By Brian Hieggelke
This is a story about a movie with a Hollywood ending. The Hollywood ending, however, is not in the movie itself, but rather in the real life of its principal creator—screenwriter and co-lead actor David Dastmalchian. And the Hollywood ending in question took place long before this movie, “Animals,” got made. Though it certainly puts a cherry on top of the David Dastmalchian story. Because, though it’s fiction, the story in “Animals,” of a pair of young lovers, Jude and Bobbie, deep in the throes of heroin addiction and living in a car mostly around Lincoln Park Zoo, is Dastmalchian’s story in every sense. He lived it.
After premiering successfully at SXSW last spring, where it won Dastmalchian a special jury award for Courage in Storytelling, “Animals” was the talk of the filmmaking world in Chicago last year, even before it gained theatrical release. A very low-budget film with minimal financial expectations by Hollywood box-office standards, it had a catalytic effect. Every week, it seemed, I met someone who’d worked on it, helped produce it. Six Degrees of “Animals.”
Dastmalchian grew up in Kansas and came to study at the DePaul Theatre School, where he graduated in 1999. He set out to become an active presence in Chicago theater before his descent into addiction eventually shut him down. His friend and chief creative partner in “Animals,” director Collin Schiffli, is about ten years his junior; they met on the “other side,” when Dastmalchian had tamed his demons and, remarkably, had been cast for a small but noteworthy role in “The Dark Knight.” (This summer, he plays a much bigger role in Marvel’s mega-budget “Ant-Man.”) Schiffli headed to the film department at Columbia College after growing up in Indiana. Both Dastmalchian and Schiffli live in Los Angeles now, for work reasons, but “Animals” is a Chicago film in nearly every sense. We discussed its making in detail over lunch precisely a year before its theatrical release this week, when they were in town for its Chicago premiere as the closing night film of the 2014 Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box, where they packed its large auditorium.
We started our conversation with Dastmalchian’s heroin history.
What year did you finish school?
David: 1999. At that point, everything kind of fell apart for me… it was inspiration for the film. I lived out on the fringe for a couple of years, and then I got clean in 2002 and started to work my way back into the theater scene.
Were you working at all or were you just completely gone?
David: Yeah. But when I graduated college, I had all these great prospects. I did an episode of a TV show, had a couple of good gigs lined up and things and then I just disappeared.
When did you start using?
David: Something or another, like early high school. It was always something. I didn’t find heroin till my freshman year of college. I was a weekly user, became a biweekly user, became a daily user within months, and that was for the better part of five years. It’s like with a lot of people, I was a completely thriving individual. I wasn’t in the way of anything other than my own private hell. Because I wasn’t a partier like that, you know what I mean? I would get my stuff in the morning just to get me through the day. It was almost like taking an antidepressant, you know? But a very dangerous, street-based, sad way of maintaining my own…
Was there a culture?
David: I hung out with some really cool guys who were jazz musicians. One was a jazz musician, the others were rock musicians who were in Chicago I just met very randomly and we became good friends. They were all IV users, and I was very interested in what they were experiencing. I think they tried to say, “Don’t do this,” but I was going to do what I was going to do. So that was the first time I was introduced to it. And then I thought I could do the rest of my life like that. I really did. You never realize when you’re living in that illusion of addiction, you don’t think. Anybody in the periphery of your life could probably stand back and go, “We saw that coming.” But I had really dear, close friends who had no idea. I am an actor; I was really good at covering up and bullshitting. And then when the proverbial floor dropped out, it just happens fast, especially [with] something like heroin. All of a sudden, you are just underneath it, and you didn’t even realize you were drowning.
Did you have a woman involved with you like you did in the movie?
David: Bobbie is kind of an amalgam of several different people, but there was one particular girl who I had met actually in recovery and in relapse. I spent a lot of time living in a car alone, but she was the only person who I actually slept in the car with a number of times. What’s interesting about Bobbie or what’s interesting about the concept of love in the film is this one particular girl is definitely an inspiration for some of those moments that we see in the film. But there was also a girlfriend I had all through college that was another big influence on who Bobbie was. This other girl was more of my inspiration for who Jude was than for who the girl is in the film. I was more of what Bobbie is in the film than what Jude is, if that makes any sense.
When did you make the move to LA?
David: In Chicago, I did some storefront theater, and got to do some Equity theater, and then started making my living as an actor in 2006 doing commercials. That’s when I quit day-job work. I got lucky—I got some really big commercial work that was sustaining me. And then when I got “The Dark Knight,” that changed everything. Because then that opened the door for more work, then I got a big commercial campaign that took me to New York. I lived in New York for about a year. My endgame was always working in film. So I knew I was heading to L.A. I went to L.A. in January of 2010 having just met, in November in New York, the love of my life who I’m now married to, who would full-circle that script process for me. And this is why it took me seven years to write the script. I still didn’t know what this movie was about until I actually found this person who then influenced the third act of the film for me. It was quite a different film before. That element of falling in love can put a lot more hope in your life. So I hope that the film has some hope to it.
Where did you guys meet, Collin and David? Did you meet here or in L.A.?
Collin: We met here. It was that summer he was in “The Dark Knight,” and I was starting my senior year at Columbia. I was doing my senior thesis short film, and I needed a similar character, a creepier villain-type character. And we somehow just made it work and reached out to him; we found out he lived in Chicago. “That guy’s perfect, we gotta get that guy.” Luckily he said he’d do the movie, and we shot it. It was a quick, four-day thing, and then I graduated, and like I said, I had all summer. I didn’t move out right away. We touched base a little on the phone a couple times, and you were like, “Hey, let’s meet up when I get out there.” And I didn’t think we ever would meet up, but we did.
