Your movie Saberfrog
- in a few words, what is it about?
is about Josh, an aging slacker who goes on a quest to
find old friends because voices in his head tell him to.
From the top of my
head, I'd call Saberfrog
a very late generation X movie - something you can at all relate
to, and your personal take on the generation X (and what has become
of it) as such?
Sometime in 2006, it suddenly occurred to me that the Generation X
“era” had ended some time ago without anyone seeming to notice or
care. So I started writing Saberfrog,
thinking it would be the
first movie to portray Generation X in the past tense, as a generation
that was no longer young and rebellious and was now facing middle-aged
adulthood. Clerks II beat me to it, of course, but I can't think
of too many other movies that have done it.
I've always had mixed feelings about the Generation X slacker
stereotype, because it seemed to glorify being stupid and lazy. At least
when the 1960s generation rebelled, they did so in order to create great
art and find new ways of thinking and living, whereas a lot of people in
my generation seem to resent anyone who has that kind of ambition, and
are quick to bash anyone who's managed to accomplish something.
J.D. Edmond as Josh
I think the 1960s baby-boomers were much more obsessed with their own
identity as a generation, and with trying to define other generations in
comparison to themselves. Whereas Generation X really only cared about
hanging out and consuming pop culture. Maybe that's why, once we became
old enough to be the dominant influence in the media, you stopped
hearing about Generation X.
Is the movie in any way
autobiographical, and with which of your lead characters do you identify
the most, actually?
The movie is ridiculously autobiographical. At the time I wrote the
script, I was in a job that seemed to be on the verge of ending, and it
made me think about all the dreams I used to have, and all the people my
age with similar dreams who I'd lost touch with. So I was in the same
boat as Josh at that point.
Reuben Josephe Tapp as Terrance
However, a character I identified with even more was Josh's friend
Terrance. Because Terrance had a passion that he had to give up some
years earlier, and was morally conflicted about whether that was the
right decision to make, unlike Josh who never had any dreams or
ambitions at all.
(Other) sources of inspiration when
There was a very funny, very lo-fi documentary about Star Wars-fans, called
A Galaxy Far Far Away, which captured the slacker
generation at their nutty, late-90s peak. After spending the whole movie
basically laughing at these cheerfully weird characters and their
obsessions, director Tariq Jalil then gets very serious at the end,
narrating the observation that at least these guys believe in something.
And it ended the movie on a poignant note, making you realize that there
were a lot of strange, broken people in my generation, for whom heroic
fantasy is some kind of lifeline to sanity and meaning. The whole mood
of that film really captured a certain 1990s giddiness and optimism that
didn't survive very far into the 2000s.
The idea of an aging dreamer trying to get his old gang back together
was very influenced by Terry Gilliam'sThe Adventures of Baron
Munchausen, which is a movie I was obsessed with as a teenager. I
was also very influenced by The Muppet Movie, a movie which, if
you think about it, is actually the last of the 1960s/1970s existential
road movies, cleverly disguised as a kid-friendly comedy. It has a
mixture of wackiness and melancholy that I think found its way into Saberfrog.
fictional sci-fi series Vanguard Epsilon - have you ever developed
that one to greater detail thank shown in the movie, and what was it based
The Vanguard Epsilon novels are meant to symbolize the
influence of sci-fi and fantasy stories on my generation. I had to think
of a story and premise that had some of the common themes of heroic
fantasy, such as a young orphan discovering he's the last survivor of a
noble lineage. The novels didn't actually exist outside the universe of
the movie – I created just enough of the overall storyline so that Josh
could talk about them. But after making the movie, I decided it would be
fun if the novels actually existed. So I'm actually writing them now!
Which brings us to the science fiction undercurrents
of your movie as such: Is that a genre you're at all fond of, and why?
was a huge science fiction fan as a kid, because it seemed to promise a
bigger and more imaginative world than the one in which I was living. I
think science fiction fans have become more obsessed with nostalgia for
stories they already know, whereas they used to be more interested in
original ideas and exploring new territory. Which is too bad, because it's
the one genre that is limited only by your imagination.
would you describe your directorial approach to your subject at hand?
directors put the technical details first and require the actors to hit
their marks and stand in their key light. I prefer giving the actors free
reign and requiring the camera to keep up with them. To me that approach
feels more organic. Low-budget filmmaking forces you to be flexible anyway
– you can't micromanage everything, so if something happens on camera
that isn't exactly what you had in mind, you have to quickly decide
whether to put your foot down and correct it, or to embrace it as a happy
Reuben Josephe Tapp, Liz Mariani, John Karyus
have to talk about your key cast for a bit, and how did you get them and
why exactly these people?
