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
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
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
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
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
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.
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