David: When I was asked to do this Columbia practicum forum, I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to do a student film. It’s going to be crap.” And then I read the script, and it was so cool! And then I met him and we clicked pretty quickly. So as soon as we started working together, I knew. You just meet certain people creatively, collaboratively, that you know this person has a vision and he’s got something very, very special. We became good friends, especially when we both got to L.A.—we were kind of like babes in the woods. But immediately we started shooting stupid “Funny or Die” things together and our own short films, and I do a web show, and Collin was helping with that. We were always working on something together. So our friendship developed. Meanwhile, selfishly, I’m thinking I get to be friends with the next Danny Boyle. I know this guy is going to do amazing work. So when “Animals” came to be a reality, it was a no-brainer. I wanted Collin to read it, he liked the script, and his ideas immediately were great.
Walk me through the process. You guys had gotten to know each other, and you’d been developing this all along.
David: I had written it…
Collin: For a long time, I didn’t know anything about it.
David: I had written it, and it would live in my computer. It would live in printed-out pages, and I continued writing from them. I had written a couple of shorts we made together and with other friends who were filmmakers, and some plays. And my manager really liked my writing. They like to develop actor-writers at [the agency] Principato-Young [Entertainment], and he said, “Just send me anything you’ve got so I can go through everything and get a real sense of your voice as a writer.” So I sent him everything, and he spent a couple months reading all my crap, and he gave some really good feedback and was very positive about everything. And a lot of things started going into motion then. But the first thing he was like, “The closest to being ready to go is this film ‘Animals.’ I love it. Let’s see if you want to sell it.” So I was going to see about selling it when our producer Chris Smith read the script to give me notes about possibly selling it. And the same with Collin. I’d asked Collin, “Can you give me some notes? I am thinking of trying to sell the script.”
Were you planning to star in it all along?
David: No, I was thinking we could try and sell it. I mean, that was my dream. I wanted to. But I didn’t know how that was going to be realistic.
You weren’t coming as a package.
David: Right, right. Chris read it to give me notes and said, “You’re not going to get money for this. It would be a good ‘in’ with a big production company. But if you want to make this, I’ll help you make it.” So then we started. And at that point it was probably in its like fortieth rewrite. And then in 2010, eleven, twelve, into thirteen, it got rewritten in smaller pieces.
Collin: It was fine-tuning.
David: It was fine-tuning. But I still say, when people ask how many rewrites, it was in the sixties for sure. Up until the end. And the rewrite process doesn’t end when the film goes and gets made. The rewrite process ends when the final editing…
Collin: That’s what you learn in, like, film school. It’s so hard, because you’re like, “No, I want it to be what the script is,” and it becomes its own thing—which is great, but also kind of hard at first. And once you let go of that, you realize what you shot isn’t—for whatever reason, good or bad—what you wanted. You just scope something else out. That’s what we had to do. I think we were all really involved in the editing.
David: I wasn’t. I didn’t want to be involved in the editing process. At the end, I got involved to be like…
Collin: It was the tweaking.
David: Sound design stuff and then some scene stuff. There were some moments in the film that we never shot that I was like, “I really think they’re important. We need to do this.” So we shot them, and then they didn’t work.
Collin: But we didn’t know that.
David: We always got something productive out of our process. It just always takes us a long time to get there. They edited it so quickly, and I just thought, I am an actor in the fucking thing, and I wrote the thing. How am I not going to be in the way if I’m sitting in that editing room? Because I don’t have the skill set to distance myself from my performance and my attachments to ideas in the screenplay. There’s a whole scene—a beautifully shot scene, a beautifully acted scene with the priest at the church—that is, if you were to imagine you’re in a graduate program delivering a thesis statement on your film, that is the thesis statement of the film, you know? And to me, that was always so important. This is where everything is stated that this film is about. And the scene looks gorgeous, it’s beautifully acted. The movie doesn’t need a thesis statement. You know what I mean? The movie itself is the thesis statement. And Collin was like, “You don’t need this. You’re just saying everything that we’re going to be experiencing anyway. You have to trust the audience.” It killed me, man. I was like, “I love that scene! All my references to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’! Fuck, man. How could you do that? You’re killing me!” And he’d be like, “Don’t worry.” “I can’t hear you. Hello? Bad reception.”
Collin: I was always like, “We are working on it. We’ll see.”
David: “Bad reception. I can’t hear you.”
You said Chris Smith was the producer?
David: Yes, Chris Smith who directed “American Movie.” It won Sundance in 1999.
So how did you hook up with him?
David: He directed TV commercials. He kept casting me, and we loved working together. So he got me working as an actor. He got me my first break working full-time as an actor in commercials. And then once I realized who he was and that he made one of my favorite films—and he also made a bunch of other beautiful films. He [co-directed] the “Yes Men.” He [directed] “The Pool.” So we just stayed in touch, and then we would talk creatively or meet up whenever we were in the same town. And the reason I wanted his notes is because he doesn’t like anything. He’s a very, very, very tough critic. And him loving the script as much as he did and being as excited—he called me, I was in New York doing my web show with my friends, and he was in London and he called me from London after he’d read the script and was like… I’d never heard him that amped up. That was the lighting of the fumes, do you know what I mean? Two days after that, I flew to Chicago with my wife. We started taking photographs of all the locations that I had written in the script that were real locations. Then we started shooting locations and talking to locations and saying—now this is January of 2011, man, we’re talking way back—and then I came right back and we started setting up calls to locations and like, “How can we do this?”
