Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a filmmaker and musician who’s increasingly devoting my energy to stories that help bring about positive changes in people’s hearts. The physical living world is in trouble and I feel that storytellers have an obligation to wake people up - heart first.
What was the writing process like working with another screenwriter (Elizabeth Bull)?
She and I traded off scenes as we tackled the drafts, and then fought like mad over our versions of the scenes. We had dated for a long time, and then broken up, and then become very close friends, before tackling the collaboration. It was immensely frustrating some days, inspiring other days, and mostly a lot of fun to battle out a fictional universe with someone I really like hanging out with. Though we both love certain French movies of the 60’s and 70’s, and were mutually influenced by then, our sensibilities, in the end, are quite different: she’s more cynical and ironic, I’m more gung-ho for big emotion. We found a balance that serves the film well.
What was one of the most challenging days of the production process? And how did you overcome it?
I wish I could say there was one challenging day; getting a low-budget movie done is always chaos. For us, the biggest challenge was dealing with unpredictable weather; since the story was centered around people in this intensely beautiful natural landscape, I couldn’t shoot scenes without the right light. But trying to figure out when it would storm, when the wind would blow, when the sun would shine, was intensely nervewracking and I had to learn a kind of spiritual acceptance that no matter how many times per day we had to change our day’s schedule, the team would be ready for whatever scene fit that weather.
What was your vision for the musical score for the film?
The film’s music is as crucial as the natural landscape elements. My composer Ethan Gold, who happens to be my brother, was in charge of creating melodies for the score that not only would work to fill in a kind of nostalgic lushness, but would also prepare the audience for the moment that “the song of Sway Lake” itself plays. For this, we spent a crazy amount of time debating whether we could truly present an original, never-before-heard piece of music, and have the audience genuinely believe it is a real hit song from 1940, in the vein of Cole Porter. We wanted it to feel familiar, even though no one has heard it before; it also had to fit in sonically with the dozens of real vintage songs from the period that play throughout the film leading up to that moment. Juggling music rights for the thousands of songs I considered was quite difficult, and I was saved in part by the family of Issa El-Saieh, a brilliant Haitian bandleader whose songs from the 1940’s helped fill out what I couldn’t afford of Fred Astaire, Glen Miller, et cetera. In the end I’m very happy to say that audiences believe the new music as much as the old, and are haunted by the same blessing and curse - nostalgia - that haunts the characters. Ethan’s diligence, the arrangements by Gena Leishman, and the vocal performances by John Grant and the Staves are to thank for that.
What was the process behind the look of your film? Who did you work with and what was that process like?
My DP, Eric Lin, and I wanted a saturated, filmic, 1970’s kind of look, and wanted to use the natural light and environment as much as possible. I also worked extensively with my colorist, Doug Delaney, to create the richness that you feel on screen.
What has the festival experience been like for you with this film?
The festival landscape has become very competitive, so I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to tour the world, and won prizes that will even take me to China. The greatest experience so far was probably playing Opening Night in the grandest opera house I’ve ever seen, in Mallorca. But even the smaller screenings have a kind of magic when I get to experience the spell that the film has cast over an audience, and hear how it moved them.
Do you have any funny moments on set you'd like to share?
A beautiful moment was when Elizabeth Peña asked me to visit her one night after a shoot, and I rowed under moonlight across the lake to visit her cabin. She was shocked to see her director emerge from the water. She wanted to ask my permission to play a secret: that her character, the family’s servant, had had an affair with the (now-deceased) Captain Hal Sway. I loved the idea, and asked if she wanted me to add a hint into the script. She said no, she wanted to play this notion with her eyes only. How rare for an actor to want fewer lines! She was a beautiful performer, one who could communicate worlds just with her eyes.
I suppose the funniest moment for the cast and crew was when we were shooting one of the scenes with Rory Culkin and Isabelle McNally in one of the boats, and I think Robert Sheehan nearby. The boats kept breaking down and for some reason, I decided to dive into the water and try to yank one of them by a rope. From the surface of the water, I then shouted “Action!” and did a deeper dive into the lake, held my breath, and popped up about 20 seconds later hoping that they would have shot a take. Instead, everyone was laughing at me.
If you were stuck on an abandoned island what five items would you have with you?
Rope, knife, sunscreen, patience, acceptance.
What is your favorite song to blast still to this day that you grew up listening to?
“Sweet and Dandy” by Toots and the Maytals.
Which do you love more coffee or tea?
Are you crazy? Coffee.