Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Long transcript of interview

Monday, December 5, 2011

Long transcript of interview



This is the complete transcript of my conversation with the director of "M.O." - for the shortened version, see here.

Hi Mitch, hope all is well. I know you were out this afternoon - were you working on anything related to M.O.? How much time does this project take up for you these days?

I was actually working at my full-time job today. I edit for a living, so all of the work I do for M.O. is done in my free time. I usually spend a least two or three hours a night working on the film, whether I'm revising the script, coordinating schedules with actors, or otherwise getting things ready for production. We're scheduled to start principal photography in six weeks, so we're right in the middle of pre-production and we have a lot to do before that can happen.

How much of the pre-production will have to wait until funding (via Kickstarter) is concluded? Are you getting any head starts on these elements, or just focusing now on the preliminaries?

There actually isn't too much we have to wait to do until we get our Kickstarter funds. Most of our expenses are for cast, crew, food, travel and lodging, which we don't have to pay for until closer to production. Things like props and costumes we can get cheaply now or they're things we might already have, and we're shooting entirely on location, so we don't have any set-building expenses. What we're really focusing on at the moment is rehearsing with our actors and doing camera tests with our DP, which luckily don't cost anything. So it's been great that we aren't heavily dependent on funding for pre-production, because we feel like we're ahead of the game at this point. We want to be completely ready to shoot the first minute we're actually on set, and right now it looks like that will happen.

In a few words, how would you introduce people to this film, your intent behind, and the process for creating it?

It's tough to be concise! But I'll give it a try:

M.O. is a realistic look at the life of a serial killer. The main character in the film is a seemingly average, ordinary guy. He's married, he has a daughter, and he has a job and a house like any middle-class family. But in secret, he's a pathological killer.

The intent behind this film is to treat this subject matter without sensation and to leave viewers asking more questions than they came into the film with. On my end, I wanted to make a film that addresses questions I've never seen answered in a film before. Questions such as: What does a serial killer do before and after a murder? How does he plan a murder and then live as if everything is normal, and that he hasn't committed a terrible crime? How does the family of a serial killer not know what he's up to?

The process for creating this film so far has been for me to put myself into this character's shoes. So I've had to imagine what I would do if I had just committed a murder, and then driven home and had dinner with my family as if it were just a regular day. Rather than simply studying the psychology of serial killers, I asked myself what they do when they aren't killing and what their everyday habits are. Do they watch TV like everyone else? Do they spend time with their families? In the main character of M.O.'s case, what is his relationship with his wife like? How does he treat his daughter? So I wanted to know how this character attempts to live like a regular person, and not simply what he does when he's in the process of committing a murder.

Sounds good - hopefully no Method acting involved! In your promotional materials, you say you've been researching the topic for years. When did the idea for this particular approach come to you, and what route did it take to its present state?

No Method acting on this one!

This particular approach is an idea I've been considering for a while now, maybe a year or so, but for a long time I didn't really know if it was the right way to go about it. But in August of this year I decided to just go for it, so I wrote a story outline and then I wrote the first draft of the script, which took about a month. I also watched various films and read a lot of books to help sharpen my focus, so to speak. At this point, I'm working on the fourth draft of the script and I'll probably be reworking it up to and even during the actual shoot.

Which particular films informed your vision and approach on this? You've mentioned the Dardennes - as far as the everyday/documentary serial killer aspect goes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog comes to mind (I think the latter is probably more comedic than what you're going for). Were there any particular films that influenced you by contrast - i.e. you don't want to do "this"?

For sure the films of the Dardenne brothers are an influence. Keane by Lodge Kerrigan is another, which is a great film that focuses heavily on its main character, who is mentally ill and searching for his lost daughter. I'm a big Ramin Bahrani fan, especially of Chop Shop. I also looked at the films of Bresson and some of the Italian Neorealist films, like Bicycle Thief. I also watched Gerry and Elephant by Gus Van Sant.

As far as what I don't want to do, even Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer shows more violence than I want to, although it is an interesting film and very good at what it does. But I don't want M.O. to focus on violence or a police investigation ( in fact, there are no cops in M.O.) like Silence Of The Lambs or Seven

Right away you know this guy is a killer, so there's no "mystery." It's a character study, through and through.

So the character will be revealed as a killer in one of the first few scenes? This was something I was wondering about - as you mentioned The Son in which the situation is kept purposefully unclear for quite a while. In that film, there's an ambivalence between whether we're "watching" the character or "seeing" with him; for your part, are you more interested in foregrounding the character's thought process, or purposefully maintaining a distance between the viewer and the character - allowing us to observe, but keeping us on the outside?

