In high school I wanted to be a painter. I actually wanted to be a comic book artist, but around sophomore year I started watching a lot of Hong Kong action movies and some friends and I decided to make a Hong Kong shoot ‘em up film. We borrowed a VHS camcorder and went out and shot a movie. I really enjoyed the process, so by the time I went to college I already knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was an undergrad at Columbia University, which doesn’t really have a film department. So, I made my own movies throughout college, and when I graduated from Columbia I made a schedule for myself to make a short film every six months and to write a feature film every nine months. I made about twelve short films, and Windowbreaker was the one that anyone paid any kind of attention to when it got into the Sundance Film Festival.
I made all these low budget short films with budgets from one hundred dollars to eight hundred dollars that were very ambitious. The ideas were too big for the budgets. With Windowbreaker I wanted to go back to the way I made films in high school, which didn’t need to be so planned out or require any money. When I was a kid there was a break-in on our street and everyone ran out and got alarm systems. It created a wave of paranoia. That event inspired the movie, which is about a series of break-ins in a racially mixed neighborhood based on the neighborhood I grew up in. I wrote a three-page treatment with no dialogue, and I thought we would figure out the dialogue when we shot it. The film had a budget of six hundred dollars, and we shot it in my childhood home with all non-actors.
I just like to prep as much as I can and work together with my department heads. I believe in the top down approach – sit down and talk to all of your department heads as well as the actors and make sure we are all making the same movie. I think it’s good to talk big picture and not get bogged down on the details first. The most important thing is that everybody on set knows the type of movie we are making and the scale of the movie that we are making so that everyone’s expectations are in the right place.
I think every production I work on I realize how little I know. I think every production is a series of aha moments where I am learning from my DP, my actors, and everyday I step on set there are a series of aha moments when I’m like, “Aha! That’s the correct way of doing it!”
I was holding the camera a lot and also getting the actors to improvise and telling them to do things while I was rolling, because we shot with a mini DV camera, which was actually a hip thing to do back in 2006. A lot of the footage was really shaky, which I found out when I was editing. I edited a really bad assemble edit of the film. It was around 25 minutes long, and nothing was really working. So I did a trade with Anna Boden, the co-director of Sugar and Half Nelson. It’s kind of a funny story. The trade was I would paint the poster for Half Nelson if she edited Windowbreaker, and she cut it down to about ten minutes. That was the first time I worked with an editor, and since then I never wanted to edit my own stuff again.
With Windowbreaker the casting was totally improvised. We cast the teenage boys in the film with some kids who hung out outside of my mother’s real estate agency in Chinatown. On the day of the shoot the main kid I liked, because he looked really tough, didn’t show up. So I decided to use one of the other kids who showed up. That split second decision to cast this new kid over the other kid taught me how to make the best of what was available and that if I made a split second decision it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. It taught me to stay limber and make the best decision on what is available.
Well, I think good directing is based on how well you cast the roles in the first place. We looked at three hundred kids before we cast the leads. When I wrote the script for Children of Invention I always thought that I would have to improvise with the script, since I didn’t think kids that age would be able to memorize lines, but then they showed up and had memorized everything.
When I was making short films all I wanted was to have my short films play at Sundance. When that happened, all I wanted was have to have my feature play at Sundance. Now as I get older I just want to make movies that I care about and continue working, which is a feat in and of itself. I like to describe my career as a moving target – when you get one thing you just want the next thing.
Windowbreaker premiered at the Long Island International Film Expo, and I was really excited, because it was the first festival I ever went to. And at the screening it was me, my Mom, my sister, and three other people who had a short in the same program (laughs). There was no one else in the theater (laughs). But then we played at the Woodstock Film Festival and then at Sundance, and that was amazing. Those were the first few times where I was meeting people who were short filmmakers, doc filmmakers, feature filmmakers. It was also the first time I was able to contextualize what it means to have a career in film and meet people who actually have worked in film for a long time. I had a context for where I was in the greater scheme of things. When I look back I think if I didn’t have that film play at Sundance I don’t think I would have gotten the money to make my first feature film, because there is excitement around a director when his film gets into Sundance or a top tier festival. People weren’t really watching short films on the Internet the way they are now. That didn’t really exist back then. But I knew going into this that it would be a long journey and that I would have to be very active, work hard, and that nothing was ever going to be handed to me.
I always liked different types of movies, but now that I am thinking back about it, my English teacher in high school, Mr Zilliax, brought in the movie The Graduate one day, and he would pause it and analyze the movie like it was a great work of literature. He looked at symbolism, character, staging – he broke down the movie in such a way I had never seen before, and that was the first time I started watching movies differently.
You know, I don’t know. It’s very confusing. You go to one meeting in the morning and they’re like “The indie film world has completely imploded.” and then you go to a meeting in the afternoon and they’re like “It’s never been as good a time for indie film.” Everyone has his or her own opinion about it. For me, all I can do is make movies at budgets that are reasonable and not contribute to the implosion of indie film.
What was so fun about the low budget nature of my short film Windowbreaker was that I felt so free and relaxed on set. I wasn’t scared about anything, and I was as relaxed as possible. With my first feature it was different. I hadn’t had that many people on set before, so managing all the people was different. Keeping an entire feature film on track in my head was something I had never done before, so it definitely felt like another first for me.
I just finished a feature film called Cold Comes the Night about a career criminal, played by Bryan Cranston, who is losing his eyesight and is separated from a package he is trying to smuggle over the US-Canadian border. In order to get the package back from the crooked cop he takes this hotel owner, played by Alice Eve, hostage to be his eyes as he tries to pursue the package from the crooked cop. We are going to have a one hundred screen release in the UK on September 20th and then a US release sometime in January.
Well, we had done a lot of prep together. I obviously felt confident that all the actors knew what they were doing (laughs) and that I knew what I was doing. Let me put it this way, I didn’t necessarily feel confident, but I felt confident about projecting enough confidence that people wouldn’t be worried about me on set.
I think the person in charge dictates the attitudes of the people working on a movie. I trust my producers, I trust my actors, and I trust my department heads. If a disaster happens, we are all smart people and we’ll figure it out. You hear horror stories about film productions, and it’s amazing how one small lapse in judgment can taint the atmosphere on set. It just takes the director freaking out for five minutes and all of a sudden that set is poisoned. The key for me is while you try and retain creative control over the entire project you have to make sure you retain control over yourself. You have to project a level of confidence and Zen because no one wants to work with someone who is freaking out.
When you look back at something you’ve done there are certain things you are proud of and things that you’re not proud of. And a lot of that is something you can’t possibly know until you are done editing a movie. On the next movie you try to fix the things you’re not proud of as well as reinforce the things that you are proud of.
I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think it’s personality management. We’ve talked about how we need to manage our own personality when you’re on set to create a productive environment for everyone that you brought on to the movie. When you work on bigger movies you’re putting your trust in a lot of people, and you have to be able to tell what’s going to inspire those people to work for you. So much of your movie is out of your hands by the time you start rolling, and you need to inspire all the people you’re working with to make the same movie that you want to make, and you need to make sure you make them feel confident and relaxed enough to be inspired to do their best work.
Midnight Cowboy. I just watched it again, and I think I will probably watch it again this weekend. A new film that blew me away recently was Enter the Void, just in terms of an independent film with a lot of ambition. It was refreshing to see a movie that wasn’t just five people who just graduated from college talking to each other.
Director / William Morris Endeavor