Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Interview with "Sympathy" Director Andrew Moorman

We recently had the pleasure to interview independent director Andrew Moorman, who directed Sympathy (read our review), an independent production that we ourselves called, “a firecracker of a film that crackles and sparks with a crazy energy that feels like it will explode at any minute.”

Sympathy definitely rekindled our love for independent horror films and we were very excited to talk to Moorman about his film and exactly how he achieved making such an amazing film for such a low budget.

Independent filmmakers take note: you can learn a lot from Mr. Moorman and his filmmaking techniques…read on!

Fatally Yours: Welcome, Andrew and thanks so much for this interview opportunity! I really enjoyed your film, Sympathy! Can you tell the uninitiated a little about your film?

Andrew Moorman: Sympathy is the twisted claustrophobic tale of a reckless bank robber, a rebellious teenage hostage, and an escaped convict, who all find themselves trapped in a bad motel room for one long, bloody night, where nothing is what it seems. It’s a classic suspense thriller with elements of horror. It is purely independent cinema, the culmination of three years of blood, sweat, and tears by a tiny group of artists whose raw passion for telling this story, the genre, and the fans are hard to parallel. I’m truly glad you dug it!

FY: Where does the title of the film come from?

AM: Jesus, you hit a soft spot right off the bat. The title of this film is a story unto itself…

I once heard an assessment of titles that I really like: Titling a project is like naming a child, you name it when it’s born and it tends to just become its name, you can’t name a kid when he’s 8, it’s too late. Such was the case with Sympathy. The original title of the play was “Serendipity.” It fit, Arik (the playwright) obviously liked it, as that’s what he named his kid when it was born and he had raised it accordingly. It was and always will be “Serendipity” to him, and if you’ve seen the flick that title does have significant meaning. But, the reality is John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale came along in 2001 and fucked it up with a nice romantic comedy, so when I read the play in 2004 I immediately knew it was going to have to be called something else. The problem was, we could never agree on what the new title should be, so for the longest time I too just called it “Serendipity.” I think after a certain amount of time calling a spade a spade it becomes impossible to call it anything else.

There were at least 10 different ‘working titles’ that encompassed the pre-shooting scripts, the contracts, rehearsal notices, shooting script, even into the picture slates. Some of the one’s I can remember are “A Good Room to Die In,” which has a nice noir-esque or even western feel, and “Bad Motel” which was sort of an homage to straight to the point B-movie titles. I always thought it was too bad “Kiss Me Deadly” was taken, as that’s not only a fitting title, but a one of the all time greats as well.

Regardless though, Sympathy came at the peak of frustration when finding a title seemed impossible. Our lighting designer, Bruce, who is a fucking character to say the least, was the key member of a hilarious drunk story I was witness to about the Rolling Stones. To sum it up, a woman at a bar told Bruce she was such a big Stone’s fan she named her kid after her favorite Stone’s song. She told him to guess the kid’s name, sincerely, and after several minutes of intense thinking and repeating, “Hold on, I know this” the inebriated genius declared he ‘had it’ and proclaimed “Sympathy for the Devil!” I told that story to a slap-happy cast and crew one day and after we all finally stopped laughing Bruce said, “You know what, you should name this kid after that song.” Suddenly, I thought about what that title was really saying, the idea of having Sympathy for someone you’re not supposed to, and my god, it kinda worked. Well, because of the classic film by that name we knew we couldn’t go there, but when condensed to just “Sympathy” it fit. Ultimately to me it’s become Sympathy, it now feels unnatural to call it anything else. So Arik’s baby on stage is “Serendipity” and mine on screen is Sympathy.

To me the title of this film is about having sympathy for each of the three characters, which I think most do at some point in the flick. That’s a unique thing in that you’re usually made to feel sympathetic or empathetic for only the ‘good guy’ in a film, but in this tale no one is definitively good, they’re all liars. I thought, if we could get the audience to feel sympathy for everyone at some point, to care about all three of these characters, we will have created an environment where everyone and everything means something. It’s about honesty in the midst of this giant lie, and vulnerability. Plus I really love one-word titles and “sympathy” is a great word (especially when written in red).