J.D. Edmond (Josh) and Wendy Foster (Aymee) were long-time friends of
mine who I knew wanted to act in the film. They were both slightly
different from how I'd pictured those characters when writing the
script, but when making a low-budget movie I've found that sometimes you
should cast against type and choose someone who you know will be fully
committed to the project. J.D. and Wendy both brought comedy and charm
to characters who could have seemed unsympathetic if played by someone
Reuben Tapp (Terrance) was a lucky find – I met him at a meeting of
local filmmakers, and invited him to take part in an open reading of the
script, but he was so amazing that I had to cast him for real. Liz
Mariani (Laurel) responded to a casting notice I sent out in the Buffalo
area, and she exactly fit my mental image of the character.
John Karyus (Bert) was the only actor that I had specifically in mind
when I wrote the script. I met John in college, where he was the class
clown who would steal every student film he acted in. He and I had
similar experiences and similar philosophies, and a lot of the themes in
the film are very influenced by long conversations he and I have had
about our lives. John is one of those people who seems crazy but is
actually pretty deep when you get to know him, so I wrote him a role
that had a similarly disruptive presence in the story.
What can you tell us about the
shoot as such and the on-set atmosphere?
Although the movie takes place in several different cities, it was
mostly shot in upstate New York. I intentionally split the shooting
schedule between Rochester and Buffalo, which are about 75 miles away
from each other. I live in Rochester, which is a smaller city with a
more middle-class, white-collar industry and a lot of prestigious
colleges and institutions. Buffalo is a bigger city with a more
blue-collar attitude and a grungier, funkier arts scene, and I thought
it would be good to combine those two energies.
John Karyus is a working actor in Los Angeles, so the schedule was
structured around his availability. He came to New York state for two
weeks, and during that time we shot all of his scenes, as well as any
other scenes that used those same locations. He grew long hair and a
beard for the first week of shooting, then cut his hair and beard for
the second week in order to film flashback scenes where he appears
younger. We then shot the rest of the movie over the following month or
so, with some pickup shots about a year later after the rough cut was
I don't have much to say about the on-set atmosphere, since I personally
was busy all the time, trying frantically to get the movie made, doing a
lot of jobs myself that I should have delegated to other people. I can't
speak for the actors completely, but they seemed to be enjoying
themselves – they started throwing in ad-libs and extra lines of
dialogue they'd made up, which to me is a good sign that the actors are
enthusiastic about the film. There were one or two days of shooting
outdoors in the hot August sun that I know were hard on the actors, but
they were troopers and we got through it.
A few words
about audience and critical reception of your movie?
Saberfrog got a very positive response when I premiered it in Rochester in 2010,
getting laughs in all since the right places. Since then, I haven't gotten
too many negative reactions. People either like the movie or are kind of
baffled by it. But sometimes the confused reviews are the best reviews. A
glowingly positive review can stroke your ego, but a confused review can
be funnier because you feel like you messed with someone's head.
go back to the beginnings of your career: What got you into filmmaking in
the first place, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?
I was a little kid, they still showed short films in school on 16mm.
Sometimes they would be educational films, and other times they would just
be comedies or strange art films and animations. Back then they also used
to show short films on cable TV in order to pad out the running time
between movies. None of these short films were made by anyone you'd ever
heard of, they were clearly low-budget, and even as a kid they seemed like
something that I could do. It was also the era when there were a lot of
“the making of” specials on TV, and articles in magazines, explaining
how movies were made and how special effects were done. I don't know how
anyone could grow up in the 70s or early 80s and not be inspired to become
a filmmaker. So I started making my own movies, mostly animation, and
later went to film school.
can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Saberfrog?
At the end of film school I joined the TV crew at WXXI-TV, our local
public television station, and then became an in-house videographer at
Xerox. I also made another low-budget feature, called Curse the
Darkness, which was a sort of sci-fi satire set in the New York City
After that, I wrote the screenplay for Enter the Dagon, a short
film spoofing H. P. Lovecraft. The film was directed by my friend Tom
Gleason, who did the makeup effects for Saberfrog.
future projects you'd like to share?
