at working with him too. He was a little shy at first, but by the end he was cracking jokes with everybody, like, “Excuse me, excuse me – lead actor coming through!”

Q: Can you tell me a bit about casting? I recognize the taxi driver was the same actor who played the ringmaster in your other short, Sad Clown.

Even though Darrin Shaughnessy is incredible in Sad Clown, we still made him audition! He’s great at playing characters that seem a little surly but are still sympathetic. When his character enters the bar to pick up the drunks, his face is worth a thousand words. We’ve all been there. We did a pretty extensive casting actually. We had two days with long casting sessions and then a call-back. We knew the film would live or die by the casting.

We needed actors that played the actors as real people, without too many preconceived judgements. And also actors that we could believe were a family. With the wrong casting or performances it could play like a PSA or a melodrama and we didn’t want that. It was very a delicate.

Megan Kelly Hubbell, Sean Dooley (who played the parents) and Will really stood out as the right people to play the family in the film. They just connected with the material. Megan’s audition was one of the best I’ve ever seen for anything. We actually saw a lot of great local talent and instead of performing a monologue, we asked them to tell a story about drinking or being around drinking. We heard some pretty wild stories! The co-writer of the film also appears in the film as Dan, their annoying drinking buddy.

Q: There is an extensive river tubing scene which I’d imagine must’ve been pretty tough to shoot. Would you share about shooting that scene and the toughest part about that particular shoot?

We filmed at a river on a relative’s property that I go tubing on every summer. Tubing down the river each year always felt like one of the most cinematic things I could imagine and I’d never seen tubing down a river in a film before. It became this perfect metaphor in the center of the film, this family drifting somewhat aimlessly together.

On the day we filmed, it was cold! Maybe 62 degrees, so who knows what the temperature of the water was? And it occasionally drizzled ice cold rain on us. We did a lot of the filming from a canoe that we managed to secure the camera and the tripod in. Luckily we didn’t tip. The director of photography (Max Sjöberg), myself, and the boom operator were in the canoe, simultaneously trying to steer it and capture the scene. There were a couple times where a branch almost knocked the camera in the water. It also was a challenge to get our canoe and camera lined up with the actors as the river moved us around. It was the first day of filming, so I was worried the actors would stop talking to me after I stuck them in a cold river all day. But I think it was a good bonding experience for everybody. Despite being uncomfortable, it was a really fun day. It was also the lead actor’s first time tubing.

Q: Lastly, what would you like the audience to take away from your film?

The film isn’t a PSA.  I don’t want to spell out a message for anyone, but I will say that alcoholism and low income families are rarely show this way in cinema, yet this situation is so common.  A loving family where the disruption of alcohol chips away at them.  The film a vignette, a glimpse into the lives of others, but for many who’ve seen it, it is a reflection of something they are all too familiar with.

That’s a wrap!

Check out the filmmaking journey of This Is Home


Thanks Jason for chatting with me!

TCFF Insider Series: NOBODY’S SON short film & my interview w/ filmmaker Brian Austin

It’s time for another Twin Cities Film Fest INSIDER SERIES event! One of the perks of being a member of TCFF is you get to see various indie films on the big screen AND also get to partake in the Q&A with the filmmakers afterwards.

This February, TCFF is showcasing a dramatic short filmed in Ely, a beautiful town in the Boundary Waters area in Northern Minnesota. Thanks to TCFF’s managing director Bill Cooper and filmmaker Molly Katagiri, who worked as script supervisor on the film, for arranging the interview with writer/director Brian Austin.

Synopsis:

Dillon (Jared Ivers) has been moved again. A familiar life of being passed from one household to the next, but this time it’s much worse. Dillon struggles with speaking up, in order to expose his abuser. He reaches out to any adult that may hear ; but will anyone really listen?

This event will take place on
Monday, Feb. 19 7:30PM*
SHOWPLACE ICON THEATRES

1625 West End Blvd
St. Louis Park, MN 55416

GET TICKETS

RUSH LINE tickets are still available, be sure to arrive early!

What’s the inspiration for this film? Is there something personal in the story in any way?

I went through a terrible upbringing and I wanted to relive it and put it on screen.

Tell me a bit about your creative process. Did you write the script? If so, how long did it take you to write it and how did Nobody’s Son project come together?

