Your new movie Screwdriver
- in a few words, what is it about?
It's about social contracts. It's about the way population centers are
fed and what they generate, and the deal they make with their outlying
lands. It's about very desperately wanting to be loved and what that
leads one to. It's about self-indulgence. It's about cowardice. It's
about tools for getting through life and how we find them.
What were your
sources of inspiration when writing Screwdriver?
Well, at the time I wrote this, I had just moved away from Los Angeles
to a relatively small town after having lived in LA my whole life. And
I think a lot of this film came from looking back on LA and, more than
that, speaking with people who had never been to a big city or never
spent time there, and watching the way they interpreted Los Angeles and
the way they interpreted me for having been forged there and all of
the things that went along with that.
talk about Screwdriver's
approach to the thriller genre!
I think the big thing that defines the approach in this film is the
idea of getting in over your head or getting lost in something by
degrees. It's fascinating to me the way we can progressively sink into
something that we never would have just jumped into wholesale at the
beginning, whether you want to call that a descent or however you want
to draw your metaphor visually. A lot of people have called the film a
slow burn, and I'm still trying to figure out what that means. I think
it means that it's not bombastic, or maybe they're just trying to say
that it's slow but good anyway. I think the thing about a thriller
that makes it work is ultimately, regardless of how that fire starts,
so to speak, it needs to end up with a huge blaze. A structure fire
can be a slow burn in the beginning when it's just a kettle or an
electrical outlet smoldering, but you reach an inflection point where
everything is catalyzed, and then all of a sudden you have an inferno.
Credibly getting to that inferno with an unsettling smoothness was
what we wanted to achieve.
A few words about your
overall directorial approach to your story at hand?
Well, I knew we needed to have the actors completely set as far as
their understanding of the material and what they needed to do before
we even got to set if we were going to move quickly enough. So we had
a little over a week's worth of rehearsals, and we basically ran the
whole thing through like a play, which is sadly not very common for
film, but I think it was very necessary. Even then, we had something
like a 10 to 1 shooting ratio, which means for a two-hour film we shot
about 20 hours of footage, which is not astronomical, but it's fairly
high. Luckily, digital lets you achieve that. I was lucky enough to
have a very strong director of photography who was very aligned with
me on the aesthetic vision for the compositions and the camera
movements, and we did just enough work together before production that
I was confident he would frame it and shoot it the way we had both
envisioned, which really freed me up to focus on the talent. I like
running long takes, especially when an actor needs to get to a very
heightened place because I think it's useful to have that lead time.
So we shot some 11, 12, even 13-minute takes, and you can see that in
the film where we hold on a certain shot for quite a long time. There
was usually a standing ovation from the crew when we finished one of
those takes, and that wasn't planned, it just happened because the
performance was so phenomenal. So the most important thing for
me was giving the actors the space to do their best work and make sure they could achieve that.
can you tell us about Screwdriver's
cast, and why exactly these people?
All three of our leads are absolutely fantastic, dynamite
top-of-the-line actors. Really, they could hold their own against
anyone. I'm fairly sure that this was the first lead role in a feature
film for any of them, and I'm really honored that I had the
opportunity to direct them for that, and also that they trusted me
with their talent and their time. And I hope that they're happy with
the result that we achieved. I know they came up to me at the first
reel screening and said they were surprised by how the film came out.
Specifically, they were surprised by how funny it was, and that, in
turn, was surprising to me because I thought the stiff humor of it was
pretty evident. But I don't know, maybe it feels different when you
are immersed in the role. And regardless, they achieved exactly what I
hoped for, and even more. I hope to work with them again, and more
than that, I hope that other directors are smart enough to take the
chance with these actors because they certainly won't be disappointed.
You of course also
have to talk about Screwdriver's
main location, and what was it like filming there? And how did you find
the place even?
The location was a rental, and it was found at pretty much the last
minute because the previous location fell through. That was really a
blessing because in retrospect, the previous location was too small, and
it would not have worked out. So, I'm very glad things happened the way
they did. It was the single largest expense on the production by far.
But we knew how much time we needed to get everything done, and there's
really no getting around that if you want to make something of quality.
It was a townhouse, so it actually had shared walls with other tenants.
So the whole time I was terrified of getting shut down over some kind of
noise complaint, but aside from a couple scenes of yelling, which we did
at reasonable hours, we stayed very quiet. And did our best to make it
feel isolated, which I think is the main thing you need for this script.
Do talk about the shoot as such, and the
I think I personally was very stressed. I lost probably 10 pounds in
three weeks because I was going up and down four flights of stairs all
day, every day, and I was too busy to eat. I hope that nobody else
on set was that worked up. I tried very hard to create an environment
where everyone could focus on doing their best work and having focus.
We had a good amount of film student volunteers on set. I myself was a
film school senior at the time that I made this, so I knew a lot of
other people around that age who were willing to very generously share
their time in exchange for working on a feature in a level of
responsibility that they hadn't had before. I think even though the
script is very intense and isolated, there was a very warm sense of
camaraderie on set. In between takes, we listened to a lot of music.