FY: Why did you decide to make Sympathy into a film?

AM: Although originally written for the stage, this piece was cinematic to me from the first word. I think film and theatre shouldn’t differentiate what their focus is, they should both focus on character and story. While condensed to one room, which is common for a play but uncommon for a motion picture, Sympathy has three amazing characters that embody an amazing story; that’s the core of what has to be there for a film to work, and it was.

Also it being my first feature film, I was allured by the fact it was only three characters. I felt with that I could actually focus on each one, giving weight and purpose to their existence and work extremely intensively and meticulously with the actors. And ultimately I saw it as an enormous challenge for me as a director. It was never a case of, “Oh great, three characters/one room, this should be easy…” I knew the idea of keeping an audience’s attention for over 100 minutes with one location would be near impossible and I was also glad there were so few films (if any) that dealt specifically with that same problem, so I avoided inadvertently ripping others off. It was all a grand exercise that we had no clue would work or not.

FY: Between Arik Martin’s whip-smart script and your sharp directing, the film is suspenseful and engaging, even though all the action happens in one room. How did you keep the atmosphere of the film so tense?

AM: There’s one director out there that gets environment right every time out, and that’s Werner Herzog. He does it by avoiding a separation between the environment of the world inside the film, and the environment of the outside world you’re making the film in. You wanna shoot a guy lost in the jungle; you go to the middle of the jungle… So in our case the first thing I did was to be very selective about where our soundstage was. We all lived in the heart of Chicago, which houses nice hotels, but no real bad motels. When you get out of the city you can find some great iconic rows of fleabag inn’s, all of which we scouted, but the motel in Sympathy felt like it had to be in the middle of nowhere — the desolation had to add to the hopelessness of these characters. So, as luck would have it, we found a barn way out in the middle of nowhere and that’s where we built our set. It was an hour outside the city, surrounded by an endless cornfield and ominous woods, and we knew once we got out there there’d be nothing to do but make a movie.

As far as the set itself it was a four-walled set with a ceiling, so we were locked inside. The room quickly became every bit as dingy and disgusting as any motel room I’ve ever been in (sans the lovely comforter stains), and after shooting everyday in it for 13, 14, 15 hours a day, it transformed into a house of complete madness. It really became our blood soaked heart of darkness, and we had some truly dark days in there, so what the camera was capturing was simply what was there. The isolation added to our hopelessness as well. We created that environment to shoot in so we wouldn’t have to fake it later. I still can’t imagine shooting this movie in a nice soundstage in the city, being able to call ‘cut’ and walk out into air conditioning, where the cityscape was just outside our door. It would be like Werner shooting a jungle on the backlot of Universal, in between the tour bus passing by to take pictures.

FY: What experience with filmmaking did you have before making Sympathy?

AM: I went to college in ‘99 to study acting with a prestigious conservatory for theatre. Once I got there my love for film was unmistakable and as much as I was drawn to theatre, I wanted to create cinema. In the midst of that program not being a good fit for me I started to discover what happened behind a camera to create a film, and for Christmas that year I got my first Canon digital camcorder. I left the program at the end of that year (on the advisement of one of the professors, who encouraged me to explore directing for film) and immediately started creating projects, and I just never stopped. It went from short films to documentaries to experimentals and video art to music videos and industrials. The short films started to get longer and longer and more complicated and I started getting hired as a commercial director, editor, and shooter. The year before I graduated I was working on an hour long short funded by the president of the university and was also shooting commercial spots for companies like ESPN and Weber Grill. I think I’ve logged well into the thousands of hours shot and god knows how many more cut. That’s all I did in college was work on making movies, it was, and still is, a true obsession. But I wanted to make feature films and be a narrative storyteller, so when I finally found the right piece I dropped everything else and went for it.

FY: The acting from the three leads in the film is absolutely amazing! What kind of auditioning process did you go through to find your actors?