Collins: Finding producers, other producers.
David: Yeah. Because Chris was like a creative producer for us but we needed a business producer, and that wasn’t until 2012.
How did that come about?
David: My manager introduced me. I said to him, “We need a good producer. Do you have any good recommendations?” We’d had one other producer interested, and then he ended up passing because he was the guy who produced the film “Half Nelson,” and he felt like he had been in that territory, and he was working on something else. But he, again, a very big-time guy whose opinion I really respect, loved our script and was excited. All that positive encouragement, it can’t do anything but help. And then I met with Mary Pat [Bentel] after my manager said, “I know a producer that has a lot of success with movies of this size, small, indie.”
What else has she produced?
David: Her film that just came out right now called “Goodbye World.” She did a movie called “The Lie” that was at Sundance last year. Joshua Leonard’s film. She did a documentary “Rock the Bells,” about the Wu-Tang Clan. She’s done a lot of stuff.
Were you already working with her before you guys got started?
David: No. We’d been in for a year and a half. We were trying to just do it all ourselves at first, and it started to get overwhelming. We had a kick-ass first [assistant director], a pretty good office team. We had kids, man. We had kids working with us. The professionals we brought in were more of the technical artists that we brought in who came in from L.A. or the ones who were local, but you’re not going to get people running your office who are willing to work for $100 a day who are seasoned vets and pros. It’s just not going to happen. Because what are they getting out of it? Now the Director of Photography, of course, he’s a seasoned and amazing DP, but he’s getting something out of it because he’s getting to shoot a kind of narrative that he never gets to shoot. You want somebody doing your books—and Mary Pat helped me do that. But we had some young people who did kick-ass work; we stayed on or under budget every day. And we never went overtime except for two days because we had a crew that we were saying, “Here is your flat rate, and we will respect your time.” You have to respect people’s time and their talent. A lot of indie filmmakers, I think, way overuse this concept of “I’m going to crowd-fund the thing, and then I’m going to get these people to come work for free.” And they don’t treat people like professionals. You have to say, “If I’m only going to give you this much money a day, I’m not working you over ten hours, and if I do, I’m going to get on my knees and beg for your apology,” because they’re working their asses off for you. And I think it’s really important. And I think we got a lot of fuel out of the fact that we tried to—even if we couldn’t monetarily compensate people as much as we would have liked or as much as they deserved—took really good care of our crew and our cast.
Collin: It felt like a family or like a learning unit. I do a lot of coordinating and stuff in L.A., and we all, by the end of a movie, hate each other, and you want to distance yourself from the experience as much as possible. With our crew, we are still in communication.
David: So important. Otherwise, what is the point? I just think when you’re on a low budget, you’ve got to be really creative about how you use people’s time and talent, and you have to make them feel respected, and you can’t take advantage of them. That was cool how it worked out.
How many days did it take to shoot?
Collin: Twenty-four days. This past September [of 2013].
How did you get it into South By Southwest so quickly?
David: Collin edited from October, November, submitted it in December. It was the first place we submitted the film. We didn’t think we were getting in. And it was a rough cut of the movie.
Collin: Very rough cut of the movie.
David: And Janet Pierson [the SXSW film head] called. She is a friend and big fan of Chris’ and Mary Pat’s but they didn’t even realize who was involved in our film. One of their programmers watched it in their submission pile, and they called us and were like, “Oh my god, we really want this movie. We love your movie. Will you give us your premiere?” And we were like, “What?!”
Collin: Yeah, we realized we had to scramble to finish.
David: Collin was working around the clock from the time they called us.
Collin: It was another straight month.
David: The end of the month of around-the-clock work. We had to color correct, we had to sound mix.
Collin: We even had to finish editing. We weren’t even done editing. We were still shooting that scene.
David: We went and shot an extra scene. You started editing October 8th. That’s all they did. It was a full-time thing. He and Amanda [Griffin, the editor], they lived in Milwaukee and just edited it.
Collin: We edited away through the holiday season. It worked out pretty great. We kind of hibernated.
David: November 1st, you sent us the three-hour cut of the movie.
How many people came in from L.A. to make this film?
Collin: It was mainly our key crew members like our DP, our production designer.
David: Our production designer, though, is a Chicago person. We met her in L.A.
Collin: Yeah, we found Chicago people. They are kind of nomadic. Whatever project they’re on, they’re in that city. Our first AD, Laura [Klein], she’s all over the place.
David: Columbia grad.
Collin: Columbia grad. They all have Chicago roots except for Larkin [Donley], our DP. And we just came back here. They knew everything about Chicago and had connections. They knew the ropes.
David: I think ninety-five percent of our cast or crew was Chicago. Chris Smith has his post-production house in Milwaukee, called Library Films. So he was like, “You guys can use my top editor, my editing bay.” These amazing things you get when you have an awesome producer. That would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars.
Collin: A lot of money. I think it helped too just not having to be back in L.A. where I feel like the madness of other daily life would have started up for us. Where we had no distractions.
David: I went out twice. But mostly we would just hang out. We’d watch a cut, and we did a couple test screenings up there. It was them, man. Collin and Amanda and then Barry Poltermann and Chris Smith came in for a week to work with them to do some fine tuning stuff.
