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Austin Film Festival '05 Interview: 'Severance' writer, director, and star Troy Miller

Miller's character Steve daydreams in 'Severance'
by Laura Kyle

First-time filmmaker Troy Miller talks about his film Severance, a festival favorite.

You studied film production in college and then opted for a career in the computer industry. Why?

I didn't opt for a computer career - it sort of fell into my lap. The route is like this: I came to Austin and worked for a year in film/video - doing mostly production assistant stuff. Then, on a whim, I decided to join a buddy in Japan, where we spent 2 years teaching English. When I came back to Austin, I knew that I would eventually need a job, but was a little uncertain about what to do. Didn't want to do the p.a. thing again, and didn't really have any scripts ready to go. A friend who worked at a very small internet start up (and by small, I mean 2 people) asked me to come on board as an assistant. I sort of did everything - marketing, sales, web design, video editing - and learned about the business from my boss, who could throw out enough techno-babble to make Bill Gates' head spin. And, once I became sort of entrenched in that world, it just made sense to stay in it, which is what I did for almost 4 years. A lot of tech workers will tell you the same thing.

The premise of Severance is based on your real life experience of being laid off from the high tech industry – were you actually denied the second half of your severance pay, like your character Steve was?

No, we actually got our severance checks all up front. I want to say that some people had to wait for part of theirs, but I'm pretty sure that's not the norm.

If you hadn’t been laid off, do you think you ever would have returned to filmmaking?

Absolutely - it was/is my life's passion. The funny thing is, I was planning on quitting my job in October of that year (2001), but then we got laid off in July - so it was like "hey, you don't have to do the job you were going to quit anyway, and here's some extra money you weren't counting on". I mean, it was a beautiful thing. I had already been working on a script that eventually became Severance, but the story was quite a bit different. The reality of indie filmmaking is that sometimes a window of opportunity just opens up, and you have to grab on to it, or your project may never get made. So as I began to modify the script, I did so with the intention of self-producing it, and I knew it had to be low budget or it wasn't going to happen.

How long did it take from when you first began writing the script to the last day of post-production?

3.5 years. I began writing the script around January of 2002, and we wrapped post this last August, 2005

What was it like filming in Austin?

Austin is a great town to make a film, because so many people want you to succeed. We wouldn't have been able to even get through filming if so much of our resources hadn't been donated or severely discounted. There's a spirit of independent filmmaking here that you don't feel in LA or NY, since those towns have heavily commercialized the industry. It could happen here, too, but I think Austin is, at least now, too young and scrappy as far as filmmaking goes to let that happen.

The caveat is that Austin is unbearably hot for a big chunk of the year, and this can really wear your cast and crew out. We were constantly shooting in places where we had to turn off the a/c, and it was like taking an extended vacation in hell.

Most of your cast, including yourself, hails from Austin’s Heroes of Comedy Improvisational Troupe. Was there improvisation on the set?

Not too much. Some lines would change or be added/dropped as we rehearsed them, but by and large the cast stuck to what was written, which was nice because I thought that a lot of the scenes had their own comedic rythm through the dialogue. When you're low budget, and you can't move the camera a lot, you're forced to create dynamic situations through dialogue, and that was my emphasis when writing the script.

Are there any standouts in the cast you see big things for?

Absolutely. Lauren Zinn, who played Jennifer, is an excellent actress, with a great screen presence. Brian Hecker, who played Zach, is very funny, but he is actually a filmmaker, too, and right now is trying to get his own independent project finished. Expect great things from him. Todd Tatom, who played Justin, is an accomplished rapper, and sooner or later someone is going to give him the break he needs. But probably the biggest acting talent that could explode from the cast is Ted Rutherford, who had a small role as one of the 2 cops (he's the one talking on the phone). Ted auditioned for us (he's also in the Heroes of Comedy), and we didn't know what to do with him - he just completely nailed 3 or 4 roles we were casting for. Because of his physical stature, I liken him to a John Goodman, who can play drama or comedy with ease. I hope to cast him in a lead role in one of my other film projects, and then his immense talent will be obvious to everyone.

Severance blends a few genres – and you make it no secret that you’re a fan of film noir. What movies had the most influence on your creative process?

The Big Sleep is one of my favorite films - Bogart has great scenes with Becall, and that fast-talking p.i. thing influenced a lot of the writing in the second half of the movie. The Maltese Falcon's another, and Casablanca.Those 3 have Bogart at his best, and all have great visual flair - the scenes in Sam Spade's office in Falcon influenced how I envisioned Steve's office and secretary. Of course, there is a nod to Office Space, I'll make no bones about that. It's a great comedy - and yet, it is a general examination of the modern office environment, whereas the Severance office stuff is supposed to be specific to the world of web development - if people remember Steve's rant about the nature of the internet, then I think that will be a unique differentiator between the 2 films. I'm a big Peter Sellers fan, and the bumbling Inspector Clouseau influenced the way I saw Steve going about his P.I. work. I think there's also some Woody Allen in there, some Swingers, and I guess some Clerks with the black and white and the more scattological humor. I was also heavily influenced by The Woman Chaser, a great black and white indie film based on the Charles Willeford book. They actually shot that in color, then pulled out the chroma in post, and left it with this really high contrast black and white - very film noir, a style we tried to emulate.