AM: I agree! I’m so proud of the performances in this film… Dennis was the first role cast. Aaron Boucher and I did a play together (as actors) that was written by Arik and we became fast friends. During the rehearsal process for that play and performing it on stage every night I saw not only a consistency and raw energy in his performance, but a potential that wasn’t being tapped. Plus, getting to know him personally I had a fascination with him like Klaus Kinski to Herzog or Brando to Coppola.

Trip and Sara came out of a huge casting call we did in Chicago. Steven came in the room and I instantly knew he was actually the character Trip in real life when he dropped his script, fell over a chair, and told me his favorite movie was Big Trouble in Little China. He was enormously talented comedically, but could also turn on a dime dramatically and this kid was ready to fucking work. I knew spending countless days in a barn with him would be enjoyable and reliable so he was one of those, ‘as soon as he walked in the room’ stories. Plus he looks like Zack Morris and I’m a huge Saved by the Bell fan.

Sara was a big deal to me because at the time of casting she was the primary reason I was doing the movie. I had formed an obsession with that character, fallen in love with her (under her spell) essentially, so finding the right girl to bring that character to life I thought would be impossible. Arik had to consistently tell me after each girl left the room to curb my unreachable expectations or we’d never find an actress. Plus, I was coming off a bad working experience with an actress on the last film. Then, during the casting call I left the room to go the bathroom and when I walked into the hall where all the actors were prepping to come in and audition, I saw a girl curled up in the corner away from everyone else with headphones intensively studying her sides. She had a quite intensity that I couldn’t help but pick up on. She was adorable and dangerous looking at the same time and had a unique look from everyone else we saw. She came in the room, read once, and I directed her to read differently, throwing her all kinds of loops to see how she’d react. She reacted perfectly. So she read with Steven and Aaron and their chemistry instantly locked and wha-la. The biggest thing after that was taking both Steven and Marina out to lunch (separately) and describing what making this film was going to be like. This was all three of their screen debuts so I had to warn them what they were getting themselves into and make sure they’d go the distance with me. They were truly ready, so we went.

FY: All the actors had great chemistry onscreen. Did everyone in the cast and crew spend a lot of time together off screen?

AM: “A lot of time” is a genuine understatement. We became a family, it was incredible. I made Aaron and Steven ride the train together out from Chicago to Indiana and they did a lot of spending time leading up to the filming on their own. I also made them sleep in the same room in the house where we stayed while shooting. Marina I tried to isolate from the rest in the beginning, but very quickly we all just became trapped out there together so it was like Gilligan’s Island. We did everything together and it seemed we all complimented the next and made each other laugh and we cared a tremendous amount about each other.

When you go through something like the making of Sympathy it becomes an unspeakable and unbreakable bond. I think once we really slipped into madness we were the only one’s each other wanted to be around because we felt anyone else wouldn’t understand what we were going through and who we’d become. It was our own war. The chemistry on screen is like the environment on screen, it was really there when shooting so none of it had to be manufactured. And like trying to imagine shooting on a backlot; I can’t fathom making a film like this without going through what we went through together. I hear stories of actors showing up on the day of their shoot, having never met the other actor, shaking hands and rolling their takes, and then leaving. That seems insane to me, to manufacture a relationship on screen that doesn’t exist off. Lastly, what actors do can be a very vulnerable thing, when you ask them to strip it all away in front of a lens. When you build enough trust and honesty they’ll do that, but it’s a very personal thing to share and once you do you never forget it.

FY: How did you find your crew?

AM: Eddie Perason, my loyal right-hand-man has been with me since the beginning. He and I started making films together at the same time and became like brothers. He was the only one of the crew that made it through the whole shoot and I’ll never forget that because he had the least to gain from the whole thing and probably the most to go through to be out there.

Bruce was a photographer I adored as a person ‘cause the cat is like none other out there. We lived in the same building in Chicago a few years prior and had stayed in touch. While acting as a professional freelance still photographer he always expressed an interest in motion pictures, so we had ramped up to collaborating for some time. Then he moved out of Chicago to some weird farm house in Indiana, and as the fates would have it that’s where we ended up shooting Sympathy, and he and his wife were kind enough to offer us accommodations while we shot (little did they know how long it was going to take).

