Eye to Eye: Nicole Elmer (“In The Shadow”) meets Jonathan Rossetti (“Home, James”)

Welcome back for more Eye to Eye where we play fly-on-the-wall during a chat between two awesome Devolver Digital filmmakers!

This edition pairs up Nicole Elmer (whose piercing psychological thriller IN THE SHADOW is available right now on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and many other digital VOD platforms) and Jonathan Rossetti, who directed and stars in his superbly crafted drama HOME, JAMES —also out now on VOD (check the links to find out where you can watch). They cover plenty of ground including intense shooting locations, story origin, and whether filmmaker gender matters. (Alert: this reciprocal interview contains spoilers on each movie!)

Nicole:

The first thing I noticed about your film is the ample use of shots of Tulsa. I detect in you a deep relationship with the city as a filmmaker. Can you talk a bit about why you shot in Tulsa? Why you found it an interesting setting for your story, and how it contributed to your project on both a creative and practical sense?

Jonathan:

I grew up in Tulsa so the city means a lot to me. I’m proud of the fact that I’m from there and just always thought it would be a great setting for a film. Since I knew the city so well it made things much easier (scouting, obtaining locations, finding local actors, etc.)

Tulsa is also just a very picturesque place that hasn’t been seen a lot on film, so I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce audiences to a place they hadn’t seen before.

Nicole:

Yes, I felt you spent a good deal of time developing the city as something of a character as well. It was both a flattering and naked picture of the city. I got a very good sense of the place although I have never been there myself.

So, you mentioned using a lot of local talent. Can you talk a bit about what parts they played?

Jonathan:

All of the day player roles were cast in Tulsa. A few were Kickstarter donors that took small roles as their reward and some were cast from a local talent agency. The Creepy Shutterbug Customer was a guy we got locally that just killed it. He was a pro on set and does a great job in the film. The rapping Valet Guy was a friend of mine from high school that also did a great job.

Nicole:

I loved the creepy shutterbug guy. Really.

Jonathan:

I would say there are very similar things about your film. I got the sense that it’s a place you know well. Are you from Puerto Rico?

Nicole:

No, I’m not actually. Jorge Sermini, my co-producer and the lead in the film (Diego) is Puerto Rican. He was the primary reason we were able to shoot in such an amazing location.

His close friend was a hotel owner whose wife was the chef there. It was a place called Juanita Bananas. We shot there during the off season (hurricane season) and that is why we were able to basically take over the hotel and hire the chef to cook for our crew and cast.

Jonathan:

Interesting. I got an intimate feeling of Puerto Rico. Did you know you would be making the movie together when writing it, thus setting it there?

Nicole:

We were bouncing around a bunch of ideas, Jorge and I, and just none were really sticking. One reason was we had too many ideas and not enough budget. Strangely enough, after my great aunt’s funeral, I had this idea that we should shoot in Puerto Rico, specifically in Culebra where I knew Jorge had connections. Thus, we based the story on this location because that was where our real opportunity was.

Some might consider starting with a location to not be the best way to go about creating a film, but I tend to think there is more creativity when one has a few limitations.

Jonathan:

Shooting in Tulsa was one of our first decisions. Much like “write what you know.” I think it helps for small projects to “shoot where they know.” At least, where you know you can get stuff for free/cheap and get help from friends

Nicole:

Exactly! So, this brings me to ask you about the inception of this idea. After reading about the film on its website, it seems like you all worked a really long time on it. What gave you the seeds of this idea? What was it like to work so long on it?

Jonathan:

The idea started by me pitching a story about a sober driver falling for a drunk girl he drives home. Julie (who plays the photo shop girl) came in about how that’s a doomed relationship and how interesting it would be to explore that. Tulsa came in because I wanted my first film to be shot there. Simple as that. I wanted to make a love letter to Tulsa as I struggle a lot with the idea of home, and where that is. Is it where I’m from? Where I live? Where my kids are born? It’s not something I have an answer for yet and I think there are lot of people that feel the same way.

Julie and I both had full time restaurant jobs as we wrote, so that situation played into why it took so long to write. There were several six-month breaks from writing that added to the overall long time frame. That being said, it still takes a long time to get it done and ready to shoot, and then even longer to get it out there.

I have some very practical questions: What was the budget for In the Shadow? What did you shoot on?

Nicole:

I shot on the Red One camera, like you guys, right?

Jonathan:

We shot Red Scarlet but basically the same.

Nicole:

My budget…well, that is extremely difficult to pin point. I have never been paid a dime for my work on this film, and spent quite a bit of my own money. Some was grants. A lot of savings. I am frightened to know what this film would actually be worth if I ever calculated the amount of time I have spent on it. Not to mention the time of my producer, Jorge Sermini.

