“The Last Frontier”: This Year’s Cassavetes Spirit Award Nominees on Their Wild First Day of Shooting

The five nominees for this year's John Cassavetes Award, which specifically honors films made for under $500,000, have some crazy stories behind them and they share just their experience...

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Even though the Spirit Awards celebrates films with often small budgets, there’s no question that even before the awards are handed out, the most resourceful attendees of Saturday’s ceremony in Santa Monica would have to be the nominees vying for the John Cassavetes Award, which honors films made for $500,000 or less.  As Elvis Mitchell explained before moderating a panel discussion for Film Independent at the L.A. County Museum of Art in January between all five directors of the nominated films, “The last frontier in independent film is film made for $500,000 or less because you’re not there trying to pick up a girl or kind of show somebody you can get a movie into the Arclight. You’re there to make a movie that means something to you.”

That was indeed evident in the 35-minute conversation between filmmakers Evan Glodell (“Bellflower”), Maryam Keshavarz ("Circumstance"), Matthew Gordon ("The Dynamiter"), Adam Reid ("Hello Lonesome"), and Dee Rees ("Pariah") who spoke about everything from how they had to beg, borrow and steal for their first films right up to their festival premieres. (Believe it or not, Glodell’s initial instinct after getting into Sundance was to burn the hard drives that contained his film since “it was too personal” and Keshavarz’s mother told her after her Sundance debut about a forbidden lesbian relationship in Iran, “You’re doing this to hurt me.”) Still, the most revealing part of the talk was when Mitchell asked each of the filmmakers to describe their first day of shooting, so to introduce these nominees whose films you may or may not have seen yet – “The Dynamiter” and “Hello Lonesome” still haven’t played beyond the festival circuit, here are their stories of stress and perseverance from their first day on the set of their first feature.

BellflowerEvanGlodellEvan Glodell, who we spoke to back in August, directed the epic apocalypse of the heart breakup movie “Bellflower,” in which he also starred as one of two men obsessed with building gear to combat the day when the world might end only to have it seemingly end sooner after experiencing a bad relationship. The film’s currently available on DVD and Blu-ray:

From the day I finished writing the script in late 2003, I was like I have to make this movie no matter what. But I couldn’t figure it out. A couple years went by and I had…I don’t know what to call it other than an epiphany. It was about life and about forgiving people and it applied to my script. So I went back and I had to rewrite it to be more even-sided from what it was. From that moment, I knew I’m actually ready to make this. If someone would’ve given me the money [before], it would’ve been a really, really bad movie.

But the first day of shooting was extraordinarily painful because in my heart, I thought about it for so many years — it’s going to be perfect. Then all of a sudden, reality set in and it’s like the handheld camera that’s not working right and we’re all inexperienced. This is not this beautiful, perfect movie that I pictured. And it took a couple days of shooting, I think all of us a week and a half, for us to get to the point where something clicked and I felt it. We were a zero budget movie, so we never even had anything. Not all of the scenes we shot over the first week were thrown away, but half of them. And we just kept going.

CircumstanceMaryamKeshavarzMaryam Keshavarz, the director of “Circumstance,” said she had to sleep for five days after production wrapped on her coming-of-age romance between two young women in Iran and had to smuggle the film out of Lebanon where she filmed it and had it “hand-carried to Jordan, then shipped to Dubai and flown to L.A.” before even knowing really whether she got all the shots she wanted. The film is currently available on DVD:

I shot in a country where I didn’t live and I don’t really have a connection to Lebanon so much. It just looked like Iran. So I spent several months in Lebanon – it’s only a country of four million people – meeting every single person that ever worked in film in any capacity. I tried to bring them all on as allies [of the film] and to work for us for free and give us free locations. The first day of shooting, you have your actors, the [director of photography], and all these people that have come because they believe in something. [You realize] Wow, okay, I’ve got to do it.

After that moment of realizing everyone is here together, it’s like a safe bubble in an environment that was really hard to get it all together because of the hostility of where we shot. It was this rush. I didn’t have a moment to really think. I think if I had moments to think, maybe I might’ve backed down. But you don’t necessarily think about the consequences of what you’re doing. You have to do it.

We just had so many production issues all the time like normal production issues. We had the military coming on our set… [Mitchell interjects: “I’m sorry, I thought I heard you say the military coming onto your set.”] We did. Because it’s a small country, word got out we were shooting something with sexual content. Sometimes we were shooting in front of a police station and they would hear us making these weird sounds like in the dubbing of “Milk” and “Sex and the City” [scene where the characters talk in the back of a video store that carries illicit American films] where they’re having an orgasm and be like “What the hell is going on in that building!?!” So we were always drawing attention to ourselves even though we were trying to be very low-key. This was my student film – it was my thesis film at NYU, so [there] was a heightened sense of having to get this done because at any moment it could all come crumbling down.

