Danny Madden had every reason to believe he had put his days of sneaking out of his parents’ house behind him, but when his debut feature “Beast Beast” called him back home to Georgia where a generous tax credit and his even more generous family could cut him a break on the budget by lending their house to the shoot, he found himself regressing back to his childhood.
“I remember one night we were filming in [the character] Adam’s room, which is on the other side of the house from my mom and dad’s room is — and of course, they’re going on with their normal lives [as the shoot is happening] and they’re going to work — and we wrapped at like four in the morning,” recalls Madden. “Our gaffer Brian Stansfield came up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, Danny, we put the power box like next to your parents’ bed. Could you sneak in?’ And I had to unplug the lights and drop the lines from the second story window and then carry whatever electrical equipment out and I was sneaking in and out of my room like I’m a fucking teenager.”
Adds his brother Will, who played Adam, with a laugh, “Yeah, watching the meter of our mom and dad’s excitement level of having a movie there slowly deplete over a three-week period to like ‘Get out of here’ was really good to watch.”
Still, the Maddens could take pride in the end result, an exuberant and propulsive drama that already had its writer/director tapping into what it’s like to be a young adult in a world where the reach of online platforms can make it easy to forget that growing up has certain inherent limitations. Inspired by the sprawling character studies of John Steinbeck, Madden builds upon his celebrated short “Krista” about a high school drama student (Shirley Chen) who processes her anger through her art with the help of her instructor (Will Madden) to tell the story of a trio trying to find their footing in the social media era, following the further adventures of Krista as well as her classmate Nito (Jose Angeles), whose skate tricks are readymade for viral spread on Instagram, and her neighbor Adam, a 24-year-old trying his hand at building his YouTube channel’s subscriber list with increasingly ostentatious how-to gun videos.
With popularity so clearly defined with hits, all three can be seen operating from an increasingly warped perspective when the pressure to attract attention or keep it is unrelenting, but however intense their experience gets, it feels kinetic in the hands of Madden, who is careful to capture not only the anxieties of figuring things out for yourself at that age, but also the exhilarating freedom of being unaware of the potential consequences for better or worse. The formally adventurous director who has worked in animation and first turned heads at SXSW in 2013 with the mid-length feature “Euphonia,” featuring his brother Will once more exploring his surroundings through sound, works wonders with an energetic cast of fresh faces and the film is both poignant and delightful as a coming-of-age story in an era where the future is unknown for us all. Now arriving in theaters following its debut at Sundance last year, the Madden brothers, Chen and Angeles reunited to talk about pulling together the scrappy production and letting the sparks fly, as well as making a home movie in all the best senses and the excitement of being able to screen it in Park City.
Danny is probably tired of me asking him about how this came about after talking for “Krista,” so let me ask Shirley, what was it like for you to be able to build on the foundation of that short?
Shirley Chen: After “Krista,” Danny and I became a lot closer as friends and collaborators, so we talked about how you see a lot of the aftermath of Krista dealing with this experience that she had never had before in the short and you see glum and really down Krista, so we talked about in “Beast Beast” exploring who Krista is outside of that. You see a lot of her with her theater friends, with her best friend played by Courtney — I grew up doing theater, so a lot of that fed into Krista’s personality, and she ends up being a lot more naive, fun, and bubbly. I got to have a lot more fun injecting some fun personality in the feature and also with the wardrobe because it was my clothes, it made it a fun little character.
And for Will, I suspect it was actually the reverse when in the short, you went from an encouraging theater teacher to Adam, a tortured gun nut, in the feature.
Will Madden: It’s the moment I realized, “This is how Danny really sees me” – as a kid in his room, helpless, just shouting into the void. [laughs] It was a trip. The drama teacher was so fun to create together, and it was taken from my own acting teachers, and then Danny showed me the script [for “Beast Beast”] on my way to South By in 2018 and seeing Adam on the page for the first time, it was this strange archetype that we kept seeing in the news of these [angry] young guys. It was just a really scary but fun invitation to explore this kind of world that’s alien to all of us and see if we could bring some kernel of truth to it.