We laughed a lot. It was almost impossible to imagine the film seeming
lonely because, of course, there were 10 to 15 people all crammed
around the camera just off the edges of the screen, and yet when you
watch the finished film, it is completely isolated, and I suppose
that's one of the special qualities of cinema, to make you forget the
The $64-question of course, where can
If you are in the United States, you can watch it on Amazon right now
for rental or purchase. We are working on certain overseas markets, so
hopefully that will expand soon.
Anything you can tell us about audience and
critical reception of Screwdriver?
There's a moment at the beginning of the film where we literally give
the audience permission to laugh. That was a pretty late-in-the-game
decision, but I thought it was important. And, sure enough, when
there's a theatrical screening, some people pick up on that. And they
do start to laugh, and soon others join in, and I think that's pretty
wonderful. Critically, it's had actually a much warmer reception than
I anticipated. I don't think any film should try to be for everybody,
and this certainly isn't. But despite that, I think well over half of
our reviews have been very glowing, which is amazing, especially on
this budget. A good percentage of the people who didn't connect with the
film seem confused as far as the way the plot unfolds. And to a
certain degree, I take that as a note as far as how hard to drive plot
points and how obviously to billboard key elements so they won't be
missed. However, on the other hand, I think when you are building a
story that has a richness and a density of information and rewards
really close engagement, it's inevitably going to have things that are
missed if you're giving it a cursory viewing, so I don't know that I
would change anything based on those responses.
future projects you'd like to share?
I have about six feature screenplays right now in great condition that
are ready to shoot at various budget levels, so whoever decides to
fund those I think is going to be very happy with their decision
whenever that does come about. In the meantime, I'm continuing to
write, and I have a short film going into production quite soon as
proof of concept for another micro-budget feature. It'll be good to
get back to the festivals when that short is done and move on to
What got you into
filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on
I've been shooting films since probably 8 or 9 years old. I started
with stop motion with Lego, which I think is a very excellent medium
for a kid when you're trying to figure out plot and composition
because Lego figures are very patient and you can move at your own
speed. And you don't necessarily need to know how to talk to people,
which I don't think I did at that age. Hopefully I learned along the
way. I think I'm alright now. And from there, it just sort of
naturally progressed. I knew I wanted to be a professional writer by
15, and by 17 I knew I wanted to direct as well. I did go to film
school. I was in the screenwriting program at California State
University, Northridge, which is a pretty great program. But I
actually didn't do any physical production in that major. A lot of my
physical production training was at the University of Oregon. Funny
enough, I didn't go there, but my fiancée went there and I would
literally sneak into classes in order to shoot. And the rest was just
on my own time, reading and scraping together money and getting
friends together to go out and make something happen.
What can you tell us about your filmwork
prior to Screwdriver?
Well, this is my first feature. The last thing I did before this was a
short about the history of my hometown, which was a very fun chance to
work with historical costumes and different periods and languages. I
somehow talked a local realty organization into giving me $3,000 to
make that, which is probably the most successful I've ever been at
getting free money for a project. It's not a skill that I excel at.
Before that, I did a few other shorts, genre shorts with a comedic
element. I think genre film with both satire and heart is something
that will always be dear to me, and I'm sure I'll return to it pretty
soon. I guess you could even argue that Screwdriver
falls into that
category, although the heart is pretty icy in this one.
would you describe yourself as a director?
The director has two very important jobs. The first one is to keep the
entire picture artistically in his head so he can make sure all the
departments and elements are cohesive at every stage when they are
only focusing on their own domain. The second is to speak the language
of the actors and be on a team with them so they can feel comfortable
and guided and empowered to do their best work because they are doing
an incredibly difficult thing and really putting themselves out there
vulnerably and they need to be supported in that. I think if you
maximize your effort to do both of those things as well as you can,
you're already in a good place. Secondarily, you need some degree of
taste to guide your decisions, and you also need technical literacy and
film history literacy to communicate with the other departments and to
understand how your work will fit in to the existing and evolving
canon. So as to how I would describe myself, I would just say, I'm
doing my best to accomplish those things according to my own taste and
Filmmakers who inspire you?
Paul Verhoeven, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Greta Gerwig, Hal
Hartley, Wong Kar Wai.
Your favourite movies?
You can see this in all too much detail on my Letterboxd account. I
think my top four currently are In the Mood for Love, The
Apartment, There Will Be Blood and 3:10 to Yuma, the one with Christian Bale.
Also in contention are Showgirls, The
Thing, Jaws and Aliens.
and of course, films you really deplore?
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That's a hard one, because even if I have strong opinions, I don't
think I really deplore too many films. The Star Wars sequels are such
an incredible disaster, but I don't deplore them. I mostly just feel
pity. I think the only reason to really deplore a film is if it's
bringing some kind of incredibly tangible harm into the world. But I
don't think there are too many films that fall under that umbrella.
movie's website, social media, whatever else?
I'm most active on Instagram. It's just my name, @cairosmith. I have a
Twitter, and I read a lot, but I don't tweet. Someone years ago said
don't tweet, and I think that's wise.
else you're dying to mention and we have merely forgotten to ask?
No, I just want to thank you for taking the time, and I'm really
flattered that people are taking an interest in the film and in the
process behind it.
for the interview!