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An Interview with Jason Tostevin, Producer, Writer, Director of 'Til Death, Producer, Writer of I Owe You

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2014

Jason Tostevin on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your movie 'Til Death - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Hereís the logline: Four unhappy husbands wake up to a gruesome surprise the morning after killing each otherís wives.

 

'Til Death is funny and silly, but itís also about something real Ė how we as men see relationships when weíre at our most selfish, and the absurd things that need to happen for us to learn our lesson about whatís good in our lives.

 

What were your inspirations when writing 'Til Death?

 

The basics of the story came to me during a conversation that mirrored the opening scene of 'Til Death Ė four guys sitting at a bar, trying to figure out what it means to be married, and how to bridge the differences between men and women. It just got more and more absurd, talking about the lengths men will go to avoid seeing things from their partnersí perspectives, until finally it came to murder. I had the idea that these idiot husbands would form a murder pact, but screw it up and the wives would come back, and things would continue as they were Ė only with undead brides, forever. There lesson is no matter how hard they try, itís not about changing their circumstances Ė itís about changing themselves. And of course after I had that premise, I had the ending too.

 

Do talk about 'Til Death's brand of comedy for a bit, and how much fun was it to dream up all those macabre details?

 

Well, something interesting to me is that we had avoided comedy up to the writing of 'Til Death, because we respect it and wanted to be sure we did it right. Itís easy for indie comedy Ė or really any comedy Ė to degenerate into silliness, forgetting story and character. We didnít want to cop out to a string of sight gags; itís OK for a movie to be funny, but we want it to still be a movie.

 

But we got writing it, and the further we got into it, the more we had to face that fact that we were really creating a comedy. Once we accepted that, we discovered the tone and things like the wivesí deaths and the husbandsí experience of living with undead partners came pretty easily. And yeah, that was an absolute blast. I still laugh at the movie, and Iíve seen it Ė God, I donít know Ö Iíve seen it a lot.

 

What can you tell us about your directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

My approach is to really work the story, then really work the script hard, then work the characters to exhaustion Ö all before we get on set. Thatís where I think the energy of a director is best invested, because if you do all that right, the script and the characters sell the actors and engage them, which lets you do less of that on set and more guiding the story.

 

Plus, youíre very clear on what youíre making going in. I think thatís important because filmmaking depends on momentum Ė especially indie, where itís volunteers and tiny bits of money and very limited time. You have one shot at things, and the clearer and more compelling you can be going in, the better chance you have of hitting the target.

 

I will say one place I think I depart from some other directors is, I think shorts are heavily dependent on structure, timing and precision. Theyíre essentially the same structure as a well-written joke: pared down to only whatís required, perfect intonation and a great payoff. So I will give line reads and get into the inner workings of the performances, because the path to the payoff in a short is very narrow. If you wander from it, it might make for an interesting acting decision, but it could distract from the overall audience experience.

 

A few words about your key cast and crew, and why exactly these people?

 

I think this was the perfect team for this short. I am so incredibly proud of them all. It starts with Randall Greenland, who is a world-class screenwriter and really gifted in character and comedy. He wrote a hilarious script that is also touching and sweet. The actors are special in the same way Ė they connected with the humanity and absurdity in the characters and brought them to believable life. We needed that quality if this was going to work. The makeup effects had to be perfect, and I think they are, thanks to Shane Howard. The shooting and editing is great thanks to Joe Buscemi. The lighting by Lynn Padetha makes it look like we spent ten times what we did.

The list goes on Ė everyone was hand picked for their particular abilities, and I think it paid off.

 

Do talk about the shoot as such for a bit, and the on-set atmosphere!

 

We had a good time, but there wasnít a lot of time for goofing off! We had 18 locations packed into two days, so we had to run, run, run. It was very friendly, and we all know each other well, which helps, but we were all very ďonĒ throughout the shoot. It was do a setup, do the takes, haul ass to the next setup. We had a second unit for one of the two days, just because we had so much to shoot.

 

I think itís a testament to the team, from the acting to the production, that the movie feels so polished when we were often sprinting along the way. The actors really held up and delivered.

 

Moving on to your most recent film I Owe You - again, what is it about, and what were your inspirations for dreaming it up?

 

Where I had the idea for 'Til Death and Randall wrote it, Randall had the idea for what would become I Owe You. He wrote the first drafts, then we worked it like we do every story, changed the structure some, played with character. But what he had out of the gate was terrific Ė it is about duty and friendship, and these normal people with the normal little betrayals in their lives that add up, and in this case, spiral totally out of control in a night of madness.