Amanda is your…
David: Amanda Griffin. Two important Amandas on our film. Amanda Griffin is our editor and Amanda Pflieger is our co-producer, who is really a UPM [unit production manager]. She’s a student in Chicago at DePaul film school, and she did such a good job she became a co-producer.
Collin: Somehow we did follow all the rules of what it takes to make an indie movie here.
David: We went through the film office for all of our permits. We let them know ahead of time. I would say we got the most help from Chicago, though, more from businesses than the film community. I reached out to members of the film community when I was looking at trying to make a movie here. I didn’t get the best like, “Hey, I know…” I was trying to get like, “Hey, can you introduce me to personnel?” There were some people that were helpful with that. The way that we started to really make things happen here was getting here and going to businesses. Maybe that’s a problem with the Chicago film community—there isn’t a community the way there is in, like, Austin. I never felt that sense of who can we call on that’s going to help us? Maybe they didn’t realize how Chicago we are, coming in from L.A. Or I don’t know what.
Collin: I agree. I feel like SAG was the only…
David: SAG was really helpful.
Collin: Very helpful. I of course couldn’t help but compare it to L.A. the entire time. Like, “How in L.A. would we be doing this?” I feel like SAG…
David: They really wanted us to be here. Because they knew we were going to bring on all these local actors. We cast entirely out of Chicago except for Bobbie.
Who was the casting agent?
David: David O’Connor. He’s an old friend of mine who gave me a lot of my first breaks. Collin wanted real, non-actory actors. O’Connor knows every fucking actor in Chicago, so he was perfect. He did awesome. I’ve told this story a lot, but I was with a guy—one of the film funds in Beverly Hills that I was meeting with two years ago trying to get them to invest fifty grand into the film. They didn’t end up giving any money. They thought our business model wasn’t so sound because he said, “This script has too much cast. How are you going to bring all these people out from L.A. and house them?” And I was like, “Well, we’re casting local. We’re going to cast in Chicago. We’re going to get there a month early and give the director a good full week of auditions and then callbacks.” And he was kind of like, “Oh, really? Yeah, right. Good luck with that. For camera/film actors?” And as that conversation was happening, a great actor who lives in Chicago who is a friend of mine who is in our movie was in something that was on the TV behind the guy, and I was like, “Oh hey, that guy. He’s a Chicago actor.” And he looked around, and he was like, “Oh, I know that guy. I think I know his people” or something like that. I was like, “No, he still lives in Chicago.” And he was like, “Oh.” You know what I mean?
And all the actors who are big, making-a-living theater actors in Chicago are also going in every week to O’Connor Casting for commercial auditions. They’re going to TPR [now Paskal Rudnicke Casting] for co-star roles with these TV shows that come through here. So they’re learning. They know how to get in front of the camera. If they’re too big, David will tell them. You know what I mean? That’s how I got to learn how to work in front of the camera. I would go in to audition for his commercials, and I remember O’Connor walking in. He’s a rough dude, man. He said, “What the fuck are you doing? Stop doing all that shit. Just be you. You’re fine.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And I learned that’s all I had to do. I’m acting for one. I’m doing the same thing I do when I’m in a play, it’s just…
Collin: You don’t need to project.
David: You’re my audience. The camera—I always imagine I’m doing it for just one person. And I got that job. Thanks, David O’Connor, for yelling at me.
Other than this, were you under the radar on this project?
David: We went to businesses. We went to FLATS Chicago, a big realty company. I went to them first to see about maybe getting them to invest in the film, but we couldn’t get capital. We got, “Hey, look, we’ve got this building that we’re not using. Would you guys like this? Shoot in our neighborhood. We’ll help you get food at this place.” Things like that. The aldermen were really helpful in Uptown. The Chamber of Commerce in Uptown. As soon as I called them, they immediately set up a meeting with me. “What can we do? How can we help?” The aldermen were really into, “If you need us to help you…” The police were helpful. That was, I think, how we got it done on the ground here. Every location ended up being very cool. We had one hospital that some administrator at the last second read the script and decided they didn’t think it was appropriate. That kind of effed us midway through production.
You were already shooting at that point?
David: We had their agreement. Everything set. We were shooting. And then they called our co-producer and said, “Yeah, one of the members of our administration here read the screenplay and decided it’s not appropriate to shoot it in our hospital.” I think they had like a horror film shoot there before, you know? So we ended up getting, perfectly, Weiss [Memorial Hospital] in Uptown. They were awesome. They were like, “Come on! Let’s get you guys in here. Let’s make this work. Let’s do it.” So it was great, because the other hospital was way west, and it would have been a pain in the ass. And then we did go out of town once for a couple days. We did the mental hospital stuff in DeKalb. But I was our extras coordinator for the most part, so I would put an ad in Craigslist and local papers. People came in droves. The community in Uptown was amazing. We put a thing on the Uptown blogs. Neighbors were showing up with tables for our office, paper. “What can we bring you?” It was awesome.
That house in that scene where you’re sort of whoring Bobbie out but you’re not and it’s kind of an upscale home? Where did you shoot that?
Collin: That was Amanda Pflieger’s.
David: Our co-producer’s parents’ house. Mundelein?
David: The other house, the first date house, was near the airport. And that was her aunt and uncle.
Collin: Those worked out well because we were able to double—a lot of the car stuff, we didn’t have to be anywhere because we were just in the car. So we shot in her parents’ driveway.
Did you work with the Park District and the zoo?
Collin: Yeah, we did. The Park District helped us a lot. We just did a day there. All the stuff that we couldn’t get away with being sneaky about, we tried to limit to a day here, a day there. The zoo let us do a day of running around and just getting as much as we could.
