You don’t always have the chance to interview the director of a film after you view it, but I am happy to say that I had the pleasure of interviewing writer/director Josh Stolberg after watching his latest low-budget film, Conception (check out my review here!) Here at Movie Buzzers we’re big supporters of the ultra-cheap indie film, and Josh elaborated on his production process for the film, which was shot in ten days with a skeleton crew. He also talked about how he managed to convince all the actors to work on the film despite the low pay (hint: make friends with everyone… then they can’t say no!) Josh even spoke a little about his next film, Crawlspace, which is much more in line with his better-known horror movies like Piranha 3D and Sorority Row. I was a big fan of the film, and I hope Stolberg will be able to explore more films like this in the future.
Q: You’re best known for writing movies like Good Luck Chuck, Sorority Row, and Piranha 3D, although you’ve directed two films before Conception. What inspired you to tackle such a project?
JS: I love popcorn movies. I’m the first in line to see the big blockbusters. And I’ve been obsessed with horror movies since I was a kid. Unfortunately, “character” and “dialogue” are usually the first things sacrificed in those kinds of films because you need to make room for explosions and special effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see stuff blow up, and I love a good “kill”, but I also really enjoy little character pieces. I think, in many ways, Conception is a reaction against a lot of the movies that I’ve gotten made through the Hollywood system. I wanted to spend some time exploring the intricacies of relationships. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to get those kinds of films made… so I knew that it had to be a “do-it-yourself” film. Yes, Conception couldn’t be any more different from those other films I’ve had made. But that’s kind of why I wanted to do it.
Q: Could you elaborate on the ultra-low budget production process?
JS: Shooting a movie in ten days is insane. On most big studio films, you shoot two or three pages a day, sometimes less. We shot ten to fourteen pages a day. Because of this, you really need to simplify everything. You can’t do twenty takes. There are no sweeping dolly shots or complicated lighting set-ups. You need to work quickly and efficiently or risk not having a movie.
We had what’s known as a “skeleton crew”, which is a nice way of saying that twelve people were doing the job of fifty (or 400 if you’re working on a Michael Bay movie). Many of them had just graduated film school. Everyone came early and stayed late. We shot the film at friends’ houses. My own house functioned as three different sets. Our producer Stephanie Sherrin worked the budget, but also hauled craft service tables down the street. My wife, Leila [Leigh], produced, starred in, and then cleaned toilets after a day of shooting at our neighbors’ home. The editor (Naomi Filoramo) edited on her laptop and on my home computer. Our source music was mostly bands that we found on MySpace, or, again, friends (the opening credits song is by the band Essex Green and I’m college friends with a couple of guys in the group).
Q: Despite the movie’s low budget, you put together a cast with an extensive amount of film and television experience. How did the cast come together for the project, and was it difficult finding actors who would commit to working on the film?
JS: We were SO LUCKY to get all of these amazing actors to be in our little movie. It was a dream cast from top to bottom. Luckily, in my years living and working in Hollywood, I’ve made some great friends who also happen to be incredible actors.
The real trick was to get a few big names involved from the start so that we could attract other great actors. Once the first few sign on, it becomes a LOT easier to approach the other actors. It helped to have two tireless casting directors on board, Katie Piel and Liz Shoai. But it all started with Jonny Silverman, who has been a good friend for years, and who had done a movie for my wife a few years back. He and his wife Jen Finnigan were the first to sign up. I had written roles for Leila (my wife) and one of our best friends, Jen Jostyn (who plays opposite Alan Tudyk). Jen had starred in Brothers McMullen years ago with Connie Britton, so she’s a close friend. I had directed a tiny movie [Kids in America] with Julie Bowen and Gregory Smith years ago. My son was super tight with Pamela Adlon’s adorable little girl, Rocky, in pre-school. I was college roommates with Tim Griffin. I got to know Leah Pipes while filming Sorority Row in Pittsburgh. So you can see how these things start to work out. We found a couple of actors through auditions but most of the others were Hail Mary offers to agents and managers by Katie and Liz. But usually, there was still some kind of connection. I had played poker with Steve Howey and Alan Tudyk’s manager. Moon Bloodgood and David Arquette are both repped at my agency, UTA, who were invaluable to me in putting together the cast. America Olivo was friends with Katie and Liz, who were also friendly with Matt Prokop’s agent at APA. Matt was dating Sarah. Jason Mantzoukas was dating a friend. I actually think Aaron Ashmore is the only actor that we cast that we had no relationship to. And now Aaron is part of the family, too.