You are the writer, director, and lead actor in Severance – your first feature film – which role was the most challenging? Which was the least? Is there one in particular you’d like to pursue?

Writing is where it all starts. It often exists in a bubble, where you're writing scenes that just crack you up, but you have no idea what anyone else will think. There's self doubt, block, frustration, everything you always hear. But there are moments of pure transcendence - when you just know you've got something, when the dramatic arc of a scene just works, when the dialogue is crisp and the characters have depth - it's like painting or sculpting: when you finally see the end, detailed result of something that had previously existed in generalities or abstractions, it's the most satisfying feeling on the planet. The directing and the acting, surprisingly, just sort of come naturally for me. I really don't think much about what I'm doing when I'm doing those things. Something you didn't mention is producing, which is probably the hardest and most underappreciated job in filmmaking. You bust your ass to make sure everything comes off without a hitch, then nothing does, and you bust your ass some more to fix the problems. As far as career pursuits, I'd like to think of myself as a writer first, then a director. If there are more opportunities to act, if it makes sense, then yes, I'd do it.

Severance has received a lot of positive buzz here at the festival; did you expect that?

I didn't know what to expect. I really didn't know if people would respond to it. In test screenings, you watch some moments work and others don't, and often those moments are flipped from one screening to the other. Especially with comedy, you're not sure people are going to find the things you find funny. Also, it's a low-budget film, and while it does look and sound quite nice, it's hard to compare it to other films with more polish to them. You hope that the story and the characters and the humor will keep the audience from being too aware of the budgetary limitations. So, I guess the response and buzz has been quite unexpected, and we just couldn't be happier.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Make your movie. Don't talk about it, just do it. Do it any way you can. But be smart: if you try to do something way beyond your means, you're setting yourself up for failure, which can be seriously damaging to your life. I'll use our movie as a perfect example. We did something no filmmaker should do, which is jump into principal photography without being sure you've got the funds to make it through. I worried about getting everything shot every single day up until the final day of shooting. Miraculously, we stretched our dollars and made it happen. If we would've had to stop production for any reason, our window of opportunity would certainly have closed before we could pick it up again. People become committed elsewhere. Equipment deals vanish. Rented items have to be returned. And most importantly, momentum stops and has to be re-ignited, which is very hard. You have to get through shooting - you have to get it all on film. Then, if the money runs out, you can go about additional fundraising knowing that what you've got left to do is very controllable, because it involves a fraction of the people and resources, and is logistically very simple (a computer or moviola in an editing room - bingo).

What do you hope for Severance'sfuture?

I'd like to see the movie play at other festivals, first and foremost. See if audiences keep responding to it. Hopefully, we can get some extended runs at arthouse or specialty cinemas, like the Alamo Drafthouse or Dobie here in Austin. Along that way, I'd love to be able to raise some additional funds to be able to go back to the film negative, cut it, splice it together, and blow it up to 35mm so it could be projected on film. The experience of seeing it that way would be infinitely better than continuing to show it on digital betacam video tape. Alas, it is an extremely costly procedure.

Beyond that, if there's a distribution opportunity that makes sense, we'd certainly love that. I'm not deluded - an indie black and white comedy is a hard sell. Maybe foreign or cable markets. At the very least, I think we could self-distribute it on DVD through small chains or online avenues like Netflix. Other indies have had much success going this route.

What’s in your future?

You gotta capitalize on the opportunities presented you when your film starts getting some notice. People may want to see your next project, either on paper or film. They may want to help produce your next project, or buy your script from you. What this means is, you've got to get that next project ready to go. I've got 3 or 4 script ideas all in the early stages of writing. 2 of them I'd like to self-produce again, and I think they could be done for relatively low budget, shot on 35mm film, and made right here in Austin. The most viable one is a horror film about a group of high school teachers who, while chaperoning a charity lock-in, discover that all the students have completely vanished from the school.

Hopefully, I can get this project into production a year from now, or get someone interested in making one of the other ideas I'm developing. People like good stories, and they'll embrace small films just as much as big Hollywood blockbusters if the film is entertaining. I firmly believe that. And blockbusters can be smart and entertaining, too - they just need good writers (wink, wink).

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originally posted: 10/28/05 15:41:15
last updated: 11/29/05 22:05:53
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