David: Dude, the CTA, there’s a whole huge scene, again.
Collin: That was the most expensive scene of the film.
David: The most expensive scene, but relatively, compared, not as expensive as we thought it would be. CTA was awesome. We shot on a train for a whole morning. Had our own train car that went around and around the Loop. I mean, yes, we had to pay for it, but they were so accommodating and it was not as expensive as you would think it would be.
Collin: I thought it was going to be a huge hassle and you can tell they knew… they’d done it before. They had just done “Transformers 4.”
David: Yeah, when we went to meet with them, it was very intimidating to sit with them in that big boardroom downtown. I think they were expecting us to be a big movie, but when they realized what we were, the whole meeting changed. Because it’s a good revenue thing for the city when it’s “Transformers.” When it’s us, I think it was about promoting the possibility that “Animals” could lead to the next film here. But they were awesome.
Was there somebody here who was helping you meet these people, or were you digging them up on your own?
Collin: Yeah, we’d cold call. And that’s what I think, again, for me, as opposed to L.A., when we did have to cold call, I think people are generally intrigued usually. Like, “Oh, you’re making a movie?” Whereas opposed to L.A., it’s like, “Oh, you’re making a movie. We’re going to make it hard for you.”
David: There’s someone in every office in L.A. that handles that. “You need to talk to Carol.” And Carol’s immediately going to go, “Here’s our rate. We need this, this, this,” and you’re like, “Ohhhh.”
Collin: Where here, they’re kind of like, “Okay, we’ll work with you. We want to figure out how to do this.”
David: The only place I’ll publicly say I’m pissed off at is the Shedd Aquarium. I had a really important scene that we thought we could shoot there, and it was like no crew. We needed to go in there with Collin and camera. They read the screenplay, and they said the same thing as the hospital, which I think is ridiculous. I don’t think the film is exploitative. I don’t think the film is racy or glorifying of anything.
David: There’s this whole sequence at the beginning of the film with these animals swimming in the water. That was an important part of the script where Collin had to go get that somewhere else. We could have said we shot the whole film in Chicago if it wasn’t for that. You can print that. “David Dastmalchian said fuck the Shedd Aquarium.” “Local filmmakers embroiled in battle with Shedd Aquarium!”
How were you working with the Chicago Film Office?
David: What we needed from them, we got from them. I think they put us in touch with some good vendors. They were helpful if we needed anything. The tax credit is a big thing. That’s coming through the film office. That is a wonderful, wonderful—aside from all the other wonderful things about shooting in Chicago—that’s something that we all have to continue to advocate for because for your investment in your film, for your potential investors, if you’re going to pitch them on a film, it’s just bad business, I think, unless you’ve got a star attached or a certain genre that has a built-in marketability to it and has pre-sales, it’s really tough to go to people and say, “I can get you a forty percent return on your…” You can go to people and say, “We can help you make your money back, we can get your name out there, we can get you good press.” There are a lot of other ways to pitch your film to investors. But the tax credit…
Collin: It’s a guarantee.
David: And there were incentives for diversifying the crew and hiring people from certain neighborhoods. As it needs to be, it’s a complicated process. You have to do your paperwork really well.
Was everything shot in locations here? Did you use Cinespace or anything like that?
Collin: We didn’t. We did all locations…
David: All location work. Businesses, man. Liquor stores where I knew people from back in the day were willing to let us come in and set up and shoot.
Did you pay them?
David: We usually gave them something to thank them for their time. Not L.A. rates. Ric Addy in Uptown with The Book Box—you know that place Shake, Rattle, and Read? Old friend of mine. He was like, “Come on in!” He came in, opened his store early. We shot it out in four hours. But you be respectful of people and their space and their time and everything, and I think there’s a way to do it. I said “Ric, I don’t expect you to close your business. You’ve got to make money. Is there any way we can get in earlier?” He said, “Yeah,” and came in four hours early. We were on time. Collin is so good at planning and knowing what he needs. A lot of directors really fuck production, man, when they don’t do the work. It’s so much work when you go to make a movie. We spent two years sitting there every day, boarding the shots, knowing the shots, knowing what he wanted. Every day something goes wrong; it’s going to happen. Every single day something would not… You can’t put the camera this way because, “Oh, shit, we didn’t realize the sun is going to reflect off…” He knew what he needed, so it was very easy to solve the problems. That’s another way to responsibly make films and save money. People who are willing to do that kind of work.
You run into a lot of screenwriters who are also directors. You don’t run into too many screenwriters who are leads and then have another director. What was that dynamic, Collin? It must have felt for you like you were making his film.
Collin: It’s very weird. For me, especially, too, since I have a brother that I work with—it’s so funny to me that the first movie I make is something so different, taking someone else’s material and trying to be respectful to it. Obviously we’re good friends and that helped, but the fact that it’s such a personal subject, from the beginning, it’s the most intimidating thing because you’re not only making someone’s work, but you can’t just be like, “I know what I’m doing. I’m going to make it right.” You want to be honest to it, true to it. I think it worked out great since we had been talking and talking and talking about it for so long. We don’t have to talk much. He was the only actor that I barely had to say anything to because we could la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.
David: Our shorthand, man. I love Collin for so many reasons on and off set. But on set because there’s no director that knows me better than Collin does now as an actor. I know he’s never bullshitting me. If we do a take and he doesn’t say anything, I don’t need to ask, “Are you sure? Did we get it? Was that okay?”
Collin: We just skip all of that.
