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Deep Focus

Cardillo & Keith

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith, creators of the new CW series “Life Sentence.” Starring Lucy Hale, the dramedy tells the story of a young woman who, after living as if she were dying, has to navigate the extreme choices she made upon learning that her terminal cancer has been cured. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss juggling new humans with a new show, why they surrounded themselves with people more talented than themselves, and the reason their partnership works.

TrunkSpace: The series premiere of “Life Sentence” just went down. What emotions were you juggling with as you headed into the final stretch?
Cardillo/Keith: Exhaustion. Joy. Accomplishment. Pride. Fear. Did we mention exhaustion? It’s been a long road to get to the premiere of “Life Sentence”… we had this idea over two years ago and started pitching the show 18 months ago. We then wrote and produced the pilot and the first season all while having and raising newborns (who were born a week apart).
Keith: My daughter was born the day we turned in the studio draft of the pilot. And she took her first steps the day we turned in the studio draft of the finale.
Cardillo: My son followed her up by timing his milestones with the networks drafts. So it’s been a pretty hectic time in our lives, raising a new show and new humans!
Cardillo/Keith: In terms of the fear, it isn’t fear that the show is or isn’t good. That’s subjective. (We’d argue it’s good.) But no matter what you do, some people will think it’s great and others won’t. The fear is mostly… will the show find an audience that really connects with it? We both put our hearts and souls into this show, which required us to spend a lot of time away from our families. So, our hope is that our hard work comes across on screen and that these characters and their stories speak to people as strongly as they do to us. But at this point, that’s out of our hands. And there’s something terrifying and exhilarating about that.

Thankfully, we were blessed with an amazing lead, Lucy Hale, and a wonderful mentor and partner in Bill Lawrence (and immensely supportive spouses who supported us doing this in the first year of our children’s lives)… so… what we’re saying is, it seems like we were given all the tools to succeed and our hope is really just that we didn’t screw it up!

TrunkSpace: As writing/producing partners, you have worked on other series together, including your own creations. Does this one feel different? Does the buzz that’s been building for “Life Sentence” give you a different perspective at this stage in the process?
Cardillo/Keith: It definitely does. Between having someone like Lucy attached and a producer like Bill on board, there are certainly higher hopes for this show at the studio and network level than on our other projects. And it’s nice to have a certain amount of excitement from fans who are eager to see what we’ve all been working on these last 18 months. But, at the end of the day, buzz or not, you’ve got to find an idea you’re passionate about, try your best to surround yourself with people who are more talented than you, and put everything you have into bringing that idea to life. That process never changes, and that’s where the real reward is.

TrunkSpace: Tone is everything when it comes to establishing a series, but it feels like that’s even more important when your main character is battling terminal cancer. How long did you two work on getting the tone down, and how much did your cast have a hand in it becoming a reality?
Cardillo/Keith: There was a lot of discussion about tone on this show. Especially considering that we first conceived of it (and pitched it to the networks) as a ½ hour single-camera comedy. But the more we (and Bill Lawrence and our producer Liza Katzer) talked about it, the more depth we saw in the idea and in exploring not just how this diagnosis affected our lead, but also her entire family. And so, we decided to make some tweaks and try our hand pitching it to CW as an hour dramedy. Once they got on board, the idea continued to evolve. Our first draft had much more of a comedic bent to it than the final pilot (and series) ended up having. As Bill likes to say, if you’d asked us before we started shooting the pilot how many times we thought Lucy Hale was going to cry on screen, we’d have said, “Maybe once,” but our director (Lee Toland Krieger) would have said, “Oh, like a thousand.” In the end, we collaborated and landed at a more reasonable number (somewhere around 10). And that sort of collaboration and evolution continued throughout the first season of the show and helped the show find, we think, a nice balance of humor and heart. That sort of collaboration is one the reasons we both love working in television… and, of course, the actors had a major hand in shaping the tone as well. All the good intentions and well-written lines in the world don’t matter if your cast can’t pull that tone off. What was fun on this show was, we didn’t always know going in what the perfect tone of a given scene would be. So, we’d try a version played for drama, a version played more comedically (thankfully we have a cast that can do both), and then you get to go into the editing room and really shape the scene…

TrunkSpace: From the time that you first put pen to paper on the concept to where you are now, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Life Sentence?”
Cardillo/Keith: Finishing it! Every show starts the season with a big empty white board and there’s nothing that makes our stomach hurt worse. Except maybe taking a multi-vitamin without food (which is seriously gross). Also, as we mentioned, this show was constantly evolving and where this season ends isn’t necessarily where we would have said it ended when we pitched the show. But, we’re really excited about the direction it ended up going in. We feel like it will be a satisfying journey for our audience and Stella, and hopefully, everyone will find some tears and laughter along the way.

TrunkSpace: CW is a network that is known for letting shows find their legs and grow. As creators, is that a comforting thought knowing that your creation will have as good a chance as any at having an audience discover it and hopefully, become emotionally invested?
Cardillo/Keith: Absolutely! Nailed it. This question was easy.

Photo By: Storm Santos

TrunkSpace: You’re both actors in addition to being writers. Does that skill set give you a different perspective on developing characters and scenes? Do you test things out among the two of you to see if the performance side of things will pay off?
Cardillo/Keith: We do. Before we were getting paid to write, we turned Erin’s dining room into our office. We’d write and act things out (often loudly and enthusiastically) to test how scenes would play, much to the chagrin of Erin’s neighbors. Especially when we were working on the pilot of the “Significant Mother” digital series, which was a super raunchy sex comedy. It involved us acting out scenes where one of us was mad at the other for sleeping with our mom, and we had a surprising amount of candid conversations about dildos. Erin’s neighbors definitely gave her weird looks in the stairwell.

TrunkSpace: Was writing always in the cards or was it a part of your careers that came after the fact? Did working as an actor serve as the catalyst for where you both are today?
Cardillo/Keith: Acting was definitely the way both of us got our foot in the door. And it definitely informs our writing process. We pay a lot of attention to the flow and rhythm of dialogue because we know first hand how much easier an actor’s job is when the dialogue falls out of their mouth naturally. In terms of writing, that’s always been in the cards. We’ve both always been interested in telling stories… it’s why we became actors in the first place. And, at the end of the day, whether you’re writing, acting, directing, producing, or editing etc., if you’re working in film, television, or theatre, your job is to tell stories. And, eventually, both of us started to feel like there were stories we wanted to tell that were outside the scope of the characters we could play as actors. So we started writing. Initially on our own, trading feature scripts and giving each other notes. Until we realized that the stories we wanted to tell overlapped and it made sense to tell those stories together.

TrunkSpace: What is it that you have found in each other creatively that makes the partnership work?
Cardillo/Keith: I’m (Rich) really good at getting up early (like 4 a.m.) to crank out drafts and my brain dies by about 3 p.m. Whereas I (Erin) really am happy working away into the wee hours of the night. So it allows us, as a team, to basically work 24/7 if we have to. And it still allows each of us individual time to rest and the ability to work at the times where their creativity is at its peak. We also make each other laugh a lot, which is really important. Especially when you’re about to start shooting an episode in 10 days and you don’t have a script yet… not that we have ever had that happen to us multiple times on multiple episodes of multiple shows that we’ve worked on.

TrunkSpace: You spent time working on “Fuller House” for Netflix in 2016. What did you guys take from that experience that you have carried with you in your careers and to where you are today with a show like “Life Sentence?”
Cardillo/Keith: On “Significant Mother,” we didn’t really have a full writers room because of time and budget constraints, which meant we had never really been in a full writers room with a staff sitting around a table breaking stories. So when that show came and went and our subsequent pilot at CW, “The I Do Crew,” didn’t go, we both thought it was really important that we staff on someone else’s show. So, if we were fortunate enough to get another show, we’d know first hand what it was like to be someone on staff. And we hoped that that perspective would help us learn how to collaborate with our staff in a way that not only made them the most productive, but engaged, creatively fulfilled, and invested in the show. Because at the end of the day, it may say “Created by Erin Cardillo & Richard Keith” but that’s just the beginning. It takes hundreds of people to bring a show to life and keep it alive. And the more you can make everybody feel like this is their show, like they see a little piece of themselves, and that they see their hard work in it, the better the show will be.

Hale in “Life Sentence”

TrunkSpace: Erin, you spent almost 100 episodes playing Esme Vanderheausen on the soap opera “Passions” from 2005 to 2008. Soaps can be such a breakneck environment where you’re sprinting through more pages a day than ever seems conceivable. Did working in that atmosphere sort of prepare you for anything?
Cardillo: It certainly had a boot camp element to it, but the biggest gift of that show was how creative I got to be during that time. Both with the character of Esme (who was an absolute loon) and because the writers let me improv a lot, which was so much fun. But also, because I only worked two to three days a week and we’d shoot my part of an episode out in three to four hours, which meant I actually ended up with a lot of free time on my hands. I wrote my first feature and developed my first TV project during that time. I never would have been able to do that if I’d been going from job to job as an actor and also working a side job to support myself, as a lot of actors have to. It was truly a gift in every sense of the word.

