TYLER: I was lucky to grow up in a public school system that offered video production elective classes from middle school on. When it came time to apply to college, I realized that what I'd actually been doing the longest and enjoyed the most was playing with cameras, so I decided to go to film school and ended up in the directing program at Chapman University.
Chapman had just built a huge new facility for film, so the curriculum and rules were still being fine-tuned. It was the Wild West of the department when you could get away with anything as long as you found a loophole.
The most valuable part of film school is actually the people you meet, and I started to hang out with other kids who wanted to tug on those loopholes too. We started working together on everything, which is how The Ironwood Gang came about. Our student films were just the biggest, most complicated experiments we could come up with, a way to make mistakes and aim high without any consequences.
We shot The Phoenix Project a month after graduating, but what really made it possible was that we'd already done a ton of shorts together.
Where did the idea for the movie come from and what was the writing process like?
TYLER: One of the biggest mysteries to a young aspiring filmmaker is how to get started, and the more people I'd ask about it, the more vague the notion became. It was clear that unless I started planning a film for the other side of school, there wasn't going to be one, so I needed to come up with an idea that could be achieved for limited resources.
My buddy was going to the beach, so I went with him and just sat in the sand and listened to the waves and wrote out the original outline that would become our first feature. It sounds ridiculous, but you don't really choose a story, the story chooses you, and when it does, it flows pretty effortlessly.
But for as easily as the concept came, I had a heck of a time writing the actual script. Over the next year or two was a long string of “first draft”s of The Phoenix Project that all ended up getting abandoned because they were just so miserable. At one point, I was so fed up that I brought on another screenwriter to write a draft from scratch in the hopes that he'd just solve my problems. Unfortunately, his wasn't right either, but it did help me see my problems more clearly. After that, it was just a matter of sticking with it and putting the time in.
The script was always being altered though. Once we got to set, every word was up for discussion. I believe a script is like a suit. You cast the actor that fits best, but you don't have them wear it off the rack, you tailor it to fit them and only them.
TYLER: The key for me to raising a budget is to just start working on the project. In independent film, there's a bit of a chicken and egg paradox where you need the money to produce the movie, but you need to be producing the movie to raise the money. Once you start the cycle, it kinda just becomes more clear what needs to happen to perpetuate it.
Recoupment is a toughie. For a film like this, the plan was always festivals first, then look for a deal. We struck out hard with the big 6, but still ended up showing in some nice places and signed a really good deal with FilmBuff.
The main key to making money on a movie is to find the right price point for it. Every dollar you spend is another one you have to make back, so if a dollar isn't actively contributing to the overall value of the film, it shouldn't be spent. Indie budgeting is about maximization.
TYLER: The whole film only has four actors and I already knew I wanted to cast the very talented Orson Ossman as Carter Watts.
Los Angeles is the land of actors, which is a great asset for indie casting since there is a ton of untapped talent there if you're willing to dig and find it. To fill the remaining three roles, I looked through about 3,700 actors. Just a lot of days in a casting office reading and working with dudes of all styles and backgrounds. It's kind of like speed dating. They come in and do their thing, you work together for a couple minutes and see if you can make something together, and then the next one hops in the room.
Then there were callbacks with all the top picks to make sure they worked well together. From that, I built four different casts. Interplay and chemistry are so important in a film, especially one as claustrophobic as this, so if any one guy said “no,” I'd have to drop the entire cast and move on to the next one.
We didn't have much to offer these guys, but fortunately my top pick cast all said yes and really moved mountains to be a part of the project. I'll always be extremely grateful to those guys for that.
After casting, the script structure remained pretty intact, but the dialog changed considerably. Before we shot any scene, I would sit down with the cast in a gazebo out back of our location and we'd read through the scene we were about to shoot. Anytime an actor says a word they don't believe, the audience can hear it immediately. If there was a line that didn't sound right, I'd circle it or cut it, and we'd come up with a line together that would fit better and communicate the character.
Sometimes writers have a tendency to get so focused on syntax that they lose sight of the real goal, which is to tell the story. One scene in particular was reading so poorly, we cut every single line, and played the whole thing in non-verbal reactions. It's the best rewrite I've ever made.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie – and what did you love about it and hate about it?
TYLER: This was one of the bigger questions we had as a team going into the shoot. We didn't have a set schedule or shot list, so we wanted to have flexibility and be able to shoot quickly.
At the time we shot, The Social Network had just come out and had been shot on the same package. Getting a crew to come work on a crazy project for free has a lot more appeal with a well-respected camera. With that said, we were broke, so the one we rented was a junk pile. It overheated, would randomly corrupt a file every now and then, and had a habit of bricking right when we wanted it not to.
Overall though, it was a great camera and was perfect for our shoot. Very happy with the choice and the result.
TYLER: I think the best move by far was deciding to shoot the film chronologically. We only had one location and every actor was needed every day of the shoot, so we were in a unique situation that allowed us to start on page one and work our way through.
The ripple effect of this was massive. It meant that the actors and I only needed to work the characters forward instead of hopping back and forth between different emotional sequences, so they could grow organically over time instead of having to set a plan and stick to it.
It also meant that the machine could be built up while we were shooting, that the crew would get better the closer we got to the climax of the film, that our editor could assemble the film while we were in production to see if we needed pickups, and a whole host of other benefits.
On the flipside, the dumbest thing I did was neglecting to shoot promotional material while we were in production. Often when you're in the midst of a project, you become so consumed by just completing it, you fail to think about what it will need down the line.
In our case that meant poster content, website stills, press kit photos, behind the scenes footage, etc. It would have taken five minutes to do on set, and not taking that time has cost us dearly. The bitch of it is, I made the same mistake on my second film. Oh well. Third time's a charm, I suppose.
Finally, what did you learn from making the film that you've taken to other projects?
TYLER: I could fill a book with the answer to that question. Hopefully that'll be the case with every film I direct. Making art is about exploring, I don't ever want to be covering ground I'm already familiar with.
Independent films are so damn difficult to make, it's amazing they happen at all, and I think if most filmmakers knew upfront everything it was going to take to finish the job, they wouldn't undertake their projects in the first place.
It seems to me that the perfect state of mind is knowing enough to get started but not enough to be intimidated, a sublime educated ignorance.