David: No, we just fucking do the take, and when he tells me something, he’s blunt, which is great. I love that. He’s like, “Hey, you’re doing that fake thing you do with your hand when you’re trying to look like you’re being dramatic. Don’t do that.” And I hate it, but I love it, because it gets the best work out of me.
Collin: Yeah. So I think that made it very easy. Although even sometimes if I, as a new director—obviously, I still have to learn—I feel [that for] a lot of my generation, we love the visual and the technical and we can do all that, but it’s like when you realize with an actor, especially like an older-generation actor or something, you realize who you’re working with and they might not be getting something. To Dave, I can say something—I might reference some random movie or something that we know, but I noticed when I was working with some of the actors that are older or whatever that I just met that day, I feel like I could work through you if I wasn’t getting to them. So I’m sure that dynamic helped, and knowing actors that—that’s why I want to work with actors that I’ve worked with before, just because I love the idea of acting as reacting and sculpting the other actor through you or whatever.
David: Yeah, man. It was amazing. And I trust him so much. It would have been so weird if I didn’t know somebody and they were coming on to direct the film. Because when he would do things that I would be thinking, “But that’s not the way it was in my script,” I just had to trust it. You have to trust these people implicitly.
Collin: A lot of the time I was picturing what would happen if someone else was directing this. I don’t know what would happen.
David: I would have lost my mind. It just wouldn’t have worked. This was such a unique set of circumstances. I don’t know how else it could have worked. We only had maybe one big fight the whole film.
I was going to ask about that.
David: We fight a lot back in L.A. We’ve gotten in a lot of creative yelling matches with each other because we’re like brothers screaming at each other.
Collin: It feels like brothers.
David: As soon as it’s over, it’s over. Like we laugh. There was one—we were exhausted, we were working, even though we were keeping everyone to ten- or twelve-hour days, he and I would have to work three hours before the day started, three or four hours after the day started. We were living on like three hours of sleep. Six-day shooting weeks. And it was the last night of shooting—and it doesn’t even make sense—it was like the way of a shot, the angle or something, and I was past the point of exhaustion. Investors had come to set. It was very stressful. We were in a really tight space, and we screamed it out and then it was over. But it freaked them out—because people knew us as very mellow.
Collin: The whole time we had never been like that.
David: We lived in this house with some other people on the team, and when we got into a fight, they were…
Collin: I’m quiet. I usually bottle it up, so that time especially, people were like—
Collin: It wasn’t like a scary—
David: No… Like, “What are you doing?! Are you fucking crazy, man?” Like two kids fighting over a toy truck.
Collin: And then you forget about it and move on.
David: We’ll be in L.A., we get in big arguments over movies and stuff. We’ll start yelling. I get really mad about stupid things, but I like that.
Collin: We challenge each other a little.
David: Collin changes me. I’m telling you, he’s the first friend that I ever had, except for my wife, who would maybe see something I’m in on TV or they would see a movie I’m in or something and come up to me afterwards and not be a dick about it—like, “That was really good,” and I’d be like, “Really? Give me your honest opinion.” “Well, you know, there’s that one part where you did that one thing.” And I’d be like, “Wait. What? Everyone told me I was really good in that scene.” He was like, “Well, you were good, but you did this one thing that you do a lot.” I love that!
Collin: That started it all, I feel like.
David: It did. That’s when I first was like, “Wait. What?” We sat up talking all night the first time you were like, “No, you were…” Because everyone was saying to me, “Oh, you did so good in this thing.” And I was feeling like, “You can’t listen to that bullshit.” And then he was like, “No, you were good, but you did this thing…,” and I was like, “Ah.”
Collin: I guess because at that point I had seen multiple—
David: You saw me do everything.
Collin: I started seeing what your go-to bag of tricks as an actor was, and that’s the stuff that I’m like, “Uh…” I think it started disappointing me, because as a fan of you in Batman and stuff, how come you’re losing some of that potential that I saw in you?
David: “Why are you doing the same thing?”
Collin: Yeah. Why are you doing a similar thing when I know you can do something else?
David: And I feel like he got me to do that with “Animals,” for sure. He kept peeling me back, peeling me back.
Collin: Kind of. Luckily, since she was in L.A.—we got her from L.A.—we were able to meet her earlier on, like a good five or so weeks beforehand. I think that helped because she was one of the original—not in terms of we were starting years before, but—she at least was there to feel that unique like, “I’m an early piece of the puzzle that we have and we need each other to make this work before we make the big leap.” So I think that helped bring her into the group. She was a good middle person between us. The girl that could wrangle us, I guess. But again, she was down to do it. We needed someone who, no matter what the circumstances, was ready to be like, “Hey, I’m all in. I’m not going to be a difficult person on set or whatever.” But at times, of course, she would help all of us. We would break, and there’d be moments where we would not be clicking and we’d have to take a break from each other like you do in any high-stress scenario.
How hard was it to cast her role?
Collin: It was tough. We spent a long time looking for her. We had Gina Gallego, our casting director, and she was getting some great actresses out in front of us—ones that were willing to do something. A lot of actresses we found were looking to break whatever mold they had been put into, I feel like, and needed something that was kind of a 180 change of direction for the types of characters that they normally play. Again, when she came in, she was maybe in our second or third casting session where we saw about ten actresses each time. They were all—a lot of them—really amazing.