TrunkSpace: Richard, what have you learned in your career as an actor that you try to be mindful of now as an executive producer? Do you think you approach certain aspects of the job differently because of your own experiences in front of the camera?
Keith: Definitely. For me, it’s important to remember to really listen to your cast when they have thoughts or concerns on something that’s happening with their character in any given script. It’s every actor’s job to be an expert on their own character. To protect them. To fight for them. To service them. So, as a writer, you have to be humble and realize that while that character may have started in your mind, it now lives in their body, and while you have dozens of characters to focus on, they only have one which makes them an expert in a way you’ll never be.

TrunkSpace: If someone came to you with a time machine and offered you a chance to glimpse at what your careers will look like 10 years from now, would you take the futuristic peek?
Cardillo/Keith: Tempting, but no. Some of the best things in life happen unexpectedly. Sure, you may have a plan, but if you have an open heart and an open mind and are willing to let go of what you think should happen, we’ve found that things can turn out better than expected. And sometimes worse. But you learn from failure, and if you try to avoid it, you also rob yourself of the chance to grow as an artist and a person. Not to mention the fact that if you know what’s going to happen at the end of Act Five, you could forget to enjoy the ride of getting there.

Life Sentence” airs Wednesdays on The CW.

Featured image by: Storm Santos

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Deep Focus

Jordan Foley & Jonathan Rosenthal

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Jesse Ray Sheps and Michael Kelly in “All Square”/Mill House Motion Pictures

In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Mill House Motion Pictures founders Jordan Foley and Jonathan Rosenthal, whose new film “All Square” is set for its world premiere this Saturday night at SXSW. The moving drama tells the story of John (Michael Kelly), a bookie who befriends Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps), his ex-girlfriend’s son, and schemes to take bets on the boy’s youth league baseball games. The film also stars Josh Lucas, Pamela Adlon, Tom Everett Scott and Yeardley Smith.

We recently sat down with the producing pair to discuss making independent films in the content-binging age, finding the perfect Brian, and why everything is coming up Mill House.

TrunkSpace: There is more content reaching the masses in any given week than ever before. I know it seems counterproductive, but does that actually make it more difficult to get a film made these days? We would think that the more content saturating the market means that each individual project has a steeper hill to climb to capture eyeballs?
Rosenthal: I don’t necessarily think so. Yes, there is more content out there than ever before, but this is largely in part due to the fact that there is a higher demand for content than ever before. You have an audience that now is seeking new entertainment every evening on tens of streaming platforms beyond the once bi-monthly pilgrimage to the movie theater, and what’s more, given this age of connectivity we live in, an audience that is fractured into very informed and opinionated sub-groups. Making films, especially indie films, will always be a steep hill to climb, but I think one fact remains timeless, there will always be a place and market for quality films, and a film’s quality will always speak for itself.
Foley: There’s more content out there, but the quality of content isn’t necessarily increasing. What it does mean, however, is that there are more outlets to distribute content; which is, we believe, a very good thing for independent filmmakers. More distribution channels and more distributors, means a higher demand for a larger amount of quality content.

TrunkSpace: Your film “All Square” is getting a lot of early buzz. From a business standpoint, what is the key to turning that buzz into a profit and finding not only critical success, but commercial success as well?
Foley: The more eyeballs we can get on the film, the better, obviously. Buzz will hopefully translate into interest, and if people are interested enough, they will hopefully be willing to pay to see the movie. Right now, our goal is to get the movie in front of those who can help us to create a positive buzz – the press, the tastemakers and the influencers.
Rosenthal: A good cook never reveals their secret sauce.

TrunkSpace: How did “All Square” first come into your lives? Was it one of those projects that you knew you wanted to be a part of immediately?
Foley: The writer, Timmy Brady, had been a friend of mine for a long time. He originally sent me the script for feedback. Jonathan and I had just formed a production company, and we made an offer to come on board to produce and finance half of the budget. Through Michael Kelly, our producing/financing partners at Paperclip, Yeardley Smith and Ben Cornwell joined shortly thereafter and we were off to the races.

TrunkSpace: The film has an incredibly accomplished cast. As producers, does that make your lives easier when you can sit back and go, “Okay, well performance-wise we have nothing we have to worry about so now we can focus on X, Y and Z.”?
Rosenthal: Film will always be a collaboration and no matter who your cast is there’s always work to be done and hurdles to jump. Working with experienced actors is always reassuring, but I think one thing you learn is that on any set, the energy you bring and how seriously you approach the production is, in return, what you receive from your cast and crew. It’s never safe to assume that because you have one right element that everything will fall into place. A good actor shows up ready to do their part to the best of their ability but that still means you have to, in turn, do the same.
Foley: We were very lucky on this one. We had an incredibly accomplished cast, but we also had an experienced crew (from “House of Cards”) and a seasoned director with a very clear vision for the movie. We had other challenges to overcome, but the cast, crew, script and director were all top notch.

TrunkSpace: TrunkSpace recently featured your young star Jesse Ray Sheps. That is a role that was crucial to the success and believability of your film. How much discussion went into how you were going to cast the part and what was it about Jesse that made everyone confident he was your Brian?
Foley: We went through an extensive casting process when trying to find our Brian. This was the biggest ticket item for us. We attempted to cast locally out of Baltimore, but had no luck. We went national and looked at kids from across the country, including LA & NY… we still had a tough time finding someone that could truly fit the role. Eventually, we brought on Casting Director, Meredith Tucker, who was able to find us two really solid options. John Hyams, our director, flew out to NYC to meet with the two young actors; along with Michael Kelly and writer, Timmy Brady. Once the producers all had a chance to see the tapes, it was a unanimous decision that Jesse was our Brian.

Tom Everett Scott and Michael Kelly in “All Square”/Mill House Motion Pictures

Rosenthal: Casting and working with child actors is always a tricky process. We actually spent nearly two months trying to cast the role of Brian before we found Jesse. I think the hardest part, especially for a film like this one and a young blossoming actors of Jesse’s age range, is we really needed someone who could just be a kid. So often young aspiring stars are stuck looking up the seemingly insurmountable task of what it means to be an actor; a pitfall that all too often leaves kids overacting or taking what we’ve come to call, “The Disney approach.” Between finding a kid with natural athletic abilities and finding one who could just be that kid stuck in that crossroads of childhood and adolescence… let’s just say when Jesse came around it was a simple decision.

TrunkSpace: The film is set to make it’s world premiere at SXSW on March 10 at 7 p.m. at the ZACH Theater. Will you both be there and is a screening of this capacity something you can comfortably sit through or will you white knuckle your way through it until the end?
Rosenthal: We will both be there, and actually for us, this one will be a fun experience, I hope, that we’ll be able to just sit back and enjoy. Not being in official competition and simply being a spotlight premiere affords the luxury of loosening your grip, just taking in the crowd reaction and really celebrating finishing the film, which is always an accomplishment.

TrunkSpace: You have a number of additional projects in the works. Was there anything you took from the “All Square” experience that you’ll apply to those others moving forward? Was there a lesson learned that you don’t want to learn a second time?
Foley: On each film you continue to learn and improve your ability as a producer. We both learned several lessons on “All Square” that we will continue to apply to every movie we produce moving forward. In any scenario, I think we can both agree that we only want to learn a lesson once… if possible.
Rosenthal: I think if there’s not a lesson to be learned from every project you work on then you’re not paying attention. Filmmaking is a learning endeavor that lasts a lifetime. There will always be a “happy dissatisfaction” in any creative process, the moment where you know you could keep refining forever but tell yourself it’s time to hit print, so to speak. If there’s one lesson I can share that we took away from this, I think It would be that we are on the right path and that our model for filmmaking we’ve come up with works and was not just a flash in the pan-type phenomenon.

TrunkSpace: When you guys put together your company, what were the goals? What types of films did you want to make and if we flashed forward 10 years, what would you want the identity of your company to be?
Foley: We met on a lower budget indie film called, “Desolate.” It was there that we realized we were capable of getting a lot of bang for our buck and that we could find ourselves a niche by focusing on similar budget movies. Whether it’s just a few years from now or 10 years from now, our goal is to be the first call on any aspiring filmmakers list of top indie producers. We hope to establish a reputation that Mill House is a team which supports and nurtures young talent and consistently finds ways to bring our films to the best possible release platform for our filmmakers.
Rosenthal: Honestly, and this may sound eye roll worthy, but we set out just to make good films – stimulating films that we could be proud of and would want to watch ourselves again and again. And I think that if in 10 years we can look back at a catalog of films, good films, some that won awards… sure that would be nice… some that had sales above expectations… of course you have to pay to keep the dream alive…  but I think at the end of the day, to be identified as a company that had creative integrity and stood behind what indie filmmaking is all about, telling stories and taking risks.

