Interview: Maria Bissell on When a Plan Comes Together Just Right in “How to Deter a Robber”

If one weren’t able to tell from the masterfully constructed traps eventually awaiting a pair of burglars who set about making Christmas a little less special for families in the town of Minoqua, Wisconsin in “How to Deter a Robber,” Maria Bissell has a skill for planning, though even she couldn’t have predicted how she was playing the long game in mining diaries she kept as a teenager to serve the plot of her feature debut. Wanting to ensure the authenticity of the relationship between Madison (Vanessa Marano) and her mother Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris), who strongly discourages her from sending in a fanciful college application essay lamenting the lifechanging death of a goldfish, Bissell checked in with herself from a time “thought I was going to be the next David Sedaris when I was younger and everyone was going to adore reading about my family’s crazy stories.”

“I remember having a lot of arguments with my mom about my college essay and luckily young Maria wrote them down,” says Bissell, who surely would’ve been a great essayist but whose calling was clearly in films. “I was just able to pull directly a lot of the argument right from there.”

It was only appropriate for Bissell to go back to a period when she was feeling as if she needed to do something to stand out when she had run up against a wall in her career, hoping to pursue a career in directing but finding herself busy with production assistant jobs that could keep her immediately afloat. While her imagination surely never went away in the intervening years, evident from “How to Deter a Robber” has so much in it, tapping back into that time as a high school senior with boundless ideas about her future, in spite of living in a small town, was inspirational, giving her a heroine who is called upon to outwit the thieves who break into the house next door and make it clear her house is next. Along with her Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) and Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), a boyfriend who is unlikely to make it to college along with her, Madison is already thinking ahead to detaching herself from her current circumstances before she finds herself both tied to the crimes by local police, who are not much of a help, and literally tied up by a duo in ski masks (Abbie Cobb and Sonny Valicenti) that want to steal the presents from underneath her family’s tree.

“How to Deter a Robber” ends up being a gift that just keeps giving as Bissell doesn’t miss a trick in the fun and frisky caper, perhaps because she knew all the nooks and crannies of a family cabin where she was able to set up shop, creating an opportunity for herself when none were available to her. Following the the film’s virtual premiere last fall at Fantastic Fest, “How to Deter a Robber” is making its way into theaters and on VOD for a literal Christmas in July, undoubtedly en route to becoming a subversive holiday staple, and Bissell spoke about making the most of the resources she had to create such a strong first feature, navigating a shoot in the Midwest in the dead of winter and how the idiosyncratic comedy found its rhythm.

I’ve heard this was born out of a desire to direct a feature for a while. How did you create an opportunity for yourself?

It really was all manufactured around my frustrations over my career where I was working for these great showrunners and I worked with them on a pilot and I thought I was going to get promoted when it went to series and then it didn’t go to series. I was just getting very sick of being an assistant and not there’s anything wrong with that, but I just wanted to move up eventually and my husband [Stephen Tringali] was like, “You should just write your own feature and film it. You have access to this family cabin in Northern Wisconsin, just set it there.” He suggested taking my two favorite movies, which is “Home Alone” and “Fargo” and just combine them, so I just wrote the script around this cabin and the locations I knew I could get for free. It took me about a year-and-a half to write it, but I think it really paid off. I filmed it in the coldest time in Wisconsin in January and then I took about a year to edit it because I had my amazing editor Patrick [Lawrence], but I couldn’t afford to have him full-time for any period of time, so he was nonexclusive and if he was like, “Oh, I’ve got to go out on a job for a few weeks,” I said, “Alright, I’ll see you in a month,” but I made it work budget-wise and I don’t think I have to be an assistant much longer.

I think you’ve proved yourself here. One of the really smart things I hear you did was not cast until right up until production so actors might suddenly free up, but when you’ve got this real family feel to it, was it difficult to know what kind of chemistry you’d get on set?