Yes, you find out quickly that he's a killer. I went back and forth on that point for a while, but I think it fits the story better to reveal it right away than to keep it a secret. It forces you to identify with the character, even though you probably don't like him.

There is going to be a purposeful distance between the audience and the character to the extent that you never really know what he's thinking. Instead, you have to observe his body language and behavior and draw your conclusions from that. In that way it's similar to The Son, but it's also different because we have a better idea of this character's purpose, where in The Son you don't know what he's doing or why.

Without revealing too much, can you say whether or not we're confronted, on a visceral level, with his violence right away? Or do we "know" he's a serial killer without having to experience all the bloody details at first? Quite simply: do we see him kill at the start of the film?

That's a very good question. There is a murder at the beginning of the film...but it's implied, rather than shown. That's another point I've gone back and forth on, and it's possible that I'll change my mind, but as it stands, you do not see the actual murder.

Will we eventually see him at his "worst", after we've gotten to know him primarily as a normal guy (even if we do know he's a serial killer)? Or is that a card you're holding up your sleeve...

That's a question that can only be answered by watching the film...

Ha, fair enough. Now as far as the influences go - you've mentioned neorealism and what might be called neo-neorealism: the films of Bahrahni and Kelly Reichardt and others (and obviously the Dardennes who are a major influence on the movement). Where will the film come down aesthetically? In traditional neorealism, it seems to me, the cameras gives the subjects more space - it observes without intruding - whereas in the more recent movies, there is a heavy emphasis on detail, on subjective camera strategies (handheld, close-up), and a tendency to identify visually - if not necessarily in other ways - with the subject.

When you say the film will have a "documentary" approach, are you leaning more towards the latter or will there be more of a, for lack of a better word, "classical" restraint (such as Bresson, even with his emphasis on close-ups, had)? Why will you be taking the particular approach you do (how does it relate to the character, or the vision you're expressing), and what are your thoughts, if any, on the combination of a "genre" subject matter and story device with a more naturalistic, semi-documentary aesthetic?

That's a good point about traditional neorealism having a more restrained, less intrusive feel. I think the reason those films were made in that style is that those directors wanted to regard the characters and the story and simply watch them live their lives. It's a more objective style than what many filmmakers are doing nowadays, which is to use the camera more actively and take a more intimate point of view.

For M.O., I considered these different styles and I decided that the best one to use is a more subjective, active camera. What it really comes down to is that M.O. is a film about "looking." A good portion of the film is spent following the main character as he stalks a new victim and learns her habits and her routine. 

He's watching her and we are right there with him. If I were to use a more passive, more objective camera style for this film, the the film would lose some of its power because we wouldn't be forced to "identify" with the main character's point of view. We would be seeing an event rather than a character. I want to get up close and show what it looks and feels like for someone like him to follow a stranger around and watch her live her life, which he is obviously planning to become a part of, whether she likes it or not.

The title of the film refers to the main character's modus operandi (method of operation), which is basically how he goes about planning and executing his plan to murder someone. And obviously that requires action on his part. I want to be right there with him as he goes through this process, so the camera has to move and has to be in his point of view in order to keep up with him. And hopefully, this style will bring new images into the world.

What devices and techniques - aside from shooting handheld and close-ups - will you use to convey not just what the character is seeing, but "how" he's seeing? And will you employ similar strategies for the domestic scenes as the stalking scenes? In other words, will your emphasis be on contrast or continuity between the two aspects of his life?

Good question. Sound will be key to "how" the main character sees in the film, which sounds paradoxical, but in fact it's one of the most effective ways to add layers to a film. What the viewer hears and does not hear is as important as what he or she sees and does not see. There's a great deal of silence in the film, which can be incredibly effective, as can simple sounds like breathing, or even the sound of an idle car engine. There are also to hear sounds that viewers don't expect that can jolt them or surprise them, and that will add to the film as well. There will also be no music in the film, so we won't be underlining important scenes or shots with the normal cues that music provides. In some ways, that levels the playing field on what is important visually and in an auditory sense. You'll have to really pay attention to know what's important, because we aren't going to gift-wrap it for you.

There will be a mixture of contrast and continuity between this character's domestic life and his stalking behavior. I don't think it's realistic for these aspects to be totally different or completely similar. It's more of a gray area than that. Realistically, his behavior doesn't completely change from one part of his life to the next.

