10 questions with The Circus Animals director, Nicholas Bateman at the half-way mark.
Tuesday, April 26th, 2016
1Hi Nicholas! Thanks for being a part of our spring festival. First, can you tell me what was the initial seed that made you want to make The Circus Animals? Thank you! It's really exciting to be part of the site- I think it's really exciting what you're doing.
I think The Circus Animals really evolved through the process of making it. Initially, it was my way of addressing my fears of getting older and having to reconcile what I wanted to do with my life and the realities of having to have a job, be a real person, pay bills etc... While that was happening, and I was sort of bouncing around the East Coast, I happened upon this truly incredible group of people during my time at Towson University. Everyone was in this really rapturous mindset, all studying theater, staying up all night, having a blast, and just indulging in this wild youthfulness. I really truly got swept up in it- and it became this thing that I was feverishly writing to catch up with everything. Without really thinking it through, I left school to move to NY to try and make the film and find some money. After doing that, the film switched to a sort of nostalgia- partially looking forward to what we all wanted to do with life- but mainly missing this time we all had. In the end, I think it became a love letter to these people that I still am in awe of.
2This is a film about a group of people making a film and all the drama that comes with that. Was the Circus Animals inspired by one particular film shoot experience, a culmination of many film shoots or completely made up? I grew up making movies with Francis Cabatac (who plays The Director). We were in a class together in high school, and he was making these youtube videos for- what seemed like- only himself. I was really so in love with it, so I made him teach me how to edit and we started making things. It really was just Francis, my sister Kate Bateman (Production Designer) and whoever else we could pull into it. It was a truly innocent way of making movies, we were just doing it because it was fun, and that all came from Francis. As we got older, I think I started to put a point on it, and think about it in a more purposeful way. The rest of the cast weren't really involved in that yet, but we were all in theater school together- so we had a real shorthand of working together creatively. In those sort of environments, I think people allow their life to enter the work easier, they're more open to this currency. So, all of that sort of swirled around into a composite history of the characters.
3What was your writing process like for this film? How long did it take you write this script and how do you write? I started writing it about a year and a half before we shot, and I worked on it as much as I could. All of the parts were written for the actors, so it evolved around my ideas of them as people, things they wanted out of their lives, their own little experiences within this group, and my personal relationships with them. I was saying a lot before making it that the film could be an excuse for us to say all these wonderful things to one another, and I tried to write to give us a framework for that. Mainly, I really think these are all some of the most special actors I've ever met, and I just wanted to give everybody something to really bite into. That's partially how I got myself into the problem of making a movie with 12 main characters. Like the previous things, it really became a composite of what we all were and what I felt we wanted to be- so I'd write to the people sometimes, and then other times I think we'd find some interesting turns in writing farther away from them as people.
4I love the way you shot this film because you've got a lot going on and the film has 3 distinct looks. You've got the story of these characters making a film, you've got an alternative look because one character is shooting a doc while making the film, and you've got the footage of the film they're actually making. How did you and David Ross (the cinematographer) come up with the look for this film? What films inspired it (if any) and how did you get that grain? As much as I'd like to try and take a bunch of credit for how wide the visual range of the movie is, I think it's really a result of me trying to figure out my own voice and things I respond to. I was as interested in hyper real sort of character dramas as I was in Wong Kar Wai, and I wasn't really able to resolve that- so it just became the structure. Thankfully, I think that became really thematically fitting with the whole thing, so it worked out. Other than that, it's obviously some sort of miracle by David Ross. None of us had really worked on a movie before- even down to Ryan Darcangelo who recorded all the sound- but I still don't really understand how Dave did all that. I threw just about the most unrelated group of movies at him (due to my inability to nail down a look) and he found this magical through line. Without that, I don't think the film would have any sort of cohesion. Additionally, I think it was just David and Joe Miller, and Dave's lights were a few vintage bug-lights he found, some clamp lights, one small lighting kit off of ebay, and a whole load of christmas lights. I think he's still having panic attacks from it.
5You act as well as wrote and directed this film. How are you able to direct yourself? How are you able to judge your performance? I'm not really sure how to write antagonists, but I think if theres one in the film it's definitely me. That was the only way I could get through it, because my headspace was so bullishly obsessed with making this thing, that it sort of shines through in an acceptable way. I was really worried about making myself look cool or heroic or anything like that, so whenever a scene needed a heel I'd volunteer myself in the writing. Everyone else seems contented and enriched just by the experience, where I think my character is sort of obsessed with wringing it for all it's creatively worth. For better or worse, that might be an accurate representation of me at that time. Anything further than that is just because of the incredible ensemble. In those long takes that we'd do- which would wind up being 15-20 minutes with the head and tail of it- it was sort of impossible for anyone to screw up once it was working. Everyone had to engage with each other so much that the scene would either work or just fall apart. Once the scene worked from a master, or in those long takes, I just figured we had it. We tried not to rewatch anything really, that's too much meta for anyone.