I did a lot of table reads with friends to feel out how the tone was shifting back and forth, which was really great to do in advance because I realized it wasn’t shifting back and forth enough, and a lot of the scenes with the robbers — going and checking in with them — were written way later in the process and so I’m really glad I went through the time to test it with an audience beforehand. [But casting] was nerveracking leading up to the film because I had told my casting director I had heard that some people had done some stunt casting with their films by saving a role or two to cast right before filming because then it was an easy commitment for people to make like, “Oh yeah, next month I’m free, like no problem,” and she was a little bit nervous about that.

But it’s a good strategy for a smaller independent film, even though it’s stressful not to have your lead up until a few weeks before you start filming [because] we started casting in September and we had some great actors coming in, but it truly was the more last-minute folks that ended up being bigger actors. It was amazing to see that they all worked well in terms of chemistry because I didn’t have them in the same room ever, but I do think it’s a testament to their acting abilities and them as just human beings. I got a big family dinner for the few nights leading up to filming and it was just like a big family and we’re all having fun and drinking together. And if they’re going to go to the freezing Northern Wisconsin winter, they better make it worth their while, so [it was] the actors that wanted to be there, wanted to work and were committed to the project. They were rehearsing that dinner table scene without me in advance, without me even asking, so they just wanted to be a part of this project and make it the best that it could be.

Once this starts taking on a life of its own, was there anything that made it into the film that may have been unanticipated but you really like about it now?

[For the scenes] we had at the police station, they ended up not being available anymore the night we were going to film, so I rewrote that whole sequence the night before and I was trying to figure out that argument between Madison and her mom on the couch when she’s about to get handed over to the police. My mom was there because she was helping out on the film, and I just turned to her and said, “Okay, if I was going to get arrested and this is what the situation was, what would you say to me?” And her and I talked it out right before and I was like, “Oh, I would’ve said this” and then she’s like, “Oh I would’ve said this,” so it was funny that I had her there to help script this moment between mother and daughter, which was great. Then Gabrielle and Vanessa took it to another level when they’re going back and forth and overlapping the lines in such an amazing way. It was fantastic.

I also feel Jonah Ray is such a great comedian and he improvised a bunch of great lines on set that made it into the film, but there’s so much more he did that was just so hilarious that didn’t — it couldn’t become the “Cop #2” movie. [laughs] But it was so tempting to just make the scenes with him longer because he really added a lot of fun to it. But Gabrielle, when we were doing that scene in the kitchen with the turkey fight, the turkey ended up looking a little more well-done than I had originally anticipated and she just kind of looked at it and said, “Well, as a mom, I’d say, “Well, you think it looks done, but just because it looks done, it doesn’t actually mean it’s done.” She just created this line to justify the action that she was about to do of double checking the turkey, even though it looks pretty well-done, so [the actors] were always looking out for those little moments like, “Wait, does this make sense in the movie?” And what else can I add to actually make this work and not make my character look like an idiot.

That turkey does a perfect roll into the trash can. Was it hard to get?

It was surprisingly easier than I thought, I will say. We did throw it in there a few times and there were a couple of times where the turkey hit the trash and the trash fell over, but it would always fall in the trash somehow, thanks to my AD, who’s the one actually throwing it for those shots. He really maybe has a career in basketball or something. He should think about that.

When you’re shooting in this cabin that you’ve had in your family, is it interesting to see it as part of a narrative and also as a film set where you have to house all the various elements of a film set?

Yeah, it made it easier for myself writing to a location not to just say, “we picked out this office and we’ll figure it out later,” so it was great to be able to work in actual features of the house into the script, like having a trap door to the basement and if the door to the bedroom is open, you can’t open that trap door. All those little logistical things that I knew because I knew that house so well, I knew they were important plot points that I could include them in the script. And it was also important because I could also drag my DP, who’s also my husband up to Wisconsin for all of the holiday breaks leading up to filming and we walked through all and storyboarded every scene. Having that kind of access to a location for free was just priceless in itself and it was fun because it’s a place that I definitely was running around with my family’s video camera in the past, so it was fun to do it in a more real way.