One of the challenges I've noticed with some films in this vein - that some filmmakers negotiate better than others - is the way the documentary style can actually highlight the fiction; in other words, we are "observing" behavior as if it were unfolding before us, but in fact it has been created and planned. So unlike in a documentary, where the filmmaker really can take a backseat to the material, in a film like this you will both be realizing and establishing what we see, and trying to let it unfold in a "natural," "unforced" way.

There's question in here, I promise: what techniques or approaches, in writing, visual direction, and performance, do you use or plan on using to shoot a documentary on a fictional world you have created? This can go both for execution (what would you speak about to the actors, how would you pivot from dressing the set, say, to filming freely, perhaps even impusively within it) and preparation (what do you personally do to create a world that you can then "let loose" and allow to survive on its own terms)?

The first thing we're doing is establishing and creating complex characters with the actors. We want every character in the movie to be three-dimensional and real, so we're allowing our actors to incorporate their own ideas about their characters into the script and improvise parts of scenes, and then combining that material with what I've written to really create these people. We want our actors to really "know" these characters and their backgrounds before we start filming so that when they walk onto set, they can literally "be" that character and not feel like they are acting.

In terms of the writing, the script is full of little details that might seem insignificant, such as how a character walks a certain way or says a certain word, or how a lamp in a certain room looks, but really those details are what differentiate one character and one setting from another. I tried to put as many specific details as I could into the script so that each character and each scene is as "real" as I could make it. Combine a specific place with a specific, well-thought out character, and it's much easier to create a unforced documentary feel.

I'm also going to improvise on set when we're actually filming. I might tell one actor to perform a specific action and not inform the other actor in the scene, just to see what happens. It's always good to surprise and challenge your actors with new situations, because they are forced to react in much the same way they would in real life when unexpected things happen. So we'll have very specific instructions going into a scene that I might change completely at the last second just to add a new element to the scene.

This makes a good segue into my next question - watching the promo video for the Kickstarter campaign, obviously you can have a light touch when needed and do something with a more slick, viewer-friendly approach. You've also mentioned doing editing and photography work, freelance, presumably (at least somewhat) in the commercial realm.

From the sound of it, your film will be quite different in its aesthetic - but do you feel that you'll take some of what you've learned in other working environments and apply it here? Will differing sensibilities (aside from the Dardenne/neo-neorealist influence) inform the movie; will there be a mixture of art and entertainment in your storytelling style? Or will there be a fairly strict divide between work you've done for hire, and what you're doing here?

I'll definitely be able to apply different sensibilities to this film. The aesthetic is different than most of the things I usually edit or photograph, but I think all of those skills and ideas will help me make a better film simply because my knowledge is greater than it would be if I had a narrow focus.

It's hard to judge whether the film will be more art or entertainment; I think that's a question for the viewer to answer. I do know that this is not a film that everyone will enjoy, because it requires more than simply sitting back and letting it happen to you. You'll have to get involved and you'll have to think in order to get something out of it. But that actually excites me as a filmmaker and as an audience member. Why watch a movie that requires no thought? Sure, it can be a nice escape, but I'd rather feel as if I've experienced something new and important when I leave the theater. I'm not saying my film will necessarily touch people in a deep way, but I am trying to provide a window into a character and a situation that we don't often see. If I accomplish that, then I've done something.

What were some of the changes the material went through, as you prepared it?

The majority of the changes were detail-related. As I wrote the script, I knew for the most part what the structure of the film would be, because I knew how we going to shoot the movie, stylistically and visually. What I didn't know when I first started writing were all the little details and specifics that make each scene and character unique. So I worked my way from broad and general to the minute details. A good example of this is the main character's car. At first I just wrote that he drives a "car," no particular make or model. But going back to it, I realized he had to drive a very specific type of car, because he's a very detail-oriented person. He'd want a particular type of vehicle that fits his personality and his reasons for buying it would be more complex than simply "I need a car."

Why is he unnamed? Are you looking to make him an Everyman, or to highlight his individuality?

The name issue was something I struggled with because I didn't really want to leave him unnamed for a particular reason. I just could not come up with a name that I liked or that seemed to fit when I started writing, so I left it it blank. And then I realized later that none of the characters call each other by name at any point in the film. But in many ways that's true to life. You sometimes don't call a girlfriend or a family member by their name for days at a time. So in the end I decided to leave each character unnamed.

What specifically does the serial killer DO when he’s not killing? Obviously some of his activities are mundane, but in everyone’s life, mundane details have a specificity that makes them memorable or immersive - can you give us a sense of a few of the details you will be using to bring out the particular in the universal? What do his activities tell us about him, as a person, and as a killer?