The rest of the shooting crew were a very small rotating group that just dug what we were doing and wanted to be involved. When the schedule ran way over they all had to get back to their day jobs and couldn’t afford to not get paid. They were great though when we had em’ (especially Jason Makman, our sound guy who would fall asleep while booming a scene — makes for a steady boom mic ironically).

The post sound crew started with Onna (sound designer), whom I met as a fluke in an LA bookstore when I heard her discussing another project. She and I hit it off and she ultimately hooked me up with Dave (the composer) and Aaron ‘Luc’ Levy (the mixer extraordinaire). These were three insanely talented people working on Hollywood films and television, getting well paid, and some how I coaxed them into doing Sympathy for free.

I can’t wait to make another film with all of them, as there are the only ones to this day I have found that share my level of passion. When you find people that love doing what they do as much as you do it’s a wonderful marriage.

FY: How long did it take to finish the film, from pre-production, shooting, and post-production?

AM: For a while I thought I was never going to divulge that information, but it’s the reality of independent filmmaking. We shot the film summer of 2004. It took us till the winter of that year to finish. Then, in the beginning of 2005 I moved to LA and started cutting. I had a rough cut by the fall and I smoothed that into something I could start to show by the end of ‘05. I met Onna and Dave near the end of ‘05 and we all sat down in the beginning of 2006 to start work. Because I couldn’t pay them and they had to work in the midst of day jobs (like we all did) it took almost that entire year to get a score and design. I then met Aaron, my savior, and we started mixing in December of 2006. The day after Christmas, ’06, Dolby came in and print mastered the film and we were on a movie screen in LA Friday the 13th of April, 2007. From casting to the silver screen it was almost three years to the day. This film was as monumental and encompassing as high school or college for me.

FY: The film was made for a very low budget of (I believe) $6,500. How did you achieve this?

AM: It would seem impossible to make a 105 minute film professionally edited, color corrected, scored, designed, and mixed in 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, but not knowing the impossibilities of this we pulled it off. The film all takes place in one room, this element wasn’t created to serve the budget, rather the story, but fortunately it makes for a contained expense account in the production phase. The set was built by members of the cast and crew and some family, the building materials were donated. The furnishings were all purchased from a real motel supply store for under $250. The actors provided their own costumes. I already owned my own digital camera and editing equipment and acted as both cinematographer and editor. The soundstage was the barn in Indiana, behind a farmhouse that provided the tiny cast and crew’s accommodations during shooting. The only real production expenses outside of that were blood (grocery store Karo syrup), food and tape stock (which in the mini-DV format runs around $5 an hour).

In post-production the film was cut for free by me, and I then lured the talents of the composer, sound designer, and mixer to work for passion (paying what I could to cover studio expenses, all of which were cut dramatically). Companies such as Dolby Laboratories donated their resources for first-time filmmakers because they believed in this film and its creators. No one was paid up-front for their efforts and most involved actually spent money to see the project come to fruition. The print-mastering of both the sound and video were all formatted digitally and the final project currently only exists on DVD, which was all done in-house with my MAC. The film has played theatrically in multiple venues, projected off a DVD, which can be purchased for under a dollar, and holds a high-quality compressed mpeg2 transfer and the 5.1 Dolby surround sound mix. With modern digital technology, solid-state formats (which are incredibly expensive) aren’t incredibly necessary. When the technology services the story, and the storytellers are willing to work within their confines — ingenuity, creativity, and endurance can make amazing substitutes for money.

FY: Do you have any advice for aspiring indie filmmakers for keeping their budgets low?

AM: Step 1: Don’t pay people (including, and especially yourself). This sucks, as you want to compensate people for their hard work, but passion and creative freedom can be amazing substitutes for money. The reality is, you can sit around and wait for funding forever. It’s always an illusion that it’s going to come, and even when it does it always goes away before you can get to it. Just get out and start shooting and you’ll attract others who want to be a part of it. Do feed them, though, always. People will work for free, but never hungry.