I am a somewhat good writer and with my other writers Charles Dutka and Gerald Dahling, I composed a very good script that I needed to make as a film. I wrote the script myself with Gerald Dahling for LA Film School for my Associates in Film in LA, California Hollywood.2 I had to take two script writing classes and my first script my teacher didn’t like and I only had a few days to finish the second one so I came up with my childhood experiences growing up because it was easy to remember those trying days and I wanted to have a interesting and compelling story to tell.

Would you tell me a bit about filming in Ely? I believe you went to school in that town?

I decided to make the film where the events happened initially… I knew it would be more expensive but money was no big deal.  I went to Ely Elementary school till 2nd grade then moved to a nearby town .. my experiences in ely were mostly bad.. especially since I was raised by my cousin and her husband.. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.. and it was a very difficult childhood.. the only thing that helped me escape mentally was baseball. I turned out to be a great baseball player (pitcher) at a young age and that was my love.

How long was principal photography? What’s the biggest challenges for you as an indie filmmaker?

It took 9 days to shoot .. we were up by 5 and stopped around 1 or 2 in the morning.. the biggest challenge was to feel confident in my abilities as a director.. I was relying on a Assistant Director for too much of the shoot because I didn’t believe I could do some of the things necessary to make a quality movie. As I progressed through the days, I decided to fire the AD and work by myself and my DP and script writer to help come up with he shot lists for the next day. I felt very comfortable directing after I fired that AD… ha ha 🙂

Brian with lead actor Jared Ivers who played Dillon

Lastly, what’s next for you? Specifically in regards to Nobody’s Son, or in general about your filmmaking career?

I am making a feature finally.. It will most likely be filmed in LA and should take a few months to shoot.. it will be a very expensive film to make but sometimes you can’t skimp on quality and need to pay for what you get in the movie industry.  I am still trying to pitch Nobody’s Son as a series on TV or Netflix.. We have been with my script writers.. writing several episodes of the tv series already and plan on pitching it soon as a pilot first for tv.

Molly and Brian on the set of NOBODY’S SON

Thanks Brian for taking the time to chat w/ me!


GET TICKETS to Nobody’s Son screening

RUSH LINE tickets are still available, be sure to arrive early!

*6:30pm Reception | 7pm Red Carpet Interviews/Photos
7:30pm Film Screening | 8:15pm Post Film Q&A


TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: FLORA + Interview with writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic

One of my favorite film genres is sci-fi mystery. It’s also a genre indie filmmakers have thrived at, which includes some of my favorites such as Never Let Me Go (2012), The Machine (2014), Ex Machina (2015), and one of my faves that screened at Twin Cities Film Fest in 2014, Time Lapse.

One of the most intriguing films that played at TCFF this year is a feature film debut by Canadian filmmaker Sasha Louis Vukovic. I had the pleasure of meeting Sasha as well as lead actress Teresa Marie Doran briefly during the film fest, but we didn’t get to connect for the interview until after.

Thanks to FC blogger Holly Peterson for the review and interview questions!

In the summer of 1929 -at the end of the golden age of exploration- an expedition of Ivy League University Botanists enter an uncharted forest on the North American frontier. Tasked to study the native flora, the students unearth a deadly organism and are soon in a fight with nature itself, where they must use their limited resources to understand, survive and escape the wild and terrifying forest that surrounds them.

FlixChatter review (courtesy of Holly Peterson):

A misunderstood villain is not a new idea. Excessive violence perpetrated at the hands of a gentle being goes back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the 1800s and I am sure I could come up with an earlier example if I weren’t so gosh darn tired right now.

Point is, that although audiences are used to villains being villainous, we also understand that sometimes a villain just doesn’t have the right tools to express their good will. Everyone would get along fine if they could just talk out whatever is bothering them.

But what happens when a dealer of death, a perpetrator of violence, is not just misunderstood, but completely oblivious? What if it isn’t even sentient?

That’s the story Flora chooses to explore.

A group of intrepid young scientists treks out to a secluded forest to study it, only to find that their point of contact has gone missing. As the scientists try to unravel the mystery of this disappearance, they also begin to study the forest, which they gradually realize is more dangerous than they anticipated. Flora builds a sense of creeping dread with an intense score and several one-off scenes of tempers flaring and traps being set that you can’t help but expect to snap whenever the score begins to build again.

