Adam Volerich is a storyteller. His devotion to such narratives has brought him to develop talents in a wide array of disciplines. Be it through writing, directing, editing, producing or more, Volerich is always able to convey something evocative and interesting. His passion and, self-proclaimed, anxious intensity make him an extremely promising young creative, with an enormous weight to his catalogue. Volerich has no apparent interest in slowing down either, instead pushing ever-forward into new territory.
As the co-founder of Magnalux Pictures, along with our previous podcast guest, Dominick Nero, Volerich has gained experience across a variety of projects. He also maintains a successful commercial career, where he imbues every project with a focused eye and approach. His films seem to be the work of an auteur, whose consummate visions can give something all the verve they need to stick out. With a wealth of film festival nods under his belt, he seems just steps away from some exciting moves in his career.
Volerich and I really got down to the meat of his profession, and love, in our discussion. Finding him incredibly easy to talk to, he quickly became a veritable wellspring of fantastic advice and fascinating perspective. Here at Secret Cave, we’ll be the first to cover any of his future releases so make sure to keep your eye out! I found it really inspiring to hear about Volerich’s process personally, and I sincerely hope I get another chance to speak to him again like this. While he gets on with future material though, here’s our recording in full:
There are some little issues with audio throughout this episode. Nothing too bad, but it’s worth a pre-warning. Better internet and equipment is the very next thing on my list of priorities!
See below for transcripts, and to watch all mentioned videos.
On British origins and American locations:
As our first British guest, I thought we could start off by talking about your British origins. Am I right in thinking you made the move to America at a young age?
Yeah. I’ve sort of stopped telling people that i’m English or British, because my accent is so now warped and muddled and I’ve been here for so long that people are just generally confused when they talk to me. I’ve just started saying that i’m vaguely foreign and that, sort of, covers it! I moved over here when I was around nine-years-old.
So you do have your formative years here.
I think that, because I have those formative years, and also because I essentially grew up in an English household, all of my pop-culture interests and general sensibility has been shaped by that.
How much did that actually inform your film-making later down the line?
However, being based in America, you’re obviously playing with a lot of Americanised locations. Do you feel a difference between the two different countries on film?
Yeah! I’ve never had the pleasure of shooting in England; I actually haven’t been back since 2009. I’m hoping to go sometime in the next year or two, just because it’s been too long and i’m about to get married, and I kinda want to take my future wife around. We went together a few years ago but i’d like to go back again, now that we’re, like, a married couple, and do that kind of experience. Like I said, I haven’t had a chance to shoot in England ever before, but i’d very much like to. I certainly see that as something i’d like to do in the future.
New York is such its own special and specific landscape to film in that I would almost venture to say there’s a difference between American film-making at large and film-making within New York. One of the most cliche things I ever hear is, “Oh wow, New York really kind of became a character in this film!”, and the reason why it’s cliche is because it’s pretty true! I feel like you cannot shoot anywhere in New York without it automatically feeling like a “New York” film.
Your sense for location is one of the strongest things throughout your work, and you have a real eye for picking out something that has a genuine character to it.
That’s mainly driven by a lack of budget! You have to seek out things that you don’t have to pay for, and that look good.
On Board and Coney Island:
Which leads perfectly onto your latest film, Board.
Board is my latest, I would say, larger-scale project. There’s been a few, smaller, short-films since then. Board is probably the biggest film I’ve made to date, for sure. It will be [publicly available] in about two weeks. That film has been playing in festivals for about a year and a half. A lot of them, if you put them online, then they don’t want to put them in the festival. I have one more festival, I think April 11th, and then, after that, it’s good to go online. I don’t know if it’s the case in England, but April 20th is, sort of, national marijuana day here, so i’ll probably release it [then] to coincide with that.
Location seems very important to Board; a lot of it is built around its Coney Island setting.
I wrote the film around Coney Island. I had one of those bizarre dreams about Coney Island because, I think, [it’s] such a weird and specific place. I’d only gone there twice at that point and it just, sort of, resurfaced in a dream I was having and it was like, “I can’t possibly be remembering it how it is,” ’cause it seems so bizarre in my memory that it couldn’t possibly be real. I went back and it was, and I was like, “Okay, this definitely merits a film!”.
That sensibility follows you through a lot of your catalogue. Location seems such a key part of the process for you.
Absolutely. Like I’ve said, a lot of that has to do with budget. I made a film at New York Comic-Con while I was still in school. That was, again, driven by this thing, like, “I can’t afford places to shoot, I can’t afford extras, I can’t afford production design, I can’t afford anything. All I can afford is, you know, buying my friends lunch and asking them to be in this film”. So, it’s often about writing a story around a location, or an event, that I can sneak us into and shoot on that backdrop, and take advantage of it physically.
Also, it’s not just about what the space looks like but what the space feels like, and how i’m able to get my actors/characters to move around that space and blend into it; just being able to take advantage of what it all has to offer.
One of the strengths of Board was, for me, how its lead character helped get across your interpretation of the location through his own confusion.
That was a love-letter to Coney Island, and a general questioning of “What on Earth is this place?”.
On the birth of Magnalux Pictures and The Pizza:
How did Magnalux Pictures get started? I know it was founded between you and Dominick Nero, but not too much else.
[Nero and I] are old friends from University. We met in what is now a film major but, at the time, was kind of just a rough assemblage of classes about film-making. We also had a lot of mutual friends at the time as well, so we met through there and recognised in each other the same sort of ambition and desire to be doing more than what we were being offered in school. We started brainstorming projects we might want to work on, and we helped each other out on school projects, but then Dom ended up getting a job in New York doing video editing. I was also a strong editor so he brought me on as a team member there.
We ended up both moving to New York at the same time. At that moment we were each the only other person we knew in New York and we thought, “Hey, we’re here, we’ve got jobs and we’ve got free time. Let’s actually start making films and let’s create a team and make this thing real and legitimate”. It was just born out of a need and a desire to collaborate with each other, and have this greater sense of legitimacy to the whole endeavour.
