What was your filmmaking background before making Artifice?
STEVEN: I started making my own films at 18. I subscribed to the DIY style of filmmaking and skipped film school all together, and instead put the money I had into making my own movies. I really just learned through reading books, and obsessively watching every movie I could get a hold of.
I met Brandon Sean Pearson, the co-writer and lead in Artifice, ten years ago. Brandon, my brother Michael Doxey, and I made a very ambitious 40 minute short film together. We really didn’t know what we were doing at the time, but the process was invaluable. It was a real growing and learning experience.
Because we were spending all of our own money, even borrowing it from friends and family, we were very conscious about trying to do it right. Nevertheless, we made a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes hit hard, because we put everything we had into making that film. But it was a defining experience for me, I wouldn’t take it back for anything.
Since then, I’ve worked on dozens of studio films, first as a Production Assistant, then as an Assistant Director, and even dabbled in the Art Department. I started my own production company called Digiphile Productions a few years ago and now produce and direct television commercials.
Where did the idea come from and what was the process for writing the script?
STEVEN: The idea first came from my brother and long-time collaborator Michael Doxey. We were filming a commercial for the Tour de France in Cannes at the time, and he said, “What about a movie where a method actor gets a part in a film, and becomes so dedicated to the role, that the actor himself begins to lose his mind?” I instantly loved the idea, I brought it to Brandon, and Brandon and I started work on it quickly after.
We wrote the script with the idea that we were going to make the film ourselves. We knew we wouldn’t get financing for this film, and so we tried to contain the locations, the props, even the amount of cast, so that we could successfully pull it off ourselves. Of course, through the process of writing the script, the ideas became larger and the whole thing sort of go away from us. But we liked how the script turned out, so we knew we had to make that movie.
Brandon and I wrote the script through Adobe Story. Brandon was living in a different state at the time, so we really just switched off writing scenes. We split the writing tasks up, really. And I mainly wrote the “Film within the film” scenes, and Brandon wrote the scenes that took place in reality.
For the film within the film scenes, I wanted to create a dystopian world, that really combined most of the totalitarian and fascists philosophies into one nightmare. I drew from 1984, Soviet era Russia, and of course Nazi Germany. I wanted to explore the idea of breaking the human spirit, and what it takes to do that.
And because Brandon is a dedicated actor himself, he really dove into the process of how actors go method. He studied a lot of Heath Ledger, Daniel Day Lewis, and Robert DeNiro’s work. But beyond that, we knew that this character we had written was fairly new and even naive when it comes to acting. So this actor really makes a lot of mistakes in how he approaches his role. And unfortunately, some of these mistakes have real life consequences.
Because Brandon and I had wrote several full-length scripts before hand, the process of writing this one was fairly stream lined. We wrote the whole script in about 6 months, and were pushing hard, because we wanted to start shooting in the summer of 2014.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your distribution plan for recouping your costs?
STEVEN: When planning this film from the beginning, we knew that we weren’t going to get funding from a studio or large investor. We had been down the road of seeking financing with a previous script, had a lot of meetings, even got interest from some A-list actors, but ultimately it fell through because I didn’t have a track record at the time, nor did Brandon. So with this being my first feature film, I knew I had to prove myself as a director.
We initially tried to raise the money through IndieGoGo. We made two teaser trailers, lots of promotional videos, we worked hard on running a successful fund-raising campaign, but unfortunately we came up short of our goal and therefore didn’t get any of the money we raised. But we met some great people who believed in the project along the way, and knew we had the manpower to make the film happen.
We were so deep into the process, that we had to make the film one way or another. So I decided to put up most of the budget myself, and Brandon, Michael, and a fellow producer Weston Woodbury was kind enough to put up some money also.
For distribution, we are hoping to get into some notable film festivals, and start shopping the film there. We have a sales agent, Circus Road films, who has taken the film on and is helping us to sell. We are even still considering self distribution, but we are waiting to see how the film is received at film festivals and what kind of interest it garners from distributors.
There's a real paradigm shift going on when it comes to film distribution, so it’s an exciting, if not scary, time to be a filmmaker.
What was your process for casting the film?
STEVEN: First and foremost, we wrote the lead role with Brandon in mind. This film was as important to establish myself as a director, and was just as important to establish Brandon as a lead actor. So we aimed for that going into the whole process. And Brandon is the kind of actor who really dives into his character with vigor and ferocity. I didn’t have a doubt that he would take his role seriously, and he did. He worked very very hard to pull off such a demanding role. He had books of notes, and even charted his whole character arc out. And it was an incredible amount of work, because Brandon was also helping me produce the film. So one moment he was screaming his lungs out from inside of a coffin, and the next he was scheduling shuttle pick-ups for the crew.
Casting was a unique process on Artifice. We didn’t do a single typical “casting call.” Instead, we pulled a Woody Allen, and wrote the script with actors we already knew in mind. For instance, Brandon and I had worked with Kent Hadfield (the director in the film), before. I knew he would be perfect for the role, and wrote it with him in mind. He even shot promotional videos before the script was even finished to help raise money.