My one quibble with the film is that it wants its audience to see that it is diverse and doesn’t trust us to notice without calling it to our attention. This is problematic because it really isn’t that diverse to begin with. Half of the characters are white males. The Asian character goes off on a weird, unnecessary tangent about his heritage. One of the female characters has a really awful emotional speech about how she’s “just a nurse” because “they” wouldn’t let her study. The other female character doesn’t even get to tell her own story – it is told by a man behind her back and is an annoying soapbox moment about how talented and unappreciated she is because other people in her field cannot see beyond her gender. There is nothing wrong with a character facing adversity because of their gender or their race, but when six people are stranded in a forest, that is probably the adversity we should focus on.

Of course, there were a couple “DON’T GO INTO THE DARK CREEPY HOUSE BY YOURSELF” variety moments, but I think that’s kind of par for the course as far as horror/suspense goes. Humans don’t always use their best judgment and for the most part I thought the “what are you thinking!?” moments felt pretty organic.

The actors’ performances are solid and it is a compelling experience to watch a group of people fight for their lives without fighting against anything. Definitely worth a watch!

*images courtesy of IMDb

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Sasha Louis Vukovic is a filmmaker from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A graduate of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts, in Chicago, Illinois; his 2017 debut feature, Flora, won Best Feature Film at the London International Science Fiction Film Festival, and Best Original Screenplay at the Amsterdam International Film Festival.

FLORA’s DP Eric Irvin and director Sasha Vukovic on set

Q: Where did the idea for the story come from?

The idea for the story came from my personal lack of knowledge about my ecosystem. I was amazed by how little I knew or understood about the Flora that surrounded and interacted with me everyday. So many people come and go through life subsisting and relying on Flora with very little thought of the life of those organisms. I was also fascinated with creating a non-malicious antagonist. A villain with no villainy. Something beautiful and strong.

Q: What was it like shooting a period piece on a budget?

It was excellent fun. And actually a great creative box within which to imagine and create. Every element of the script was written with budget/period in mind. So I actually found it to be quite an interesting puzzle. The period was far more boon than bane.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.

Q: What is it like writing a script about / acting against a non sentient “villain”?

Again, a wonderful challenge. Creating action sequences in which characters are ostensibly running from a stationary pursuer was intersting.

A lot of the film focuses on the eeriness of how silent the forest is, coupled with the mystery of what befell the past humans who inhabited it. That way, suggestion and ambiguity does a great job at allowing the audience to build up a monster in their heads.

Then, the key is creating a believably toxic environment, from which there is an immediate need to escape. Think about the urgency that befalls people during an earthquake or hurricane. Flora is about non-symbiosis, about what happens if we have to run from nature.

Teresa Marie Doran and Dan Lin on the set of FLORA

Q: How did you find your composer?

Our composer Nathan Prillaman is incredible. He was introduced to me by one of our lead actors/executive producers Dan Lin.

Nathan and Dan went to school together as kids and right around the time that we were hunting for our Composer, they ran into one another -for the first time in years- at a dim sum restaurant. It was fantastic luck, and lead to a great creative partnership.


Thanks Sasha for talking to us about your film!

For more info about the making of the film,
check out this article from Sound & Picture magazine:

Check out this behind-the-scenes video of FLORA:

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: DARCY + Interview with filmmakers Heidi Philipsen-Meissner & Jon Russell Cring

I’ve mentioned several times that my favorite parts about covering Twin Cities Film Fest is about discovering new films, filmmakers and talents. Well, one of my favorite discoveries in all three fronts comes courtesy of this coming-of-age drama, DARCY.

Gus Birney, the young starlet of TV’s “The Mist” (based on a story by Stephen King) is making her feature film debut in the independent narrative feature DARCY. DARCY marks the first narrative feature film debut for co-directors Heidi Philipsen-Meissner and Jon Russell Cring. In co-directing DARCY, both John and Heidi made it a priority to consider both gender viewpoints when interpreting the script and its characters’ behaviors, another factor not lost by the film’s cast. Most of the production’s crew was carried by women below and above the line. The film’s ensemble cast includes: Johnathan Tchaikovsky (“Keep The Change”), Paulina Singer (“The Intern”), David Thornton (“The Notebook”) and Bernadette Quigley (TV’s “Mr. Robot”). The 17-year-old newcomer is the daughter of veteran New York actors Reed Birney (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and Constance Shulman (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”).