TrunkSpace: Your company is called Mill House Motion Pictures. As a pop culture site, we have to ask… does the name have anything to do with “The Simpsons” and Bart’s BFF, Milhouse Van Houten?
Foley: The term “Mill House” actually comes from the classic mills you find at the side of a river that used the water to grind flower, etc. The idea being: it’s traditional, functional, classic, timeless and constantly working… what was true centuries ago, still holds true today – like the basic principles of storytelling. However, we are both massive fans of “The Simpsons,” and it doesn’t hurt that we’re able to say… “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”

All Square” premieres March 10 at SXSW.

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Deep Focus

Prem Singh & Michael Pugliese

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with actors-turned-screenwriters Prem Singh and Michael Pugliese, the creative behind “Tiger,” a moving film that chronicles the true life journey of Canadian boxer Pardeep Nagra (played by Singh) who is banned from the sport for refusing to shave his facial hair, an act that is against his Sikh religion. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss the timeliness of the film, how they’re hoping it will ignite a much needed conversation about acceptance, and why they’re honored to be called “the next Matt and Ben.”

 

TrunkSpace: There seems to be no right or wrong way to get an independent film made these days. So much of it is really finding what works best for a particular project. As you guys were putting together “Tiger,” how much of it was you thinking outside of the box to get the project made and how much of it was the stars aligning?
Pugliese: I think it’s a little bit of both, actually. When we first started, we were really just following our passion and something that we truly loved to do. We love to be storytellers and filmmakers, and when this story stumbled across our desks, we just felt like it was a good opportunity to buckle in and make something that we could call our own.

We met in acting class a good many years ago. We’re both from Toronto and we weren’t happy with the auditions and the whole process and even the roles that we were going out for, so we just decided, “Let’s make something that we’ll both be happy about, and both be proud about,” and so we put our heads down and blinders up. You just have to go for it.

TrunkSpace: And did you guys have an existing relationship with Pardeep Nagra or was his story just one that called out to you?
Singh: I was watching Pardeep Nagra battle this thing when it was actually happening, while we were doing acting classes, and it wasn’t a couple years later that I actually said that I really wanted to go forward with this. I saw Pardeep give interviews and talk to a lot of the Canadian media, and he was talking more about fighting for what he believed in, and I thought this was a great story to tell, but maybe would have been too early. And now’s the time. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a story like this to come out. It gave us this push to say, “Listen, there is really nothing going on right now with what we’re doing, acting-wise, so let’s try to to create our own destiny and do what Ben Affleck and Matt Damon did and just write something for ourselves that we know we can do justice to.”
Pugliese: Like you said in your first question, you worded it like the stars are aligning, and I think now it kind of feels that way. It kind of feels like if we would have tried to make this when it was happening in 2000, I don’t think it would have been the right time in the world or that the world would have been ready. I don’t think North America… I don’t think everybody would have been ready for a film like this. Everything happens for a reason. It’s like the stars are aligning. I feel like people should be watching something like this, and it should be inspiring others to stand up and speak up for what they believe in. Now is a perfect time for “Tiger” to be out.

TrunkSpace: It certainly seems like, at least here in the States, that the division between everybody politically and socially is widening, but a movie like this coming along, it could actually help the conversation and get us back to a place of acceptance.
Singh: That’s it. We totally agree.
Pugliese: It can help the conversation, and that’s our goal with this movie is to create that movement and start the conversation. When you walk away watching this film, yes it’s about a Sikh character, a guy in a turban and beard, but it’s much more than that when you actually watch the film. There’s a lot of people that are going to relate to this, whether you’re immigrants new to the country, whether you’re black, white – it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is or your gender – everybody can relate to a movie like this. The worst case is that this movie is going to start a conversation, and that’s more than enough for us. At least we started a conversation.

TrunkSpace: In terms of bringing your vision to reality, how long did it actually take to see the film come together?
Pugliese: When did we start writing this, 2010? Maybe 2011? We went to camera in 2015. And I think it was just more of having a burning desire to accomplish something. Whether it’s filmmaking or whatever you want to do in life, I think it’s really important to actually truly love and having that burning, aching desire for success, no matter what success means to you. It can be very broad. But I think that’s what made us continue to push forward through the five, six years that we were making it, because we just had that desire to do so.
Singh: It can get you a lot of rejections. There were a lot of rejections that came within those years that we didn’t get it made, and being new writers, people don’t tend to gravitate towards a screenplay or the subject matter, but that didn’t stop us.

TrunkSpace: Sometimes that rejection best serves the project, because had you not received those early rejections, it may have never been brought to life in its current form with your cast, such as Mickey Rourke, and creative team. In an alternative reality, it may have been a completely different film.
Pugliese: Absolutely. And it even builds character. I think it just makes us understand how this industry works and you filter out all of the people, all the naysayers, or all of the people that are just blowing smoke into your ears. You just learn a lot. And I think the longer it takes, the more you understand it, and the more you feel extremely grateful when it does come to camera and you do start. That first day, when the cameras were rolling, it was very special, because it took four or five years of just hard work, and to finally get there, it was really, really special.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned early in our conversation about taking an Affleck and Damon approach and just doing it yourself, and we have actually heard that comparison made about you guys from other people as well. Does being compared to those guys, especially given what they have done in their careers, put pressure on you beyond “Tiger” itself?
Pugliese: I don’t think it puts any pressure. Look, we had heroes and we had icons we looked up to, especially in this industry, and Matt and Ben were guys that we looked up to. They both decided to write a screenplay and push forward and get to where they are now. We always tried to follow the path that they paved for younger filmmakers, and we thought if they could do it, so can we, so that’s what we kind of did. And to even be mentioned in the same breath of air or the same sentence as those two individuals, it’s just extremely… it’s really special.
Singh: I just hope they don’t mind. (Laughter) They paved the way for guys like us. Those guys struggled just like we struggled, and if we didn’t know about this story or they didn’t do what they had done, we wouldn’t have been inspired to do this, or to try to get this off the ground.

TrunkSpace: So with that in mind, if “Tiger” takes off and more opportunities present themselves, do you see yourselves pursuing both acting and filmmaking in the same way that those two guys did following the success of “Good Will Hunting?” What is the goal moving forward?
Singh: Well, I’m gonna play Batman. (Laughter)

We have a company, Running Tiger Films. We want this company to create a lot of content that sparks a social message. I think a lot of films have that, but there’s sill not enough of them. When people used to ask us, while we were just trying to get this off the ground, “What is your company all about?”, we couldn’t really give them an answer. And then after “Tiger” was done filming, we sat down and we had a meeting and we said, “This is about a social message.” And we’re very pleased and very proud to spread the message.

Tiger” fights its way into theaters this spring.

Featured image by: Valentina Socci

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Deep Focus

Brandon Christensen

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Brandon Christensen, co-writer and director of “Still/Born,” about his first feature directing experience, sharing the movie with an audience days after it was complete, and why his wife’s fears make for great plot points.

TrunkSpace: With “Still/Born” hitting the masses today, this must have been a very exciting week for you?
Christensen: It’s cool. We debuted at Overlook (Film Festival) almost a year ago and when you go through that whole process of festivals and then it kind of peters out, it feels like it’s over. It’s kind of like a renewed finding of the film again, for me, as things ramp up again to release. It’s really exciting. It’s nerve-wracking, for sure, though.

TrunkSpace: From what we understand, you’ve directed a few shorts, but this was your first feature. What was that experience like for you, not only creatively, but just in terms of going into the process and learning things that perhaps you didn’t know prior to doing?
Christensen: Yeah, this was my first feature film. I’d produced another one the year before with Colin Minihan, who was my partner on this one. He co-wrote it with me and was one of the producers. It definitely wouldn’t have been possible without him, just because he’s got a bunch of experience and he kind of brought me into the fold and he gave me a bunch of opportunities with this film that I don’t think I would’ve otherwise had, raising funds and things like that.

As far as first-time films go, I think I was incredibly fortunate to have someone like him, and my other producers, working with me because, when you think about that first feature film, most of the time it’s going to be filling up credit cards or pulling every favor in the book. I was really lucky that I didn’t have to deal with really any of that. I had this team close with me that was able to pull together so many great things for me. It was different. I’ve been around people that have gone through it the other way and I would definitely prefer my way because it was a much more comfortable experience for me.

It’s tough, though. I’ve got two kids of my own and a wife and when you’re making a film, when you’re doing a month of pre-production, a month of shooting, and then you’re in post for six to eight months – it’s really challenging just on that because you do have to kind of step away a little bit. You can still be there at the end of the day but your mind is so consumed with this project, that it can be challenging. My wife is really strong and she was able to fill in a lot of the gaps that I wasn’t able to during, especially, the first two months.