David: It was really hard, because they would come in and they wouldn’t seem like they would be the part, but then they’d be like wow, you could tell. There would be so many different versions of Bobbie, but… It’s really an awesome feeling when you’re a writer too that when you see these actresses, you’re like, “Oh my god, that girl is in such and such. We love that girl.” They’ve memorized pages of your dialogue, and they’re in there playing with you. Like Kim—I thought I knew who Bobbie was, and that was one of the best experiences of making this movie. I thought I knew backwards and forwards who she is, and then when Kim…
Collin: I thought that too.
David: You thought you knew who Bobbie was. For sure, we both could have described her physically, the way she would talk, everything, and Kim introduced the character to us.
Collin: A whole new side.
Has she done other films?
David: Yeah, she’s done a lot of stuff. She’s done a lot of great supporting roles. She’s known for comedy. On paper she was the—let me show you her IMDB. Hold on. This is hilarious. So this is what we see when our casting director Gina in L.A.—we had two casting directors, the L.A. casting director, Gina, who just did the Bobbie search basically, which was a year-long search. And there was a couple of names—I can’t really say who, but—who were definitely interested because it was getting circulated at the agency level, and they go, “We love this script for her. She really wants to do this. She loves your movie…for this much money.” And our deal was everyone’s going to get the same. Actors, crew—everybody’s going to get the same. We’re not going to pay one person one-fifth of our budget to fucking come in… It’s going to kill our morale. It’s going to just change the dynamic of the family that we need to create. Our hard line was always like, “We’ll fly coach, we’ll stay in a sublet apartment. You’ll get your own place. You won’t have to live with all of us in our own one-bedroom. But SAG standard, all the way. No special treatment.” It worked to our benefit because people who ended up not wanting to work with us led us to find someone who loved the role and wanted to do it. But when you look at her on paper, the casting director would break down for the day who was coming in, I’ll never forget seeing her, this picture…
Your DP, how did you find him, and what sort of role did he end up playing?
Collin: It was kind of a similar thing with him. We needed someone that came on early and was part of that core five of us that were coming from L.A. We wanted someone who could be early on in the planning. Once we found Mary Pat, our producer, she recommended him. We had a few recommendations from various places, and based on the kind of look and feel we were going for, she recommended him, because he not only was hungry to do his first feature, but he had done a lot of professional work on all sides of the camera department, but he mainly did documentary stuff. And that was the main thing for me, especially like I knew I love the run-and-gun. I want the beautiful, sweeping, steady shot, but I also knew the movie was going to be so gritty, and I wanted it to feel like a lot of the natural—like if there was a bird flying in, and I was like, “Film that!” A lot of people just won’t do that. And he did. I’d look, and he’d be off, and I’d be like, “We’re supposed to be filming this,” and he would be filming some puddle of water. Doing something which I, of course, love, because the more stuff they have, the more stuff you can build with. So it was just kind of a lot of back and forth at the beginning just because we needed someone who came with a camera, ideally. And I really wanted a specific kind of camera, and he had it.
What kind of camera?
Collin: The Arri Alexa. I just love that way more than the RED and a lot of the other digital cameras out there right now, and he came with it.
David: He’d been working on Alexa for a long time, so he knew what lenses looked the best on it. Collin’s idea was always early on, like “I want this to feel”—you know like on Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” when you’re studying animals like on those National Geographic docs, the long lenses far away and then they can come in close with a really great 80 or 35mm lens. That was his vision from the beginning, and Larkin and he just got it immediately.
Collin: Yeah, Larkin’s just really good with that natural eye. Some people have it and some people…
David: And we did a short with him. One of our fundraising tools was we went and did a short that I wrote, Collin directed, and Larken DP’ed. For $500, we shot a short film.
Not a scene from the film?
David: No, no, no. Our own short film we did the spring before. We did a lot of test shooting, which was another great demonstration when you’re going to investors and you’re like, “Well, we know this is a harder thing to pull off.” Originally in the script there were floating scenes which you don’t see in the movie, but we had to demonstrate to them how can we do a floating scene for $100. Well, we went to Home Depot and bought long two-by-fours and painted them gamma-ray green and showed how you can do that.
What do you mean by floating scenes?
David: There are scenes when Bobbie and Jude in their fantasy sequence get high and they float off the bed and they’re like floating in their room.
Collin: A little more whimsical stuff that—
David: —Just didn’t end up working in the final cut of the film, but we showed we could do it. And it looked awesome. We did a short film with Larkin that looked beautiful, and we really liked working with him. That was a good test.
Collin: I’m not a very dominating-type director, obviously. He’s the same way. Most DPs that I’ve worked with in the past, they just take over. They’re just so passionate about the look of it, and it starts hurting the story in a way because they lose sight of that, and he just doesn’t do that. He’s obviously ambitious.
David: Yeah. He reached for the fucking stars. It was crazy, but you need that. He’d be like, “So I want to take the car, we’re going to cut it in half, we’ll get some power saws, and we’ll figure out how to put the camera…” And I’d be like,“You guys, you realize we have one car that is dying on us. We can’t be worrying about how to cut it…”
Collin: We had to reel him in in that sense a little bit.
David: We reeled him in, but that’s fine. Because he wasn’t a dick about stuff, he would just be like, “I just really want to do this thing,” but he would get us thinking outside the box.
Collin: And then he would always just—whether it was something like that where we could plan out and make work or if it was something that on the day everything changed and the weather was different or whatever, which happened…
David: Which happened, every day. He and Collin were like, “Okay, let’s solve this problem.”
