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2014, 99m, comedy, drama, thriller
Victor, a young commercial director living in New York, reluctantly returns to the boring California suburb where he grew up, in order to show off his successes at his high school reunion. While he's home, he reunites with his former best friend, David, who is showing signs of mental illness with paranoid delusions. Victor decides to stay around to help David through his issues by hiring actors to act out his delusions, so that together, they can defeat the forces that David thinks are out to get him, and bring their friendship back to the way it was before.
10 questions with Before director, Nikolai Vanyo at the half-way mark.
Wednesday, September 14th, 2016
1Wow. This is some movie that takes turns in ways you might not expect and touches on some serious issues about mental health and what it means to be a friend. Where did the inspiration for this idea come from? Unlike most of the films I've written, this one really comes from a real and personal place. The inspiration was pretty direct in the way that my best friend of many years (who I will leave anonymous), was having a really hard time after college and began to voice to me -and me alone- all of these pretty far-out concerns and paranoid thoughts. I didn't know how to help him, and the idea briefly crossed my mind to do what the character of Victor does in the film- hire actors to play along with it. I obviously didn't, because it's a terrible idea in practice, but the film explores what would happen if someone acted on that bad, but well-intentioned idea.
2This was your first feature film. What would you say were the biggest struggles in directing a feature length project? It was simultaneously the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life. The struggles were mostly the usual; not enough money, tight shooting schedule, etc. We made the entire thing for less than forty thousand dollars, which is always hard, since I've worked on commercials with bigger budgets to fill just 30 seconds of content. But then there were also some pretty unique problems that came up on set... When we were filming the picnic scene between Victor and Eleanor, we were filming up on a mountaintop where the fog is so think at night that you could barely see five feet in front of you. Several of our crew cars kept bumping each other as we loaded in (nothing damaging, luckily), and while we were shooting, we had to find the perfect distance where we were close enough to actually see the actors through the fog, but far enough so that we could capture the cool look of the fog itself. By the end of that night, the "dead cat" which is a furry cover for the boom microphone, was so soaked with fog moisture that it looked like it had been completely submerged underwater.
3David is a pivotal character and Tyler Lueck's performance is natural and charming. What was the casting process for this character like? Tyler and I knew each other from short films I directed in college. I cast him in a little comedic short where he played a porno director, and he killed it. Right away I knew he was a standout amongst everyone I worked with in film school. I kept casting him in other shorts I made in school and we kept in touch as friends. When I told him about the project years later, I had (foolishly) no intention of casting him in the role, based on a different mental image of the character, in my head. He really really pursued it and begged me for an audition. When he came in, he blew me away, and I cast him on the spot. No one else managed to capture the nuance of a man who is simultaneously charming and outgoing while simultaneously struggling with a very confusing and unconquerable issue. It was the toughest role in the film and Tyler absolutely nailed it. And as always, working with him was so rewarding.
4The dialogue is definitely very natural as well as the performances. Was all of it written or was there any improvisation added to create that aesthetic? If not, how do you go about getting actors to act like "normal people"? I would say 85% of what is in there was on the page. There were little moments, like the drive-thru scene, where we had an actual drive-thru worker on the other side, completely oblivious that we were filming. Moments like that had to be improvised, but with the skeleton of beats that had to be reached within the conversation. As far as creating natural performances, a lot of that came with fostering an actual relationship between the cast members. Austin, Tyler, Meryl, and the rest all became friendly on set in a way that translated on screen. At some point when we weren't filming, Tyler, who was a bit tired at the time, answered a question with a very enthusiastic "Oh my god!" followed by a very demure "It was alright.". The sudden emotional switch in that one phrase left the whole room in stitches, for whatever reason. So a few days later, when filming the post drive-thru scene, we threw that in as a line for his character, because it fit. That's generally how improv worked on set. It was refined and rehearsed.
5Is there anything that got left on the cutting room floor you miss or anything you wish you could go back and do differently? The first cut of this film was a whopping two hours and fifty minutes, and I cut that down to around an hour and forty minutes. There was a ton left on the cutting room floor, but none of it was "essential" to the narrative of the film, and in that way, I don't miss it, per se. There are things I really liked in that cut, however; the pool scenes were minutes longer, and had even more beautiful underwater footage. There was also an entire ten minute scene between Victor and his mother that really laid down a lot of his backstory. It was the scene I used in my auditions for Victor, and was a great display of his character, but when I showed it to people in test screenings, he came off as incredibly unlikeable. I hadn't seen this problem coming, even though I always thought of him as a bit of an unlikeable character. People really want to root for their protagonist. I understand that now so much more than when I began the edit. If I had to go back, I would have saved time in just not shooting scenes like that, which ended up being unnecessary. Cheaper to cut in the script phase than in the editing phase.
