JON: I’ve spent my adult professional life as an actor, 25+ years now. But it was films that really drew me to acting in the first place. I started watching films seriously in high school, all the great ones of the ’70’s, The Godfather I & II, Clockwork Orange, Network, et al, and then took some basic filmmaking classes in college.
After I had moved to LA, and VHS took hold, my friends and I would clown around with camcorders and rudimentary editing equipment. Actors were then having to make demo reels, so to save money I started doing it at home by connecting two VHS players together and editing by hitting “play” on one and “record" on the other.
Thankfully, Final Cup Pro 1 came out, and I was more than ready to jump into digital. I bought a nice (at the time) 3 chip digi-camcorder and started making short films. FCP opened a whole world of experimentation to me. Things I never even thought could be done, or even realized before that this is how it’s done.
Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?
JON: McCaleb Burnett came to me with an earlier version of the script that had gone through a couple of rewrites. He and Jeff Barry (who’s also a co-producer) had done the first draft, which I never saw. It was really Jeff and Mac’s idea to begin with, but what they gave me was more like a “thrill kill” movie, which I don’t relate to. But I loved the basic idea and the setting.
I had gotten my first script (The Hard Easy, with Bruce Dern, Vera Farmiga and Peter Weller) made, so I think they saw an opportunity to work with someone who had already been down this road. McCaleb and I were both living in LA at the time, and I pitched the idea of making something more of a revenge film, but not revealing that until later in the story.
I came up with a couple new characters, gave the “Henry” character (played by Burnett in the film) a new motivation, and we went from there. When I wrote Hard Easy (with actor Tom Schanley), we came up with an approach that we would each take one side of the story, write those scenes with certain beats in mind, then blend it together. It worked well, and that’s what Mac and I did.
Then, fortuitously, about a year later, we were all living in New York. The three of us (Mac, Jeff and I) would get together weekly or bi-monthly to work out more tweaks with the goal of actually producing the film in New England.
JON: Jeff and McCaleb wrote the first draft with certain actor friends of theirs in mind. Cassandra Freeman, Jacob H Knoll and Luke Robertson are among those friends that would up doing the film. Jeff and I held a casting session to fill the other roles, and that’s how Mikal Evans, Brianne Moncrief and Richard Bekins came into it.
The script did not change at all. Everyone had strong theater backgrounds and training, and were all game for anything. They were also all well suited to their characters, so there was no reason to switch up the dialogue. I got lucky.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
JON: Not much to say. There were two outside investors who put up a portion of the budget, but frankly, the lion’s share came from me. Our recoupment will depend on how widely seen the movie is, and what’s left after the distributors, unions and sales agents take their cuts. Pretty typical.
I didn’t make the movie to make money, but I will say this notion that indie filmmakers make movies only to have everyone who showed up late in the game take all the dough is ludicrous. Another reason I love digital is because it’s the great democratizer. Thankfully, our distributor, Devolver, has been great. Very transparent and supportive. That’s why we signed with them.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JON: Red One MX. Loved it. Mostly its durability. August tends to be very hot and muggy in Rochester, NY, where we shot, and that year was no exception. But on our budget, it allowed us to get the shot when we needed it, and do fairly long retakes of scenes without stopping the roll. It even let us know the one time it jammed so we could do it again. Once we got to color correction we had a vast amount of information to work with. Not a bad thing I can say about it.
What was your process for directing yourself?
JON: Strangely, it wasn’t difficult. I wasn’t even going to be in it, but the actor we had suddenly needed to drop out. It happens. It was my soon-to-be-wife, Cady McClain, who suggested I play the role myself. It made sense, I was right for it and it’s not like I would drop out for any reason. I had done it in some shorts, so it wasn’t entirely new.
Our method was for me to decide where the camera would go and what coverage we would get for my scenes. Then Jeff Barry, who’s also a filmmaker, would step into the director’s spot. We’d go until he felt we had it. Then I’d do a Woody Allen and watch the playback. I don’t remember thinking we had to do it again once that was done. And I’ve done a fair amount of acting in TV, which is also very fast, but you develop this instinct that lets you know when you’ve got the shot or performance you need.
It was fun. I’d do it again.
JON: Yes! I’ve been told to expect three stages of the film, and each has it’s own creative life: 1. The Script is one stage and from it you know what you’re going for. 2. The Shoot, when the creative energy of so many people inform the material in new ways, is another stage. 3. The Edit, when you really learn if you got what you intended and if it’s working.
In each stage I learned that the piece will “talk” to you. It will let you know what it wants to be in addition to what you set out to do. And you have to let it communicate to you, just like you would an actor or the DP when they have an idea. So that guided us (me and editor, Tony Randel) as we assembled the rough cut, and in Tony’s case, the rough is just about the final. He’s that good.
But we also realized that our story would stop for periods of time, and that’s just boring. The actors were all terrific, the scenes cut together nicely, but it didn’t feel like it had momentum and tension was being lost. We had already played around with jump cuts very early in the film, like when “Henry” comes home and swims in Lake Ontario, so we knew we could play with time.
Then we decided to cut about 25 minutes out, and things really got interesting. We jumped past character intros, and then, per Tony’s idea, we moved the biggest scene from two-thirds in, to almost the end. Suddenly, the movie worked.
JON: The smartest? Believing I could do it. The dumbest? Believing I could do it.
Seriously, I don’t know if I can pat my own back that way. But I am proud of taking something I learned from directing multi-camera TV: A few times in the film I brought characters together by using a wide shot and bringing it to a 2-shot, and then I could move in for CU’s having gotten wide and medium shots in one go. Saved a lot of time and made it interesting for the camera crew since they have to hold focus through it all. I also used it to end one scene and get us into another. It’s not new, but it’s useful, it looks good and is the kind of thing you can do on the fly.
As for the dumbest, that was trying to shoot the most important scene of the movie on the beach of Lake Ontario on a Saturday night in August. Parties were going on up and down the beach, then it started raining on and off and we have to shoot between that and the music coming from all those parties. Oh, and the bystanders who want to cat-call through takes. It made for a very frustrating night, and for a real editing challenge because I didn’t get everything I really wanted. At least it wasn’t me that made up the shooting schedule, but I should’ve seen that coming. Now I know.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JON: That you may be the director and have the final say, but the experience has to be a communal one. It’s important to get together beforehand and at times during the production to eat together like a family and have some laughs. That’s something we should all learn from Coppola. He does it right.
And I wish I had more money to pay people. I will on the next one.
And I wish I had more money to pay people. I will on the next one.