Interview with Adam Davis

What inspired you to break into indie filmmaking?

– Strangely enough, the TV show “Jackass.” I sort of fell in love with being creative in front of and behind the camera when my high school friends and I made our own prank and stunt videos. This was the days before YouTube even existed, so we had to make DVDs of our movies and sell them to people. That was sort of the first dip into it the whole process of starting with an idea, writing a script, filming it, editing it and distributing it. But with people falling into bushes. It was when I was in college where I made my first short narrative film for a film festival Drake University was putting on. I wrote and directed it, my friends and I shot it and it was the absolute most fun I had doing any type of work. It felt so right to be on set and directing, like I was always meant to do it. Since then, I’ve been chasing that feeling and making it happen as often as I can, which is definitely tough with a day job.

Who are some of your greatest influences when it comes to filmmaking?- Quentin Tarantino, first and foremost. I learned so much about the craft through watching his films. Robert Rodriguez was a big inspiration and the reason I chose not to go film school when I caught the filmmaking bug freshman year of college. He taught himself filmmaking, so I did as well. Christopher Nolan is also a big inspiration, especially for how interesting and fresh his ideas are. Most recently, Chloé Zhao inspired the creation of my latest short film, “Losing Sight.” I watched “The Rider,” which was a micro budget feature film, much like my micro budget feature debut, “Broken Ceiling,” and I was blown away at her use of natural lighting and non-professional actors. It harkened back to my college days of shooting with no lighting and with non-trained actors, but she was someone who was actually successful doing it! It really lit a fire under me to get back behind the camera, which I hadn’t done since 2015, when I shot both “Broken Ceiling” and my Kickstarter-funded short, “No Touching.”  

You’re hardly the first person we’ve interviewed that’s listed Tarantino as a major inspiration. Why do you think he is so appealing to indie filmmakers?

I think Tarantino is so appealing because he was such a fiercely original voice when he started making films, and to a budding filmmaker, you’re attracted to that because you feel like you have as personal, as distinct a voice inside you. That may or may not be true, but when you’re young, you want to disrupt and shock the world, at least I did, and that’s exactly what Tarantino did in Hollywood. The number of crime drama and non-linear storytelling copycats that followed Pulp Fiction in the 90s were very numerous. He made a big splash, and we all want to do the same. But a talent like his is truly once-in-a-generation, so luckily I got over my phase of modeling my films like Tarantino’s. We each have to find our own voice and let go of the hero worship a bit, in order to be the best version of our selves, creative and otherwise, we can be.

What do you think makes your film different from others?

– The fact that it’s a micro budget feature set in 1 location and shot in 4 days. I don’t know a lot of filmmakers who have done that, not to toot my own horn, but because they’re probably smarter than me and know that it’s insane to do that. As a first-time feature director, your hope is that it comes out serviceable at the least, and I’m just proud that it came out looking like a real movie. To me, the film is successful because the audience can essentially sit in tension-filled room with these four characters for 90 minutes and not get bored. That was my biggest challenge throughout the entire process.

Four days is a very short schedule, how did you overcome the challenge of having such a limited amount of time to film? (It didn’t show at all by the way)

– I did two key things that allowed us to shoot so quickly. I only had a budget for 4 days as I self-funded the movie, and I knew one of the ways to accomplish such a quick production would be to shoot with only natural lighting. I really wanted the aesthetic of the film to be claustrophobic and make the audience feel like they’re stuck in the office with the characters, so we used the natural fluorescents of the office location, which lent the film a very depressing, stifling feel. I knew I’d only be able to give the actors a couple takes, so we rehearsed for two weeks straight before we ever rolled camera. That’s where we did the fun exploratory work so that on the day, they’d be ready to go. You also need to know what you want. There’s no time to be wishy-washy or uncertain about decisions. You have to act on instinct and be decisive.

How is it different working with a performer that is already established in Hollywood versus one who you may have found through the indie film community?

– It’s incredibly intimidating to work with an established Hollywood actor, to be honest. These are people who have worked with fantastic, visionary directors, and as a first-timer it takes a lot of self-talk and self-belief to get yourself to trust you’re good enough to give them direction. But then you realize that they’re just people, they’re artists, and they want direction, they want to creatively collaborate with you. But still, when you’re working with Zoe Bell, who’s worked with Quentin Tarantino, or Doug Jones, who’s worked with Guillermo Del Toro, it’s intimidating in the beginning. That’s not to say indie actors can’t be intimidating as well. Karan Kendrick and Regen Wilson from “Broken Ceiling” are great examples because although they’re not widely known yet, they’re so talented that you just hope you can keep up with all the interesting choices they’re giving you.  

How did you go about finding all the people needed for your cast and crew?

For Broken Ceiling, I started casting on my own. Regen Wilson was the first person I found through LA Casting, I think it was. I then brought on a casting director to fill out the rest of the roles. For crew, I contacted people through Production Hub as well as got referrals from friends.

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of making a film?

