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SXSW '05 Interview: 'Deadroom' Directors Yen Tan, James Johnston, Nick Prendergast & David Lowery

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Deadroom' Pitch: A unique and challenging collaborative effort from four talented filmmakers, Deadroom is a narrative drama made up of four interwoven vignettes in which conversastions are held between the living and the dead. It is not a ghost story, and indeed there is no context for these otherworldly conversations; they are simply a vehicle for words that could not be said or emotions that could not be felt without the touch of death.

"Life meets death in four encounters."

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
DL: Yes. Yes.
JMJ: Yep, first time at SXSW. My first film was a short called “The Knocker.” It premiered at Deep Ellum Film Festival and then went onto Dallas Video Festival. I couldn’t really afford to send it out anywhere else back then so it never played at another festival.
NP: Yes. No.
YT: Yes. Yes – my first feature, “Happy Birthday” played at several film festivals domestically and internationally.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
DL: Filmmaker. Although back then, I might have said moviemaker rather than filmmaker.
JMJ: Probably a writer, politician or a civil rights lawyer. I was very into politics back then. I still am just in a different way. I grew up and found out I’m not crooked enough to make it as a politician. And I discovered that all my stories were just screenplays in paragraph form.
NP: I honestly could not say.
YT: Disc jockey. I was obsessed with this radio show called “Dedicated to…” where listeners send in letters and their stories are read on-air, followed by a song of their choice. Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” was requested so many times, I wanted to make sure that it’ll never be played again.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
NP: A pawnshop video camera, some bored friends, and a desire to make the prequel to Commando.
JMJ: I always knew, deep in my heart, that I wanted to do something creative. When I was young, I used to write a lot. Then I was inspired by the independent film movement when it came full steam into the public conscience. Sling Blade was a big influence on me. Just seeing another guy from the South doing it his way made me think I could do it. So I applied to work on a small local film which happened to be David’s “Lullaby.” I was 25 and he was only 19 but he taught me a lot about filmmaking and we’ve been best of friends since.
DL: It had something to do with Darth Vader.
YT: Recreating scenes from movies I’ve seen with my Barbie and Ken. Somewhere in there, I managed to conceive a sequel to Fatal Attraction, where Glenn Close’s baby miraculously survives and she plots revenge on Michael Douglas’ family by seducing his son twenty years later.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
JMJ: Well, we’re spending the most money we have since the actual production. We’re getting emails and phone calls from agents and producer’s reps. The biggest change is how people perk up when you mention your playing at SXSW. Instead of being just another indie filmmaker, you have some sort of built-in cred.
NP: I’d love to say they have, but aside from the confidence re-boost, things haven’t.
DL: We’ve been busier and broker.
YT: Not much (yet). Check in again same time next year?

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
JMJ: Oh yes, we only had festivals in mind. We knew Deadroom would be a hard sale as far as distribution is concerned but we knew it would sit well with festival-goers. Being from Texas, SXSW was one of our main goals and of course we tried for Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. We’re happy to be giving our World Premiere in our own state at the biggest and best regional festival in the country.
NP: I think we all hoped that Deadroom was the kind of film that festivals and festival audiences would be drawn to.
DL: We all felt that film festivals were going to be the only place this film was going to have a life. SXSW was definitely high on our list of hopefuls, and I for one am glad it’s our first one – it sets a nice precedent.
YT: SXSW was definitely a top-tier, but I also remember not a long time ago when we were grateful for any festival acceptance.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
DL: That’s such a long story! And I think it’s on our website somewhere, so I’m just going to skip ahead to the next question.
JMJ: Here’s the truncated version. We tossed around this idea to do something very conceptual and challenging. We eventually came up with the Deadroom concept and then laid the ground rules: a single room, two actors, nothing religious or historical and a few other guidelines. Then we parted ways and wrote our scripts. Once those were done, we met back up and set to meshing them into a feature-length screenplay. We knew from the beginning that we wanted the vignettes to be interwoven so we literally cut and pasted the different scripts together into one. This became the Deadroom scroll, which is currently collecting dust on top of Nick’s china cabinet in his breakfast nook.
YT: I initially came up with a general idea of conversations between the living and the dead without any supernatural pretense. I was inspired by an artistic desire to revert to minimalism while emphasizing a distinct narrative with fleshed-out characters. After discussing it with David, I thought it would be a more interesting project if it was interpreted by four individuals, hence the addition of James and Nick. Like James said, we actually went a step further by intercutting our segments, so you’re not just seeing one story beginning and ending then onto the next, but it’s four different ones going in and out of each other as a single narrative rather than just a feature consisting of four shorts presented in a chronological order. Pre-production took forever however; approximately a year and a half. Then a quick ten-day shoot followed by a quicker one week of post at David’s grandparents’ cabin in New Mexico to complete the first cut.
NP: I was asked to join the others after the original idea was in place. We cut our scripts into sections, scotch-taped our sections to one another, and then set about trying to cast the thing. Because there were four directors trying to cast regional actors, this process took a little longer than expected. We gave ourselves a month (I think) to rehearse, and then two days to shoot each room.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
NP: Don’t let yourself get pushed into “settling.” Push back, because in the end, you have to claim it as your own.
DL: Don’t tell yourself you’re not compromising when you know you actually are. Also, don’t shoot wide shots on miniDV. Also...well, the list goes on.
YT: This is common sense really, but friendships are often at risk when you collaborate with friends. Luckily for us, everything worked out and we didn’t mutilate each other in the process. But I can see how things could go horribly wrong if one of us was a complete ass. If anything else, I’ve definitely learned to trust these guys more in the future.
JMJ: It will ALWAYS take more time than you think it will. ALWAYS!

