JAMES: I got my degree in Film from T.C.U., but I actually hadn't directed film in a while. I had done a student feature, a short, and some things like that.
I'd primarily focused on directing theatre for several years before Yesterday Was a Lie. But I missed film; and, as a director, I missed the palette that you have when you're working in a medium that "records" the art, as opposed to the ephemerality of theatre. In theatre, you're at the mercy of your actors once the curtain goes up. So it's a powerful medium for the actor, definitely.
But film was my first love, so I was glad to be able to get back into it and direct my first commercial feature, which is Yesterday Was a Lie.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JAMES: The idea really came from an image... a shot that suddenly came to me one day. It was of Bacall playing Bogart's role; a female noir detective, lonely, wandering the streets. That grew into the concept of using noir tropes -- as well as metaphysical, science-fiction motifs -- as metaphors for the way our minds and hearts experience reality, time, memory, love, and loss.
The writing process was isolated but also collaborative, if you'll excuse the oxymoron. Film is strange that way. I think it is an auteur's medium, certainly, but also one in which you have to strike a balance, because you're ultimately collaborating with a crew, actors, producers, etc.
So I worked on an early draft of the script for about a year, I'd say; and during that time, I bounced a lot of ideas off the film's co-producers, and especially Andrew Deutsch, one of the co-executive producers and occasional writing partner of mine. I didn't do a treatment for this particular script -- for whatever reason, that tends not to work well for me. But I didn't rush into the script at all. A lot of long walks were involved. I think I let my subconscious take over for a while, and just let the words flow.
The script was revised many times before production. MANY times. After Kipleigh was cast as Hoyle, that affected some of the dialog as well... working with her, I altered lines or beats within scenes.
Ultimately, I wanted the film's dialog and performances to have a rather blunted affectation... to suggest a world that is not quite real; familiar but somehow a little "off." Once we got on set, it was pretty much locked. There was only one line of dialog changed during production, I believe, at the request of an actor.
And in post, a couple lines were cut. In fact, after screening an early cut on the festival circuit, I was able to monitor audience reaction and see what was playing well, and where there were lulls in the pace. So I made some further, relatively minor changes to dialog before the commercial theatrical release.
What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a small budget?
JAMES: Time, efficient planning, and commitment.
If you have a small budget, you don't want that to show in the "look" of the film. We didn't let that happen. We wanted the mise-en-scene, the music, the sound to be of high production value, and I think we achieved that. But you have to have a lot of time in advance to prepare for such things.
We spent years developing this project, several months of full-on pre-production, and over a year of post. That made up for the fact that we only had four weeks to shoot a film that was extremely visually ambitious and involved over 50 different story locations.
I storyboarded every shot in the film, so we didn't waste time on set figuring out details. I knew them all going in. We shot little or no coverage, because we just didn't have time. That's the same thing Shane Carruth did with Primer. And when you do that, you better have the entire film already finished in your mind, so you know precisely what you have to shoot, and what you don't.
I also spent a lot of time with the actors in the months leading up to production, fleshing out their characters and adjusting the script accordingly.
How did you achieve your film noir/black and white look?
JAMES: Our DP, Jason Cochard, is incredibly talented. We shot with a Panavised Sony CineAlta camera, and desaturated the color in post. I worked with our designers to ensure that the colors of objects were such that Jason could manipulate the individual color channels digitally in post-production, prior to removing the color completely. That allowed us to adjust the gamma, brightness, and contrast of individual objects or faces within each shot. So basically, we used tones on-set that would look good in black-and-white, but looked awful in color! Some of the color production stills are rather funny to look at.
We also did subtle things, to mimic the way that lenses and film stocks from the 30s and 40s picked up light. Vignetteing... soft halos around the whites... things like this.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make this movie ... and how did you overcome it?
JAMES: The biggest obstacle in making the film was the budget, and we overcame that with planning and perseverance.
The biggest obstacle in releasing and marketing the film is probably the fact that it's designed for a niche audience. That was a conscious choice on my part. This is not a film for everyone; although the critical response has been 80% positive, we've found that audiences either love it or hate it. Which is exactly what I'd anticipated.
So when you have a film that you know is going to play well to specific demographics, it's a challenge for the distributor to market it. One way we're doing that is by creating a spin-off web series, focusing on some of the smaller characters in the story, which premiered in January. And we're still looking for an overseas distributor -- as of now, the film's only been released in North America.
Despite the challenging material, I wanted to make this film as my first movie, because I knew I'd probably never have the chance to do it again. And if you don't come out of the starting gate with something new and different -- if you start off by making yet another 90s-style twenty- or thirty-somethings indie character drama -- you'll get lost in the pool.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JAMES: The smartest thing was, again, careful preparation. Creative use of space. When you have a film with over 50 locations in the script, and you have 26 days to shoot, you have to be extremely clever with your design and shot composition, because there's no way you'll actually be able to go to 50 different places.
The noir style worked in our favor, actually, because film noir was sort of the original "indie" film. When John Alton immigrated to the U.S., he had a difficult time getting funding for his movies. So he shot them in a style in which sets drop off into darkness; where camera angles and stripes of light set the mood, rather than huge locations.
I can't think of anything particularly "dumb" that we did, although there's something that caused us a major headache. It was planned, and done with the full knowledge of the difficulty it would later entail, because I felt it was a critical creative choice. Specifically, I'm talking about the fact that Chase Masterson's character sings actual, licensed jazz songs in the film.
It's an understatement to say that music licensing is very, very difficult. But I didn't want to have these gorgeous shots and actresses, and then have the music be "fake," sound-alike music. If the film didn't have the genuine articles, it would be lacking. So we licensed classic songs like "Where Do You Start," and I think that makes a huge difference.
Fortunately, we've gotten a fair amount of press in the jazz community, and now a soundtrack deal with La-La Land Records. So that's the plus side to using pre-existing songs. The downside is that it costs a lot of money and time, and is a logistical nightmare.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
JAMES: Never to do another film on this budget!
Seriously, though... making a film for this little money is so exhausting -- it takes so much out of you -- I couldn't imagine doing it again. But I did learn to maximize my resources, be efficient, and plan plan plan.
If you continue to do those things, then even with a slightly higher budget than we had on Yesterday Was a Lie, you can create material that looks a lot more expensive than it really is.