Jose, you were the one who was new to the party, what was it like to jump into this?
Jose Angeles: It was really nervewracking because I knew that everyone had these long experiences of acting, filmmaking, theater and there I am, just like skater dude. When it comes to acting, my parents were really good at it, but I never really pursued it, so I just had to figure out my flow. Will definitely helped me with that, and Shirley too — we went over the script and Danny was encouraging that because Danny thankfully saw something in me and I’m super blessed. It was definitely a new experience. This is the only movie I’ve ever done – I’ve done short films, but this was like a Hollywood production. Like Alec Baldwin executive produced this. When is this ever going to happen again?
Danny Madden: When Jose showed up [in the casting process], we had done some screen test things with Jim Cummings when Jose came down to L.A. and it was just me with Jim’s camera, filming some stuff, so I think when Jose showed up in Georgia, he might’ve expected something more like that and then all of a sudden, it was like, “No, you’ve got a whole crew! There’s lights!”
Jose Angeles: It was serious! It was like, “No, there’s no joke. We’re actually making this movie happen.” So my heart was beating fast — because we were on a schedule too. I was like, “Am I going to be able to deliver these lines?” I was practicing so much. I was talking in the mirror like Krista in the movie. The things you see in the movie, a lot of kids be acting like that, like this generation – editing, acting and skaters…
Danny Madden: We should’ve done a version of the movie where Jose has voiceover narration, “This is how kids edit! This is when kids skate, baby!”
Danny, is it true you’d never actually start scenes with a clapboard or yell “cut”? From what I understand, getting in and out of scenes was really casual so you’d just fall into them.
Danny Madden: Yeah, that was a big thing. Like Jose said, we came in and wanted to make everyone feel comfortable walking in these characters’ shoes and removing for me a bit of the artifice of a film production was helpful. I felt like I had a pretty good rapport, particularly with how I could push Will and [in the scenes with Adam] that were a little more isolated, we were a little bit more controlled with the camera, but when it came to the Krista/Nito stuff, I wanted the camera to feel very alive and I wanted them to say things which were better than I had written in the screenplay, which is very often the case, but you just need to set the environment to do that.
Is it true you had each of the actors stay in a room designed for their characters in the Madden family house?
Danny Madden: Yeah, you guys tell me about it. It was like hotel Madden for the actors.
Will Madden: It was weird because I stayed in Danny’s childhood bedroom, which was what we made out to be Adam’s room, which was an interesting forced method acting because I didn’t want to. [laughs] I [thought] was in there anyway, so I was like I might as well look at the guns and play with them and it was cool because for me, it was like a charged space, a house where I already had memories and feelings, so it did some of the heavy lifting for me.
Shirley Chen: I had never been to Georgia before, so living in this house was really great too because Danny and Will’s parents took care of us like we were their kids. I remember this one time where [I had] these bright orange pants [that I wear in the film] and I put them in the wash with all the other clothes. Then Danny’s mom came back with the whole load and my pair of pants had turned everyone’s white clothes pink! So I’m pretty sure Danny still has this pink shirt from me living in their home. [laughs] And Jose and I would also always take the family golf cart around the town, so it was so much fun.
Jose Angeles: That golf cart was fun.
Danny Madden: Jose, tell him about my dad always trying to feed you.
Jose Angeles: Yeah, “did ya eat?”
Danny Madden: “Did j’eet?”
Jose Angeles: It was one word, “Didj’eet.” That was really cool. Yeah, your dad was so cool. Mi casa, yo casa. He rode a Harley Davison.
Danny Madden: Yeah, they loved having a full house for the whole thing because they’ve always appreciated what we’ve done [as filmmakers], but they’ve never been right inside of it.
How did you pull off that wild party sequence?