6What inspired the style of this film? How would you describe your voice as a filmmaker? The style of this film was a mashup of a bunch of art that I enjoy. There are elements of some notable films in there, such as Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, and a touch of Garden State. I would say that Dogtooth informs my visual style more than any other single film. Lanthimos is an idol of mine. There are also lots of moments that emulate music videos, in this film. The pool scenes, Victor wandering in the forest. All of this comes from my longstanding love of fitting music and image in interesting ways. In the time since making Before, I have directed forteen music videos, which has been a wonderful experience. My voice has certainly gotten more specific in that time, as well. The scripts I write now are much more stylized and less "real", with a kind of awkward and surreal humor that I hope will find it's place amongst the work of Roy Andersson, Bunuel, and of course, Lanthimos.
7It would be hard to suggest the movie has an uplifting ending: our main protagonist ends up pretty worse for wear and having learned very little, which is a very honest part of life that few filmmakers explore but is also a very risky move to do in a movie. How did you come to terms with this challenge? Is there a fear that audience will miss the message? I've never been a fan of happy endings, for many reasons. I think a happy ending to this story wouldn't exactly be fitting, either. Victor made a big mistake in doing what he did, and he's lucky that David didn't actually kill himself. But one thing that I hope is clear is that Victor is a selfish person. He didn't do much of what he did for David, he did it for himself, much like how he wanted to bring his girlfriend to his reunion just to appear cool. He's a bit of a tragic and flawed protagonist, but so we all are, as humans. You're right, though, that it's a tough note to end a film on, and I hope that, if anything, people can sympathize with both of these flawed and struggling humans as if they were real people. You don't have to like Victor or his decisions, but I think most people can understand what it's like to feel powerless and naive and decide to take ANY action rather than sitting back and watching things deteriorate. We've all made mistakes with good intentions.
8What is the overall message and or emotion you hope people leave with after watching "Before"? I hope that people leave the film feeling hopeful for David, and the real people out there in the world that he represents. We all have friends that are struggling with something, whether we know it or not. It's sad to see how much people with mental afflictions are ignored and misunderstood. Its such an impossible illness to fully tackle and understand, and we are so quick to blame people for their own disabilities, in that way. And I hope that at least one person who sees this film might go on and treat differently the people in their lives who seem like they are having a hard time, even when they don't understand why they are struggling. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt; our brains all work differently.
9What would advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and become a filmmaker? I would say that you should focus on two things. The first being the craft itself; go out and make things. Make bad films. Then make better films. Then make good films. Write every script that crosses your mind, and they will keep getting better. Practice really really matters. The second focus should be making friends. Not only does this ensure success more than most things (my most successful friends are also the best at this), but it also gives you what we all, as storytellers, need the most, which is experience. Stories. Journeys. Struggles. They all lead to great material and great growth as an artist and a person. My favorite filmmaking quote comes from another one of my idols, Akira Kurosawa: "Being an artist means never having to avert one's eyes". So go out there and observe everything this crazy thing called life has to offer.
10What's next? I wrote a film called "Zoo" that is very close to being produced. It's a much much bigger film than "Before", and with a much more distinct voice. It's a little minimalist scifi piece about the last seven humans on earth being kept in a zoo exhibit for observation by some unknown entity. It's very surreal and weird and funny and scary and disturbing. The responses to the script have been overwhelming, with some very big studios and agencies wanting to help make it happen. I hope and expect that I will be able to make it within a year or so, which means it will come out in several years. Beyond that, I have tons of other scripts ready to go, in all kinds of budgets and genres- after all, writing is the only part of filmmaking that doesn't require a ton of people and money. In the mean time, I'm directing lots of little projects. Music Videos, Commercials, Shorts, etc. As long as I'm behind a camera, I'm happy!
About the Interviewer: Ericson Just
Ericson is just another straight, white male with delusions of grandeur and an above average god-complex trying to carve out a space for himself in the tough world of show business. His debut feature 'The Burden of My Company' won third place in the Fandependent Films Spring 2016 circuit.
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