Q: In recent years the ensemble vignette film has been dominated by less-than-stellar movies like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Why did you decide to construct the film following this style of plot, and were you influenced by the structure of any particular films?
JS: Honestly, part of the reason I wrote an ensemble movie was a limitation of the budget. I desperately wanted to work with some of the these incredible actors and I knew that I could convince them to give me a day, but asking them to work for two weeks for peanuts would have been impossible. These actors make hundreds of thousands of dollars per project and we were offering 100 bucks a day. And no costume designer. No trailers. No stand-ins. If I was lucky, I could get them for a day. So, simple math showed that if I had them for a day, I could write them into no more than 10 pages or so. Nine couples, ten pages each, and I had a feature. So our structure came to us out of necessity.
There are a few ensemble “vignette” films that I absolutely adore. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a favorite of mine. I loved Crash. Babel was amazing. But looking at those, I knew I couldn’t compete with the production value – so I tried to find characters that I thought would be engaging and that an audience might want to spend a little time with.
After screenings, I’m so grateful for the reactions I get from the audiences. Everyone seems to relate to at least one of the couples, if not more. That’s been the most fun – to see how people see themselves in all of these different relationships.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were shooting the movie?
JS: Most definitely, the budget. When you’re making a tiny film like this, it’s all about favors and cutting costs. And while no one worked for free, we couldn’t pay the cast and crew what they are most definitely worth. I hope that this leads to bigger films where I can pay all the love back.
I was reading an article the other day on a blog about Quantum of Solace. Boiling it down, with a budget of 230 million, that last James Bond movie cost 2.16 million dollars per minute to produce. Our little indie movie cost less than 3 seconds of Quantum of Solace. Less than 3 seconds. Again, don’t get me wrong, Bond movies are some of my favorite films. And I’ll be the first in line to see the next one. But while making a movie, it would be nice to be working with a couple of minutes worth of their budget instead of a couple of seconds.
Q: Is there anything you wish you could have done different if you had a bigger budget?
JS: I certainly would have intermingled the stories a bit more. Blended them together. I would have opened up the world more – not be so tied to one location per character (there are no company moves when you’re shooting 14 pages in a day). I would have paid my amazing cast and crew more. But there are other things I wouldn’t have changed. There isn’t ONE actor I would have replaced in this film, even if I had a Bond size budget. And I wouldn’t have sacrificed the indie spirit of what we set out to do. As I mentioned at the start, this was all about doing something a little different and I’m really happy with where we wound up.
Q: Of all the film’s storylines, is there one or more which you identify with?
JS: Writing the script, I pulled a lot of moments from my relationship with my wife, at least as jumping off points. To some extent, each couple in the film represents a different time in our 19-year relationship. But I probably relate most with Jen Jostyn and Alan Tudyk’s characters, simply because that time is closest to where I am now. Dealing with a relationship and sex and love WITH kids is very different from the carefree days of my youth.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers who plan, probably not by choice, on shooting a movie under similar budgetary constraints?
JS: It’s an exciting time now for filmmakers. All you need is a Canon 5D (hell, an iPhone), a little sound recorder, your laptop computer… and you can be a production company. You no longer have to develop film or make prints. I’d say the best advice I could give would be to just go out and do it. There’s a learning curve, whether you’re writing or directing or editing, and you’re going to get better with time… so get busy getting the misfires behind you.
Q: Now that Conception has been released, are you open to making any future films under similar conditions? Would you do anything differently?
I’m certainly not giving up my studio work. Currently, I’m writing a movie for Hasbro and Paramount that’s big family adventure film. I’m working on a couple of studio rewrites and staying in that game. But I will definitely continue to explore the indie world. It’s a freeing experience. You can take chances in ways you just can’t do inside the Hollywood system. And DEFINITELY, I will do things differently… because it’s one of the few places that you can. I think I’m going to go the Eddie Burns route on the next one… shoot it even more guerilla style.
Q: Anything you can tell us about your next film, Crawlspace, which returns you to your horror roots?
Yes, Crawlspace is MUCH more in line with my horror roots. It’s actually more of a thriller with some fun horror kills in it. I read on one of the blogs that it was a “home invasion” film, which isn’t really the case at all. It’s about a family who moves into a house that was foreclosed on, only to find the previous owner isn’t quite ready to leave yet. It has a bigger budget than Conception and, yes, we blow some shit up and I was able to shoot stunts and kills and build sets. It was a blast.