My review of the film:

Billed as “A girl’s awakening in the sunlight of harsh reality,” DARCY is a coming-of-age tale about an innocent teenage girl living with her parents in a seedy motel on the edge town who meets a stranger that changes her world.

The film presented the contrast between the unwholesome surrounding of her family business and Darcy’s innocence and being so sexually ‘green.’ Casting is so important in any film, but especially a film like this where it hinges on the believability of the protagonist. Fortunately Gus Birney did a fine job and you’re immediately taken with her as she attempts to navigate her life without much guidance from her parents. We see the world through Darcy’s eyes, and frankly in this world there’s really no good role model for a young woman. Even her mother at times behaves inappropriately with seductive male costumers coming to her motel. One thing her mom said to her is one every teen should take to heart however… “Don’t be in such a rush to be grown up. It’s not what you think it’ll be.”

The film gets more interesting with the arrival of a stranger… a brooding young writer Luke whom Darcy takes an immediate liking to. I like the moment of their meet-up, innocently enough when she was working the front desk and he came down to borrow a pencil sharpener. The chemistry between the two leads, Birney and Johnathan Tchaikovsky, is palpable. It’s fun to watch them being drawn to each other but each hesitate to get too close. The film takes its time to reveal just what’s really going on with Luke, which adds to the mystery.

Sustaining the motel is the practice of taking in occupants who have until only recently been incarcerated, an arrangement that Darcy’s parents have arranged with the Department of Corrections for a price. Naturally there are unsavory scenes in this seedy operation, but they’re not gratuitous. I have to say I’m not fond of those scenes but they’re there to serve a purpose, to fully understand the world Darcy lives in. Kudos to co-director Heidi Philipsen-Meissner who had to wear multiple hats as a performer as well in the role of Toni. I also think the scenes between Darcy and Luke, the heart of the story, is beautifully-shot and acted.

The film takes place over one Summer. It’s an honest, realistic portrait of an innocent young woman on the brink of adulthood. Don’t expect a neat resolution tied with a big red bow, because often times, life just doesn’t turn out that way either.

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Q: Congrats on your debut feature film! What’s the inspiration behind this project and how much of the story was inspired by real life?

JON: I think when you start from real life and then expand upon it you can find a really cool alchemy in writing. I lived in a motel for over a year and my wife and co-writer has brought a lot of her personal family experiences. Then you stop judging your characters and see where they take you.

Q: Looks like you changed the name from This Is Nowhere to Darcy, what’s the reasoning for the title change?

HEIDI: I think it was just part of our journey along the way. When I started making this first feature, it was with the idea of making it for a super micro budget on a weekend with friends in the biz… and, thus, the title THIS IS NOWHERE felt especially real… almost like a rallying cry… and had to do with the location of where our main character, Darcy, lived and the place that she was in the world: Nowhere. But as the journey of making this film continued, and I worked with one of my mentors Larry Jackson (Mystic Pizza) and Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) in getting it out there to test audiences prior to completing the final edit, it became evident that the title THIS IS NOWHERE, did not fully encompass the center of the story. Darcy may have felt like she was “nowhere,” and we wanted to take the audiences on that journey through “nowhere,” but, truly, in the end, it was about DARCY… this girl on the cusp of womanhood, who would most definitely not stay “nowhere” in her life.

Gus Birney as Darcy

Q: What makes DARCY different than other coming-of-age films or those dealing with youth growing up?

JON: I grew up on great coming of age films but there always seemed to be this escapism of trying to create your own world outside of adult influence. Sort of the Charlie Brown syndrome. My experience growing up is that your life and decisions are dominated by those older than you. Everybody in this film is trying to get by, but it all comes from a self-centered place. That tends to lead to dark conclusions. Darcy isn’t a simple story, but neither is life.