TrunkSpace: And there’s always so much that you can’t plan for. Long days tend to become longer days.
Christensen: Right, for sure. And we definitely had some strict rules in place. We didn’t want to do overtime. Budget-wise, we couldn’t. And one of the big things that was helpful on this was that we were shooting in one location for 15 of the 20 days, so with a lot of the set-ups and things, if we were like, “Oh, crap, we didn’t get this one scene,” we were gonna be there the next day, so we could pick it up. So, there wasn’t ever that scramble to finish at a location because we had to wrap out of it at a certain time. I think when Colin and I were writing the film, one of the concedes that we had was that we wanted to make it as achievable and as easy as possible to shoot, just because the budget was going to be low. We weren’t going to have a lot of extra time and stuff to play with.

TrunkSpace: Which always makes a lot of sense. We noticed that you also had a hand in the visual effects. Was that part of that same plan, not only minimizing where you could, but utilizing… in this case your individual skill sets?
Christensen: Yeah, definitely. I’ve kind of been learning VFX over the last 10 or so years and I’ve finally gotten to a place where I feel comfortable handling most situations. With this film, there’s so many instances where it does become a matter of, “I’ll fix it in post,” just because, otherwise you’re going to spend an hour trying to figure out a way to do it practically and it’s just not going to make sense for your schedule. So there would be a lot of moments where I was like, “Okay, yeah. Don’t worry about it. I’ll fix it in post. We can’t get that light. Move that light out of the frame. I’ll paint it out later.” It becomes part of the process, and it’s just become part of my process when I work where I’m able to at least see a frame on a screen and I can say, “Okay, I’m not going to worry about that right now because I know I can fix that.” And when you’re on hour 15 of a shot where you’re doing just one little thing, you totally regret it, but ultimately you’re saving yourself a lot of money.

I think there’s almost 200 VFX shots in this film. They’re mostly hidden stuff, but it’s kind of obscene.

TrunkSpace: Was getting the opportunity to direct “Still/Born” fulfilling a life-long dream?
Christensen: Yeah, definitely. When I was a kid, I was making dumb movies with my siblings. And growing up, I went to film school. I was kind of trying to do it that way. When Colin had read the script that he wanted do, it was a great opportunity for me to jump into a feature film and work with someone that’s done it before. I definitely have always wanted to do a feature. Before I did “Still/Born,” I was kind of leaning more towards television, like being one of those series directors who works on something like “Breaking Bad” or “Lost” or something like that, and just being with those longer stories. But during “Still/Born,” it definitely gave me a hunger to do more feature films because it’s a totally different art, just trying to encapsulate this entire story in a 90 minute period, which seems like a long time but it’s not. You get a hunger for it, so you want to do it again and fix a lot of the mistakes that you did the first time.

TrunkSpace: Film is a very communal experience, but especially horror. Did you sit in on any screenings and watch to see if the jump scares and uncomfortable beats you laced in there worked with audiences?
Christensen: Yeah, I had a chance to go to a few of the festivals. The first one though, Overlook, that was the first time I had ever done a festival before. We had just finished the film the week before we got the call that we got accepted. We were in Montreal doing the sound mix. It was a few weeks from that moment, so we had to finish the sound mix and I had to go do color in LA, and then ship off the DCP to Overlook. So we shipped it off, I think, five days before we screened. I didn’t really have a chance to watch it with a bunch of people. Going into that room was scarier for me than it was going to be for the audience, just because I’m watching for the technical imperfections and stuff. And when it started, the dialogue seemed a little low, so I marched to the back and I’m like, “Can you turn it up a little bit?” (Laughter) And they did. And again, I’m just like looking around, and I’m just like, “Can they hear this? Does this sound wrong?” And so I’d run to the back and say, “Turn it up a little bit more.” And once there’s that first jump scare with the monitor, once that hits, there were just shrieks in the audience and that made me a lot more comfortable because I realized, “Okay, everyone’s in this.”

It was a horror crowd because it’s a festival. They’re there to be entertained. Horror fans, I think, are the most gracious of fans out there. They’re so diverse, but at the same time they have a love for horror, that I don’t think fans of other genres really have, where they’re a little more picky or they have a little more of a critical eye. It was such a great experience, just to sort of feel the room move.

There’s nothing like watching it with a crowd because when those moments do work, it’s pretty amazing and it’s the reason why you get into this.

TrunkSpace: So as you look toward the future, do you see yourself staying within genre filmmaking or are you hoping to branch out and do other types of projects as well?
Christensen: I would love to get into something else eventually, but right now I’ve got a couple of scripts that we’re working on that are still horror. My wife and I are writing something right now, that we’re trying to get ready. It’s kind of an interesting experience to work with her because we’ve had kids together, we’ve been married almost 10 years now – there’s kind of a second hand language that we’re able to communicate with when we’re writing that it’s hard to duplicate. But what’s best, is that she’s just terrified of everything. so it’s great to be able to pick her brain. It’s like, “Okay, here’s the scenario. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” And typically she’s able to give that worst case scenario. I think that when you’re writing a genre script like this, it’s hugely beneficial to have these realistic, horrible scenarios play out just from the deep recesses of your wife’s mind.

Still/Born” arrives in theaters and On Demand today.

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Deep Focus

Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, co-writers and co-directors of “The Strange Ones,a dark and suspenseful cinematic journey filled with something we can all relate to, raw human emotion. We recently sat down with the pair to discuss the film’s journey from short to feature, how they manage their creative partnership, and why they both view sitting in on a screening of their work so differently.

TrunkSpace: “The Strange Ones” started out as a short, which was first released about seven years ago. Did you ever think that you’d still be talking about it in 2018?
Radcliff: We have been with it for a very long time, but it’s really cool to be able to talk about the feature in a way that, when the short came out, we wouldn’t really talk about it that much. Now we’re really able to talk about both things at once, because when the short came out it was just making its rounds and not a lot of people talk about shorts in the way they do about features, so it’s really nice.

TrunkSpace: Did the two of you actively set out to turn the original concept into a feature?
Radcliff: We knew relatively early on in the process of making the short that there was material for a feature that we were excited about and would want to explore at a feature length. Even though the short film was something we started in film school and completed shortly after film school on its own, it was pretty early on in the process with the short that we knew that there was a feature in there, and it was just a matter of time of excavating it from that.

TrunkSpace: So now that the film is complete, does it feel like your journey with the property is also complete?
Radcliff: I don’t know. In a way it feels kind of like the end, and also a little bit just the beginning. One of the more exciting but also terrifying aspects of it is just that you make a movie, and then it exists forever. This is still just the beginning of the movie’s existence. It’s gonna be available. It’s gonna be in the world for longer than we are, so in a way, it feels like the end of maybe the first chapter, but sort of the beginning of the film’s existence. It’s exciting. I think from a creative perspective, it’s exciting to have created something that will last for a long time.
Wolkstein: Yeah, and it’s exciting that people will finally be able to see it. We’ve been working on this for, as you said, seven years. It’s nice that it’s not just us that are in it now. Now we can share it with the world.

TrunkSpace: You both shared directing duties on the film. When the two of you put your creative partnership together, did you set up a system of split responsibilities so that you didn’t step on each others’ creative toes, or do you share every aspect of the job equally?
Radcliff: Yeah, we both share every aspect. We do everything together. We met in film school, and we direct solo as well as together, There’s not really any one aspect of the directing process that we feel comfortable not equally involving ourselves in. But, knowing that when we first set out to direct and collaborate like that, we did set some kind of a system for ourselves and some ground rules. We basically said that we would do as much prep as we could in terms of getting on the same page about what movie we were really making and how we wanted to tell the story visually and directorially. We would shot list extensively. We would get together just to make sure that we had a common understanding of what every scene and every dramatic beat and every moment was really about, and how we wanted to express that with the camera.

Then we also set our ground rules for each other where if we were on set and either one of us wants to give a note and we had an idea for either the camera or the actors or anybody, we would just feel free to give it without talking to each other about it. If we found that we disagreed, we would then just do another take. That was just a way to move more quickly on set, because you’re always behind for time on sets. We found that we very rarely saw things differently. That was a way for us to have autonomy, but also to make sure that we had a shared vision that we were always working toward.

TrunkSpace: You also wrote the script together, which is a very collaborative journey. But the one that surprised us is that you edited “The Strange Ones” together as well, which as far as processes go, is sort of the meat and potatoes hours of seeing the creative vision come together. What was that process like, essentially slicing your baby together with both of you in the same room?
Wolkstein: That was the hardest process out of the whole thing, because we had to make really important decisions about what would stay in the movie and what would leave. It was just really hard. There are a lot of times when we had to actually kill a lot of our babies. There are a lot of scenes that aren’t in the movie that we shot. Having to come to those decisions was very difficult. We actually spent a lot of time in the editing room together, just really trying to find the pace of the movie and to find the best version of the film that we had shot. That took a lot of time, crafting that. Then to have to throw away some things that we ended up really loving, but didn’t have a fit in the actual version, that was really tough.
Radcliff: I think the fact that there were two of us actually made that part of the process the greatest benefit from there being two of us because you are faced with so many difficult decisions, and having somebody in there with you, all the time in the room to have a second opinion with, automatically made that part of the process a lot less lonely.
Wolkstein: That is very true.
Radcliff: It actually made it easier to make those hard decisions. I think it might have been a much more demanding mental process if it was just up to either one of us, and we weren’t able to weigh in with each other. But I think actually editing-wise, it was great to have both of us there.