The same went with the rest of the cast. Brandon had previously acted with most of the cast in plays. I saw Brandon in a play with Elena Scarlett Murray and Jane Noble. Both of them were fantastic, so we knew we wanted them involved. Brandon and I were quite stressed as well, because we knew that Jane was the only one who could pull off the “Queen,” and we were afraid she would say no. But thank the stars, she accepted.
That was the case with the whole cast. All of them were wonderful, and it was a total pleasure working with all of them. And beyond that, they all did it for free. Julia Fae even came from Hawaii to be in this film, and Benjamin Garvis turned down a great job to be in it. It was really overwhelming with how gracious they all were and how collaborative everyone was.
What drives me to make films is the opportunity to work with the actors. The rehearsal process, and then the unexpected spontaneity and magic that happens when the cameras start rolling is everything to me. I really hope to work with the whole cast again.
What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?
STEVEN: We shot this film with the Red Epic. The camera is really easy to use, and had variable frame rate, which we knew we were going to use. I also like the dynamic range that Red has, which was also important for our colorist.
Part of the choice in using the camera was out of practical reasons. Our B camera operator Tyler Larson owned it, and was kind enough to donate the camera. But we wanted the film to have a visual uniqueness about it. And that started with the choice in lenses. Our producer Weston Woodbury suggested the Zeiss Super speed lenses, which were a bit older, but the lenses really had character to them. For example, they would flare and take on a whole new look when you open the aperture to 1.5 and larger. So our DP, Seth Johnson, who is such a smart guy, really helped to design the look of the film through the behavior of these lenses.
We even made some rules for ourselves during shooting. For the film within the film scenes, we would only shoot on a 24mm or wider lenses, which gives everything this ominous and distorted feel. Seth would also shoot at a 1.5 aperture or faster, making the lenses flare and give the boca effect.
Ironically, which Seth had cornered himself into doing with these rules, was having to pull focus himself on a 1.0 aperture, which is extremely shallow. Each time an actor would move an inch, Seth would need to pull focus. But he did an incredible job. His work on the film was just magnificent.
And for the reality scenes, we would shoot on longer lenses, 50mm and above, to give everything a documentary look. Seth was always aware of this, and stayed true to this rule, and it really helped to give a stark distinction between reality and the film within the film.
How much did the story change in the editing process and why did you make the changes you did?
STEVEN: The editing process was the most difficult part of making this whole film. Weston Woodbury, Brandon Sean Pearson, and myself edited this film together. The process was really tough, we all discovered that we had different methods of how we wanted to work, and ultimately how we saw the film.
So to answer your question, a lot of the story changed throughout the editing process. The rough cut for this film was two and half hours! The cut was exactly as the script was written, scene for scene. From there, we painstakingly tried to get at the root of what this film was about, and that was the hardest thing.
Brandon was pushing more for the emotional scenes involving the actor’s personal journey, and I was pushing more for the blending of reality and fiction and the dark disorientation that goes along with it. We would go back and forth with it, but ultimately, I had to insist on some of the changes.
Weston is very particular in how he works as an editor, which I’m extremely thankful for, but it wasn’t always easy. He fought hard to get as much feedback from as many people as possible. So we did that, and after so many different revisions based on so much feedback, we found ourselves all making some compromises.
However the feedback was really invaluable. We learned a lot in that process, and I’m really grateful for it.
It was also sometimes hard to know what was working and what wasn’t, because we had all seen it so many times. I fought for some things, and so did Weston, and so did Brandon. We tried a shorter version of the film, and then felt that it was missing essential character development, and then we tried a longer cut, but felt that it was too slow. But ultimately, I felt like the cut came together with the vision intact.
Small story elements did change, but for the most part the journey the character takes stayed the same. Mostly, we had to cut out a lot of behind the scenes moments, with the cast and crew in the film, which was sad, but we knew it was the right choice to push the story along. The cliché phrase was true for this film, you have to kill your baby.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
STEVEN: I think the smartest thing we did during the production of Artifice was understanding our limitations from the beginning. A huge factor was limiting our shooting locations. Two of our biggest locations, which we shot the majority of the film in, was the cabin and an abandoned warehouse. By keeping the film restricted to a few locations, we were able to get through a lot of scenes per day.
We also specifically chose to shoot indoors, as opposed to outdoors, because sound was such a factor. If we were having to battle sound issues, it would of greatly slowed us down, and we didn’t have the money or resources to bring actors back in the sound studio to do ADR recording in post.
In total, we only had 16 shooting days, so we knew we had to maximize every ounce of time we had. We even had a couple days where we shot 12 pages a day, which was insane.
And the dumbest thing we did was not spending enough time refining the script before production began, and we paid for it in the editing room. There were a lot of scenes and dialogue that were redundant in the script, so we had to cut them out or work around them in post. It made the editing process a lot less smooth than it could have been, had we taken the time to refine the script in the beginning.
Our attitude when we started, was to have more dialogue, and more scenes, so that we would have more options in the editing room. But looking back, it was a mistake. As a filmmaker, I think you need to be as clear as possible with your vision, and to stick with it.
Independent film is about taking risks. And it’s only the films that take risks that rise to the top. So for my next film, I want to more intentional with every scene, every single action and line of dialogue.
I want to commit fully with what I’ve set out to do, I want to take risks.