Hey friends! Barbarella here to take a break from whining about the cold weather and share an interview I had with director Jeffrey A. Brown. The New Yorker, who’s long worked on film sets, discusses his directorial first feature, THE BEACH HOUSE, which is available starting today on VOD, Digital HD, BD and DVD.
Congratulations on finishing your first feature film.
“Thank you very much. It's been a marathon.”
What made you want this story to launch your career as a feature director?
“I work with [film] location, so I think I'm pretty attentive to setting in films. I had been at a beach house with a friend of mine maybe fifteen years ago, and we just thought beach houses were so big. They’re usually four-plus bedrooms, and they're also out of time, so they have a character to them that is very aesthetically pleasing and beautiful. So, it was like, our movie should be set in a beach house. That was the gestation of it. I think it was always going to be a horror film. I love horror movies, and I wanted to make one. It started more in the psychological vein, then as I started reading stuff I liked when I was a kid, that seeped its way into the script more and more, and then it became really what it is today.
“It was a modern interpretation of what cosmic horror could be. Also, as a filmgoer, I always want to see movies that I haven't seen before. I wanted to create something that I haven't seen. Hopefully, the audience hasn't seen it either, and they want to go on this journey with me.”
What is it that you love about horror? Are you going to continue to make horror films, or are you going to branch out and do a variety of different things?
“It’s the creativity and imagination involved. I think that I always assume that everybody who likes film likes horror movies, and whenever I find somebody who doesn't, I'm kind of like, "What's wrong with you? How can you not?” But, as I’ve grown up a little bit, I do see why people might not like being made to feel uncomfortable in what is supposed to be their leisure time. But, yeah. It's almost like second-nature that horror films were something that I was very, very drawn to, and not all of them. There's a certain type of horror film that I really respond to and that I will see, literally, the day it comes out. It's like noon on that Friday when [Jordan Peele’s] US comes out, I'm in the movie theater. Sign me up for INSIDIOUS. I saw that in the theater twice.
“I don't know how other filmmakers are, but if they're like, "Well, I closed the door on that genre; I can cross that one off the list," I'm not like that at all. I think that there's a lot of stuff that we accomplished on THE BEACH HOUSE, and there's some things that I want to explore more in horror. You know, I love all kinds of movies, [but] in dramas you don't really have the opportunity to push dream sequences or psychedelic things or gross body horror. You just can't do that."
Being your first feature, what was your biggest fear going into production?
“I think once I got down there, I wasn't as nervous about it as I thought I was going to be. It's kind of like the ship is leaving, and whether or not I'm on the ship, it's still leaving. I think I was a little nervous about dealing with actors. I have a lot of production experience, but being the person that tells the actor what to do, I had not done a lot of that. And also, it was like the movie has an experimental quality to it of things that I was like, "Well, maybe this whole thing just won't work. It'll be the worst movie ever made." But, I don't think it is.
“You kind of have to put your head down and just go through it. I was very lucky to have some great collaborators in the actors, our director of photography, our composer [Roly Porter], and a lot of other people that were willing to help and kind of bring some great things to the table. Also, I was very fortunate to have producers that were willing to go on the journey with me. I mean, if it was just me alone, the movie would never have been made. Our producers were extremely supportive, and they really believed in the weirdness, the kind of conflicts. They were all on board with the smoke machines and the gore. They were like, "Oh yeah, that's great. We love it."
You were a location manager for years. I imagine you learned a lot of directing techniques from watching various directors. From whom do you think you learned the most?
“I've worked with a lot of great directors. When I was 21, I worked with Karyn Kasama on her first film, which was GIRLFIGHT. I was a prop PA on that movie. I worked with Julie Delpy, Alan Taylor, and Peter Hedges when I was very, very young.
“As I got older I worked with Tony Scott, who has passed away. Seeing somebody helm such a big ship and still be the captain was something I hadn't really seen before. Working on some other big movies, sometimes the director gets lost in the machinery, and Tony Scott was a very strong personality, and he had a very particular way of doing things. He did the same things every day. He would have a morning meeting where the whole crew would come around, and he'd stand on an apple box and go through the storyboard every day. There was no exception to it. He always shot every shot with four cameras on Fisher dollies, every shot, no matter what. If it's a dialogue, it doesn't matter. And that was just how he had developed his approach to things over time from shooting commercials and from shooting other movies.
“Also, Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed DEMOLITION, which I managed, he’s gone on to do SHARP OBJECTS and BIG LITTLE LIES, but he also has a very particular way of doing it. He would shoot 360 so it would all be a lot of practical lights. He would do very long takes. They're both very intense, very energetic men. With Jean-Marc, I can apply some of how he did it to this low-budget movie because some of what he's doing was not dictated by budget. I think that approach was very encouraging and gave me confidence, and our DP Owen Levelle did a great job of capturing natural light.