Your first film together, under the Magnalux label, was The Pizza, if i’m not wrong?
Yeah, The Pizza was the first one. That, to this day, is one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on, for sure.
I read you discussing in another interview about the collaborative and spontaneous nature of it. Did that contribute to your satisfaction with it?
Yeah, absolutely. This is, sort of, a tangent but I think it’s tied into it. When I was in high-school I always in a band with one group of friends or another. That sense of a couple of guys, in a garage, getting together, collaborating, sharing a creative idea, bouncing off each other and working hard into the night… I really just love that feeling. That’s something that I lost when I stopped playing music, but then found again when I started working on film-sets. You all become this family, and you all have this common goal. You work together and, if it’s a good relationship on-set, it’s highly collaborative and I think that’s the most fun thing in the world for me.
The Pizza especially because it was, sort of, the birth of Magnalux. It was right after having moved to New York, it was just me and Dom [and] we didn’t have any other help on [the] project. Actually, my fiance was one of the voices behind the door but, other than that, it was just the two of us and one evening. I think we started shooting at nine or ten PM and we wrapped really late, in the early hours of the morning.
Of course, because it’s New York, all the bars were still open so, even though it was insanely late and we were tired and physically broken, we went out and had a drink and I was just like, “This is the beginning of something! This is how it all starts”.
Was the planning of it as spontaneous as the shooting of it, or was it something that you’d talked about for a long time?
I think it all came together over the course of about a week. We were in the office together and I got a message, on the instant messenger, from Dom, saying, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for something that we should shoot this weekend. You should direct it, i’ll be in it and then i’ll edit it and we’ll put it out the following week. That’ll be the start of this whole thing”. He literally just sent me the script over, [on], like, a lunch-break, and I said, “This is great. Let’s do it!”. Over the rest of the lunch-breaks that week, we decided which subway station made the most sense, based on how pretty it would look on camera (and also when it would be least populated with people).
Because we wanted to be able to get a lot of coverage of the subway stations, and of Dom riding on the trains, we decided to wait way uptown (where he was staying with one of his brothers) then ride the train all the way downtown, to where I was living at the time. Then, all the stuff inside the apartment building was just my apartment building. So, we shot the whole thing in chronological order because it just made sense location-wise, which, again, is always very helpful for performance [and] acting.
On directing actors and improvisation:
Speaking of performance, you seem to be able to get a lot of out of your actors. I wondered what the process was behind that, and how much you lead your cast in what they do.
It ranges from production to production, simply based on how much available time there is. In an ideal universe [we’d] have a lot of time to rehearse together but, for the most part, I’ve never really been able to nail down the amount of rehearsal time I would have liked. However, I feel like I’ve always managed to do just enough to be able to just pull the film off. Basically, I try to write with an actor in mind to begin with.
I work with a lot of the same people over and over again, and that’s partly because i’m afraid of strangers but also because, pretty much, all of my friends work in this business, and a lot of them are actors. I have an idea of what each of those actors are strongest at and then, when I go down and write a script, I think, “Okay, which one of my friends might work in this?”. If one of them clicks, i’ll write the character around them and their strengths. That way, when we get into the rehearsal, I can quite easily point them in the direction of what I think they should be tapping into and where the character should be built from.
Then, once we’re on-set, in an ideal world we’ve had enough time to talk, either over the phone, via e-mail or in rehearsal, for everything to be pretty smooth. I like to work very quickly, and I also generally serve as my own cinematographer. Once we’re on-set I really try to let the actors go and do whatever they want. If I see something I don’t like I obviously go in and tweak it, but I really think that over-directing an actor is a really great way to ruin a good performance. Again, just because of how I like to work, needing to work quickly and [being] my own cinematographer, I just like to be able to have that trust in the actor.
If I have that trust then I let them do what they think is best, and just kind of come in at the end to mould the performance a little bit. I’m generally able to get exactly what I want and, also, a lot of my performances and actors I choose… It’s, sort of, a more physical thing and less about line reading, so to speak. [I] really rely on someone’s ability to manipulate their facial muscles. I take that over a lot of other things.
I’ve read of your appreciation for the eyebrow acting in Board. I watched it for a second time afterwards and that was spot-on. Is there then a level of improvisation that you allow for?
Yeah, the thing I always stick to is the shot-list but the thing I never stick to is the script. I try to allow [for improvisation], not only because I want the actors to have their own personal take on it, but also because, I think, if you allow an actor to embellish dialogue with their own dialect, it will just sound a lot more like a human being is talking and less like a screenwriter wrote it. So, i’m always open to improvisation as long as I can get the shot-list and get the visuals exactly as I had planned.
And some of that improvisation can come out with incredibly magical moments, like the eyebrows in Board.
Absolutely, and a lot of the back and forths between Russell, Mike, the guy whose apartment he visits, and Kevin (who plays the thug on the boardwalk) are represented in the screenplay but there was a great deal of improvisation as well.
On playing music and the use of music:
You mentioned playing in a band earlier. What do you play, out of interest?
Right now I don’t feel confident saying I really play anything because i’m not very good, but I play guitar and a bit of synthesiser. I don’t play with friends anymore, in any capacity, but I have a guitar in my apartment. A lot of my work is video editing so, if I have half an hour to render a video, i’ll generally spend that half an hour playing guitar. It’s just a nice creative release in the middle of the day.
Music is often used to great effect in your film-making. How conscious is that, and how much do you have to do with musical choices in the end product?
That is actually all me. I’m pretty obsessive with how the music is placed into the films. Usually, the first cut of any film I have is ninety percent music. I love cutting to, and with, songs. I’ll spend hours, if not days, picking out the right song for each scene and, if it doesn’t feel right, i’ll just keep going back and trying new ones. What’s great about that is, I might have a song in there, and it’s not quite working.
I’ll put a new song in and, all of a sudden, it will not only maybe fit perfectly but also, sort of, inspire a new way to re-cut the scene.
Music plays a huge role in, not only what you see as the final product in terms of soundtrack, but my creative process during post and how I cut scenes together. I’ve been lucky in that I do know some musicians, whose songs I’ve been able to borrow for the films. My fiance’s brother, who used to be the drummer in my band at high-school, [has] provided the music for, I think, five of my films at this point. He goes under the name of Faust Ghoul. Everybody should go check him out because he’s amazing!
He writes these really interesting songs that… they’re not necessarily the kind of things that I would plug my headphones in, go walk around town and listen to, but they all work perfectly in film. They all have such deep emotional content to them. A lot of them are even just ambient soundscapes, but i’ll have these weird moments where – and i’m not kidding, this has happened three times already – i’ll drop one of his songs in, just to see how it plays, and the song will last the exact perfect length of the scene without even trying anything, and there will be these really dramatic and powerful cuts, where it will cut from one shot to another directly on a beautiful or intense beat in the music.
It’s just this weird thing that seems to have developed between us. I’ll just start editing, and I, kind of, know that one of his songs is going to end up working perfectly in a certain scene. Even if I don’t know what song it is yet.
On synchronicity and editing:
It’s interesting you should say that, as I’ve been thinking a lot recently about synchronicity. I’ve recently been uploading some badly edited videos to go along with some Secret Cave affiliated music, and it’s surprising how often these things can come together on their own. It can be, at times, quite profound.
It really is, and it’s such a bizarre experience to have; when it all just clicks. It’s beautiful! That is a lot of the fun of editing, for me. I spent a lot of years doing corporate editing, which is incredibly mind-numbing. There are no beautiful surprises to be had. It’s soul-crushing and awful but, with narrative film-making, I can’t name any film I’ve done where the whole thing didn’t, sort of, change in post-production; even if it wasn’t in a major way. At least I always discover so much more about the story and the characters when i’m editing the film vs. when I was writing, directing and shooting it. It’s always there that everything changes and comes together in a new way that I never predicted.
Nero also said how a film is made in the edit, and it’s only in the past month I’ve started to see the power behind editing.
The way I even direct and DP [Director of Photography] is entirely based on how I predict i’ll edit now. In such a way that I might shot-list, like, seven camera angles for a certain scene but i’m not i’m not gonna shoot the scene seven times. I already know exactly which lines of dialogue I want to cover, with which camera angle, and things like that. That’s one-hundred percent a by-product of having been an editor for so long and spending so many years in the edit room, trying to find new ways to cut things together.
When I go out and shoot a scene, the AD [Assistant Director] might look at my shot-list and be horrified, like, “Oh my God, there’s no way we’re gonna get this done on time!”. I’ll be like, “Don’t worry! This camera angle literally lasts for half a second!”.
But it’s all preparation for post-production, and what you might need even if you don’t?
Yes, and it’s also again, sort of, that synchronicity thing. I rewired my creative brain to be editing the final film while i’m even writing the script.
On learning different disciplines and collaboration with Dominick Nero:
To what degree do you consider yourself an “auteur”?
I don’t think I’ve earned the right to be called an auteur, because i’m still, more-or-less, at the beginning of this journey here. Those are certainly the kind of filmmakers that I’ve looked up to for all my life. It would be an honour to one day consider myself in that category. Right now, I feel like a more appropriate word is probably “control freak”. Auteurs, on some level, are control freaks. You have to be if you insist on writing, directing, in my case shooting, editing and also, sort of, producing. However, a lot of that is, of course, born out budgetary needs; I can’t afford anyone to do those things for me.
I pay my rent now mostly as a cinematographer, that’s what I spend most of my time doing. The reason for that is, when we were starting Magnalux, and when we were starting to make films, I thought, “Well, one of us has to learn how to do this really well so that all the films look good”. Because of that, it became my most marketable skill. Then, when I go and make my own films, i’m just doing a bit of everything. I’m always directing and DPing, usually writing as well.
I’ve just started to direct things written by other people, which has also been a really nice experience. [It’s] very different from directing something that I’ve written, but I would say that – and I might be stealing this from Dom actually – when you’re a director, you’re firing the writer and you’re taking control of the script. Then, when you’re the editor, you’re firing the director and taking it off [their] hands. When you are all three of those people, it is very hard to fire that person because he’s still there on-set with you, y’know?
I can imagine that brings a lot of personal conflicts just within your own head. Also, how much clash is there between you and Nero considering that you are both able to take these varied roles with a similar skill? Or, do you guys just have that lucky collaborative relationship that some people stumble across?
I would say that, for the most part, we absolutely do, which is why it’s such a pleasure and a joy to work with him. We more-or-less accept that, when one of us is the director, it’s his show and you’re there to support the director. Obviously, because we both take a producing role in each others films, we’re both there to give feedback and have our voice heard to the other person. There’s never an insistence that, “Hey, I have this idea for your thing and I think i’m right and you should listen to me!”. [We] never treat it that way.
Because part of the reason why we started collaborating was to support one another, it’s never been this thing of, like, “I’m gonna wrestle control from you for the good of the film!”. It’s never been that kind of thing. There can be the moments, where things can get a little intense, but that’s more to do with miscommunication than anything else; not to do with a thing about power or, “I’m right and you’re wrong”.
On “anxious intensity” and corporate work:
It does seem that the two of you work incredibly well together. You’ve talked about him tempering your “anxious intensity”. How does that manifest itself in the creation of one of your films?
That’s a good question! I feel like the material itself has a degree of anxious intensity to it. I think that Board is definitely a good example of that. More specifically, as far as how I behave on-set and the editing room, I’m incredibly jittery and not at all calm. I mean, I keep a level head and make sure everything goes okay but, sort of, on the inside there’s a smaller version of me just screaming in agony and terror!
Which surely just reflects a passion?
The only time I don’t feel the anxious intensity is when i’m working on something that, y’know… I have no horse in this race, that kind of thing. [For example], if i’m shooting a talking head on a backdrop, for a corporate video. Of course, i’m working hard and doing my best to make sure it looks good but there’s no voice in my head, freaking out, for that one.
In your own words, you’ve discussed how doing that kind of work is “playing it safe”.
Playing it safe… More importantly, paying the bills. I know what you’re referencing and I think more what I was saying is: only doing that stuff, and never taking the chance to create any of your own work, that’s playing it safe; where you become complacent, and allow yourself to slip into this cycle of using your hard-earned creative talents to create nothing for the sake of getting by (which is important, y’know).
You have to have food on the table, you have to have a place to live, but… at least for me, I taught myself how to do these things so I could make films and if all I ever do with them is shoot some guy talking about the benefits of eating Shredded Wheat three times a day then what am I doing with myself?
On impostor syndrome:
You seem to have found a good balance between corporate and more expressive works. Being well-acquainted with your catalogue, I don’t think you have to worry too much about the commercial side of things!
Oh, i’m constantly worried about it! I have a great deal of, sort of, impostor syndrome. I’ve been doing this for about five years now and I still feel a bit uncomfortable when people ask me what I do for a living. The thing I say is [that] i’m a film-maker, but there’s a great deal of, “Ah, should I really be saying that? Have I made enough films? Have I made a film recently enough? Can I get away with calling myself that?”. I mean, that is what I am, that is what I do, but it’s trying to temper that balance in such a way that I feel comfortable in my own skin.
You’re the third, in a row, podcast guest we’ve had on who’s said how uncomfortable they are discussing their profession! People seem to find it difficult to say they’re creatives these days, and I don’t know why.
I think it’s because I just don’t want to use the term lightly. I don’t want to feel like i’m either tricking someone or being dishonest and claiming to be something that i’m not. On the inside, I know that’s what I am and what i’m doing but it is uncomfortable, in a way, to assert that, like, “Oh yes, I am a film-maker”. I think there’s a degree of [fearing] pretension as well.
Instead of it being accepted, like any other profession, people almost ask for proof.
I constantly feel like i’m being asked to prove my self. I’m also constantly trying to prove myself, whether it be to myself or to other people.
And do you feel within yourself, anxious intensity and all, that you actually back that up?
Yes. There have been a few moments where, say, i’m at a film festival presenting one of my films, [and] the audience is responding well and there is, in fact, an audience (and it’s not just an empty room)… Those moments, I feel like it’s working and I feel as though i’m not lying to myself or to other people about who I am and what i’m doing. Not just that, there are other moments as well, but I feel like that’s the easiest one to draw on, for sure.
On festival showings:
From what I’ve seen, Magnalux films do seem to go down very well at festivals!
We’ve been pretty lucky, I think, in that most of our films played in a number of festivals around the country, and a couple around the world, which has been really great. Board has been quite successful in that regard. I think we’ve done fifteen festivals with it, which has been great.
It’s just been really nice to have a reception for the work, especially when you work so hard on these things and you’re like, “Okay great, I did the film! Now what?”.
There’s no market for short films here. There’s, sort of, only two reasons to make one: either as practice, as a film-maker, or because you’re trying to use it as proof of concept for a feature film. I feel like everything I’ve done has been practice, but none of these things have been proof of concept. Also, none of them have been done with a specific goal, like getting it to become a feature. They’ve all been done just because I had this idea, I had this drive and need, to go and tell a story. So, i’m going to go and tell this story, regardless of what might come out of it.
Especially with something like Board. That one, very specifically, I was just so desperate to make another film in that moment. I just needed to tell a story and that was the one that came to me. It became this very intense… “Let’s do this! Let’s do this right now and right“. Then, when it was done, I thought “Well, shit, what happens next? Because, with this one, I really don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t know who could possibly like this one, ’cause it is so weird!”. It’s one of those films where I really feel like I did just make it for me.
I didn’t really think of anyone who might enjoy the film. I thought, vaguely, like, potheads might like it because of the weed element. I didn’t think that that would be a film that would be well received. To have it play in so many festivals has been really nice.
On upcoming releases and being a task-master:
With that in mind, you must be looking forward to the next project. I’m sure you already have something on the table?
So, Board is not publicly available (though it will be very soon). In addition to Board, there are two other short films that I have completed, ready to go, that are in the middle of smaller festival runs (because they are smaller films). Y’know, festival submissions cost a lot of money so, [with] Board, most of the film’s budget was actually just the festival budget. The film cost almost nothing to make, but a lot of money went into festival applications.
For some of these other films, I haven’t really been able to justify the cost of festival submissions. They’ve done, like, one or two each. I’ll probably do a few more with them, then both will go straight online. I would say, within the next few months, at least three more films of mine will be hitting the web. Then I have another film in post-production right now, which is a short film that I directed, that I didn’t write. I think i’m going to collaborate with that writer a few more times. I just love her work and she’s really great to work with.
There will be a few more of those probably, [they’re], sort of, very short films; like, three to five minutes. I actually, as a cinematographer, have a couple of shorts coming out. Also, I’ve just wrapped production on a feature film, which is the second feature I’ve shot in about six months. Having those in post-production is, kind of, nice and [i’m] just waiting for them to get finished. I’m excited to see them and be able to get them out there.
There’s not really much you can do with a short-film, but a feature film people tend to take a lot more seriously. Sort of, hoping to use those to get my name out there a little bit more!
It sounds like you’ve been incredibly busy!
Yeah! Quite a bit busy, and it’s not going to stop I don’t think… which is good but, also, if you are a film-maker and you’re [reading] this, take care of yourself! It can get pretty rough. I love what I do, and I love doing it constantly, but I would be lying if I didn’t say [that it’s] definitely taking its toll on me.
Your website does seem packed with content, as if you have this really driven work ethic.
I’m a bit of a task-master towards myself. I rarely go on holiday. I’ll often work [for] weeks in a row without taking a break. Again, probably not the healthiest thing to do but it’s all, sort of, tied into this desire to advance myself, coupled with this impostor syndrome and this anxiety. It’s like, “If I stop working on these things, then who am I underneath all that?”.
That sounds very existential! I certainly know who I am; this isn’t the entirety of how I spend my life. Like I said, I have a fiance, I have a great social group and I have a fairly well-rounded life. This stuff is just all-consuming in some ways.
There’s existentialism as a thread throughout a lot of your work, but you’ve also admitted that that’s at the roots of your Sasquatch obsession…
Absolutely, yeah! I’ve touched on this before, but i’m not spiritual and don’t believe in God or anything like that. I think that Sasquatch just represents this endless quest that man has, to find answers and find meaning. The idea that people go on hunts to look for something… Y’know, actual, physical [and] literal hunts for something that could not possibly exist! The hope that it might, and the hope that you might be the person special enough to see him face-to-face in the middle of the woods, I just find absolutely fascinating. I love that.
I’ve actually written a film about that, but I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day…
I’ve seen you mention this before; something to do with a film-maker searching for him and actually finding him, right?
Yeah! Please no-one steal this idea because I might make it, although I can’t see anyone wanting to make this film, because it’s so stupid! Being a, sort of, pretentious film nerd, i’m obsessed with The 400 Blows (a François Truffaut film, it’s kinda French new-wave). This film [I wrote] is, sort of, an homage to that film. In [400 Blows] the main character is a pathological liar, so I made this film that is, sort of, about lying.
The main conceit of the film is that this film-maker [worked] with a company, that was hired by the US government, to fake the discovery of Sasquatch. As a way of distracting people from everything else is this big revelation that Sasquatch is real, and we’ve found him! Because he’s the filmmaker behind that he gets a nice pay off, but then he has to live with this lie. Because he’s racked with guilt, and he believes that film-making is a pursuit of truth, he’s unable to make any more films after that.
[He] becomes this terrible existential character, much like the young man in 400 Blows. A lot of the dramatic beats in the film are exact mirrors of [400 Blows].
I actually really enjoy the sound of that! I think that’s something you should bring out.
Maybe i’ll pick the script up again and see if there’s anything worth pursuing! It’s a bit of a stretch to make that one work, I think, especially because it is incredibly self-indulgent. Films about film-makers are… On some level I love them, like looking into a mirror, and I want to see characters like myself but, on the other hand, it’s like, “Oh my God, could you get more pretentious and full-of-yourself, to make a film like that?”.
On Lars von Trier and breaking the fourth wall:
Frankly, the first thing that comes to mind, for me, when you say that is Lars von Trier. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Five Obstructions?
I only bring up The Five Obstructions for being a documentary on film-making, with a strange fourth-wall breaking edge to it. I’m intrigued if that’s not something that compels you.
Breaking the fourth wall, or a film about film-makers?
Are the two not one and the same?
I suppose there’s definitely some overlap. In this script there is actually a moment of breaking the fourth wall towards the end, where the protagonist, sort of, looks into the camera. It does interest me, and it does compel me, but I feel like… Again, this is maybe just the impostor syndrome thing but I feel like, until I’ve done something of relevance or note as a film-maker, it would be unjust of me to then make a film that comments on what it’s like to be a film-maker.
I’d have thought that the meta-fiction of those methods and approaches would have fit in with your existentialism?
Oh, it does! It’s the most existential thing I’ve ever written. On that level I certainly enjoy it and want to make it. Of course, that’s how I deal with the existentialism within my own life; by telling these kind of stories.
On existentialism and being a “nerd”:
I don’t know if you’d be surprised to hear of the spiritual thread I perceived as running throughout your catalogue?
I am surprised to hear that! I’d love to hear what you mean by that.
Not in the sense that there are conscious religious themes, or biblical references. It’s not even there in every single one of your works, but I have noticed it in such examples as The Trinket and Somewhere in the Waves. Perhaps it’s just an element of spiritual mysticism. It’s never something that’s the main point of a film, or pushed in the faces of the audience. It’s subtle, and more of an underlying questioning.
I can’t take credit for those ones specifically, because those were written and directed by Dom. Dom and I have obviously spent a lot of time trying to talk about and answer these questions together. That’s what friends do! You sit in dark corners of bars and you try and figure out why on Earth anything happens.
Those ones were more specifically reflective of Dom’s inner-narrative, but they’re obviously things I could relate to because you don’t suddenly wake up one morning and not believe in God; you spend a long, hard time coming to that conclusion. I think the mysticism and questioning that’s in his work is definitely something I relate to, which is why I enjoyed working on those projects so much.
You consider yourself an, admitted, “nerd”, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely!
I’m with you on that; i’m a definite nerd myself. I’ve read that you’re into Doctor Who, but I would guess that, as an extension to that, you’re into all kinds of different science-fiction?
Absolutely, there’s a lightsaber on my wall right now! I love a bit of everything; I love Firefly and all that. Yeah, i’m just constantly immersing myself in science-fiction film and TV. I’ve seen all of Battlestar Galactica.
I’m thinking that this is where the questioning in your work might come from. Perhaps I was wrong to attribute it to the word “spiritual”. It’s more, sort of, questioning with science behind it?
I very much rely on logic and empirical reasoning to reach any kind of conclusion. Of course, because it has to be, it’s a melding of the two. I mean, on the one hand I see no evidence, in the world around me, that there is any God or spiritual force; on a scientific level. Then on that, sort of, spiritual and deeper, personal level, when I reach out into the darkness and into the void, there is nothing there. I feel nothing within or without when I try and locate anything.
For me, that’s where the conclusion comes from; a melding of the both. I’m not necessarily so full-of-myself that I believe I have the right to claim that there is no God but, at the same time, I know that, for me personally, there isn’t one.
On humanity in science-fiction:
There’s something quite spiritual, profound and deep in the connections between people. Again, this has been a constant for your work. After hearing you talk about your process a little, it seems that’s as much behind-the-scenes as it is on-camera.
For me, the most important thing in my life is relationships with people; whether it be a loved one, or a friend, or whatnot. Portraying those relationships on-screen is very important to me, and doing it in a way that feels real is very important to me. To tie that back into, say, science-fiction, I think one of my favourite human dramas, just about people being people with each other, is the Danny Boyle film, Sunshine (which takes place entirely on a spaceship heading towards the heart of the sun).
It’s a film where humanity is laid bare, because there’s just six or so people on this spaceship and they’ve got this mission to save Earth. The quiet moments of that film, where it’s two people sitting in the cafe drinking space goop and they’re talking to each other about each other… some of those conversations and the way that those people interact just feels so real, so human and so special. That sort of stuff really appeals to me, both as a person and a viewer but also as a film-maker myself.
That exact same thing is all throughout Alien too. A lot of those characters simply care about their pay, and when they’re going to get home. It’s that humanity that gives the film a lot of its strength. Did you ever see yourself branching out into science-fiction?
Absolutely, I would say that the only thing that has… My process for writing screenplays is, I generally start with thinking, “What could I make next week, if I had to make a film next weekend?”. That’s because of budgetary reasons, obviously. Science-fiction has, sort of, been very elusive to me on that level. I absolutely hope to, and plan to, delve into that at some point down the line; hopefully after i’m a little bit older and have a bit more money in the bank, or perhaps interest from a producer or something.
And I assume you’d take more influence from the human side of things than going on, say, two-hour long space odysseys?
Right, which isn’t to say that I don’t love that film because I absolutely love [2001: A Space Odyssey]! I think that that kind of film-making is some of my favourite. [However], that quieter human stuff, set with the backdrop of these big, expansive, universes, is what i’m most interested in.
To tie it back into my own work, I mentioned earlier the film set at Comic-Con. That’s, sort of, the same thing. It’s set in this massive space, that is filled with infinite possibilities. Comic-Con is [so]
massive, and filled with so many people and so many lights, colours and sounds. I wanted to take that backdrop but find a very small, and deeply personal, story happening within it.
It’s influenced by those sort of films, and one of my favourite examples of that [is] Gareth Edwards‘ first film, Monsters. If you read the box-art, and look at the DVD cover, it’s about a couple that’s trying to survive a Godzilla-like invasion of Earth but, no, it’s not… It’s just about a man and a woman trying to get home and what they learn about each other in the process.
On claustrophobia, claustrophilia and Floored:
As much as I’ve seen you explore large locations, and place a magnifying glass onto all of their intricacies, you also seem to equally enjoy being hemmed into a smaller environment. There’s a claustrophobia as much as there’s a claustrophilia.
I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but I’ve had, sort of like, panic attacks that were driven by a feeling of claustrophobia. In those moments, your fight and flight impulses are going nuts and you become that very primal human being that’s underneath all of the existentialism and love of science-fiction. To me, it’s always interesting to see what a character does when they are forced into that more primal state; by putting them in a confined space, where they’re trapped or they’re not in their comfort zone anymore.
I was thinking of certain works of yours that centre around a single, confined, location. An example is Floored, where the main thread follows a character laid on the floor with his eyes closed (almost) throughout.
That film, even though it’s not funny in any way, was actually born out of a joke with me and my fiance. We’d do the, “What shall we have for dinner?”, that conversation, “Oh, I dunno, what do you wanna do?”. It would go back and forth and, I think, one of us said, “Well how about I just lie on the floor with my eyes closed, and you figure it out?”. For some reason that took root and I ended up writing that film about it!
On cinematography, editing and visual storytelling:
I keep coming across these strong, but singular, concepts in your output, which you then explore to their very deepest. It’s something expressed equally by the cinematography as it is the acting performances.
I’m pretty hyper-visual in terms of how I like to do things. When I first started doing this, again because I am obsessed with character and the relationships between people, I started off with that, sort of, mumble-core aesthetic where it’s just your standard shot-reverse-shot, handheld camera and it’s just all about the actor’s performance.
I did find, as I started experimenting more, that, if I went in the complete opposite direction with the visuals and tried to use that as actually part of the medium – not just capturing but actually using visuals to try and describe narratives – I was enjoying what I was doing more and the stories just came together better.
Especially with something like Board, I was able to remove almost ninety percent of the dialogue from the script because, instead, I opted to just tell the story, mostly, visually.
Despite my comments on the acting in your films, which ring true, there’s also an element of silent storytelling. There’s a lot of visual narrative, completely separate to the dialogue. This isn’t just confined to your cinematography either, but also owes a lot to your aptitude for editing. How conscious is editing as a part of the entire process?
That’s, sort of, become my bread and butter, i’ll say. That’s where I find that most of the film-making happens. A lot of that is to do with with this idea that i’d like you to be able to watch the films without dialogue, and still completely understand [them]. With the actors, that’s why I prefer a strong physical performer over someone who can give a great, dramatic and powerful line-read. I’d like to create films that you don’t need to hear to be able to get.
I definitely strive for clarity in the visuals but, with the editing, there’s certain things that just bother me about film-making at large that I try to avoid in my own work.
This is, probably on some level, foolish of me but I don’t care for big, wide establishing shots. Instead, I prefer macro-details to take us from one place to another. A lot of how i’ll transition from point A to point B is by taking the details of one place and melding them with the details of another.
That, combined with sound design and music, becomes this very hyper-visual way of transporting you. That’s definitely something i’m interested in and always conscious of.
Your use of editing is extremely poetic at times. It’s only recently I’ve started to see the power of editing and the poeticism of the medium.
I feel like there’s almost a higher experience if i’m in the editing room and something just clicks. I’m able to take all these disparate things and make them work together as one. It’s like, “Fuck yeah! This is working!”. Having done corporate editing for so long, it is just so nice to have clay to work with and be able to do whatever you want; make it all work the way that it feels best.
On still photography:
When, or indeed how, did your visual sensibility transition into still photography?
I feel like most film-makers I know had always done a bit of photography, before delving into film, and I had never! I mean, I had used my parents cameras every now and then, y’know, if we’re out on vacation; Polaroids, disposable cameras and things like that. I’d never really tried to shoot stills before.
It was a few years ago and, I guess, because I was shooting most of my films on a DSLR, it was like, “So I could theoretically go and be taking photos any time I want…”. I started off just doing head-shots, just for friends basically. Again, because of this idea of visual storytelling and physical performance, I got obsessed with trying [to] explain something with one frame; whether that be through a person’s expression or the way that you frame a building or the detail [and] texture on something.