Of course, because it is my family’s house, it’s like, “Oh, be careful with the equipment,” but you have to let the homeowner side of you go a little bit when you’re actually working on the film because you don’t want to be the crazy homeowner on other productions I’ve worked on where it’s like impossible to even film anything because of so many restrictive rules. I did definitely think of where are we going to stage certain equipment and where are we going to put hair and makeup. Luckily, I knew that we weren’t going to be filming upstairs too much, so I was able to say, “Okay, hair and makeup lives upstairs by this big bay window where there’s a lot of natural light,” which is perfect for hair and makeup and then when those few times we did have to film up there, we flip-flopped and had hair and makeup go down to that window that looks out towards the lake. It made it annoying because you can’t just have the trailer outside where hair and makeup lives and it involves an extra step of moving stuff, but you just have to Macgyver a few things and make things work when you’re working on indie films and it all worked out.

I actually wanted to bring up lighting in the film because you capture the deep darkness of the winter yet keep the film very vibrant. How did you go about designing the lighting?

I really wanted it to feel as least like an indie film as I could, even though it was, so I wanted everything to be on sticks or a dolly and not handheld and to feel more controlled and purposeful like a classic ‘90s Hollywood film. That helped a lot then in terms of what the style was going to be and what the rhythm of the film was going to end up becoming in terms of [thinking] I’m going to intermix these longer dolly shots with these faster quick cuts. For the lighting, any place where we were just filming outside, we went around to those locations and just decided what was the best time of day to film there and then scheduled around that so when we showed up, there wasn’t a lot we had to do to make it look good. That was a lot of strategy on the front end to make sure that we were set up for success when we actually rolled up to film, and it made it easier that there was such great landscape everywhere. It was just a matter of time of day and for night, it was definitely very, very difficult because the true night there it’s so dark when the moon isn’t out and I almost forgot how dark it can be in the woods. If you’re in L.A. driving on the highway, you can practically read a book because there’s so much ambient light and out there, if you’re walking out in the dark, there’s nothing. It felt like we were setting up right when the sun was setting to get some of those darker exterior shots and then just waiting for the light to be just right when it’s not the darkest. There were a couple of times where we filmed and we looked at the footage and we’re like, “Oh no, that’s too dark. We have to redo that.” But it just involved a little patience.

I’m intrigued to hear it affected the rhythm, and from what I understand there might’ve been a lot less music in this at one point when now it’s such a big and wonderful element of the film. What it was like figuring out the pace?

There were definitely times, especially when they’re tied up in the house that I didn’t know what to do with the music [because I thought],it just can’t be silent all the time, but I was having a really hard time finding the right tone in a song and have that not also feel too boring and repetitive. It was truly my composer who was able to figure out what to do with those moments and keep it both subtle but still have some variety as the scene turns. He did a great job of helping guide the audience when the robbers are there and it’s intimidating, but then Christine [one of the robbers] says something a little goofy and the music changes to help guide the audience and have them understand, “Oh, it’s okay to laugh here.” And he did a really great job of enhancing that and guide everybody through the weird twists and turns that the film has.

It’s this marvelous achievement, what’s it like getting under your belt?

I feel like I’m still a little bit in denial that it’s going to be out there in the world and in theaters, and it’s especially weird as someone who’s worked on only very small films that play at a couple of festivals and you can go to every theater screening beforehand, knowing that alright, I can check the theater and the sound before it plays. This is out of my control and I hope it all goes well or that when people watch it on their TV, there aren’t weird settings on it. You just have to let it go and hope for the best.

“How to Deter a Robber” opens on July 16th in select theaters, including the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles where Bissell and the cast will appear after the 1:30 screening on July 18th, and available on VOD and digital.