“Lighting the scenes with the television or some things, they don't teach you that in film school. I think that when I went to film school, which was twenty years ago, they taught you three-point lighting, which is great if you've got two trucks full of lights. We are never going to be able to do that. We don't have the time. We don't have the money. We don't have the crew on our low-budget movie, so it’s like, "Well, how can I take that naturalistic approach that I saw Jean-Marc do and apply that to mine?" And he really favors performance. That's another thing why I think a lot of actors really like him. He’s all about getting them in their moments so that they can capture the truth of the scene and what's under the line, what's in the silences.
“And then I also worked on the OA, which was a TV show, where one director, Zal Batmanglij, directed the whole thing. The confidence that he had to take on this bizarro story, and see how there's chaos erupting around him, and he's just sitting there like nothing phases him. I really respected these filmmakers that I had the good fortune to work with and to observe. I've been really fortunate in that respect.”
Did you learn anything from working with the great cast (Liana Liberato, Jake Weber, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel)?
“I learned so much. All four of the actors are very different actors, different experience levels. Noah is a younger actor. He had been acting for only a couple of years, and he's very intellectual. I would have to prepare myself for the onslaught of questions he was going to have. I would take the script the night before, and it's like, "Noah's going to ask me about this. He's going to ask me about this. He's going to ask me about this." It's like I had to be prepared for Noah.
“And then Liana was very different. She's much more of an intuitive actor, and she didn't ask a ton of questions, but she would be great every take. She would really sell it. They're both very physical roles.
“And then Jake Weber, he's very experienced. He's been doing this for probably thirty or forty years. He would do a different take every time. And you're like, "Why are you doing this?" He was actually thinking about the edit because in the edit, our editor was like, "He's given me so many options to work with." And it's like, "Oh, that's why he's doing it." I didn't know that [at the time] because I didn't have the experience.
“And then Maryann had another approach. I think she teaches acting at a college, and it's a more theatrical approach to it, so I came out learning so much. And it also is encouraging me to make another film where I can take what I learned from them and apply it, just to make the performances as strong as possible.”
What is your writing process?
“I'm a little bit of a sloppy writer. I write a lot. We did, I think, over twenty drafts of THE BEACH HOUSE, which is insane. I'm very much into outlines. It'll take me maybe eight months to come up with a good outline. And then, when I get into the screenwriting process, typically, I can write very quickly because all the heavy lifting has been done ahead of time. The screenplay is not like a novel. It's not finished; it's a blueprint. And so, I've kind of honed my technique to really say the most with the least amount of words.
“When I'm writing, I try to read more plot-driven fiction or [books] written by writers that are writing in a more terse style, like Stephen King. He’s a page turner. Also, I really like a lot of noir writers like Ross McDonald. He writes a lot of mysteries and stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. They're very plot-driven. James Ellroy's an extremely terse writer. Ellroy will write a sentence that's three words long, and it's like, "Well, if he can do it, how can I take these twenty words, and save ten?" I want my script to be a page-turner, even if it's a drama. I want the reader to fly through it."
Would you share what scene was the most challenging to film and what made it challenging?
“”Filmmaking,” to quote our assistant director, “is an emotional process.” It's very emotional, and the default is crisis. It's going to be a challenge, no matter what. If you can try to make it less stressful, that's great.
“There's a scene in the movie where it's four actors on the back deck looking out at the ocean, and it was very challenging. It wasn't turning out how I saw it in my head. There were some conflicts about how to light it a little bit because I believe that you don't need tons of light, even at night. Digital cameras can see in the dark. But the producers were like, "Well, we can't see anything, how's it going to work?"
“There were some stairs that were leading up to it, so it was hard to place the camera at actor height. That was something that I hadn't really thought about, and it's something in the future I'm always going to [check]. There were [also] some effect problems. We tried to do everything practically, and some things just weren't working. So, that was the hardest day. But, we actually punted, and I'm not a football player, but we called an audible to kind of change the coverage. The audible, I think, is better than anything we had thought ahead of time. I really love the close shots of Jake and Liana. I think that that saved the scene, the way that we were like, "Well, this isn't working. What else can we do?" And it's like, "Well, let’s just put it on a telephoto or something," and it totally works. And that part is some of the best performances. Liana’s really good in it, and it also touches on some of the themes of the movie. So, it was a very important scene and a very difficult one, but in the end, I'm very, very proud of it and very happy with it. The fact that you could see the movie makes me proud.”
Yeah. That's always an accomplishment.
While Jeffrey’s film THE BEACH HOUSE has the same title as a Hallmark Movie, it is certainly not something that you’d find on the Hallmark Channel. With one especially cringe-worthy moment, this film will appeal to those who like their stories a little weirder and with a little more gore. It’s available now on VOD, Digital HD, BD and DVD. Check out the trailer.