Press Kit

Director Q+A with Nicholas White

Director Q+A1. How and why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

It’s a decision that came on gradually. I was in my first professional performance when I was nine years old and I have been active in the performing arts ever since. But first I was an actor. It wasn’t until I got to college that I decided to become a director. It’s just something I’ve always done. It wasn’t something I really ever planned to do until my last year or two of college. Then I sort of realized that here was this thing that had been a more consistent interest in my life than anything else and I figured that maybe I should really be doing that.

Plus, I’ve always been excited by ideas. All my life I’ve just wanted to understand. I was totally that kid that was driving his parents nuts asking why? And the creative process is the perfect thing for that type of person. John Gardner says that writing is a type of thought. Another great writer, I can’t remember who, said, “I write to find out what I think.” The creative process allows you to experiment with life itself, as you perceive it, and therefore it enables you to make astounding discoveries about yourself and the world around you.

2. Was it a difficult decision? Was it an easy one?

It was actually fairly difficult. My whole life, well, ever since I was nine, my parents told me, this is a good hobby, but don’t even think about becoming an actor. They did this with the best intentions–they knew how hard it is to make it in the entertainment business and they didn’t want me to set myself up for a disappointment. It’s because of that that I took so long to even consider doing it. For a long time, it wasn’t an option, it wasn’t even on the horizon. So it was tough because I was making this choice without any encouragement from my family–well, I did get some from my Mom, because she thinks everything I do is great. Also this decision is always tough, it’s a choice to go out there and do something that’s very difficult with no support, even if your family thinks you’re the next David Lean, there’s no system out there for getting into the business, there’s a lot of hurdles and not a lot people and institutions that really care that you want to make movies. It’s like being a trapeze artist without a net.

3. Tell me a little bit about your background and schooling.

I went to Haverford College, which didn’t have a theater department. I saw that as a benefit when I applied because I’d decided I wasn’t going to do much theater because I needed to focus on real things. Then I ended up doing tons of student stuff and stuff at Bryn Mawr, our sister school. It turned out, though, that not having a theater department was a great thing. I mean, when Josh and I decided to start our own theater company there really wasn’t anyone there to help us, there wasn’t even a stage. We turned a meeting hall into a theater using eleven lighting trees, black curtain, and a lot of gaffer’s tape. It was hard, but it was great. We didn’t have any help, but we also didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission, and we didn’t have to answer to anyone; we could do whatever we wanted. It was great training for the real world.

4. Who and what are the greatest influences on your work thus far?

Gosh, there are so many people and things. I mean Kubrick is probably number one. My Mother loves thrillers. Her favorite movie is Silence of the Lambs. She’s a sick woman. So every year we would go skiing after Christmas. So we’d always be up in the mountains in an isolated house with snow up to the eaves every New Years. And every New Years Eve at midnight we’d watch the Shining. Ever since I was a real little kid. I can’t remember the first time I saw it cause I’ve been watching it my whole life. But all Kubrick’s movies made a pretty big impression.

The stuff I saw as a teenager had probably the biggest effect after Kubrick. Movies like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and Trainspotting. And Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune is probably one of my top 5 movies. And some more recent stuff–Fight Club, the Fifth Element, Gladiator, The Thomas Crown Affair, Any Given Sunday (I’m a sucker for all football movies, and AGS is, like The Citizen Kane of football movies), and stuff like that. I actually think 1999 is one of the best movie years in history.

Older stuff, that I’ve really only begun experiencing in the last six years are like—I love old comedies, like the Thin Man and Philadelphia Story, you can’t beat the dialogue writing in those movies. Coppola’s Godfather series is amazing–I think I’m the only person in the universe that likes the last one best. And Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I just saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time last year, and it totally floored me. Oh and Terry Gilliam.

But I really take more inspiration from writers and philosophers and artists that I do from other filmmakers. What excites me about a movie is the ideas it embodies and the way it expresses them.