I had started to dabble, and then I was going to go to… My fiance was working abroad in Nepal at one point, and I was going to go with her to do a documentary about some of the people that worked for her company. Because of the travel restrictions, and the lack of good access to electricity and internet, I thought, “Okay, I need to design a camera package where I can do stills and video. I need to be able to shoot two cameras at once when I do interviews, and have enough memory cards that I could never, ever, dump the data onto a hard-drive. I might never have access to electricity to dump the footage onto a hard-drive… I need to have enough batteries that I could conceivably have both cameras charged for, like, four days straight.” I think that was about how long I was going to be there.
So, I bought a very small, high-end, point-and-shoot camera that did 4K video. I could use that as my B-camera for the interviews. The trip ended up getting cancelled because of the earthquake in Nepal. Unfortunately, we never made it back out there because it just never seemed like the right time, and the story we had originally wanted to tell was no longer possible to tell.
I suddenly found myself having this really nice, high-end, point-and-shoot and I thought, “Well, let’s see what happens if I just carry this with me everywhere,” so that’s exactly what I started doing! I would walk around, with a camera, all day, every day [and] seven days a week.
When I was out and about I would be taking photos constantly. This was back when I was still, sort of… I had a staff position as a video editor at the time, so I still had work nine-to-five; four to five days a week.
I would shoot on the way to work, on the way home from work [and] any time I was out and about on the weekends. Whatever I was doing, I would take pictures of things. Every Sunday night, before going into work [and] after my fiance had gone to bed, I would pour myself a drink, sit at the computer and go through the thousand or so photos that i’d taken that week. I’d pick all of my favourites and I would spend time editing them.
It was this really wonderful, therapeutic, thing for a while. I really enjoyed doing it. I still take photos now, but not in the same volume that I used to. I think i’ll probably get back to it, in that way, at some point. The reason why I stopped doing it so often is because photography was the one thing, in my creative arsenal, that I had never monetised. It was a very personal and private thing for me.
Then, I picked up a gig where I was going around coffee shops and shooting photos of the drinks, and the coffee shop exteriors, for this company that was doing an app-based, like, coffee subscription service in New York. I was doing that, on top of having this semi-full-time job, making my own films on the weekend and having other freelance clients.
I remember it being, like, seven AM, on a Tuesday morning, and I was approaching a coffee shop I had to shoot before going into work. Later on that evening I had another shoot and, when I got home from that shoot, some edits to do. I was going to have to pull an all-nighter so I could get everything done before work the next day.
I got to the coffee shop, and [it] was closed. I just burst into tears and, like, fell down on the sidewalk. I was like, “What have I become?!”. Another classic moment of terrible existential dread! I quit that job that day and, like I said, I still shoot photographs but, because of that, it’s sort of tainted the whole experience for a while.
It sounds like there was a lot of anxious intensity there! It’s a shame, as your still photography was very impressive. From your film-making experience, how easy did you find that to slot into?
It was easy in the sense that, on a technical level, I already had the basic knowledge to operate the camera. I knew how to do that but, on a creative level, it was entirely different. With film you’ve got moving images, more than one of them, sound, potentially dialogue [and] all these elements in that medium. With photography, all you’ve got is the frame; and just the one frame, unless it’s some kind of big exhibit where you’re like, “Look at these images in the sequence!” or, “Look at the connecting themes between these five photographs!”. Unless you have that, all you have is the one frame.
Learning how to do something interesting, with one frame, was the biggest challenge but, also, the biggest reward as well.
How long was it before you started to see results you were happy with?
Probably a few weeks, I would say. Like the same thing with if you are a writer, or a director, or if you’re pursuing anything creative, you, sort of, start off by aping other things that you’ve seen that interest you. The first few weeks I was just trying to do what I had seen other people do. After a while of doing that, it was like, “Well, here’s what i’m actually interested in and here’s what i’ll actually start trying to refine and explore myself”.
Once I got into that, it became this whole new, really fun, thing. Once i’d been doing that for a while, and learning how to process images vs., say, editing video, then that became part of the process; not just at the end of the week, when i’d edit all of them, but, while I was out and about shooting, I would frame things differently based on how I thought I would be able to push the image in post. I started experimenting with things, like extreme back-lighting and all that sort of stuff. [I was] teaching myself how I could push and pull the image to get something completely different from what I originally thought the image might be.
So there’s a huge level of editing in the still photography too?
Yeah, absolutely. I really enjoy that sort of stuff, [like] how a minute change in one piece of metadata could completely alter the look and feel of something.
On shooting plans:
You said that you had several things in post-production, ready to go. I’ve also heard you say how you tend to get into a rhythm of writing and planning things in the winter, before eventually shooting them in the summer. What are your filming plans for the summer of 2017?
I don’t have any confirmed shoot-dates for anything yet. I need to get on that pretty quickly, honestly, because the time will go away very fast if I don’t make moves now. I have two short films that I really would like to get made between now and, i’ll say, like, January of next year, that i’m very much excited about.
One is [something] that I did not write; it’s a dark-comedy written by a friend of mine who, i’m hoping, to form a longer collaborative partnership with. I really like her writing, her style and her sensibility. It very much lends itself to the kind of storytelling I like to do. [It’s] a dark-comedy about two best-friends that decide to harvest a kidney from a stranger. So, that one’s gonna be pretty grotesque but, hopefully, pretty hilarious as well! We’ll probably shoot that over the next few months.
Then, the other short is one that i’m hoping to adapt into a feature and, hopefully, have that be the first feature I direct. That is called Tyrannosaurus Death, and that is about… The pitch I’ve been giving lately is, “Swiss-Army Manchester, by the sea”. [It’s] a very goofy and weird film but it’s also got this, of course, existential element. It’s one of those stories I can’t speak too much about without spoiling.