Danny Madden: The first thing was how do we fill this house with people when we don’t have any money. Luckily, Jim [Cummings] was with us at the time and it was right when the “Thunder Road” feature was really picking up steam, so Jim was all over Twitter. He and Ben Wiessner and Eli Raskin, our producers who were on the ground there, were like “We’re going to call all film professors around Georgia — UGA, Georgia State and Valdosta — and tell them to alert their kids that there’s this indie production going on, “Send your kids on this night to come hang out.” So suddenly, we had a bunch of college kids show up and we’re like, “Hey, cool, you guys are the party extras, let’s go.” And we just filmed it, and you know how those things go in movies. Any time there’s a bit of dialogue, everyone’s dancing silently, so when we’re going into the fourth or fifth hours of people dancing without music, it’s a special bonding experience.
But that night was insane because the Krista bathroom was in that [same] house upstairs and we were doing a pickup from that because the party setup was really intricate [downstairs], and we choreographed the fight scene [that takes place during the party] and Will stepped in as sort of combat coach, so he kept going through it with Jose and all the actors while we were upstairs shooting some extra bits of Krista in the mirror. Shirley goes into hair and makeup while we start shooting the fight stuff and it was like shooting three insane music videos all in one night. But we all had more energy, so we all just danced afterwards.
Shirley, I understand this might’ve been an emotional rollercoaster for you when you could be doing something pretty fun in one scene and pretty intense in the next. What was it like to keep track of?
Shirley Chen: It was also my first time being a lead in a feature too, so it was definitely a very fast learning curve. I remember there was this joke that our editor Mari Walker started [because] my name is Shirley, so she had these nicknames for me, like “Surly,” when I was in a really bad mood — and I’d be in a corner with my earbuds in before a dramatic scene and I’d be listening to Rihanna, really getting into it, and then I was “Swirly” [for those] in-between, really excited scenes. We also had a bunch of Red Bulls on set, especially for those night scenes or the party scenes, so that’s when I would be excited to have fun. And I mostly take it up to how great and how kind the crew was. The crew would walk around me very quietly – it was so sweet of them. They didn’t want to disturb my process and they were so respectful of me. I don’t think that’s necessarily true of all film sets and that really helped me feel safe and comfortable [where] I could trust myself, so I’m super appreciative of the whole crew for that.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crew as excited to be at a festival as this one, particularly Jose. What was it like getting there?
Jose Angeles: Sundance, it was a lot. I always think of Sundance as another experience than shooting the movie because Sundance was like, “We don’t got to film. We’re just chilling now.” There was so much pressure [on set] because [I thought] I’ve got this acting role, this is what I’ve got to give the best of my ability to, but when Sundance came around, it was like “Ha ha, it’s already something. We just get to chill.” And I remember sitting in the movie [theater for the premiere] and we were about to watch it for the first time with a full house, and I just remember looking at Shirley and she had tears – it was good tears, joyous tears — and it was this moment of “Yo, we did it. We did it.” I think that’s something we shared because of how much of a blessing it was.
Danny Madden: And Alec [Baldwin] really helped us because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, stepping into a press day and all that stuff. He came at it with such a playful spirit and obviously decades of experience with all of it, so he was like, “Hey, we’re just going to say the same three things over and over again. Let’s just have some fun.” He really enabled the playful spirit, which was really such perfect chemistry for the whole crew to be moving around.
Will Madden: It was just a surreal experience after surreal experience. The craziest was probably sitting in the theater with all the actors who hadn’t seen a second of footage other than the teaser trailer — and I had seen the movie 15 times at that point through all the different iterations, and seeing the buzzing excitement of the 20 people that came out from Georgia who came out for the festival and reuniting with the cast and crew and watching them experience the film for the first time. That was the most rewarding, to see their work pay off and to be in such good hands as Danny and the editors putting it together.
Shirley Chen: Yeah, the contrast was the first time Jose and I had seen the movie was when we went in with Danny and Will to review sound before the festival, and every time Krista had any romantic connection [on screen], I would turn to Jose, screaming. It was like the four of us in this room, like “Ahhhhh!” And each actor is like thisclose to each other, so that was in comparison to this really sweet moment we got to have at Sundance. [laughs] But my family all got to go to Park City and that was a really special and a really rewarding moment for them because they’ve had to sacrifice so much for me acting, so to get to experience that at Sundance and to have Alec [Baldwin] go up to them and say, “Your daughter did such a great job,” it was really a nice, heartwarming thing to get to see.