Collin: Yeah, he just has a good eye. And I’m really paranoid about lighting and again, the whole movie with acting, we always talked about that. The biggest thing—as good as the acting is, as good as everything is, if it doesn’t…
David: If it’s lit like—so many indie films look so student-filmish.
Collin: Over-lighting. Stylized.
David: Over-lighting. People get a gaffer on who’s so excited to light an area that they waste so much time, so much money, so much lighting, and you’re like, “Why didn’t you use the incidental and one exposed… Do some Italian-style shooting.
Collin: Natural works.
David: Not to say that our gaffer didn’t have to sculpt and craft lighting.
Collin: They just got it.
David: They got exactly what he wanted.
Collin: I think that’s what helped.
David: They did such a crucial job too. Those guys were awesome.
Collin: They were amazing.
David: They were so cool. Crew dudes. I don’t know where we found them. How did we find them?
Collin: I think from Amanda Pflieger. Yeah, DePaul people, young people.
So with the film, where are you with the distribution process?
Collin: It’s been a slow process, which is what we expected.
Did you hire a sales agent?
Collin: Yeah, we hired a sales agent in L.A. Once we got into South by Southwest, a lot of people started knocking on our door, and they were kind of the first to seem most passionate about it. And we thought it would be good to have someone going into the festival, obviously. And they really talked it out and found all the angles that we needed to approach the film, whether it was the fact that it is a true story or all the other elements they were great about. That’s what they do. Bringing that together. After the film festival, it’s been a couple months now of all the various follow-up meetings and the different seeds that the festival planted for us. Just getting it out to those people again back in L.A. and New York or wherever. Trying to manifest something.
David: A lot of distribution companies, they don’t send the president of their company to the film festivals. They send the guy from their company who goes and then he goes back to his company and he’s like, “Hey, I liked this movie and this movie.” So then they do a follow-up and it takes a week for the next person who’s on the chain to watch the movie. And then if they like it, they call and go, “Okay,” so then the next person’s watching it. So it’s a longer process than I think… I thought it was like you go to a film festival, if your film does well and somebody likes it, they’re going to write you a check at the screening. No. But it’s exciting. There’s some really cool companies that we like.
In terms of getting a deal, is it a matter of getting several offers or just hoping to get one offer? What’s your sense of…
David: I think it’s kind of several. There’s been several offers. It’s just not exactly what we wanted. It would be nice to get a nice limited theatrical run, like an art-house run, followed by a strong online and DVD.
Collin: Yeah, online and DVD.
David: If we got to get a number of DVDs printed, it would be great. For sale through Amazon and stuff. A good streaming model which some big companies have. And then cable networks. We’ve had some of the big cable networks talking to us.
Collin: They’re the most interested.
David: Once your film is done in the theaters, once it’s online, and finding people that get the film. You want a company not that just wants to go, “Here’s a check for this amount.” What is their approach? Some people don’t get it.
Collin: Really just collect movies.
David: You want somebody who is really passionate about your film. You don’t want it to be on their website, just in the collection of films that they… You want somebody that gets really excited about it.
So what’s next for you? I know you’re acting and doing a lot of things. But what’s next for you guys as big creative projects?
David: We’re talking about it today.
Collin: Yeah, we’ve got to talk about it more, but we both have so many ambitions to start working on.
Are you going to work together again? Are you going to work separately? Some of both?
Collin: Of course.
David: After this?
Collin: After this? No, no, no… of course. We definitely have projects we want to do together. Definitely. I wanted to jump right into another movie, whether it’s one that you write… I like the idea of having multiple things going.
David: We have like five things in development. Collin and his brother have three really good scripts right now that have started filtering their way into the system. I’ve got one that’s at market right now. It’s a straight sell, but if I could get Collin to direct it… Now that he’s getting so much attention from “Animals” and he’s getting a lot of bigger people in L.A. who are really interested in what he’s doing next, so it would be awesome if I could get the thing sold and get Collin attached to it. I think that would be rad.
Collin: That would be amazing.
David: I’ve got a Chicago script that I’ve been working on with—I’ve got several people I write with—Jimmy McDermott. He’s a local director. So Collin’s helping me creatively think that through. I want to get that back here in Chicago in another year to start shooting. I’ve got a really small parlor-room indie that I’m doing with another writing partner, Grace Rex in New York. Collin helps me on everything.
Collin: Yeah. The way I look at it, hopefully, for the future is whether eventually down the road we start a production company or are involved in each other’s companies, it will always be a continuous—whether we’re working directly on…
David: Right. If he’s helping produce the thing, if he’s directing the thing.
Collin: And sometimes I think it would be cool if you’re just fully the actor in a movie.
David: I can’t wait for that. He and his brother have this one script that’s so cool, and I just want to be this one role in it. So I just want to show up. “Where’s your permits? I don’t know. I don’t care.”
Collin: “I’m just an actor.”
David: “Did your check come through for your latest investor? I don’t give a shit. Just pay me and feed me.”
David: We definitely have a lot of Chicago in our future, for sure. I’ve got a play that I wrote that I want to get in development this year. I’ve got a couple scripts that are set in Chicago. I think “Animals” is going to help us a lot getting people to help us get things done.
It’s a strong film, and even though you are both in L.A., it has Chicago DNA.
Collin: That’s what we want.
David: It would be so awesome to know that we are going to come back at some point in six months to less than a year, and it will be for a week at the Music Box or for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. That would be so cool.
Six months after the interview, “Animals” signed a distribution deal with Oscilloscope Labs. It opens Friday, May 22 for a limited engagement at the Siskel Film Center as well as on VOD on May 15.