Step 2: Use DV. Tape stock is around $5 an hour and there are no development costs. From the shoot, it goes right into the computer, is edited, and goes onto DVD… It is cost and time efficient and technology is pushing it to looking better and better (and more affordable so buy, don’t rent cause it’s always going to take longer than you thought). It also leads me to the next step…

Step 3: Learn how to do everything! When you don’t know how to do something you have to hire someone to do it for you, and rarely will they do it for free. If you learn how to do it on your own and you run out of money (or don’t have it in the first place), it can still get done.

Step 4: Don’t indulge. You don’t need what ‘they’ have.

Step 5: Lastly – Guerilla Filmmaking: get in, get out… got what you needed for free.

FY: In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake independent filmmakers make?

AM: They act like Independent Filmmakers. As indy filmmakers we have endless creative control, and for that we sacrifice resources, but that doesn’t mean the resources we have shouldn’t be treated like the resources we wished we’d have. I treat my DV camera like it’s a Panavision 35mm. I spend countless hours lighting and setting up shots. I meticulously frame. I use filters. I only shoot handheld when it benefits the story. I find that part of the reason people always identify digital films so quickly is because they are shot like digital films. I shoot for the story, not for the format. Also, don’t abuse digital editing. Just because it is ‘non-destructive’ and you’re not actually cutting film, it tends to become inconsequential. Each cut should mean something and serve a purpose. Spend the time, it should take every bit as long to make your indy film as it takes to make a major studio release. Actually, it should take longer because they have myriads of professionals working and you’ll certainly be working with a smaller crew (if not just by yourself). Focus on story and character. The separation between a great independent film and a great studio film should only be that we look a little less polished, which I’ve always preferred and believe makes us more accessible. But, we can’t sacrifice story and character just because we’re independent of finances or resources, we should actually have more because we’re independent of restriction and interference.

And lastly, the biggest mistake independent filmmakers make is that they quit. The number of completed indy films compared to the number that collapse is astonishingly low. This is an endurance test; we must suffer for our art. This shouldn’t be easy, if it were anyone and everyone could do it.

FY: During production, can you tell us about the worst experience you had?

AM: That’s like asking Carrot Top what’s the unfunniest thing he ever said. There were some dark, dark days. In pre-production we got incredibly stalled because we couldn’t find the extensive funding we originally wanted (or thought we needed). In production, almost every member of the cast and crew quit at some point. It was a brutal, brutal shoot, especially when the crew started dropping off and we whittled down to just the actors, Eddie (our assistant director), and myself. Being in that one room day and night after day and night, it just seemed like a purgatory we were never going to get out of. We also went from these extremely hot days to these extremely ridiculously fucking cold days, with no heat or A/C.

Then, in post-production I slipped into my darkest hours, as I just couldn’t get the beast tamed. Cutting a film that never changes in tone or color palate, that is essentially one long scene and giant continuity cluster-fuck, is the hardest thing I can imagine editing. We all did this in the midst of really shitty day and night jobs too, so that wasn’t fun, always having to mentally step back out to make the rent.

I think for me the darkest day I can remember was in post-production. As bad as it got during shooting I was always sharing in the misery with my friends, but in post the entire thing was on my shoulders and I had those isolated moments at 4:30 in the morning where I’d take a break from my regular dusk till dawn editing sessions and sit in my bathtub in Hollywood, starring at the dripping faucet and saying to myself, “I made a disaster of a fucking movie.” I was way too close to it, I couldn’t step back and see it for what it was.

FY: What is your favorite memory from making the film?

AM: There sincerely are so many. When you make a film against all odds every victory is a life-altering event. For me I love fighting wars, I love hitting a wall and then figuring out how to either get around it or knock it down. When things run smoothly I get bored. I also love when it transcends this process of making a film and becomes something personally fulfilling, like the actors hitting moments then didn’t know they were capable of achieving, or pushing seasoned professionals to new heights, bringing them out of a creative funk and freeing them for the first time in a long time. I guess the one that sticks out the most was a night in the middle of shooting where we were in the midst of a 14- hour day on the tail end of an epically long weekend, and everyone was fighting me tooth and nail because I just didn’t think we were getting a scene right. I pushed and pushed the actors and it got so heated I walked off the set, slamming the door behind me. When I hit the outside of the barn I looked up and the biggest moon I’d ever seen greeted me, as if it were sitting in the backyard. The world outside the set seemed hyper-real and I realized I’d never cared about something intangible so much. I had truly escaped the world, and was living inside a movie.

FY: What influences did you draw from and what were you inspired by when making Sympathy?

AM: Cinematically there was a lot of Hitchcock in the early planning and pre-production. I also re-watched every Kubrick film prior to shooting including The Shining, which I showed (along with the DVD’s behind-the-scenes) to the cast. I was really into what Chan-Wook Park was doing at the time with the Vengeance trilogy, I thought that was groundbreaking stuff visually so I studied that along with some Miike and Asian cinema. Barton Fink was a big inspiration in a lot of ways, set design, pacing, and the genius of the Coen’s in general. I was also really into mapping out some of Orson Welles three-point coverage along with Kurosawa films and the way he frames multiple character compositions. I watched a lot of Westerns to see how they frame character’s holding guns and pacing showdowns, and some grindhouse cinema of the 70’s to capture that raw feel. Richard Linklater made a film called Tape I took a look at because of the similarities, but I think more to make sure I was avoiding copying it than anything else; very different film though. And lastly I looked at David Lynch to see how he commits to the worlds he creates and the intensity he can build within those worlds using sound as such an important aspect of the filmic experience.

Beyond that, when we started shooting I actually made it a point to stop watching movies, unless I needed them to reference for the cast or crew. I drew a lot of inspiration from the people around me, simply because we were all trying to accomplish the same thing, we were all in similar places in both our artistic and personal lives, and we are all really freakin’ hard workers. We pushed each other a lot, and it’s inspiring to see someone you like and respect and admire succeeding. It drives you to challenge yourself at every turn, hoping to surprise both them, and yourself.

FY: Do you have any film projects planned for the future?

AM: As much as I truly loathe my day job, I’ve turned down several paying gigs recently because they haven’t been right yet. Whatever’s next, I’ve got an amazing reserve of creative energy waiting for it and I’m really, really ready to fucking work. If I’m going to bring a unique voice to cinema, I’ve gotta have something unique to say.

I’ve got this father/son road movie that turns into a revenge tale, it may or may not be the next thing I do. I’m still working on it with a co-writer, when we finish we’ll shop it around and meanwhile I’m open to anything else that comes my way. I’m very intrigued by both working on films that I write, and working on other’s scripts. Anything I do though is a total commitment and basically takes over my life for however many years it takes to make, so it’s gotta be right.

FY: What are your plans for Sympathy now (festivals, distribution deals, etc.)?

AM: I’m doing everything I can, absolutely everything, to get this film out there. As of writing this I’ve sent in to over 10 festivals (three of which we’ve gotten into so far), written hundreds upon hundreds of emails to web sites and reviewers and fan bases and screening events to get more exposure, and hopefully build to a good distributor seeing the interest in the film and taking us on. I’m still treating Sympathy as a full-time job.

I do something every day that I hope will forward the film. We’ve had a few offers for foreign distribution, some of which have gone to the contractual stage, but nothing is set yet. I want this film to be done right, I’m not into what seems like a right of passage for first-time filmmakers to get screwed on their first picture and ultimately give it up for nothing, only to wish desperately they had it back. It’s like my first-born; I want its future to be special. The response has been remarkable, we’ve been so blessed by the fans, whom I’ve said repeatedly are the best in the world, of any genre. So now, I need those who can really get it out there to believe in the film as much as the fans have. We’re being patient, it took a long time to make it right, so we realize it’s going to take a long time to sell it right. We knew from the get-go as fans ourselves, that the fans and audiences would decide the fate of this film. If that belief holds true, I think Sympathy has a bright future.

FY: Andrew thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to interview you! We look forward to seeing what you will do next!

AM: Sincerely, thank you. As an independent filmmaker interest in what you do means a great deal and keeps you going. As an independent website and publication, thank you for what you’re doing with your passion for this genre, and cinema in general. I look forward to your future and the future of this site as well.

Sympathy’s Official Website

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...