Most recently, I helped produce a period drama called Bury My Heart
With Tonawanda. It's about a young man with Down syndrome who flees
from his own society and is taken in by a Native American community. The
writer-producer, Adrian Esposito, is a young man with Asperger's
syndrome who has overcome his disability to make several films, and on
this project he cast several actors with Down syndrome to play the lead
role at different ages. It's a very heartwarming film, certainly
compared to the wacky comedies I usually get involved with, and I hope
to see it showing at film festivals soon.
I have a couple new scripts of my own that I'm working on, but I'm still
trying to decide which one is most worth spending another few years of
time and money trying to make. Saberfrog
was a personal rite of
passage on a lot of levels, and I want my next project to be something
How would you
describe yourself as a director?
Always learning. When
you're a student, it's such a struggle just to get the logistics right:
getting all your cast and crew to show up, getting the basic coverage that
you need in the time allotted. As a result, you don't always have much
time or energy left over to concentrate on niceties like lighting,
blocking, camerawork, or performances, all the stuff that being a director
is all about. Those things come with practice – it wasn't until after
leaving film school, and making movies on my own, that I began to develop
in those areas. Plus, the technology is always changing, and audience
expectations are always changing as well. So the challenge is to keep
growing and adapting, learning new tricks and being able to let go of old
Filmmakers who inspire
The films of Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg have been big
influences. When I was in film school, there seemed to be a rivalry
between people who wanted to make art movies and people who wanted to
make sci-fi or horror movies, but Gilliam and Cronenberg proved that you
could do both – you could make a movie that was funny or gory while
also being profound and thought-provoking and expressing a personal
George Lucas and Kevin Smith have each been frequent targets of
criticism in recent years, but I admire the fact that they came out of
nowhere to create their own brands as filmmakers, and that they've
continued to experiment and take chances. As filmmakers they may have
shortcomings, but you can see them trying to stretch themselves and
overcome their limitations, and that's inspiring in its own way. The
fact that they're both retiring from filmmaking makes me feel old.
That's another theme of Saberfrog
– reaching an age where all
your heroes have faded away and it's time to actually become a hero
yourself, instead of just clinging to the past.
Your favourite movies?
Gilliam's The Fisher King is a favorite of mine. In lesser hands
it could have been just another corny movie about a yuppie regaining his
humanity, or about a crazy person being portrayed as holy and noble. But
Gilliam saw some personal themes in the script, and elevated it into an
epic, moving story about four people finding redemption. It's also the
only movie I've seen that portrayed New York the way I've always
experienced it – as this big, loud, amazing, dirty, messy place where
anything could happen.
In a lighter vein, Black Dynamite is the most entertaining movie
I've ever seen. I'm a sucker for retro-70s stuff anyway, but that movie
got everything right – the look, the sound, the attitude – in
addition to being funny as hell. It's impossible to watch that movie and
still be in a bad mood at the end of it.
... and of
course, films you really deplored?
In general, I hate
things that are just pop culture references – or worse, just complaining
about pop culture. I guess you see that more in TV comedy and on the internet than in “real” movies, but still: Even if you're making a
spoof or an homage, you should bring some creative vision of your own to
website, Facebook, whatever else?
You can watch the trailer
like the movie on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Saberfrog,
and follow the movie on Twitter at @saberfrog.
Anything else you are
dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
Feeling lucky ?
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When I was trying to choose between making Saberfrog
and making a
different script, I chose to make Saberfrog
because it seemed
simple. I thought a dialogue-driven comedy-drama about a few characters,
set in the present-day real world, would be easier to shoot. Also, it
was about a particular generation hitting a certain age, and I figured I
should make it soon in order for it to be timely.
Of course, I got it wrong on both counts. It was a complex film with
lots of location changes, it had flashback sequences that required
different hair and makeup, it had driving scenes, it had action and
special effects. It wasn't simple at all! And I'm still talking about
and promoting the film half a decade after I shot it! But that's the
beauty of filmmaking, especially on a low budget – you end up going on
a journey you never would have expected.
I should also once again thank John Centrone for the music score, Frank
Kielar for the animation sequence, and Tom Gleason and his team for the
makeup effects. On a no-budget movie there's a tendency to try to do
everything yourself, but no one person can do absolutely every job on a
movie, and those guys really helped make Saberfrog
the movie that
for the interview!