6This is your first feature film. How did you know you were ready to make a full feature and what prepared you? I was wondrously unprepared for what the film asked of me. I really ran headlong into it. In retrospect, I think the only way to be prepared for a film is to just accept to wrestle with it until it's done. I doubt I'll ever get out in front of what a movie is going to ask of me, but I hope that my stamina will stay as long as I can keep making them. The hardest thing about this one- given that it was the first- was the obsession with how to get ideas and feelings out of my head and actually have them show up in what we shot. It seemed to take such physical work to remember the details of what I wanted to make, while equally being present enough to see it growing in front of me. Without David Ross, there's no conceivable way the movie ever got finished- let alone started. All the tiny details that grow into the heart of the movie, he was there to push them through. He never knew any of these people before, he wasn't part of this wild time that started the movie, but he managed to assemble it all in a really magical way. He also just didn't let me quit, and he'd push me to be crazier when I needed to be, and he'd push me to exercise some sanity when I needed it.
7What was your biggest challenge making this film? I think it was a shared challenge because the thing that we all wanted to make was way beyond any of our experience, time, budget, or technical ability. Everyone, even Michael Peterson who was our AD (who would run the clapper and then run and get pizza), seemed to make this silent decision to rise to whatever the shared dream asked of us. We shot the movie in about 17 days, and the script we shot was somewhere around 160 pages (my fault). The film deals so directly with everyone's fear of a life making things being almost untenable, that we sort of had to get ready to talk about it while also denying that idea's validity. Finally, this whole idea of matte paintings and the world becoming visually antiquated as their dream fades away was a real afterthought. Somebody asked me what I would have done different if I had a million bucks, and I said all giant matte paintings. Then I was stuck in it. We found Cassandra Baker and her work inspired this way of projecting hand-done mattes over the walls and the skies that surround them. Learning After Effects was not fun.
8What's the film that made you want to become a filmmaker? Oh, that's a tough one. My friends would jokingly say that my answer is Lord of the Rings. My answer is also Lord of the Rings. Anything epic and overblown and mythic I love. My mom seemed to have Gone With the Wind on repeat when I was a kid (so there's all the matte paintings). I also grew up making miniatures with my dad- he did the same with this dad with model trains- and his dad before that. That idea of tinkering away on these little stories and making a contained world seemed to stick with me, and I guess I'm still just doing the same thing. As much as I'm a movie-obsessed person, I seem really acutely occupied with worrying about moments and places and people passing through me. I figure everyone else is concerned with time in their own way, but movies are my way of fighting that off. I'd like to try and find a container for all these things to stay- whether they're dreams or they've happened. I also just really love people, so I try and talk about them as much as I can.
9You're a part of the Coatwolf team (the team behind the indie hit Bellflower). How did you get involved with them and what's it like being a part of that crew? When I was in my wildest phase trying to finish this thing, I saw the Sundance Meet the Crew thing for Coatwolf and Bellflower. It was this sort of idyllic little video of these crazy people in a desert screaming and laughing and making movies. Anybody who starts making movies has to go through a healthy amount of trusted loved ones saying "you really should probably not do this" and that video seemed to have a spiritual affect on me. I was like "oh! There are other people like this!" Vince Grashaw was making Coldwater, and I think Evan got him to watch Circus Animals and he wound up throwing me in the movie, so that was about four years ago- and I wound up just never coming back. In the time since, I've sort of found my niche in the VFX world- so on "Chuck Hank" I'm the VFX Supervisor and Co-Producer. There were about 10 vfx shots in The Circus Animals, and as of today, there are about 560 in Chuck Hank. I've learned more from these people and this experience than I could have ever imagined, and it's become as definitive as my time making The Circus Animals. I'm endlessly grateful for the opportunity they gave me to come play and join their journey, it's changed everything.
10What's next? Now that "Chuck Hank" is wrapping up, I'm taking the opportunity to apply all of the things I've learned both from the experience and the reflection to make this story I've had with me since I was about 10. While The Circus Animals is a love letter about a time and place here, the movies that I'd like to make more in my own voice are closer to world building. I'm really interested in having myth and fantasy grow out of the present. I have this hope that there's a way to make a larger world, and tell stories within it, that aren't disposable in that traditional fantasy is (though I really, really, love hobbits and elves). I'd like to make these places of feeling- ones that don't deny our world and problems, but include them, and mold them and us into myth; a sort of parallel place that we can keep with us. Like anybody making things, I'm just trying to ramble my way towards being able to talk about the big questions like what do we do with our short time here, where do we go, how do we be better? So, The Wanting Mare is sort of the start of this larger world of magic and a history that I'm going to try and stay in for the rest of my time making things.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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