Imported Kiwi Doug Dillaman loves movies. He grew up in Detroit, and lived in Houston and Portland before coming to New Zealand in 2004 as a 30-year-old.
That's when I became friends with him via Auckland's vibrant film nerd community, where I came to appreciate his passionate devotion to our shared god.
Dillaman and his collaborators (most notably Hybrid Motion Pictures cohort Alastair Tye Samson) have been a perennial presence in the 48 Hour Film Festival competition over the years, and they have now made a feature film. With no public funding whatsoever.
Written and directed by Dillaman, Jake tells the appealingly-high concept story of Jacob (Jason Fitch), a listless young man whose world crumbles when he is "recast" by a shadow agency, and his life is taken over by the more dynamic "Jake" (Go Girls' Leighton Cardno).
This intelligent genre exercise with big ideas is screening in Auckland at The Academy this Friday, June 27 at 7.30pm (followed by a filmmaker Q&A), and also next Wednesday, July 2 and Saturday, July 5. Then it has a season down in Wellington at the Paramount beginning Friday, July 11. If, like me, you're at all excited about New Zealand genre films, this is a must-see.
Dominic Corry: What processes did you go through to raise money?
Doug Dillaman: We didn't try very hard. I played in punk rock bands before I ever even thought about filmmaking and Alastair Tye Samson, our other producer, comes from a punk rock background as well. And so that was just the philosophy we brought to it, you don't wait around to get a funding application to play a punk rock song, so why should you do that for a film? And then you get into it and you realise that film is hugely expensive and now you're broke. But it made sense at the time.
Certainly as we were developing the script, it seemed like something that didn't fit the conventional funding boxes. But also development is a long process, and not a very fruitful one. You can spend years with your script at the Film Commission without going anywhere, and we thought we'd just make this film that we wanted to make. It was the sixth script I'd written so it wasn't just the first thing out of the box. I finished the first draft - which had been in the works for 18 months - at the start of January and we were filming at the end of June.
Mick Innes as Henry, Jason Fitch as Jacob and Julie Collis as Faye.
DC: Had you gone through film funding applications prior to this?
DD: I had applied with short films, and various other projects. I applied to Headstrong with a script ages ago. So yeah I'd had turn-downs from all of those.
DC: But you'd been making your own films anyway all this time?
DD: We formed our team Hybrid in April 2008 centred around a 48 Hours filmmaking sensibility of just going and doing something and not asking for permission. We'd get together every weekend and we'd just write shoot and edit something in four hours. Those things are all terrible but we learned something from them and we also cumulatively got a sense of each other's tastes in what we liked doing. You just build a lot of working process that way. So it didn't seem like that big of a step at the time. We didn't realise how big of a step it was going to turn out to be.
I don't know if it would've ever got funding. I suspect it wouldn't have or I suspect that it would have been different. Or that I would've had to make changes. And I'm really glad that I wasn't confronted with that.
There have been a lot of difficulties in this period of taking it to market and getting buy-in, and part of that is because it's not something that slots nicely into boxes. I guess that is something that any filmmmaker should keep in mind if they're self funding - there's a creative side and a financial side. And I went into this content to lose every dollar making what I want to, but a lot of people go into it with visions of being the next Tarantino and making millions of dollars. And that's always risky. I mean, ask Disney about John Carter. It happens at all levels - that those ambitions aren't realised. But I didn't have kids; I didn't have a mortgage; I thought I could build up my credit card bills and work hard for a couple of years to pay it off.
DC: So where did the money come from?
DD: I was the principal funder and there was a couple of other people who contributed cash. I get a little anxious when I say "self-funded" because the truth is this is a five figure movie, but we have over seven figures of sponsorship and support in other ways. So we don't have Film Commission money and we don't have grants, but Ross Turley, who is a friend who we'd brought on as a DP, worked at Panavision and he was able to get us a Red One. We had Concierge New Zealand providing food. The actors were not paid. Nobody was paid. It's all profit participation. I was inspired by David Lynch's Eraserhead. There are sound operators who worked on that who are still getting cheques today. It's also that punk rock thing. The film doesn't say "A film by Doug Dillaman" anwhere on it. It depresses me when I see "A film by" in independent films because it's totally a product of Hollywood filmmaking and deal negotiations. I don't aspire to be part of that system, but I understand it. When you're doing things independently, you don't have to play by those rules. You can take what you like. We tried to strike a balance between having the DIY spirit that we did, and having a level of professionalism.
Leighton Cardno as Jake and Jason Fitch as Jacob.
DC: So was it fun?
DD: (Long Pause). It wasn't only fun. There was amazing fun in it, there was a lot of fun. There was a lot of stress. It is - and everybody whose been involved in this sort of thing on a substantial level would agree with this - the most challenging thing I've ever done. There's the joy of the process, but every minute you're worried that you're not getting what you need. Some of the worst films have notoriously fun shoots, and some of the worst shoots have turned out great films. So I hope we struck a balance. There was lots of fun on set. And there are things that I wouldn't classify as fun but were hugely rewarding. There's a third-act scene with Jason alone in a room. Just letting a take go for 10 minutes and seeing an actor go to a very extreme place that you didn't even imagine when you were writing it and you suddenly realise that this is more powerful than you imagined.
DC: How hard was it to cast?
DD: Anoushka (Klaus, Doug and Alastair's co-producer on the film) was our casting director, she set up the auditions, and what she found was that there's a lot of actors who are quite excited to attach themselves to a script that they find interesting. There's a lot of good actors in this country, and they don't get a lot of opportunities. Leighton and Jason had both been in things, but this gave them this opportunity to build this character and work at a scale that they hadn't before. So that was appealing to them. Then there's the carrot of maybe profit at the end. I hope our film makes money, but a lot of films don't. I also think that a lot of people got involved knowing full well that was a possiblity, but that they were getting a chance to work on a script they believed in.
DC: So how did you corral everyone for production?
DD: Basically the way we shot is we did a lead-up weekend where we practised our workflow, then we did a two-week block where people took time off work. That was only about half the script shot. Then we had a series of weekend shoots after that to nail the remainder, spread out over three or four months. It would've been very easy to run into problems with people drifting off and splintering off but in fact we didn't have that. Everybody was very committed and stayed to the end. There's definitely a family element to us, and that's something that's been important to us.
Jason Fitch as Jacob.
DC: There's a cool big idea at the core of this film, was that always key to making a low-budget film in your mind?
DD: I've written a couple of scripts based around big ideas, and a couple that aren't. And my feeling is that if you have a big interesting idea it gives you a little more of a safety net. There's a phrase "execution dependent" and there is kind of a feeling that if you have something that's a little less grounded in a big hook, it might be a little harder to pull off. On the other hand, I don't think I realised when I had this hook how difficult it would be to pull off. And actually how much I was asking of an audience. What evolved from casting was the knowledge that it was the performances that were going to make the big idea work. It was about realistic, grounded performances in this crazy conceit.
DC: What films inspired you in making this? Was The Twilight Zone an influence?
DD: I think this side of my creative interest goes back prior to my interest in films, to Phillip K. Dick. I read all of the Phillip K Dick stories when I was growing up. Jorge Luis Borges was another one, he was an Argentinian writer who had similar conceptual ideas. Getting to cinema, I've always liked films that surprised. I think of films that share DNA with mine, everything from Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis. Primer in a certain way; there's a Japanese film called The Face of Another; there's the John Frankenheimer film Seconds. I got really obsessed with film in 1996 and watched 300 films a year. By the time was done I had swallowed so much that stuff comes back that you don't realise. I think David Lynch was a subconcious influence. I had a friend that said Jake reminded him of Fight Club, which wasn't remotely a concious influence.
DC: So how did you get Jake into theatres?
DD: We didn't know what we were gonna do with it and we even considered that maybe it won't be theatrical at all. We'd gone out to festivals and we hadn't gotten a lot of love and I think that's because the opening is so different from the ending, that the people who would like the last third often won't see where it's going from the start. There's an investment that you have to make, and when you have a pile of 5000 screeners, it's very difficult. When we did our cast and crew screening last year and we got a very strong response, we approached The Academy in Auckland and had some lengthy back and forths about how best to market it to make sure that we were reaching an audience, and we've spent the last year largely working on that. If we had just put it out, nobody would've showed up. So it's been laying that ground. But now because we've got a marketing plan; because people have been responding to the film, The Academy has now come onboard and so has the Paramount in Wellington. And they're taking us on like they would any other film, we're not renting those theatres.
DC: So what's next for you?
DD: I'm currently working on a novel about weapons testing set in New Caledonia and New Zealand during World War II. It's based on a true story.
Watch the trailer for Jake below:
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