TrunkSpace: And with thrillers in particular, it must be nice to have that other person in the room with you, to see if those moments you’re creating in the story are working or if they need an extra second to breathe… an extra beat to get the point across.
Wolkstein: Definitely.
Radcliff: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s the thing that you don’t really realize in editing until you’re in there doing it. Seconds or frames, very tiny decisions, really impact the experience of a film. For us to both be there and both agree on certain things… I think the film has a very distinct pace and editing style, and I think that came through in our collaboration. We never wanted to rush anything, but we also never wanted anything to take too long, so it was a very nuanced thing that we were going for, especially because the story is dealing with so much ambiguity that the fact that we were both there and could weigh in on all of those aspects was tremendously helpful.

TrunkSpace: Do you enjoy sitting in on a screening of your own films with an audience?
Wolkstein: I think we have different answers for this one. (Laughter)
Radcliff: Yeah. (Laughter) I can’t stand being in the room and watching it with an audience. I actually have avoided doing that as much as possible, because I find myself being too nervous. It’s too much anxiety for me. Also, because it’s not a comedy, it’s not the kind of movie that will elicit audible or visible reactions from audiences most of the time. I’m always just in there speculating the worst case scenario of what an audience might be thinking at any time. For me, I have a hard time doing that.
Wolkstein: And I really enjoy it for some reason. I like experiencing watching something with people in the room and seeing how people are reacting. It feels like a different movie every time when I watch it with a different group, so that’s really cool. I really cherish that experience of being in a room with people and watching the same thing and reacting the same way or different ways to the same thing that we’re all watching.
Radcliff: I love it too, except not with my own movie. (Laughter)

The Strange Ones” is in theaters now and is also available on DirecTV.

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Deep Focus

Liam O’Donnell

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Liam O’Donnell, writer and director of “Beyond Skyline,” the action-packed sequel to the surprise 2010 science fiction hit “Skyline.” We recently sat down with O’Donnell to discuss why he needed to transition from a writer’s mindset to a director’s mindset, how his love for pop culture began with Rowdy Roddy Piper, and what his directorial future looks like.

TrunkSpace: You took on a new set of duties with “Beyond Skyline” by also serving as director on the sequel. Creatively what were you setting out to accomplish with the film?
O’Donnell: That was something I had to learn as a process, because even in the prep I was such a… I just came from writing so much that I would, at the end of each day, go back to the script and kind of keep working on it and doing notes. There was eventually that time period where I had to just stop and be like, “This is a visual medium now. Get your head out of your laptop and start really thinking about how you’re going to capture it visually.”

The main thing that I thought I could do as the director was with the tone and kind of capture that action movie tone right from the beginning. That was important to me. That was sort of the big change. Before we even got started or cast anyone, it was very much like, “Alright, I want to have a throwback, late ’80s, early ’90s action movie lead. He’s a cop, and he’s got trouble at home, and he’s got demons, but when shit hits the fan he’s exactly the type of person you’d want to be on your subway train.” That was kind of the approach up front. As we set out to make it, and we cast it, it just kind of went more and more in that direction; especially, obviously, with the addition of the martial artists and stuff like that. It became a full on action movie.

TrunkSpace: Did you ever feel like you were taking on too much by throwing all of those technical elements into your first directing feature?
O’Donnell: No, never, because the action stuff is the most fun stuff. That’s kind of all of the things I loved growing up. My dad took me to the Boston Garden to see a battle royal when I was 10-years-old, which, by the way, Rowdy Roddy Piper won in a Ray Bourque jersey while holding a chainsaw. I was a pro wrestling fan from that point on.

All that sort of action, and stunts, and choreography, and giant monsters, and stuff like that… that was actually the stuff I felt most comfortable with. It was the human actor side that was intimidating. Our first day of shooting was in Indonesia and it’s a scene that Frank (Grillo), Iko (Uwais), Bojana (Novakovic), and Pamelyn (Chee) all kind of have a stand off that evolves into a fight; a four-way fight. I was just like, “If I can just get to the fights I’ll be okay.” (Laughter)

The thing I was most nervous on was just working with them to get there. Once the fists started flying I would be much more comfortable. It was all just about overcoming those kind of fears and figuring it out and how to best communicate with people to get what you want.

TrunkSpace: When you sat down to write the script, did you know at the time that you were going to be directing it, and if so, did that sort of alter the writing process for you at all?
O’Donnell: It did. I had already written a treatment and the treatment had been kind of sitting around collecting dust for three years. It became a situation where there were a couple different projects that we’d been working on and I kind of said, “Well look, I’ll go ahead and just write the script for ‘Beyond Skyline,’ but if I put that much heart and love into it, I would love to direct it.” Greg (Strause) and Colin (Strause), they already had a couple different projects and different directions and they said, “Yeah, sure. Go for it.”

TrunkSpace: You touched on your first day on set, but what was it like building up to that day? This being your directorial debut, what kind of emotions were you going through leading up to the first shot?
O’Donnell: Well, we got lost that morning on the way to set. It was about an hour drive and of course, it rained. We’re in a rainforest during the rainy season and there was just a lot of nerves building up. They have a sheet in the production office that says, “Minus XX days to production,” and just seeing it go from 13 to 6 to, “Oh my God!” It’s definitely something that you build up your courage for.

We shot the standoff at the beginning of the day. A big torrential downpour came. We stopped filming because obviously, nothing was going to match continuity from a sunny morning, and so the only way to get through it was that we just said, “All right, we’re just going to skip ahead later into the fight, so let’s turn the camera in the other direction and just start fighting.” Frank and Iko start pounding each other and Frank picks Iko up and just slams him down into this big mud puddle and I just lifted my arms up like, “Okay, it’s going to work.” (Laughter)

O’Donnell with Frank Grillo on the set of “Beyond Skyline”

TrunkSpace: Was part of that emotional build up period to the first day also the fun of seeing the culmination of a childhood dream turn into a reality?
O’Donnell: Of course. I actually texted my dad about that. He took me to this pro wrestling thing when I was 10 and it became a thing where I wrestled in high school and I loved video games and movies and watching that stuff. “All right, when are you going to grow up and do something else for your life?” All that stuff, all that background of what seemed like a time waster all came to use, so it definitely had this fun, “How did I end up here?” feel.

TrunkSpace: Now you have to pay it forward to Roddy Piper’s memory and do a “They Live” remake.
O’Donnell: In a second. In a second. Sign me up!

TrunkSpace: We know you’re not new to film sets, but so much involving directing is a learn-as-you’re-doing situation. What as the biggest lesson you picked up in the job by actually doing the job itself?
O’Donnell: Interesting. I mean, I think it would be more listening. I don’t have to have exactly the right idea right away. I had already been told this, but going through the process is like… it’s how much more prep I would do the second time. I felt like I worked as hard as I possibly could and you need to work even harder. You need to go through everything and have it all in your head and then, then it’s fine to be able to switch it up and try something new because you already know that you have exactly what you need.

TrunkSpace: So it’s a mix of being prepared, but also being willing to change things up on the fly?
O’Donnell: Exactly. It’s those situations where people are going to come to you with different ideas, or that the way you wanted it isn’t going to work out right, and do you have the ability to adjust in game-time situations and make end game adjustments?

TrunkSpace: As you look forward in your career, is this the genre sandbox that you want to stay working in or do you see yourself doing a little bit of everything?
O’Donnell: Well, luckily, the sandbox for this movie is pretty big. (Laughter) There’s enough different genres in here that I feel like I can keep making them until I die. But the next project, I’m doing something much smaller set in Indonesia. It’s completely foreign language and it’s about a safari down the rivers in Borneo, where they come across this missing link. It’s based on an Indonesian novel and I have a whole Indonesian writer’s team, so that’s a little bit of a creature movie. They had never done one before, which is why they came to me to help them make it. That will still have a little bit of martial arts, a little bit of action/adventure – a little bit of everything – so it’s a good place to be as far as I’m concerned.

The other one I’m doing is a post-apocalyptic science fiction martial arts’ film, because of my experience on this. While I was over there, I came up with this idea to just try to do something from the ground up that was a true, tried-and-true martial arts’ epic.

Beyond Skyline” lands in theaters and on digital home entertainment today.