TheDynamiterMatthewGordonMatthew Gordon, the director of “The Dynamiter,” traveled to rural Mississippi for his debut about a 15-year-old who has to care for his younger half-brother and his grandmother during a sweaty summer while his mother is in California. The film was recently picked up by Film Movement and is expected to be released in late spring or early summer on VOD and in select theaters:

Can’t top that. We were in the Mississippi Delta in the middle of the summer and we decided very intelligently to shoot our first day all exterior. [laughs] Everyone is dying and having chiggers, I don’t know if everyone knows what chiggers are – they burrow into your skin and you’ll just scratch and scratch until you use nail polish to coke over it [Mitchell: And they can’t breath and they’ll come out.]  It was a big health risk for everybody involved.

Then we had two little guys in our film, both non-actors, but the nicest kids and their families were there — everybody’s dropping from heat stroke. I’m trying to just wrangle the best I can [and] thinking at least we tried. We’re here. But the last [scene] of the day, we went to the fields and our 15-year-old is playing imaginary swordfighting with the 10-year-old [character]. In real life, he’s 15 and he’s cool and starting to get into girls and he’s playing with a 10-year-old and little swords and people are lining up watching and he’s watching them watch him and he just walked away. [laughs] Gave up. He’s like, “I can’t do this.” So we talked him down. It was a rough day, needless to say, but that’s part of the joy of it all. I was just fully prepared for complete and total failure and I think as long as you accept that, you can move forward.

HelloLonesomeAdamReidAdam Reid directed “Hello Lonesome,” which follows three separate stories of a divorced voiceover artist who bonds with his mailman when he should be with his kid, a widow who has to depend on her neighbor to drive, and a young couple in the city learn to deal with some unfortunate and unexpected news. The film will be available on DVD, Hulu, and Netflix on May 15th:

 It was Connecticut, it was 72 degrees. [laughs] No, my actors were really depressed and probably angry. It was just me with a video camera, and they thought we were making a real movie. They read the script, it looked just like a script, it sounded like a script. [They probably thought,] it had a part in it, I can play it. Then it’s just me and I don’t really know what I’m doing. It sounds like I’m joking.

I had this thing working in commercial shooting where at the end of the day you really want to reverse engineer the actor’s day to get the best performance out of them, so in this case, one of our main characters [played by Harry Chase] is a voiceover artist and he plays a fictionalized version of himself [in the film], so he lives and works at home in his underwear. So my whole idea of a great first day, first moment, first take was [to] put him in his underwear so he knows what to expect and he just like wakes up. He can’t think about it, he can’t get nervous, like I’m making a movie. It gets real really quick because he’s just naked. So he’s not thinking about how tiny the crew is and that I might make him look really silly. He’s chopping wood outside in his underwear and that kicked off our little shoot.

We were working very fast. Faster than I would’ve liked. So it wasn’t all really fun, but I’m a very lazy person and I wanted to sleep at night. Because we used real locations that were all donated, I didn’t have an art department. I was looking into places, or in this case, it was [Harry’s] house. I was like well, this is the real guy, he has an ISDN booth in his basement where he does all his commercials – you’ve heard [him], he’s the voice of Captain Morgan’s Rum [commercial who says] “You’ve got a little Captain in you ” — well, that’s got to be what his house looks like because it’s his actual house. So I showed up and I’m not touching anything. But he’s doing my lines and my version of that world. And that’s a great way to work when you have no money and you want to sleep at night and you want to embarrass your actors and you have nothing to lose. Do that. [laughs] I wouldn’t recommend it actually.

PariahDeeReesDee Rees will come into the Spirit Awards already quite decorated after adapting her award-winning short “Pariah” about the coming-out story of an African-American teen as both an artist and a lesbian into a feature of the same name. The film is still in some select theaters after opening in December, but it will be widely available when it’s released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 24th:

I didn’t get any sleep. I like to start from small to big. That means never start production on a Monday because if something falls through Friday night, you have at least one business day to fix it. So we started on a Tuesday with Kim Wayans. [It was] a quiet scene to give a feeling of the characters, so the first week we shot Kim and the first day was [the scene] where she was throwing out her domestic dreams and then we shot the scene between [Alike] and her father Arthur. We just tried to keep it really easy and we had a chance to pre-rig the location. It’s important for me to keep a calm atmosphere on set and keep it quiet on set. It’s like 40 people and everybody’s really respectful in a small space, but we started small and worked larger. At the end of the week, we shot the fight scene and the bigger moments.

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