I’m torn on this. It’s amazing to have the finished piece in your hands, it’s amazing to actually, finally show the film to people. But I think the most rewarding part is the moment that comes when you’re just finished shooting. When all the cast and crew have gone home, you’re wrapping your things out and you get that moment alone where it hits you. You did it. You shot a film. That moment is so precious, so gratifying, so fulfilling, that it’s almost worth it to make films just for that moment.

Which job in film production do you feel most comfortable inhabiting?

Directing. Writing is tough, but fun when you’ve hit on a creative flow. Unless you have a writing partner, you’re pretty alone. Even if you have a writing partner, you’re not necessarily writing in the same room. But directing, when you get on set, start meeting new crew members and old friends and begin the creative work on telling a story? That’s where I’m most comfortable, most alive and most me. 

What advice would you give to someone making their first film?

– To just make it at all costs. Don’t hold yourself back if you think the script isn’t perfect, or if the actors aren’t what you envisioned, or if you don’t have a large crew. You just have to make the first one so you can screw up, fail and learn from it. Don’t spend a ton of money or your first one, don’t spend any if you can help it, because your first one won’t set the world on fire. I don’t mean that to sound harsh, but it just won’t. I used to read movie sights and filmmaking blogs a lot, and I would get so frustrated when I read a story about a 24-year-old who made their first feature and it won the grand jury prize at Sundance or something. I always thought that was gonna be me, and it wasn’t. I’m 34 and still grinding away, trying to make filmmaking my day job. But it was disheartening to hear these stories at the top-level and not hear about the people who have been working for 15 years and are only just getting their shot. That person will likely be you, if you don’t allow yourself to give up. But you gotta get the reps in. You gotta shoot, write, work with actors, edit, do it all, as much as possible so that you can be ready for the big time as soon as you can be. Get those 10,000 hours in, put in the work, put in the years, so that when the universe and fate is ready to give you the opportunity, you’re ready for it.

What are some differences between making a short film and a feature length film?

– Well, when you make a feature in 4 days, not a ton. You just move a lot faster. But seriously, shooting a feature and a short are practically the same. It takes just as much to work to put a short film together as a feature, the difference is just length of the shoot. So since it’s just as hard to get a short going as a feature, so why not shoot a feature if you can, if you’re ready for it?

If people could have one takeaway from your film, what would you like for it to be?

– That there are obviously still inequalities everywhere in the world, and that we need to do a better job of understanding where someone else comes from and what their story is and struggles may be. Steps outside yourself for a minute, talk to someone you may disagree with, or don’t feel you have anything in common with and see what commonalities exist, because there are definitely more than you may think.

Tell us about the festival circuit

– If I can be super candid, sometimes the festival circuit feels rigged. There are so many festivals out there and so many people submitting films that you never really know if your film, or script, gets seen. A lot of festivals promise a lot to filmmakers, but many can’t deliver the networking connections that are essential to build a sustained filmmaking career. I have a decent amount of laurels on many of my films, but those have never really helped. This may be incorrect or just my experience, but many times it’s felt like the festivals are simply money-making exercises for the founders with no tangible benefit to filmmakers. I’ve experienced this with both script competitions and film festivals alike, so I’ve become much pickier about where to submit. There’s a lot of good literature out there about which festivals are worth your money and time, but you have to know going in that the competition is much fiercer than at upstart festivals. It is a great feeling to watch your film with a crowd, so smaller festivals are good for that (unless only 4 people come to your screening, which happened to me, then it’s the most depressing feeling ever), but don’t expect a producer or agent to be in the crowd to discover you. I think film festivals should service and help filmmakers, and I wish more of them would do that. Also, if you’re looking to get press on your short film at a bigger festival, good luck. The short film my creative partner and I did, “No Touching,” starring Zoe Bell, Heidi Moneymaker, Jake Busey and Doug Jones played at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. I can’t give the team at Fantasia enough praise as they were amazing and our experience was a high point in our festival run. Fantasia is definitely a place to make lasting connections. However, when we tried to recruit bloggers and reviewers to come to the film and write about it, we were turned down at every turn. There are so many features they need to see and review that they just don’t have the time to watch shorts, so shorts don’t really get the ink they deserve, which is frustrating because a big movie site can really change fortunes for a filmmaker. This is of course just my experience, as I’ve never really had the “lottery luck” or connections to festival programmers that’s sometimes required.

Do you have any projects in mind for the future that you can tell us about?- I’ve recently completed a new short called “Losing Sight” about a man who’s dealing with the reality that he’s going blind. Although I kind of railed on festivals above, I’m still planning on trying the festival circuit with this one. You just can’t escape the pull of “maybe this time…” 🙂

I also have a feature horror script I wrote with my writing partner that will be the next feature we get done. I’m very excited about this one because it’s the best thing we’ve written and is incredibly produce-able. We’re currently sending it around to production companies and are looking for a manager or agent as well, so if anyone out there reading this is one, look me up! 😉

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