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
NP: Tons. And reading lots of film and acting books.
YT: Mainly Asian arthouse flicks. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi come to mind.
DL: I watch great movies all the time anyway - I think it was more that I cut down on BAD movies while I was preparing for Deadroom.
JMJ: Definitely. Not so much for direct stylistic reference but more for an emotional core. I know we specifically sat down and watched Dogville. After we saw that, we were like "Yes, we can definitely do this." We also had a screening with the cast to show them clips of films that captured a certain feeling we were going for. For mine I had clips from The Shining, Gangs of New York, Titus, Mullholland Drive and Dead Man.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
NP: Commando! wait...
DL: Something no one’s heard of, so that no one would know it’s a remake.
JMJ: Well, I don’t really feel the need to remake a film that’s already brilliant so it would have to be something that could have been really cool but wasn’t done right the first time. I’d be much more interested in recovering Orson Welles' lost script for Batman and making that.
YT: Pretty in Pink, but reverse the social hierarchy: the poor kids are now the meanies because they have better taste in music than the richies. Oh, and it’ll be in a Walt Whitman Community School type of setting, which means everyone’s gay, hence Pretty in Pink.

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
NP: Part one: Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Part two: Kelly Grandjean.
JMJ: I’d absolutely love to work with Tom Waits, Daniel Day-Lewis, Henry Thomas, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Angela Bettis, Robin Wright-Penn, Kate Winslet. There’s a lot, I could go on and on. In Deadroom everyone is brilliant but I would say that Alana has a good foothold. She’s currently in the masters program at CalArts for Playwriting. That’s an amazing program that only accepts like four people a year. She’s a wonderful writer and a talented actress.
DL: One, Will Ferrell or Liv Ullman (or, better yet, both simultaneously). Two, Alana Macias.
YT: Maggie Cheung, unquestionably. To be honest, everyone in Deadroom had moments of great potential.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
JMJ: I’m pretty critical of the whole system so I could go on all day about what needs to be improved. The most glaring would be for film festivals to actually be about INDEPENDENT FILMS. So much of what is accepted in film festivals is not even close to being independent. Of course, low- budget studio films need festival exposure too. I understand that, but I think there should be more of a balance. I mean just look at the ratio of low- budget studio films to actual independent films in many festivals and that will tell you something. I can’t say my favorite part of the ride yet because we’re just getting started. I will say that I’m looking forward to hanging out with Yen, David and Nick. We don’t get to do it enough.
NP: I think we figured out what made our film exciting - and how to communicate that - late in the festival game. My favorite part of the ride is yet to come, I think.
YT: Improvement: cheaper entry fees, but it’s a catch-22 isn’t it? Not enough money then no festivals; cost too much then not as many submissions. Favorite part of the ride: don’t know yet. Although I know from experience that the feeling of walking into a screening and knowing that it sold out is a true emotional high.
DL: Hmmm… can I respond to this in six to twelve months?

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
YT: No. “Making it” is when I’m not supporting it with a day job, and I’m answering this from my office’s computer at lunch break, so…
JMJ: That’s such a subjective thing. I’m 30 now and I just got started when I was 25. I’ve made a short and two features. DEADROOM, being my second, is premiering at SXSW. That’s pretty big in my eyes. I guess in reality, “making it” means being able to make films full time.
NP: No. While I love Deadroom and am very, very proud of it, it isn’t the kind of movie or story I am wanting to tell. Once I can turn one of my own feature scripts into a film - I’ll feel pretty close to “making it.”
DL: Making it is entirely relative to one’s current perception of what is, and that perception is constantly changing and expanding. So yes, and also no.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
JMJ: I feel pretty ambiguous about that term. I do believe that the director is the final “author” of the film, especially in the case of most art films. However, it does take a lot of people to make it happen. All of those people work very hard and each little piece is important to the whole, but at the same time nobody puts as much of themselves into a film as a director does. I guess I can’t say that for everybody but I know that’s true of my films. I honestly can’t remember right now if we used that in the closing credits or not. I know we do in the marketing materials. Being that we wrote, directed, and produced, I don’t have so much of a problem saying that. It takes a lot of people to run a business but when it comes down to it, the owner is the owner and she’s the one holding the business on her shoulder 24 hours a day whereas everyone else can just walk away from it. It’s pretty much the same for directors, as far as I’m concerned.
YT: It’s fine, especially if your signature’s all over it, and you did almost every single thing in the film, which, in our case, happens a hell of a lot.
DL: It’s a perfectly valid credit, and I believe in the auteur theory. However, I also don’t really like opening credits. I’d rather have my name be the first thing at the end of a film.
NP: To each his or her own. I’m not in a position to judge anyone’s filmmaking choices. Few are.


Deadroom, directed by Yen Tan, James M. Johnston, Nick Prendergast & David Lowery (and starring Rebecca Bustamante, Paul Taylor, Bill Sebastian, Lydia Miller, Grant James, Kelly Grandjean & Harry Goaz), will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official Deadroom website.

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originally posted: 02/18/05 19:06:58
last updated: 02/19/05 09:47:05
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