HEIDI: The majority of coming-of-age that I have seen, i.e. Stand By Me, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Anne of Green Gables…. Have either been more about the coming of a young male’s life, or very rose-colored and about the coming-of-age about a young female as directed, editing and created by a male. Those are very different eyes and things you focus on… the male gaze versus the female gaze. And, honestly, in many ways, I often most thought about the story of “Lolita,” only we’ve completely turned Lolita on its head and made it about seeing the world through Lolita’s eyes if we could.
Further, this film does not steer clear of those unfortunate experiences that youth sometimes witnesses when the responsible adult is nowhere to be found. (If anything, it’s a wake-up call to our society that we are not connecting to our young ones and losing our sense of connection to those in our communities who don’t necessarily “fit in.”)

Many films try to do the opposite – pretend that all is perfect in the world in spite of life’s hardships. But this one looks at the resiliency of a girl who refuses to be a passive bystander in her own life, even though she has to behave like one to keep the adults in her world from getting on her case even more.

On the set of Darcy with Gus Birney

Q: How did you end up collaborating together as directors and what has the experience been like?

JON: We admired each other’s singular creative projects so collaboration made sense. It also is a story that needs multiple voices, male and female, to tell it. It has been a fabulous process.

HEIDI: In what the big film industry meccas of NYC and LA consider “nowhere” – upstate NY – Jon and I saw talent in each other and the drive and passion to want to do more. Though we are both Type A personalities in our own ways, we found that the fact that we were bringing two different genders together as directors to create the fully equal perspective in our film made the collaboration all the more exciting, fulfilling and eye-opening, while allowing both of our voices to be heard.

Q: Heidi, you also had a supporting role in the film. How does acting in the film help you tell the story as a filmmaker?

HEIDI: When you get into the skin of one of a complex character like, TONI, who is, in effect, both a prostitute, but also a mother and wife, you have to do a lot of research grounded in reality to understand her. You just get so much closer to the creative, evolutionary process of exploring the emotions, the forces driving her, as well as what is holding her back.

You can’t fake those emotions – at least, I can’t. And understanding TONI –who was, in essence, a “Darcy” without a safety net who never left “nowhere,” but fell in through hard times, sex abuse, violence, drug use, probably mental illness, desperation and, ultimately, only had one thing keeping her going: the love for her child, Peanut—was a huge part of unlocking the key to the rest of the characters for me as a director.

Heidi Philipsen as Toni

When I act and direct, this experience does two things for me: First, it keeps me grounded in what my fellow actors have to go through and ensures that I respect their process (because I am going through the same thing), it bonds me closer to them, and, second, it gets my head in the game as a director as to what the story is all about… grounding me in the truth of the imaginary circumstances.

And – okay, I lied – there are three reasons – lastly, it enables me to do something with all of that emotion and energy I am processing as a director. When you are a director, it is more of an analytical process than emotional… and I love being able to go through the full journey to bond with my fellow actors, while steering the “directorial ship” as well.

Q: I’m really drawn by the relationship between Darcy and Luke. Could you tell us a bit about casting Gus and Johnathan specifically?

HEIDI: First off, I have to give props to our Casting Director Caroline Sinclair – I met her while coordinating and working with her on several features prior to producing and directing my own and I never dreamed that she would say “yes.” But when I approached her with the script, she loved it from the beginning and was one of my biggest supporters as both a producer and director.

Caroline is the one who said, “I think you REALLY have a special script, here. Don’t rush this. Give it time and when you are ready, let’s cast it with some great actors.” And she did just that.

Finding “Darcy,” was no easy task. She had to be able to portray that very special age of 15… you know, we are different, much different, developmentally at 15 than we are… even a year later..

And even when my Executive Producer Kathryn McDermott was urging me, “Don’t cast a child. It’ll be brutal on our schedule, our budget and the expectations of working with child labor laws,” I couldn’t help but see something in Gus that we hadn’t seen in the 18-year-olds coming in. It was that naïve innocence, but also that “I’m becoming an adult and I will conquer the world!”

We girls do think that way – you know—until, unfortunately, as we get older and we are told that we are only special in how we help to define a man in our lives.

I also want to give props to Tracy Nicole Cring… she is the Co-Writer, Director of Photography and Muse of Darcy. I believe, deep down, that she is the original Darcy… Tracy, Jon and I had gone over and over in our creative visualization of art works and styles of the way we saw Darcy.

