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VIFF 2017 Interview: DAMN BRO director Travis Frick

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/01/17 03:03:02

"A Haitian student is bullied by a star basketball player into doing his schoolwork and taking his tests, until his hard work produces surprising results for both of them." Director Travis Frick on DAMN BRO! Which screens at the 2017 Vancouver international Film Festival.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

I have never stayed in Vancouver nor I have I been to VIFF but I have gone through on my way to Whistler several times, so I'm excited to finally spend some time there.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background, and how you got into the whole filmmaking business!

I received my MFA in film and TV production from The USC, School of Cinematic Arts in LA after film school, I was a video editor in news at the ABC affiliate in Kansas City, my hometown. I eventually migrated back to NY, where I had gone to undergrad. Initially, I planned on continuing to edit news but instead found work editing documentaries, both short and long form. My favorite from this time was Born in the USA: Muslim Americans, about Muslim Americans who faced discrimination in the wake of 9/11.

After directing a short, I segued into teaching high school and continued to teach at various high schools around NYC for seven years. In the past four years, I returned to work as a videographer and editor. For this short, I collaborated with a former student about his experiences in the high school where I taught and he attended.

For us, it has been important to stay as true as possible to our experiences in the public education system while bringing out some of its systemic absurdities. One of the oddities for students in NY is the ongoing culture of testing. While the tests seem to change slightly from year to year, low level students and their teachers sometimes panicked about how to pass the tests. From a student's perspective, cheating on the tests was easy and fairly common.

How did this movie come together from your perspective?

Paul and I had a few marathon conversations about our separate experiences in public school. At times, we were shocked by the other's perspective and stories. Because we felt an audience hasn't seen a bully story of this variety, basically a comedy about the absurdities of high school, so we focused on his story as a student.

After meeting a few times, the script was primarily written in a day. We workshopped later drafts of the script in The Harlem Writer's Workshop, led by Eddie Pomerantz, which helped pinpoint where the laughs were and how to amplify them. Our goal for this short was to experiment in creating an accurate portrait of the experience of a NYC public school while still finding the absurd humor in his journey.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

Trying to bring out the best out of everyone was our goal. We shot three days but lost our location between the second and third day. We really couldn't continue in another school. So, after negotiating with the school for a month, they let us back in a month later to finish.

During that month long break, we asked every department to make adjustments. Seeing those changes in action for our final day was very satisfying. One thing we did was adjust the camera style from an objective point of view to a subjective, intuitive style. On our last day, we shot more handheld, mimicking the subjectivity of a character with the camera. Also, we moved to a shorter lens that reflected the perspective of a human eye. We sprinkled new shots into every scene, including the scenes we had already finished. This new subjective, intuitive style treated the camera as a character, which worked because of the story breaking the fourth wall.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it?

Losing the location and then begging to be let back in was a challenge. The short was shot in a real school which we felt was necessary for verisimilitude. We overstayed past our out time and they wouldn't let us back in for our third day. But after a month of negotiating, our persistence paid off and we were able to finish and shoot our last day in the same school.

On our last day, we realized how much quicker we could work, what shots we needed to tell the story, and how when we view something "perfect" whether its lighting, performance, or story is so subjective. What we thought we needed turned out so much better because of a more fluid process. This fluid style was only possible thanks to the entire crews' careful preparation.

If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

My favorite moment through the entire process was my conversations with Paul that became the basis for the story. We had a eureka moment, when we realized this type of story hadn't been told and that it should be told. Recently, audiences are seeing all kinds of new voices in movies and TV, so I am very pleased to bring Paul's great sense of humor and very unique perspective to the screen. We plan to continue to write together.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film!

We chose the Arri Alexa Mini for its size and versatility. With one operator and many of the shots handheld we wanted to be able to maneuver while managing fatigue. Lucas Gonzalez who shot the film used an Ultra Contrast filter which brought light from bright areas of the frame to darker areas. We tested the filter on dark skin tones and liked how natural light, combined with the Ultra Contrast filter looked on people of color. We can also attribute the look to the Arri Alexa.

As a director, I tried to use a monitor as little as possible and trust the camera department. They weren't always comfortable with my style of "hands-off" but I wanted to be in on the action of the acting. After the first day, it was apparent the AC Josue Loayza could really keep anything I wanted in focus. For this reason, we challenged the camera crew to create a new style for the third day. After showing Lucas the storyboards and shot list, I told both Lucas and Josue to focus on a couple places or moments within a long take. I called this process "selective focus", meaning I wanted them to be sure to capture what I thought was needed to tell the story but within that they were free to subjectively move the camera. By giving them this freedom, I intended for their intuitive movements to direct the viewer's attention through the focus of the lens. So, whatever they thought was interesting was in focus and was also a subjective point of view, mimicking the subjectivity of a character beyond the fourth wall.

Where is this movie going to show next?

We're excited to premiere DAMN BRO at VIFF and see it in front of an audience. Up next is Fort Lauderdale International Film Fest and Boston International Kids Film Festival.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

We want to screen in our hometown of NYC and are awaiting a NY premiere. The AMC Empire 25 would be cool because I'm originally from Kansas City, the home of AMC, and grew up going to their theaters.

Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

Put the phone away; this short is only eight minutes and you're going to miss it!

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

It's very important to develop material that you not only want to see but also an audience will enjoy. Spend some time thinking about why you want to tell a particular story and find models in the history of films that deal with the same ideas. If you're going to make a teen movie, see as many teen movies as you can get your hands on! There's a lot of content being created--how will your story set your work apart? Most importantly, make something that you want to see!

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I happen to be skiing at Sundance the year that WHIPLASH played. I was really there to ski with a group of people who had come from all over the world to ski. But when I read the description of Whiplash I thought it was a movie I should see and after seeing it I was certain it would be one of the best of that year. It's a very simple yet compelling story, told with style and energy, with performances you believe, and jazz music played with such nerve that makes an old, traditional style of music seem fresh.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org.

Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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