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Deep Focus

Ron Carlson

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Take one part hair metal, one part giant ant, and mix in a music festival that nobody is clamoring to attend (NOchella) and you have yourself the new comedy/horror hybrid “Dead Ant,” which is set to hold its World Premiere tonight as part of Screamfest at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California.

We recently sat down with the film’s writer/director Ron Carlson to discuss the year-long journey of bringing the monstrous insects to the big screen, why you should go see “Star Wars” if you want the bugs to look more realistic, and how “Dead Ant” is less about bringing a B-movie to life and more about a band having to navigate the rules of that particular world.

TrunkSpace: What has the “Dead Ant” journey been like for you in terms of seeing your vision become a reality? Has it been a long journey?
Carlson: It has. The script I wrote relatively quick. I really knocked out the first draft of this in five weeks. 
My first draft was just a band, a little more nondescript band, and then I decided I know and I understand hair metal, and those are great guys to be underdogs. Their music is pretty “out” today. They’re playing some state fairs, and they’re not getting invited to Coachella. They’re not in the Sundance Film Festival. So these guys were perfect for that – meaning the characters.

The laborious journey for me was I had the CG done – 700 CG shots in the movie, roughly – in Russia. That took a year, and during that year, you’re lost in the 700 shots. That was really painful, to be truthful.

TrunkSpace: How do you manage that when you’re working with a team who is physically so far removed from where you are?
Carlson: It’s through Skype and it’s me making videos of myself, pretending to be the ant, and what I want it to do and sending a storyboard shot and getting it back. It was really complicated, but in our budget range, it was the best work that I had seen. I don’t think the effects looked Syfy channel, but they’re not Pixar. They’re not Harry Potter. I made the movie for 99 million dollars less than a Harry Potter. I don’t have access to all that. Ultimately, if you’re going to see this movie because you want the best special effects, go fucking see “Star Wars.” Go see something else. I’m not giving you that. If you want to say, “Oh, I just want to go and have a good time,” that’s what I’m delivering. I feel like I can sufficiently do that.

TrunkSpace: And therein lies the other great connection to the hair metal genre, which was an era where everyone wanted to (and was) just having fun. It is a genre of music known for having a good time.
Carlson: That’s it. That’s the thing. There’s not a person out there that can’t turn on Hair Nation on Sirius Radio and sing along with a couple of the songs. Everybody knows a few. Two beers in a bar, a hair metal song comes on, and you’re alright. “I’m going to sing out with the crowd right now.” And that was my goal with this movie. I really wanted to make a good comedy that was within the rules of a B-horror movie.

TrunkSpace: Casting Jake Busey as Merrick was a great move because he seems all-in and really built for the role.
Carlson: Yes, Jake was built for this role, but no one would see Jake as this, you know what I mean? You wouldn’t initially say, “Okay yeah, Jake Busey is this guy!” I loved Jake.

I had a job at one point where I interviewed different bands. I interviewed a couple of these hair metal bands, and it’s funny because they all kind of become famous and big bands when they’re 18 and in high school. Then they move on and they start to burn out or whatever. But it’s funny, once you become that famous guy, at that age, and especially it seemed like with the guys that I interviewed, they kind of stay that same age. It’s still like high school for them where it’s like, “Oh yeah, you just gotta get down! It’s about playing the song and getting beers and hooking up with these chicks!”

I remember, there was this very famous band that I was in awe of and going to get to interview and then I interviewed them and I was like, “They’re these high school dudes! Holy shit!” It was that particular interview that really stuck with me, and I utilized a piece of the truth from that, that I wanted to sprinkle into this, to keep these guys real. That was the biggest thing, really keeping these guys truthful so you buy into them because then you’ve just got this cartoon movie and you have no heart. I feel like the movie has heart.

TrunkSpace: More often than not, the hair metal genre, when handled in media, is approached like a caricature.
Carlson: Yes, it is done as a caricature, and you’re not getting to see the real side. I kind of wanted to stick this band in within the rules of a B-horror movie. What I told Tom (Arnold) when I’d meet with him, I’d say, “Look, man, this is going to go great, or I’m really going to drive this thing into the ground on every level.” He looked at me and he goes, “I like that. That is an honest answer.” We hit it off. It was a good working relationship – and with all the guys. I’ve become good friends with everybody in this movie. It’s really one that I love the cast and they love the movie. They don’t just go, “Eh.” They like it. Even Jake, he’s like, “I’ve done a hundred movies and this one’s in my top three.” And truthfully, I actually think he likes himself in this role so much. I’ve become friends with him, and he wears his fucking Sonic Grave T-shirt all the time. Everybody’s got a Sonic Grave T-shirt, but I haven’t seen anybody wear it as much as he did. He loves it.

TrunkSpace: Tonally it felt like the film had the same vibe as some of the great “Tales from the Crypt” episodes of the 80s and early 90s, and in doing research, we discovered that you were actually IN an episode of that show way back when.
Carlson: It’s so funny, yeah, I did. I did an episode with Kimberly Williams from “Father of the Bride,” and I was so taken by her, like, “Oh my God!” I think it was one of the first things I ever did.

It (“Dead Ant”) didn’t really come from that specifically. I’m friends with a good circle of horror friends, and I would say I’m more of a comedic director within that group. But I love horror. I love the whole vibe. There’s a piece of me that really wants to kind of sink my teeth into a real, in-depth horror film – straight horror, but not any time soon. I think I’ve got a sequel for “Dead Ant” and I’d really like to do that one.

TrunkSpace: Life is a little bit of everything. Even a single day is never just one genre of living. As an audiences, experiencing a genre mashup always makes sense. Did you worry about combining comedy and horror on this particular film?
Carlson: I wondered how it would resonate with the horror audience, because again, it follows the rule of a horror movie, but it’s not like at the end we’re starting to pick people off and then we’ve got our survivor and they live. The third act does something a little different than the normal horror movie. I wonder how people would react to that. Ultimately I feel like it’s kind of a crossover movie.

I hope it appeals a lot to the horror audience and they love and respect it for what it is, but I also think it’s really hard to make a broad comedy. Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, whoever… whatever their formula is, their main character and the journey that they go through, it’s hard to get laughs. Especially in this day and age, in a film, and to keep them going, because we have YouTube and we have all these things. So that’s why in some of these broad comedies that studios do, shit gets really cartooned. They try to go too big, and they lose the truth.

If you’re in the Hollywood area, you can purchase tickets for tonight’s World Premiere of “Dead Ant” here.

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Deep Focus

Justin Sayre

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Photo By: Matthew Dean Stewart

In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Justin Sayre, creator and star of the new stage show, “I’m Gorgeous Inside,” which premieres tonight at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York. We recently sat down with Sayre to discuss how lonely real estate served as the catalyst for the show, how much he likes to put out fires on stage, and why he’s ready to tell any bad girl’s story.

TrunkSpace: Your show “The Meeting” ran for eight seasons. With bands and songwriters, you hear a lot of them talk about how they keep songs “fresh” while they’re touring with the same material for extend periods of time. How does that work for you on a show?
Sayre: It was a different show every month, so it was always new material. It was always a different icon, and it was always different guests. There was always a lot of room for experimentation, and a lot of, “How do we want to do this this month? Here are our parameters, and how do we play within that?”

Getting to meet these great downtown artists, and people from Broadway, and other people making interesting work in New York, inspired me certainly to push myself further, and to push the show in different directions. Being a show that was inherently political, there was always new fodder to make it work. But it always came back to this idea about community, and bringing people together, and really creating space for a community to form. Not just around the show, but in the world.

That became just an overwhelming part of the show. I built a different kind of repartee with an audience, then I would have otherwise. It didn’t ever feel stale, it just felt like we’ve done this now. It was time to start a new adventure. I also really wanted to step out on my own a little bit, and create something that wasn’t so driven by politics. Even though I think a lot of my work is political, I wanted to make something that was more… just about my ideas and things like that, rather than constantly in response to what was happening.

TrunkSpace: So what was the origin story of “I’m Gorgeous Inside?” Where did it all begin?
Sayre: I worked on “2 Broke Girls” in LA. When I would drive to work, there was this real estate sign on a house that said, “I’m gorgeous inside,” and I thought, you’ve got to be at a pretty low point when you have to tell people, “No, wait a minute. I may look like hell outside, but inside, oh my God, I got all my original floors. I got everything!” (Laughter) I always thought it was a really funny title, so when we came up with the show, I was like, “I want to do that as the show, ‘I’m Gorgeous Inside’.”

When I was talking about things that I was really interested in, it was the tough girl archetype, this bad girl archetype that so many gay men are interested in, and think about, and emulate in their ways. But really, getting past that and talking about what that meant to them in a concrete way, rather than just an abstraction or some kind of hyperbole that makes fun of those women. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what was the core, igniting spark that made you look at Rizzo in “Grease” or some Bette Davis movie, and you’re like, “I gotta go with her!” I think it’s because they’re characters who are generally not given enough, but demand more. They are shortchanged, but they don’t take it. I think for a lot of queer people, that means something. Seeing somebody who is told by the world “no” and continues to demand a “yes” is really empowering. Once that kind of percolated in my head, the idea of “I’m Gorgeous Inside” kind of happened. Then it really just kind of flew from there.

