PDB: Can you pitch DARKTOWN in 25 words or less?
Stranded in a dark Manhattan, two former lovers struggle to escape their situation. DARKTOWN is a post-apocalyptic short shot in powered down New York City.
PDB: Could you give us a little backstory on that particular movie making experience?
First, I have to admit that I personally was nearly unaffected by Hurricane Sandy. I had a couple of days off of work, but we didn’t even lose the internet at my apartment. It was a total bender combined with a movie marathon. Anyway, the day after the storm hit, we walked from my neighbourhood in Brooklyn to under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was mind-blowing to see that the storm surge had hit storefronts even two blocks inland with five feet of water.
We then walked over the bridge into powerless Manhattan. A transformer had blown at the ConEd station on the east side, leaving most blocks below 35th Street (nearly half the island) completely dark. I’ve lived in New York for nearly ten years, and it was so eerie to walk in the grey fall afternoon around this major metropolis without a single working traffic light. Most people were still at home that day, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic. Just a few disaster tourists, if you will, like myself and my friends. I remember remarking casually that someone should make a movie while the city looks like this. Almost immediately afterward, I was like, let’s get out of here before night falls.
A couple of days later, I was back in a production office prepping a commercial. The only way to get into the city was by car or by these shuttle buses that had 2-3 hour wait times. It was kind of amazing that the MTA was able to get most of the trains up and running so quickly, but without any power, the heart of the city was still pretty inaccessible by public transit. We drove in and left after dark that Thursday. I just kept taking photos with my shitty camera phone because it was both inviting and terrifying to look either way and see the city fade into pitch black in under a block. There were military vehicles, road flares, police officers directing traffic in reflective vests with light wands. It was just truly incredible. That time I said, I have to make a movie.
In under 24 hours, I managed to get some friends on board and fill out the rest of the crew with a rather popular Craigslist ad. Between work and DJing, though, I hadn’t actually had time to write a script or even remotely conceive of a story idea. After a bit of a hassle getting into the city, as it took one rented 15 passenger van and two taxis to carry everyone in, I sat down with my three actors Evan Blumgart, Tyler Cook, and Marion Elaine and my Director of Photography, Chad Cooper, to talk about what we could possible do as an improvisation. Thus we came up with a loose plotline to then flesh out over the next six very cold, very dark hours. We lit most of the movie with the headlights of the rental van and filled in some key light with LED flashlights.
The first corner we turned took us straight to that little red car that had been smashed up by a fallen tree. I ordered everyone out of the van. What luck! We just had to shoot it. At a certain point, we accidentally drove the van into a quarantined area of the Financial District. We were politely chased out by some city workers in hazmat suits and armed security. Also, it was an overnight shoot, so a lot of us started to lose steam sometime around 2am.
I was trying to keep it as low budget as possible as these things come straight from my pocket every time I shoot. All told, I think I spent between $500 and $600 to shoot the picture. It took us a full month to complete the post work on it, though, as the audio was really rough from generators and various other sounds of a city in a state of emergency and slight chaos. I do remember going to my editor’s, Bob DeNatale, and sitting down to watch the rough cut. The screen went black at the end, and I just sat there with my jaw open. I was like, Holy shit! We actually have a full short film! It was a really satisfying shoot and even more rewarding to realize that we had been able to put together a decent story with no script. And that is the rather long-winded story of how and why we made DARKTOWN.
PDB: Which music, books, films or television shows have floated your boat recently?
Lately, I have been watching a lot of the JACKASS spin-off WILDBOYZ . Haha. I do a movie review podcast with some cool guys called The Cutting Room and one of my fellow reviewers assigned us to watch all 3 of the JACKASS movies. I had only seen a stunt here and there but never a whole episode of the show. I kind of fell in love with the guys and have been obsessed for weeks with men in thongs doing stupid shit.
I also really dug the sort of mid-20s apocalyptic male struggle that is BELLFLOWER. It’s an indie flick that involves a ’72 Buick Skylark with flamethrowers and a lot of violence. So, again, I’m watching guys drinking too much and making asses out of themselves. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Drake. It’s been great!
PDB: Is it possible for a filmmaker to be an objective viewer?
I’m not sure which way to take this question, so I’ll answer it two ways. First, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be an objective viewer. We all bring our own taste to the table, as well as our own backstories, so I can’t imagine proclaiming any film as universal viewing material. You could perhaps argue the Hollywood exception for ‘safe’ movies like Spielberg or Eastwood flicks, but I’m never in love with those. My mark of a great movie is something that I can watch repeatedly, and those types have never inspired me to buy them.
I’m guessing that the real crux of this question, though, is whether or not I can watch a film without going, Hey, there’s a boom shadow! I can’t. Haha. I chuckle at all kinds of continuity goofs, like that glass was half full before and now it’s full. What happened? I also love deconstructing shots and trying to figure out how certain things were accomplished. The reason why I gravitated towards writing as a teen and in my early 20s was because I had read so many books. I hated taking writing classes, but I always had a very good handle on my language due to, I’m guessing, my voracity as a reader.
I eventually decided to throw over becoming a novelist in favour of becoming a filmmaker because I realized I had been watching more movies than reading books for years. Without being fully conscious of it, I had been studying film for decades simply because of the sheer amount and diversity of the movies I was consuming. It was a really validating experience to step on set for the first time and see how it works from behind the scenes. Movie-making clicked for me almost immediately.
PDB: How much research goes into each project?
A ton. I used to read about Spike Lee sitting down and doing months of prep by watching other movies before writing a script. Pre-working in film, I thought that sounded excessive. Post-working in film, I’d say that’s about right. I freelance on commercials for a living, so I actually don’t have as much time to watch movies as I’d like. I’m currently formulating some ideas for a Western in my mind, though, so I’ve been slowly making my way through John Ford movies and Spaghetti Westerns alike. I usually also buy a book on the genre and cull ideas from that. I spent a whole year watching horror and, in particular, slashers for my first feature-length script that I wrote a couple of years ago.
PDB: How useful or important are social media for you?
I guess that remains to be seen. I certainly have connected with people who like my work or with people whose own work I admire, but it has yet to launch my career. I actually enjoy Twitter the most. I try to keep my feed equal parts funny and promotion-oriented, and I have found some really cool folks on there. Facebook, however, has been the most useful for me as a low-budget producer. I’ve been able to mine a lot of resources from Facebook posts.
PDB: What’s on the cards for 2013?
Hopefully, 2013 will be a banner year! I am currently wrapping up packaging my first feature, the aforementioned slasher currently titled THE BIG THREE ARE AFTER ME. It’s like Juno meets Michael Myers set against the backdrop of the collapse of the American auto industry in Flint, Michigan. I’m working to connect with investors to fund the first instalment in this trilogy and a big step in my career. If you have several grand sitting around and want to make money in horror, call me!
I also have ZOMPIRE VIXENS FROM PLUTO! ready to go should a brand decide that they are ready for the next big thing in social media marketing. Sadly, no brand has jumped on board yet. It’s still a project that I would like to make, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a feature. Also, there is still no real business model for a webseries to make a profit, so investors are off the table.
In any case, I’m looking forward to finally earning some money for directing my own work this coming year and, fingers crossed, establishing myself as a writer/director to watch over the next few years. I’ll still be producing and working in production, but hopefully, my pay-the-bills work life and dream work life will get a lot more balanced in lucky number 2013!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JENNA PAYNE HERE.
And watch DARKTOWN here: