Who or what inspired you to break into the filmmaking scene?
Probably the biggest inspiration for me has been seeing other filmmakers making microbudget films that were actually turned out to be pretty good movies despite not having a budget. Favor by Paul Osborne, Blue Ruin by Jeremy Saulnier and the Duplass brothers movies to name a few. Seeing these guys make microbudget films that lacked the bells and whistles that come with higher budgets and relying instead almost exclusively on the strength of the narrative and the actors’ performances was a pivotal moment for me. Seeing movies like “The Puffy Chair” and “Bagheads” got me thinking thoughts like, “Maybe I can do this too?”
How would you describe your directorial style?
I like to rehearse as much as possible with the actors before we get on set. Dark comedy is a tricky genre to pull off and without strong performances, it’s just not going to work so I like to make sure that we are getting the tone right before we shoot. Also, my scripts are pretty heavy with dialogue so it’s helpful for the actors to get lots of rehearsal and prepare almost like they would prepare for a play.
As you said, Dark Comedy is a tricky genre to pull off, how do you make sure you don’t go too far into normal comedy or making the jokes too dark?
I think the biggest part of that is eliminating jokes that exist only for the sake of eliciting laughter but don’t add to the narrative or advancement of the plot. In the development of a dark comedy, some jokes need to be sacrificed at the altar of plot advancement. In a broad comedy, if it’s funny, it stays in the picture.
You’ve got three movies under your belt, how has your role as a director changed or evolved as you’ve gained experience over these projects?
One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that on an understaffed indie film set, anything that can go wrong will go wrong and things that you never imagined going wrong will also go wrong so you have to plan as much as possible. So with that being said, I have become much more neurotic. To control for my neuroticism I no longer try to cram twelve pages into a single day of shooting anymore. It just makes the experience too stressful and completely unenjoyable. Instead I like to cram ten or eleven days of shooting into a single day.
In addition to directing your movies, you’ve also written the scripts for them. How difficult is it to translate your idea for a movie into a script and from there, put it into reality?
There are so many moving parts that all need to come together for a film to work but I would say the two biggest components for the types of films that I make are are the script and the actors’ performances. Without a well crafted story you’re dead in the water before you even start shooting and without the actors to bring it to life it’s going to be a snooze fest. I spend a lot of time with the script, scrutinizing it all the way through rehearsals where i make sure that everything is making sense for the actors. Generally actors are great at detecting things that aren’t working. As far as the acting goes, one of the biggest obstacles for low budget indie films is finding good actors, that are passionate about the project, and that can deliver strong performances that make the story pop. I am pretty lucky to have some incredible actors in my circle of friends that do that in spades.
You praised your actors for “detecting things that aren’t working”. When the production hits one of these moments, how big of an influence is the actors opinion in making a change? How do you deal with conflicting opinions from actors?
Their opinions have a huge influence on me. For instance, one of the major concerns, from the very beginning was that the movie was going to be too wordy since it’s adapted from a play. So before we started rehearsals, I would meet with the lead actor and co-prouducer, James Wirt, to discuss possible cuts. I would show up with huge edits in the script where large chunks of dialogue were cut. and he would say, “we can cut it down even more”. Most of the time he was right.
What filmmakers do you admire, mainstream or independent?
Woody Allen has definitely had the biggest influence on me. I resonate with many of the themes that he likes to explore and generally write in a similar dark comedic, dialogue heavy, tone. I would say that Scorcese is a close second place for me. He is the master of creating incrediblly vivd story worlds. Sydney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher all get consolation prizes.
What are some of your favorite films?
My favorite films are the ones that I can watch a million times and they never get old. Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Groundhog Day and Good Fellas are the ones that are coming to mind now but there are at least five or six others that I can’t recall at the moment. My memory is terrible.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about making their first film?
Only do it if you really feel a deep need to because it requires much more time and energy than you think it will and most of that time will be spent doing extremely mundane tasks in post production. With that being said, it is also incredibly rewarding when you finally finish the film and see it on the big screen touching an audience. I would say to make it as easy on yourself as possible by telling a story that can be told on as low a budget as possible with very few characters and locations and remember to enjoy the process. You probably won’t make enough money doing this to justify being miserable.