Here's the thing about serial killers: even when they aren't killing, they're often thinking about killing, or about a murder they've previously committed. They're experiencing whatever "emotions" those thoughts and memories conjure up for them. And those thoughts often inform whatever they're doing at that particular moment. For example, there's a scene in M.O. where the main character is playing basketball with his daughter at a park, and he sees a woman jogging by herself in the distance. He takes a break from their game at that exact moment to get a drink of water and just watch the woman as she exercises. His daughter doesn't think anything of it because she's busy taking her own water break, but it's obvious that the guy having a disturbing thoughts about this woman. So those thoughts never leave him, even when he's with his family.

The other thing this guy does, specifically, when he isn't killing, is the actual stalking of a new person. The title of the film refers to this character's modus operandi (method of operation), which is how he goes about accomplishing a murder. He stalks a woman and learns her habits, her routine, her schedule. I don't want to give too much away, but this is how we learn about how his mind works and what he wants.

Not using coverage, sticking to long takes, what is your approach going to be scene-by-scene? How much are you preparing, in terms of storyboards, shot lists, etc., and how much room are you leaving for discovering your approach on set? (You mentioned improvising on set, which gives me some ideas but how much of a safety net will you have underneath in terms of preparation?)

We're rehearsing each scene in great detail and we're filming those rehearsals the same way we're going to shoot the actual film so we have a reference when we actually shoot. We'll still leave room for improvisation and changes on set, but for the most part we'll know exactly how the scene is going to play out beforehand. That's partly a time issue, since we need to shoot quickly, but it's also helpful to be fully prepared to shoot the scene in a particular way because changing one or two things won't completely throw the actors off and force them to work without any idea of what they need to do. I don't know that we'll do storyboards, but we'll definitely have detailed shot lists and those reference rehearsal videos to play back and see what we've done previously.

Obviously, while your style may be close to that of young filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt or Ramin Bahrani, but your content is quite different (although she did just make a Western)? How do you see the relationship between genre and naturalism? In approaching your material, are you interested in playing with genre conventions, subverting or twisting them, or are you more interested in approaching the serial-killer story as if it's never been done before, in other words as if you've discovered an interesting human situation and aren't really interested in playing with formalized takes on the subject?

I don't know that I've thought extensively about the relationship between genre and naturalism or about going against convention. When I decided on the style of M.O., I thought about it terms of how I could best show this specific character living his life and how to best serve the story. I don't consider this a "serial killer" film or even a "realist" film, necessarily. I see it as a character study. The shooting style is simply the best tool I could think of to help me get to the heart of the character.

Speaking of documentary, aside from using handheld camera and long takes, how will you be working with the actors to facilitate a documentary feel to the performances? What will your rehearsal process be, and how are you focusing the actors on this aspect of performance? (You addressed some of this in your other answers, but I'm particularly interested in the rehearsal angle.)

Extensive preparation is obviously the key, but more specifically, I'm allowing the actors to add their own take on their characters. I've asked each actor to write an extensive bio about their character and then I'll sit down with each of them and flesh their characters out fully.

We're also going to film our rehearsals and watch them back almost like game film so I can point out things I like and don't like and give the actors a chance to see what works and what doesn't. It can be a great help to see yourself on film so you can address what needs to change.

How is the Kickstarter campaign going? What is the goal? What are you doing to try to reach that goal? How is the budget to be distributed? What will happen if the goal is not met by the deadline?

The Kickstarter campaign is going well! We're trying to raise $20,000 by December 17th. We've done a lot of marketing and PR so far to get the word out about the campaign, and we've also sent out a number of emails to people we know and to people we don't know to try to get them involved. The key to Kickstarter is persistence!

The budget will be distributed like it would be on any film. We've got pay our cast and crew, we need to pay for lodging, food, props, a few locations, and we also have post-production expenses like our sound mix and color correction. I'm not paying myself...in fact I'm putting a lot of my own money into the project. We're also putting some of the money aside to send out rewards to people that contribute to our Kickstarter campaign....DVDs, leather-bound scripts...the essentials!

We're 100% sure we're going to make our Kickstarter goal, so we aren't worried about not getting the funding.

What determined the location? And the time schedule?

The location is a little suburb called Castro Valley in Northern California. We chose Castro Valley for a few reasons: One, it's not Los Angeles, where it's difficult to shoot without money and without it looking like Los Angeles. Castro Valley has an Anywhere, USA feel and people never shoot there, so the locations will be unrecognizable and easy to access. We also know people that live in Castro Valley, so we have access to some great locations that we don't have to pay for.