TrunkSpace: And what’s great about the title is that it really does have multiple meanings. It’s that funny origin story, but also, it’s about self-acceptance.
Sayre: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. It sounds very highfalutin, and it sounds like it’s gonna be some therapy session, but it’s really just a bunch of jokes. It’s gonna be fine. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: What emotions are you going through as you build up towards opening night?
Sayre: I think I’ve been told I have a lot of unnecessary fear. I think that’s fair to say, because I know myself well enough at this point that once I get out there, I’m going to be fine. I’m going to know how to put out the fires, even if I start them. (Laughter) I think right now it’s just like, “Oh wow, we’re really going to do this thing. We’re going to take it to this place. My work is going to go now in yet another direction.”

There’s trepidation about it, but there’s also an excitement, because one of the things that I’ve learned, after having done “The Meeting” for so long, is that I love kind of creating problems on stage, and solving them – this mentality of you know you can do it. You know you can be with an audience, and you can take them places. I feel very lucky that such a large group of people trust me, and have continued to do that. Once I concentrate on that, the other stuff really goes away.

TrunkSpace: And in a way, you kind of open the door for putting out fires because there’s audience interaction, right?
Sayre: Oh, always. Always, and one thing that were doing in this show, which I’m so excited about, is when I used to drink, I never had any money. I would have little contests with my friends, and see if they would buy me a drink. One of the contests was, they would give me a girl’s name, I would tell their whole life story in 10 minutes. It would have a beginning, middle, and end. It would be really specific, and if I could do it, and do it well, they would buy me a drink. In this show, I’m having Jenn Harris, who is a wonderful actress, come dressed as a different bad girl of her choosing each night, without me having seen her. She comes out on stage, and I, in front of an audience, will tell her life story for 10 minutes. We’re gonna play this game. We’re gonna see how it works. Jenn is super excited, because she gets to be crazy, and do whatever she wants. I’m really excited because not only is it working with Jenn, but it’s kind of keeping that spirit alive of, “All right, go! Make up a story! Do it!”

TrunkSpace: You’ve written for television. You’ve written for stage. You’re a published author. What would you like to tackle with the written word next?
Sayre: I just finished a new play, so I’d really like that to have a premiere in New York. I’m very excited about that. I’ve written a film over the summer. We’re shopping that around this fall. I’m working on two pilots right now. There’s lots of work, but I think really in the future, it’s figuring out how to integrate it all together in some weird amalgam. So it is film, and it is television, but I came up in the theater, and I came up in the downtown scene, so it’s making art that still reflects that worldview. I don’t want to give that up, because I think now more so than ever it’s necessary. I came up with people who told me, “Don’t ever worry about being mainstream. Just make the shit you want to make.” Now everyone is pushing to say, “How do we go mainstream? How do we go viral? How do we get everybody involved?” What ends up happening is, a lot of things get homogenized because of that. I think there has gotta be a place for the outliers. There is still gotta be a place for the renegades.

For more information on “I’m Gorgeous Inside” or to purchase tickets, click here.

Featured image by: Matthew Dean Stewart

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Deep Focus

James Roland

JamesRoland_DeepFocus_part2

In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

In the second part of our interview with James Roland, creator, writer, and producer of the SyFy series “Blood Drive,” we’re discussing budgets, crews, and season twos!

(Read the first part of our James Roland interview here.)

TrunkSpace: Another one of the great things about “Blood Drive” is the direction. A great example of this is when Fat Elvis is being butchered in the episode “Welcome to Pixie Swallow.”
Roland: Yeah. That was the brain child of writer, Marc Halsey. He wrote that episode and came up with that. That was very specifically scripted and then David Straiton, our executive producer who directed some of the episodes, just nailed it. That was the goal. We didn’t want to just shoot a standard show that happened to have grosser moments in it and then slap a fake 15mm filter over the top. Because if you notice, we don’t do that. The trailer and the promos did that, but we were more interested in being true to the spirit than just the aesthetics.

What we challenged our directors to do, what David supervised all of the directors and challenged all the other directors to do, was to dig into the specific genres for each episode. Rather than just choosing color, really get into having a frame, why they were edited that way, and why they were effective. I think a lot of shows say, “Hey, we gave our directors creative freedom.” We give our directors A LOT of fucking freedom. That whole episode 6 where Christopher goes into the secret room?

TrunkSpace: Where he meets Julian in the hallway?
Roland: Yeah. And the room is spinning. Not scripted. That was the director and the production designer going, “This is a cool room. How can we make this even more interesting? How do we get it to the next level?” Somebody came up with idea of, “What if there’s throw-up on the floor, the cement, and all over because it makes it all look cooler?”

Then we had an amazing camera operator and he had this rig where you could rotate the camera completely around. We didn’t have enough money to get a gimbal, and for people who don’t know what that is, it’s where the whole room rotates upside down. It’s how they did the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” stuff where she’s on the ceiling. We didn’t have that, so that was our cheap, Grindhousey way of doing it and it turned into a really cool, sci-fi driven moment.

It was difficult to trust because with a basic, normal scene I can walk on set and say, “I can see what you’re doing. I see how that will come together. Make sure you get the close-up. Make sure you run that character moment.” But for a scene like that it’s like, “Is this going to make any fucking sense?” (Laughter) We took that risk. Every time we had that question, we took that risk and I felt like it paid off and made the show so much more interesting than it would have been, which is saying something given the scripts are so crazy.

TrunkSpace: It’s interesting hearing you mention the budgetary issues because it doesn’t look like a show that was hampered by budgetary constraints.
Roland: We’re in the SyFy channel low-budget model. The show runner is John Hlavin is a mad genius. He also runs “Shooter” for USA. We were going in, before we had officially sold the series, and he cracked a joke. He said, “When we’re up there in the office…” we call it the dark tower on the Universal lot. It’s this big, giant black tower that is very ominous. Anyway, he was like, “When we’re up in that dark tower, what do you do if we’ve got to make this show below our number? Who’s gonna be the first one to jump out the window?”

So we sit down and they hand us a sheet of paper and we see the number that they’re pitching for the budget and it’s barely above the joke number. I mean, barely. I’m the least experienced in the room. I was there with John Hlavin who is a pro. He wrote for “The Shield” and he’s got a long career. And David Straiton who’s this long term producer/director on shows like “Hemlock Grove” and all the Marvel shows. Experienced guys. They just go pale. I’m like, “Uh oh, this is bad.” (Laughter)

Normally shows will have a larger budget pilot and then the rest of the episodes are less, but this is per episode. The pilot was no more expensive than any other episode. The number that I’m quoting is about half of “The Magicians.” This is a lower budget number. What do you do? Do you say, “No, no thank you. I don’t want to make 13 episodes of my own show.” You just say yes and then you figure out how the hell you’re gonna do it.

We’re building this bigger world that we have in our head in a way that we can’t afford. Obviously on a script level, we reduce the amount of racing scenes to every other episode in these concentrated, little moments so that over the course of four to six episodes, people feel like they’re getting a lot of racing. But if you actually go back and look at the show, you don’t get racing every episode. We just couldn’t afford it. You have to get pit stops, which is fine as long as it has that adrenaline feel and we keep the energy up in the pacing of the plotting. It’s still going to feel like we have the momentum so that’s how we get away with that.

And then it’s, “Okay, we cannot afford all of these actors every episode.” If you listen to Slink, he talks about how the race goes on different paths every day, so that explains why you can’t have The Gentleman and The Scholar in every episode. They go out and they come back in and out of the story, so you can go a couple of episodes without seeing them and then seeing them again. It’s like revisiting old friends. Otherwise the only other answer was to cut out Domi and Cliff and just have The Gentleman and The Scholar or something like that. Even though you’re gonna get more of The Gentleman and The Scholar, you’re also gonna shrink the scope of your world.

I think it’s weirdly both a blessing and a curse because from the very first daily of the show, I don’t think the network had any idea how good it was going to look. We were all kind of really blown away, but the curse of that is that they forget that it’s a low budget show.

TrunkSpace: (Laughter) And when you get a second season, you get the same budgets!
Roland: Exactly!

I’m glad that you saw that that. I have worked with a lot of crews. My first career was as an assistant director. I did that for seven years. I worked with damn good crews and non-union crews. As an executive assistant, I worked with some of the best television crews. The South African team rivaled all of them. We would walk onto the sets and my jaw would drop at how intricate the set was.

When I saw what the costume department was doing with Slink and Aki… all of those costumes are handmade, handcrafted, and fitted. The rule was that they never dress the same way twice. Slink never dresses the same way twice, within reason. I think after six or seven episodes, you might see a recycle here or there, but it needs to feel different every time and they pulled that off. If you watch, his top hat is always changing. Those are all made by hand.