So, tell me a bit about the ‘Home, James’ love story as far as theme. Shall I call it a romantic comedy? For lack of a better term? It is decidedly different from most romantic films, as in, well, spoiler alert for those reading this, the two leads end up not staying together. That’s pretty ballsy to do. Can you talk a bit about why you all made that atypical choice?

Jonathan:

That was an important decision. Not everyone is meant to be together. James and Cooper are both going through some tough times and they find happiness and hope in each other but ultimately you have to save yourself. No one is going to do it for you. It was that idea that really shaped how the story played out. I think both characters grow but shouldn’t be together.

Nicole:

Yes, I found your statements about love in this film very refreshing. Most popular American films have a difficult time really facing the truths about relationships. They want to go for the feel good moments, the early blush stage of relationships, without really digging into what it means to be with someone. I am not sure why pop films are frightened of getting into the unpleasant sides of marriages, etc. I’d say music is not scared at all of showing the underbelly of love.

Jonathan:

There is a lot talk recently, as there should be, about Hollywood supporting more female directors. Can you talk about your experience getting your first feature off the ground as a woman? Were there any obstacles because of your gender? Are micro budget women directors facing the same obstacles? As those in Hollywood?

Nicole:

I have to say that part of me detests the focus on gender when it comes to art, as far is the gender of the creator, as opposed to statements about gender. That’s a different subject entirely. Then there is part of me, since I have worked in artistic settings that were entirely run by men, and I was not really taken very seriously, that there must be more support of women directors. I think women are sadly expected to create a certain TYPE of film. Kathryn Bigelow has done a remarkable job in the Hollywood setting of stepping out of the Boys Club to be not only a remarkable FEMALE director, but one who has recently done great films about war. However, I find that since I did an arthouse horror film as a woman, very few women DO horror films to begin with. It’s already a difficult merging of genres, so I don’t think my being a female helped it at all.

Most indie female directors I think are expected to direct romantic comedies, or more of the character driven lightweight “indie” type stuff you see out there these days, to embrace a bit of the geek culture that seems to be popular in lower budget films. I think that’s a sad limitation. Other female directors in other countries don’t seem stuck in that situation. I would love to see a female equivalent to Kubrick. Kicking ass with the shot composition as well as the subject matter.

Jonathan:

Getting movies made is hard as a male but I would imagine it’s harder as a female. I just can’t speak to that. It’s an interesting point about the geek culture—that seems to be where Hollywood feels they can “trust” a woman. Diablo Cody seems to be a little outside the norm in getting things off the ground that aren’t a typical female genre but I’m not sure she directs.

Nicole:

You both starred in and directed this film. Can you talk to me a bit about this? How did this go for you? Why did you make such a tricky choice of wearing two difficult hats while on set?

Jonathan:

Julie and I both studied at the Atlantic Acting School in NYC and LA. We studied with David Mamet, William H. Macy, Clark Gregg and others and a big teaching of theirs is create your own work. We just got tired of waiting around for the audition and then hoping you booked it so we decided to write ourselves good roles.

We considered finding a director to bring on, which certainly would have been easier but we wanted to tell the story that was on the page. We felt if we went to an agency and got some young hotshot director to help raise the profile of the film it would end up all about them and what neat things they did with the camera and such. Everything I did as director/producer was to tell the story that was written. As it turns out I enjoyed directing a lot and I’m working on putting together future projects to direct.

Nicole:

That’s so great. Jorge, the co-producer, has an opera and theater background, and he also felt that same about actors waiting around for the good roles to come to them, and instead decided to co-write ‘In the Shadow’ with me, to get himself a good role.

Jonathan:

I think that’s important for people to do. Even if it’s something you shoot for no money and put on Vimeo or Youtube for free. Seeing the whole picture (writing, post, marketing) helps to bring it all into perspective

Nicole:

Yes, actors fare much better when they understand the entire process.

Jonathan:

Along the lines of “write what you know,” did you feel like you pulled from any personal experiences for ‘In the Shadow’? Lots of my personal experience is in ‘Home, James’.

Nicole:

Yes and no. I think Hilary, the documentary filmmaker who has a bad habit of sleeping around and drinking wine, as weird as this sounds, has a touch of me in her. I mean that in the sense of beyond the sort of dislikable aspects of her character, she is really just dealing with two strong pulls in her life: that of her domestic life (her husband and young daughter who want her home from traveling all the time), and her needs to be independent, create her work as she wishes. I don’t have children nor am I married, but I really do like my house and like fixing it up, so there is that strong pull of putting my energies into the domestic, when I really should be spending all of my free time when I’m not at my job, writing, shooting, creating.