We originally planned to shoot the film in March (in time submit to the Venice Film Festival), but I changed the shoot date to January because I wanted to submit to the Cannes Film Festival ( the deadline is in March). I wanted to shoot for the stars and go for Cannes.

How big is your crew? How did you meet the people involved?

Our crew will probably be 8 people, including me, so it's small. We don't have the budget for much else.
Brittany Lynne Jones is our producer. She's been my creative partner for a 3 or 4 years and she's the rock I can lean on when I need something. She'll be managing the production and getting everything in place so I can focus on directing.

I cold-called David Rodriguez, our Director of Photography, after seeing his reel online and we met for coffee a few months ago. It turned out that he was looking to shoot a feature and he owned his own RED camera (which we wouldn't be able to afford otherwise), so it ended up being a perfect fit. He read the script and loved it, and got on board when we met up the second time.

Most of the rest of our crew I knew before I started the project.

How did you find Sarah Deakins? What role will she play in the film? Do you have a lead actor cast? What are you looking for in actors for this film?

Sarah plays the main character's wife. She was the first person I auditioned for the wife role after I put out the casting notice and I knew right away she was the right choice. She came in and read a particularly intense scene between the wife and the main character and she just killed it. I didn't even need to make any adjustments with her as we read through the scene a few times. She knew exactly what I wanted without me having to tell her. It was great.

I have cast a lead actor. It was the most difficult role to cast, obviously, and I was struggling to find the right actor for the part. I auditioned a lot of guys and none of them quite worked. The last guy I auditioned came in and we ended up talking for about an hour about the script and the character before we even got to the audition, which he nailed. He "got" the character, so to speak, and he looked the part as well. He'll be great.

I was looking for actors that don't try to hard and feel comfortable in their own skin. Becuase this film is based in realism, I need actors that can just be the character, instead of "acting" the part. That's not a great explanation...it's mostly just based on feel and instinct. All the actors I've cast, I FEEL that they're the right person for the part.

How long will you be shooting, how long will your days be? What will the production schedule be like?

We've given ourselves 14 days. Hopefully we can get away with 12 to 14 hour days, but they may end up going longer. It's hard to say. It's going to be a quick shoot, but because we aren't shooting traditional coverage, we don't have a ton of set-ups and we should be able to get what we need without rushing.

Are you renting equipment or do you own most of what you need? How did you get to the point of having the necessary tools?

We're renting a few things here and there, but as I said, our DP has his own RED camera and between the two us, we have a pretty extensive lighting kit, which would be our biggest expenses if we didn't have what we needed already, so that's a huge burden that's been lifted. As far as props and costumes, we'll have to rent or buy a few things, but it shouldn't be a huge cost. Brittany and I have been doing photography for a few years now, so we've collected a lot of equipment in that time that we can use for this film, and David owns most of his own equipment as well.

What are your plans for distribution?

We'll be submitting to a number of film festivals, starting with Cannes, and then see what happens from there. It would be great to get an art-house release, but obviously there's no guarantee that will happen.

What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process? Where do you foresee the most challenges, and what do you do to deal with those challenges?

I love the editing process, because you're really able to shape your vision into something tangible. Being on set is usually stressful and sometimes you feel like you don't know what you're doing, but when something really works it's a great feeling.

I'm not sure what the biggest challenge will be on this film...the time issue, perhaps? The best thing we can do is prepare, prepare, prepare and deal with issues that come up one at a time so we don't get overwhelmed.

Where did your love of film come from, and at what point did you consider direction as a career? What choices did you make to facilitate this?

I've always loved movies. When I was in high school I did a lot of video projects and it just made sense to take the leap to movies. I knew that one day I'd make a movie, just to prove to myself that I COULD make one if for no other reason. I watch, study and dissect movies and books because I want to learn how to tell a story. 

Where would you like to go from here? Do you plan to continue independent filmmaking, or are you hoping for a career within the industry?

I've already got another idea for a film I'd like to make (another low-budget indie), and I've always wanted to make a noir film. I don't know if I want to stay independent or try to maker it in the industry. Wherever I can make the movies I want to make, that's where I'll go (so probably independently..haha).

What advice do you have for other filmmakers looking to make something outside of the current system? About preparation? About execution?

It's an obvious piece of advice, but JUST DO IT. I can't tell you how important perseverance and being pro-active are. If you want to make a film, make a film. Don't dwell on what you can't do and can't control. If I did that with M.O., I wouldn't have stuck with it. You just have to keep moving forward no matter what.
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If you would like to support M.O., please visit the Kickstarter page to find out more.

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