What was your filmmaking background before making The Telephone Game?
JASON: In high school, all my friends were in drama club so I eventually joined as an actor and was in every play they put on while I was there. I took a video class and ended up making a short slasher movie with Jesse Frankson (The Telephone Game). I actually almost didn't graduate because I devoted so much time to acting in plays and making movies.
After high school, I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which was an eye-opening experience, being exposed to experimental cinema and just a whole variety of things I have never knew existed. I began dissecting all kinds of movies and learned how to edit film by hand with a razor and tape.
My second year of college I started a special effects business making rain and snow. About a year later, I was working on the Warner Bros. film, North Country, starring Charlize Theron. After paying off some debts, I used what little money I had left to fund my first feature, Stimulus. I hadn't really made many shorts other than a few 16mm films in college; I basically just jumped right into a feature.
After that I directed several music videos, edited a documentary that got distributed and did a lot of professional PA work before jumping into The Telephone Game.
Where did the idea come from? What was the writing process like?
JASON: The film is actually unscripted. The actors used improvisation to create all the dialogue you hear in the film. So, the whole film was shot from a 5-page treatment that I wrote with a rough outline of the story and notes on what happened within each scene.
I also wrote backstories for the actors so they had a place to work from as we developed their characters. The Invisible Ropes, the play they are working on in the film was written by Wesley Tank, who plays the playwright and director in the film. When I cast him, he was really interested in writing the play that would be featured in the film. It worked out in an interested way, because the idea was that no one in film really understands what his character’s play is about or what they are getting themselves into, except him.
Wes wrote something that I know was very personal to him, but others in the cast of the film didn’t really feel like they understood it, which is the central theme to the film; how do we create art and what does it mean to share that with others, particularly in the world of theater and film, which are inherently collaborative art forms. So, it was a case of life imitating art, or perhaps art imitating life.
What were the positives and negatives of using improvisation the way you did?
JASON: The negative is that it’s difficult to plan and schedule. Logistically it’s very tough. Some scenes that I thought would be smaller became much bigger as we workshopped them and began to shoot them, which alters the schedule and the shooting plan.
You also really have to put a lot of trust in your actors and they have to put a lot of trust in you - trust that you’ll take the best of what they’re doing. It was also challenging in the editing room, since we had shot so much different stuff. We shot over 24 hours of footage in 17 days.
The positive is that so many amazing things came out of the actor’s mouths that could have never been scripted. No one writer could have thought to sit down and write these particular words. It was a collective of people, all with their own ideas bouncing around, creating in the moment.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JASON: We used the HVX200. The great thing about it is that it’s fairly light weight and it’s pretty versatile for documentary style shooting, which we did to a certain extend in the film. The downside is that you can't change lenses and it’s difficult to get the shallow depth of field that you can now go on a DSLR.
What was your reasoning for shooting in black and white and how do you think that decision will help or hurt the movie?
JASON: When I was envisioning the film, all the images in my head didn’t have any color in them so I stuck with that intuition. I also wanted the film to not be committed to any specific time period. I wanted it to obviously not be the present and instead take place in an ambiguous past. Time period isn’t important to the story. I wanted something a little more timeless because it’s more about ideas, people and the creative process.
For a while it’s been considered somewhat of a hindrance to a distributor/ marketer if your film is in black and white, but the The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar last year, was a black and white film AND it was silent.
I love black and white films. There are so many films that were made before color was more of the standard that would be completely different had they been in color. The other nice thing about shooting a film that’s very low budget in black and white, is that it really helps in unifying your production design. People wore all kinds of colors that on set looked like they would clash but on camera looked like all part of the same world.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JASON: The smartest thing I did was cast some of the most interesting people I know, people that crack me up and are always entertaining to simply be around. I had a feeling that would translate to the screen. I knew that if I put them all in the same place something unique was bound to happen.
Dumbest? Looking back I wish I had a larger production team to help strictly on the organizational end. The people I did have were amazing, but we were still always a little shorthanded and everyone wore a lot of hats. As a smaller operation you end up having to juggle the creative side of it and the logistical/ planning side, which can be very difficult. At times the crew was very small. I’m pretty sure the boom pole was held up by the ghost of an old submarine captain.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JASON: The whole thing has certainly been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever taken on. So, I learned a lot about myself and my own creative process as well as the creative processes of others. It taught me how to share and communicate my ideas with actors, be collaborative, while steering everyone in the same direction.