 

Again, it has Randallís signature dialogue, smart and funny, and great characters. And I think the ending has some of my style in it, the big reveal.

 

Both 'Til Death and I Owe You were actually scripted by Randall Greenland - so what can you tell us about him, and what's your collaboration usually like?

 

As I said, Randall is a world-class talent who Iím incredibly fortunate to know. Itís a lucky break for me that he moved from LA to Columbus a few years ago, and that we shared a friend who got us together. Heís won major screenwriting competitions and been nominated and awarded for his writing at fests. Heís also one of my closest friends and a true confidant.

 

What I love is we complement each otherís skills. I have more of a focus and maybe a little bit of a knack for narrative, overarching story. Randall kills it with character and dialogue (but of course he is great at story too). So how we usually work is, we meet and talk and tangle on a premise and characters until we feel good about them, then we work through an outline, and when we have it to a place we believe in, Randall writes the script. Then we test the script and tweak and revise until we feel good about that. Then itís production time.

 

Weíre both focused on audience and structure, and that lets us keep each other honest. We can say, hmm, I donít think thatís working Ė letís try something else. And itís not personal; itís about making the best story we can.

 

What made you decide to not direct I Owe You, and what can you tell us about your director Mike McNeese?

 

After 'Til Death, I felt like I had learned so much about directing, and I needed to make a conscious decision to put myself in a position to keep learning. I love I Owe You and wanted to direct it Ė bad. But I wanted even more to watch someone I respect direct it, and think about what I would have done differently, and whether it would have worked.

 

Mike is an extraordinary talent. Iíd watched his work for several years, watched him win contests and do great stuff. I also knew he had a very different style from mine. I was so happy when he agreed to direct, and it was very, very fruitful for me to AD and observe him. He is responsible for some of the best moments in the short, simply on the power of his ability.

Not directing is one of the best decisions Iíve ever made. I will be a far better director on the next short as a result. And I consider Mike part of the family now Ė I hope weíll keep working together long into the future.

 

As the writer and producer of I Owe You, how much creative input did you have during the shoot, and how much of an hands-on or hands-off producer have you been?

 

This was a blast to make for me not just because I think the movie is good, but it was a very fun separation of duties. When it came to the shoot, I trusted Torin to DP, Mike to direct, and later Brant to edit, and so on. They are experts, and I wanted them to have the real Hands Off experience: youíre good at what you do, so do it. When we were on set, it was Mikeís set, and I was clear about that. His calls. His decisions. I was AD on-set, and producer when issues arose. I didnít call shots. I didnít direct talent.

 

Still, it is an interesting dynamic. Before any on-set roles, this is a Hands Off production, and I am the creative director. I guide and shape the films, story to casting to production to marketing to fests. A ton of that happens before we ever get on set, though, in the million iterations of the script, the exhausting build-out of the characters, the casting and prep of the talent.

 

In the end, what we have is a great movie made by a great team. Iím proud of that.

 

So what can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

Three words: cold, tired Ö and satisfying.

This was our most ambitious film yet in terms of professional production. We shot on the Alexa, had a huge grip truck, had our A+ gaffer back from LA to light it all, had a car rig, etc. That unfortunately meant we had professional-length wait times between setups. It was also March in Columbus, and we were shooting overnights. This was a frigid, exhausting, tough shoot Ė but everyone was professional and upbeat throughout. I just loved their commitment to the story and one another. It was really a beautiful thing to watch, everyone trusting each other and supporting each other.

 

Most of the cast of I Owe You is made up of people you also used in 'Til Death - so anything you want to add about any of them now?

 

Itís about building a community and growing it with each movie. These are people I believe in and trust, so there is some overlap in the cast and crew, but there are also a lot of new people. We cast this anew and separate from 'Til Death, and picked the people who were most right for the roles in I Owe You. Both casts are phenomenal, and Iím sure Iíll work with them again.

 

Iím proud at Hands Off that we work with new people on every production, and theyíre often standouts. In 'Til Death, Patrick Walters (the henpecked Peter) had never acted in film before, and heís won awards for that performance. In I Owe You, Johnny DiLoretto had also never acted in film, and heís already been nominated more than once and won best supporting actor for his role as Todd, the wronged friend who returns one night with a vendetta. I asked Mike to direct, and heís already won best direction twice. Between these movies we made a comedy called Help Wanted, and Shane, our FX guy, stole the show in an acting role.