What about you? What aspects of yourself are in ‘Home, James’?

Jonathan:

Similar, in that there is the pull of what you want against what you need. I also wouldn’t have been upset if Hilary hadn’t gone home. That said I was satisfied that she did. I could see why she needed to but I wouldn’t have begrudged her if she had to go on her own path.

Nicole:

Yes, and there is also the idea of when she arrives home that she isn’t actually too pleased with her choice as she does not run to greet her little girl, but only stands there at the gate, a large distance between her and her child, not even really smiling.

Jonathan:

And yet Diego is happy.

Nicole:

Yes, Diego is happy. But is he alive?!?! Ahahahahaha (cue lightning strikes.)

Jonathan:

Thunder clap!

Nicole:

Talk about your creative process you used as a director. What were some of the challenges you faced, and some of the wonderful moments?

Jonathan:

Our DP was awesome. He’s someone I had worked with before and he really got what I wanted to do in showing Tulsa. He made my job much easier. The idea of the dual frame camera that James uses in the film we incorporated into the split screens. Seeing that the first time in the rough cut was an “oh, maybe I can direct a movie” moment. Challenges were the same as anyone’s: time and money. We had a lot of help from businesses, friends and family but we could have used an extra three days and some more dough.

How long did you shoot for?

Nicole:

We shot for six weeks in Culebra, Puerto Rico, and did pick up scenes for about a total of four days in Austin. What about you all?

Jonathan:

Seventeen days for us. Were there challenges that you didn’t expect?

Nicole:

Oh god yes. Right we got our whole crew and cast down to Culebra, Hurricane Omar decided to show up. It not only showed up and went past us safely, but it decided to go backwards and head right back towards us. So production was shut down for two days, while we hunkered down while this storm passed us. Did no significant damage but I was very tense. And of course there were the mosquitos and heat, and not having air conditioning anywhere. I know that sounds whiney…but it’s hard with computers and cameras overheating, etc.

What about you all?

Jonathan:

Wow! We didn’t have any hurricanes or tornadoes luckily. This sounds dumb but graphic design has been the most unexpected cost/challenge. We have a great graphic designer but he’s grossly underpaid and I had no idea how many times I’d have to ask for new artwork/updates etc.

Nicole:

Being a filmmaker has taught me immensely about web and graphic design since when I do it all it costs nothing.

What advice would you give to new filmmakers?

Jonathan:

Take your time! Post-production in general has been a big eye opener to how long it takes to make a movie. If I could do it again, I’d take a lot more time with post. Like a lot more time. I rushed us to hit a festival deadline and I wish I hadn’t. You only get one shot at the first time, waiting another six months isn’t going to ruin the movie, in fact it’s probably going to help it.

Your film features Danny Trejo in a cameo role. Did you have a connection to him or just go through agents to get him in the film? What was the experience like working with an actor as recognizable as Danny?

Nicole:

I have more of a “six degrees” sort of connection to Danny. Working with Danny was really something. Very professional, very aware of his space as an actor, the camera’s relationship to the actor, and how big small gestures are when filming. He’s such a giving person, in the sense of being willing to work on small projects like mine, as a way to sort of spread his own good luck in the industry to others.

What’s next?

Jonathan:

Right now I’m working on putting together a low budget teenage summer romance feature set at the Blue Whale roadside attraction in Catoosa, OK. I’m also pitching a TV show designed for a new media release. I think it would be really cool to shoot ten episodes of a half hour show like an indie movie. Make it look and feel like a film, cast it with TV actors that will attract a little attention, and release it all at once on VHX or Vimeo for like $2 an episode, sort of an a la carte Netflix.

How about you?

Nicole:

I have a few things coming down the tube, so to speak. I wrapped post-production recently for my second feature, “What’s the Use?” and have started submitting to fests. This is a black comedy about a teenage girl going on a manhunt for a loanshark who’s threatened her junkie dad’s life. I’ll plug the website here . I’m also in development for two scripts. One is another black comedy about three estranged sisters who have to throw a magnificent last birthday bash for their dying ex-porn star father. The other is a modernized revamp of the Orpheus myth, where Orpheus is a shitty musical instrument inventor who gets this far out idea of traveling across the country on a unicycle while playing the accordion. On his journey, he gets into a bizarre love triangle with Satan, a meatball maker by day/pimp by night, and one of his whores, Eurydice. As always, budget is a big predictor of the winning idea, so, the first idea will most likely win out. Unless I end up writing in a bunch of car explosions and chase scenes in jalopies. wink