TrunkSpace: You hear this a lot in the horror/indie worlds, but sometimes when you’re forced to rethink your budgets and think outside-the-box, that’s when the magic happens.
Roland: Yeah, it’s true. Please don’t let the people with the paycheck hear that, but it’s true. (Laughter)

We talked a lot about that. I love the “Grindhouse” double feature. I love it, but their budget was 40 million dollars. That means that one of those movies, either “Planet Terror” or “Death Proof,” has the budget of our entire season. It kind of forced us to be little bit more grindhouse, for real. There are times when it shows, but those are the moments where we distract you with something shiny, so you’re not looking at the part that didn’t work. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: How have you guys avoided more conservative groups protesting the show, because it seems like “Blood Drive” would be right up their alley as far as saving us from moral brainwashing?
Roland: Yeah, you know, there’s one, but I expected more. There was one website that said advertisers need to pull their ads from the show. I was like, “Yeah, let’s get it started.” I was excited for it.

TrunkSpace: Usually those kinds of protests just bring in more viewers.
Roland: It always helps it. Maybe if we’d gotten more of that, it would’ve been even better for us. My gut tells me it’s because most people get it because we have a sense of humor about it. We don’t consider ourselves a spoof. We never wanted to do spoof. We technically get meta because of the show within a show aspect with Slink. All of it, even with the meta, we always make sure that what Slink says could be true for both the show you’re watching and the show he’s creating within the show.

TrunkSpace: Any word on a season 2 yet?
Roland: We haven’t heard yet. We’re waiting on pins and needles. We’ll see. We’re waiting for the official word, but I hope so. I’m dying, man. We have game plans for season 2 that kind of ups the anti to a new level. It would be amazing to get to do it.

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Deep Focus

James Roland

JamesRoland_DeepFocus_part1

In our new column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with James Roland, creator, writer, and producer of the SyFy series “Blood Drive.” We recently sat down with Roland to discuss the psychology of the series, how he was able to shoot the show as a hard R, and why Arthur Bailey is a Frank Capra character stuck in a Roger Corman world.

TrunkSpace: The characters you have created for “Blood Drive” really help build out the world. Each one is a layer to a very tasty cake.
Roland: We got lucky with that, man. It wasn’t lucky, I should say. We had casting directors working their asses off. We had a hell of a cast. It was impressive.

TrunkSpace: And that cast is so diverse in terms of backgrounds.
Roland: Yeah. Marama is from Malta. I have never met another human being from Malta.

TrunkSpace: She has a very unique accent.
Roland: It’s amazing. We met Marama over tape because we were already in South Africa prepping by the time she was cast. So we were looking at these video submissions online and her video submission popped up with, “Hi, I’m Marama Corlett, and I’m over 18 years old.” We were like, “Whoa! What is that about?” We were a little weirded out. (Laughter) She gave a great audition and she ended up getting the part. I learned through this experience that actors are supposed to give their measurements, like their height, their weight, and all that comes with it. She shows up on set and she doesn’t even come to my shoulder. She’s so tiny and she has kind of a baby face, so she looks like she’s 10 years old. I’m like, “Oh, that’s why! We just thought you were kooky!” (Laughter) Of course, she’s all paranoid because she’s like, “I’m so much shorter than Thomas.” And I was like, “This is the one show where that doesn’t matter, and actually helps.”

TrunkSpace: There’s that one scene where she’s kneeling down near his foot and it’s as big as her head.
Roland: Yes! I know. It allowed for these amazing shot dynamics and forced directors into more interesting framing, actually. The code is that you’re supposed to get them within a reasonable distance of height of each other so that you can do over-the-shoulders very easily and move quickly. We just didn’t have that. It was pretty cool.

I can’t remember what episode it is where he picks her up, but it was amazing to watch on set because it was like she might as well not have been there. He’s so ripped. It was like, TINK… like putting a little teacup on the counter.

TrunkSpace: The size difference really works because she is the one in control, which gives it this crazy, “Blood Drive” dynamic.
Roland: Yeah, it actually is pretty cool. It brought a lot of psychology, I think, to the forefront of that dynamic because you start to go, “Why isn’t he…? Why can’t he…?” I’m sure she’s got all these super powers and stuff like that, but you start to really go, “Oh, this guy wants this on a certain level.”

I had a scene written that we never got to shoot that really hit that kind of on the head. We ran out of time, but it would have been amazing because it really was something that we saw on the page. We talked a lot about the psychology, about why he lets these things happen, and, of course, at a certain point he can’t get out. It’s because he’s physically trapped.

They brought it out in their performance, in their dynamic, and using their body types as part of that too. It was really amazing. It’s been cool to see people dig into that storyline like I kind of knew they would. At first they’re like, “What the hell is this about?” And then you start to see it unfold over time. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned stuff that was on the page that didn’t make it in. That being said, how the hell did you get the stuff in that was on the page?!?!
Roland: (Laughter) SyFy held true to their word. They said, “We want you to push it.” But I don’t think when they said that they knew what they were getting into. (Laughter) Obviously stuff is censored with the censor bars and stuff, but we went into it saying, “I don’t want to shoot the PG-13 version and we don’t have time to because that doubles your amount of shooting time on certain things and it’s confusing, it’s a pain in the ass, and we don’t have time to edit two different versions.” Time is money and we were so low-budget and so fast-paced there was just no way.

So it was like, “We’re going to shoot the hard R version,” and even though technically we put the black bars on ourselves, because that was the cheaper option than farming it out to some company that is on the network side, we would just literally say, “You tell us what we absolutely have to have black bars over.” We’d get into a little debate with them, back and forth versions, and stuff like that, because that way it wasn’t self-censorship, right? It was the network telling us. I feel like if we self-censor, if we do a PG-13 cut, I think the fans and the audience just smell bullshit. I know I would. I’d be like, “Well, you’re saying this is Grindhouse…”

TrunkSpace: There’s also the shock value of it that makes viewers want to come back in order to see what you will attempt next.
Roland: Yeah, exactly. We treated the shock value and the craziness as… in the writers’ room we always called it a safety net, but not a crutch. And what we meant by that is that if we fuck up and don’t do our jobs to make the scenes interesting, to make the characters interesting, or we just fuck up and it just doesn’t quite meet expectations, we’ve got that craziness there as something that is interesting. But never, never did we just write a scene just to be crazy.

TrunkSpace: And we touched on this earlier, but the characters have so many layers. They’re not two-dimensional, which is another pleasant surprise for viewers who came in expecting one thing and got something else.
Roland: That was by design because when I pitched it, I pitched it on a whim as a joke. It was meant to be a silly, fake Grindhouse trailer back in 2011. I almost did it for a contest, but I couldn’t figure out how to do the blood engines, so I did something else instead, which obviously did not win. But this idea of the “Blood Drive” concept, cars that run on blood and a cross country race, all of my friends kept asking me about it. I could tell it sparked interest in people. And then when I pitched it, my manager said, “Yeah, write that, write that!” He got really excited. And then it was like, “Okay, but how do you turn it into a story?” Because it’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit. It doesn’t have legs. It doesn’t have, terrible pun intended, an engine that really keeps it going in a television format. And then I hit upon the idea of Arthur Bailey.

We named him Bailey because of George Bailey… because I wanted it to be like what happens when a Frank Capra character gets thrown into a Roger Corman movie. And then that cracked open the world, because then that set the bar. He’s a good guy, so what happens when you’re in a bad race? What does it do to you? What does it reveal about you, because everybody has dark secrets. We’re about to go on a three or four episode arc that really digs into Arthur and gets into a lot of that.

Keep in mind, Grindhouse isn’t actually a genre. If you’re going to be specific, Grindhouse is just a theater that played exploitation movies. When the movie “Grindhouse” came out, the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature, it kind of shifted into a genre, or at least an aesthetic. So within that there are some great frickin’ movies! “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gets thrown into that category. It’s a masterpiece. The Blood Trilogy by Herschell Gordon Lewis is not a masterpiece. (Laughter) It couldn’t be any further from it, although I love those movies for what they are. Roger Corman is considered a shock-meister and yet his pro movies are really heartfelt. “The Intruder” is just a bold, at the time, counter cultural kind of soapbox movie. In a good way! It deals with race relations, but he doesn’t get remembered for that. He gets remembered for “Death Race 2000,” which as cheesy as it is, it’s a brilliant social commentary. So yeah, that was always the goal. Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it can’t have dramatic value or even meaning. I don’t think that we’re a profound show. Of course not. But every episode we did say, “What is the episode about?” If we are going to be so brash and ridiculous and kind of have this ability to say things when people are not even going to realize we are saying them because they are too busy laughing or puking or whatever it is they’re doing, then let’s do it. Let’s say something.

The second part of our James Roland can be read here.

 

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