And so, when Gus walked in, tall, lanky, a bit like a dear-in-headlights, on the one hand, somehow evoking an old English painting, like John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, yet fully modern with an undercurrent of tough-girl faith in her dreams, maybe it was subconscious from all the prep we had done, but something just “clicked.” That was it. She WAS Darcy.

As an aside, Kathryn McDermott, who teaches Production Management at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and was my teacher and mentor in film school, tells me that she now has a “caveat” when it comes to teaching her students. The case of Gus Birney and “Darcy” is the only one, she says, where it went “right;” otherwise, she still advises against hiring children on your first feature on a low budget.

In the case of Johnathan Tchaikovsky, who plays “Luke,” that was truly magically, as well. We had done several castings by that time and were, originally, looking for a character with a southern accent, most likely from Tennessee, and the rest of the look – i.e. cowboy hat, boots, torn jeans….

And then, right at the very end, one of the last to be seen, in walks this guy from the Bronx, who reminded me of a young Robert DeNiro, yet had something very zen like Richard Gere in “A Master and a Gentleman.” I’ve never experienced it until that day – this actor literally came in and TOOK that role. He owned it. There was no one else who could do it or WANTED it as much as he did.

And I’m happy to report that both actors were so committed from day ONE. They never backed down or gave us any reason to regret casting them.

JON: Gus Birney is a star. When she came in we knew there was something truly special there. Jonathan reminds of me of a young Brando and their chemistry together was palpable. These characters are struggling with appetites and they break your heart. Their relationship is complicated and evolves and I am also struck by the depth these actors brought.

Q: The nature photography is really beautiful, it’s as if it’s a deliberate juxtaposition to the seedy motel setting. Where’s the filming location?

HEIDI: Again, that was a deliberate action. In partnering with Tracy, our Director of Photography, and all of the creative visuals that we had accumulated to emulate a certain look, we came up with this idea of making the interiors feel so uninviting, cramped, crowded, dreary, lonely, even a bit frightening… while the outdoors would be the opposite: inviting, free, full of life, hope, peace of mind. I have to give kudos to the entire team for making that happen.

We shot the film on location at the Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, NY and in downtown Catskill, NY. Gorgeous – gorgeous countryside there.

JON: We shot in the Catskill region of New York. Tracy Cring as Cinematographer wanted that feeling of two worlds. Where Darcy lives is so completely different from the beauty once you exit the motel. The grass is definitely greener outside.

Q: Lastly, this film is brutally honest and doesn’t have a perfect ending tied w/ a big red bow. What is the main thing you like people to take away from the film?

HEIDI: Not sure if you read my blog in the Huffington Post this past week, but that pretty much sums it up. For me, as a women director, I did not want a “happy bow” ending – and that’s certainly not what Jon and Tracy wrote as co-writers.
As an aside, I will admit that we DID try it after being advised from outside sources – re-edited the entire ending and made it “happy,” –but it didn’t work; our test audiences were too smart and knew that it just didn’t feel right. They rejected it.

And these days, in the wake of the Weinstein sexual harassment cases, I guess you could call it a disruptive innovation statement very true to current times: We women are not going to pretend that our world is rosy when it is not. And the men who respect and love us don’t want us to. At some point, something needs to be said about how we are forced to keep a smile on our face while enduring harassment and abuse and discrimination. But that means facing the flaws and the struggle NOW.

Darcy’s future may very well be rosy – but not just yet.

JON: I really believe it’s a message of empathy. Caring is a political act nowadays. When you live with these extremely flawed people I hope you can feel something for someone who is struggling. It’s easy to box people up and say this is all they will ever be. This film turns those conventions around. As far as the ending, I find tragedy doesn’t come obviously. We survive our own mistakes.


It was so much fun meeting Heidi, Jon and Johnathan at their hotel. It’s palpable Heidi and John had an effortless rapport as they could practically finish each other’s sentences. As we’re about to wrap up on our interview, Johnathan arrived from the airport! What a lovely bunch, definitely one of the highlights covering TCFF for me this year.

Thanks Heidi & Jon for chatting with me!

For more info about the film, visit
darcymovie.com