 

The $64-question of course, where can these films be seen?

 

As of today, I Owe You and 'Til Death are still on the fest circuit, so theyíre not available publicly yet. But theyíre getting around to lots of places.

 

If people are interested, they can see our other stuff, including our Cannes short Stones, and our sci-fi horror best short winner Room 4C, at www.vimeo.com/handsoffproductions.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Weíve had a lot of successes Ė screened at Cannes, won festivals. But Iíve never been so excited about a script as I am about our next one. Randall has absolutely outdone himself. Itís a short with the working title A Way Out, and itís about two criminal partners, one older and world-weary, and one younger and ambitious. The older guy has decided to get out, and the younger guy is secretly assigned to stop him, but they both have a secret the other doesnít know about Ė and it all takes place over the course of one car ride. Itís tense and has some big surprises.

Thatís what weíll shoot next, and I canít wait.

 

What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

Iíd been a fiction writer my whole life, and I thought that was my calling. But in 2009, I saw an ad for a local filmmaking contest. It inspired me; I tossed the fiction writing and put together a team for the contest. The plan was I would write the script, other friends would direct, shoot and edit.

 

Midway through our single-day shoot, our director backed out and I had to take over, and the lights just turned on for me. Itís cheesy, I know, but I genuinely had an awakening. I honestly thought, this Ė this is what Iím supposed to do. And I havenít looked back.

 

So no, I didnít go to film school. But what Iíve been doing since is going to school in a different way. Learning to run a camera. Learning to edit. Learning screenplay structure and formatting. Learning what makes a great acting performance. Going to dozens of fests to meet other filmmakers, watch their stuff and learn from them. Iíve done hundreds of hours of finding people who are good at things and listening to them.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to 'Til Death?

 

In the last five years, with excellent partners, Iíve written and directed television commercials, brand videos, a short documentary, several winning narrative shorts, a broadcast TV series and more. Iíve also been lucky enough to help program film series and festival blocks. So Iíve had the chance to see moving-picture-storytelling from every angle, and itís been a hell of an education. Iíve loved every second.

 

How would you describe yourself as a writer, as a producer and a director?

 

As a writer, I love stories of redemption and of people in dire circumstances discovering there is justice in the world. I love it when the hero is at her or his most alone, and discovers there are others there to help. Just me exercising my own fears and hopes about the world, really.

 

As a director, Iím focused on the audience experience; I think thatís my number one job. I work hard to make sure we have a story that will take people on an emotional journey, surprise them and make them feel something Ė and that it becomes a movie the cast and crew will be proud to be a part of.

 

As a producer, Iím the most determined person I know. I donít love producing, but my perseverance is an advantage Ė I never give up. But believe me, if I can find someone who really gets off on producing and is as doggedly determined as I am, I will give up those responsibilities in a flash!

 

To be honest about all of these, who knows? Iím still figuring out what they all mean, and where I might have something to contribute. I just love to create stories.

 

Filmmakers, writers, whoever else who inspire you?

 

I grew up on genre. Fiction writers that inspire me include King, Barker, Brooks, Keene, Hill, Simmons. Filmmakers include Tarantino, Park Chan Wook, Carpenter, Craven.

My two indie heroes are Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) and Jason Trost (The FP, All Superheroes Must Die).

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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True Romance, Let the Right One In, The Ring, Goodfellas, Bloodsport.

My favorites of the last year or so include the Maniac remake, Simon Killer and Under the Skin.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Sinister made me really angry. I mean, irrationally angry. I know thereís a camp that loved it. But I thought it was pandering, and became nonsense at the end.

I also donít worship Joss Whedon the way I know many people do, and I donít think The Cabin in the Woods was worth the hubbub. Of course it was beautifully produced. But storywise, it was meta, and I donít think being meta is clever. Deconstruction is easy. Being irreverent is easy; irony is not brave. If he really wanted to write a ďlove letter to the genreĒ as he claimed, I think he would have written a great horror movie, instead of making fun of the skeleton all horror movies are based on.

 

Your/your movies' website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

Weíd love to see and talk with people at www.fb.com/handsoffproductions, and our stuff can be watched at www.vimeo.com/handsoffproductions

Trailers for I Owe You and 'Til Death are there too:

www.vimeo.com/handsoffproductions/tildeathtrailer

www.vimeo.com/handsoffproductions/ioweyoutrailer

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
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A Killer Conversation

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directed by
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written by
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starring
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