The main crux of it is, there’s a man who has suffered some kind of unknown trauma. It has left him in a state where he is wearing a dinosaur costume at all times. The film is, sort of, about him coming to terms with what he’s done so that he’s able to move on from that and become a normal person again.
On playing with mystery:
Your films have a tendency to open with mystery. A good example of that is, again, in Floored. You often seem to throw the audience in at the deep end with your characters, so you have to work backwards to discover truths.
I just enjoy that kind of storytelling. I think it’s more fun, really; more fun and more exciting. I like the idea that you might meet a person at their worst, but that’s not who they are underneath all that. That’s certainly why I tend to do things like that.
There’s a sense of unravelling, and a lot of things being unsaid. I feel like those things not explicitly stated in dialogue are communicated by your cinematography and editing instead.
Especially with this upcoming film, that’s certainly something i’m striving for. The main character is actually mute, as well as wearing this costume. I mean, there’s voice-over in it so you hear the character talk, but the way that he interacts with the world itself is, again, hyper-visual. The way that the camera will move, and the film will be cut, will be one-hundred percent reflective of this guy’s mental state.
I’m definitely looking forward to that, as a rather existential person myself. And these are to be Magnalux productions?
Yes, these are both Magnalux productions. Hopefully i’ll be shooting at least one of them in late-May; if I can pull it off in time. If not, [i’ll] probably shoot for July because i’m getting married in June. There’s no way i’ll be able to make a film [in] the same month I get married!
On short-films and the evolution of society:
Magnalux definitely seem like something people should have more of an eye on.
Yeah, I hope that more people do! Actually, the two features that I shot over the past six months… Those are also actually, like, in association with Magnalux because I served as a producer on both of them. They’ll both end up on the website in some capacity. There’ll be a title card and whatnot.
That’s pretty exciting as well, to have those larger-scale projects under the label [too]. I hope that brings a little bit more legitimacy to us. I certainly think that short-films are a wonderful medium; I love working in it. I just wish there were more, say, love and respect for them on a larger scale. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case so, until then, [i’ll] be, sort of, always working towards the feature-length projects.
I do feel like things are starting to change, in a way. People are starting to notice editing more as a medium. It’s not just that either. I feel like people’s demands and tastes are changing. Feature-length films have somewhat lost their appeal, and they’re mostly just empty blockbusters.
Yeah, it’s a very weird time. Movie theatres are only playing, like, big-budget blockbuster-y things, unless you have access to art-house cinemas. In New York, i’m lucky enough to have access to, like, five! It’s kinda mind-blowing how many cool indie films I can go [and] see on any given day.
For the most part, streaming seems to be where independent film is going to live. Long-form television seems to be where most auteurs are ending up now, as well. It’s definitely a changing time, but short-films still get lost in the middle there. They’re short enough to be an episode of a longer thing but, then, they’re not; they don’t really go anywhere.
It’s still this weird thing and, also, no-one wants to pay any money for them. If something was a series, even if the episodes were only five minutes, you could probably convince someone to pay for a subscription to that. You could maybe pitch it to, say like, IFC or Comedy Central, that host that short-form, serialised content on their website.
If you’re creating just a one-off short-film, we’re still in this weird place where it’s impossible to monetise it. You might get it into some festivals but, for the most part, unless it’s a pitch for something larger, it’s really gonna be just like, “Look at this artist practising for the next stage of their development”.
I hadn’t really thought about that, and it’s a shame. Short-films can have a lot of power to them.
I watch so many short-films, and I subscribe to, like, Short of the Week. I go on there once a week to see what people are into and what people are watching. There’s just such a wealth of talent, and amazing film-makers out there who are doing great things in the medium. I just don’t think there’s, really, anywhere for it to go. I think the only people that watch short-films, and care about them, are either people like yourself or other film-makers.
All I can say is, I hope that this change that I perceive keeps evolving, and people start to accept short-films as a more viable medium.
I mean, i’ll be very sad if movie theatres go away, or if art-house cinemas just close their doors permanently. I have no religion, but going to the movie theatre is the closest thing I have to, say, going to church. I’d be very sad the day that that comes to an end.
There’s something so wonderful about sitting in the dark, in a large place, with strangers, and just all enjoying the same thing; or hating the same thing for that matter!
I’ll be very sad to see that go, if it does. In the meantime, it is really amazing [how] streaming has changed the game for film-makers and the type of films that can be made now. There’s something for everyone, and everyone has different tastes but, with the Netflix and Hulu [models], there will always be an audience for the things that get put on there.
I think that’s wonderful, and certainly means that, say these two features that I worked on… They’ll probably end up on Amazon, Hulu or something like that, and that would be amazing! I’d be lucky, and happy, to have that experience but, even now, if I made a feature as a director, the chances of it being played in a theatrical run are nearly impossible (which is a very strange landscape to be in).
I feel like we’re starting to see a counter-culture being born. We’re in the birth mewls of that. There are people like you, and our other podcast guests, who are interested in things like Magnalux.
I certainly hope so and, even if they’re not, it’s not like i’m going to stop doing what i’m doing.
Which proves how much your passion drives what you do. Your creative pursuits will always be fine under that light, as long as they have passion behind them.
I agree. What else would I do? This is who I am. This is what I do. Barring some sort of catastrophic event that changes my life permanently in another direction, I see no universe where I stop doing this.
As a consumer, i’m far more interested in work driven by that real love than more cynical inspirations. I just hate to hear you down on yourself (or more the idea of short-films), man!
Yeah, I probably sounded a little more down than I actually am! I’m glad to hear that you feel that way, and hopefully others do as well.
I’m sure that things are changing in some way. You, and creatives like yourself, seem poised to be right in the centre of these developments.
Thank you for saying that, I really appreciate it. [I’m] certainly doing my best to, sort of, be that person.
Please let me know any time anything new comes out, even if it’s just trailers!
Yeah, i’ll definitely let you know when Board is coming out! I’ll probably try and do some sort of social media push for that. Over the next few months there should be, probably, three or four short-films that i’m attached to getting themselves out there. I’ll definitely be letting you know and trying to get them out there in any way I can.