5. Why The Surprise? What turned you on to the project?

I was actually working on a different script that wasn’t going very well and I woke up one morning with this story in my head. I don’t think I dreamt it, but I have no idea where it came from, it was just there, running around in my brain. And I kinda liked the shape of it. That was immediately interesting. Then as I began working on it I discovered that as much as it seems to be about things that aren’t particularly immediate for me, it’s really about some things that I struggle with personally every day. Ultimately I did it because it meant something to me, it expressed something that I wanted to explore, and something that, even if I never understood it fully, I wanted to put it up there. That, and it was just time to do something, and it was what I had.

6. Is this the first script you’ve written?

No, it’s I guess the third, though it’s the first short. The first script I wrote didn’t turn out to be particularly interesting. The second one is very complex and I haven’t been able to make it work yet. Though I’ve written a couple versions.

7. Was this the first time you had directed your own script?

Yes, and it was a very different experience. As a director, I always took a lot of liscence with scripts, but since, this time I’d written already what I wanted it made directing a very different experience. Also, a big part of what makes drama interesting and good is that the director has his own point of view which may be very similar to the writer’s, but is still distinct because it’s his. That tension is very productive. The space between people is frequently where the most interesting stuff arises from. It makes the piece a dialogue between people a struggle. The differences in the participants’ perception open up the piece and everyone brings a new dimension the piece can explore, which leads to a much richer final product. But since the writer and director were both me, I had to try to capture that somewhat artificially, and occupy the two roles separately and keep from merging them. Besides, when directing someone else’s script, you have a comforting distance that was a luxury I didn’t get to have on this one.

8. Could you speak a little bit about the difference between theater and film? Was the transition easy of difficult?

The transition was primarily difficult because of lack of experience. Film is a much bigger thing. First of all, it’s much, much more technical. And there’s way more people involved and it takes longer overall. Also, while film and theater are pretty much based on the same things, film has additional dimensions that have no corollary in theater. In theater, you get one shot, in film, you can do whatever you want. In many ways that’s very liberating, and it’s great for directors–it means we have a lot more control–but it also means that there’s this whole other dimension that you’ve never dealt with before. But in the end both theater and film are about examining and expressing something about the human condition. They’re both about human interaction and about telling stories. The media though for the transmission of those same basic elements are quite different. They are actually more different than I originally thought.

9. What was the greatest difficulty you encountered while filming The Surprise? How did you manage to overcome it?

That’s a kind of impossible question, because filmmaking is very difficult. It’s in many ways just one difficulty after another. You’re talking about a dream situation for Murphy’s law. There are literally hundreds of elements, even on a little film like ours, that come crashing together and then split apart when the shoot’s done. The situation is just begging for problems. Add to that the fact that I was supposed to be in charge and I’d never done this before, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. But as much as a film shoot is a mess caused by the intense nature of the thing, that also gives you something pretty cool. The first few days everything goes wrong and everybody’s freaking out and thinking the movie’s never going to get finished. But just a week later, everyone’s been through so much together and survived that then when stuff happens everyone’s sort of like, oh well, we should’ve known that would happen, groan, but nobody’s really worried anymore.

10. Could you quickly discuss the visual look of The Surprise and how it came to be?

We began by looking at the paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists, and what we were particularly interested in him for in this piece was the amazing way that his paintings manage to express loneliness. Even the paintings with crowds of people, or no people at all give you such an amazing feeling of alone-ness and emptiness. And we felt that that was the right affect for this film. I basically think that Katie’s central problem is that she is fundamentally alone. I think we eventually moved away from Hopper just in the course of the work and making specific decisions about this shot or that shot. But I do think he’s still there. I think the sensibility that he created in me and the rest of the team carried on, even if we didn’t straight up copy his paintings. Though there are a few direct thefts or homages in the film. The bedroom scene, when Katie’s on the phone is really the most complete Hopper moment. The light is the pale yellow or “warm cool” light that Hopper favored. It’s coming from off-screen and hitting Katie straight on. That whole scene is as close to Hopper as we get.

11. How did you find the editing process?

I really like editing. Besides it being the first time you get to actually see the movie, it’s like putting the movie together like building blocks which I find really fun. And making movies is so fragmented that even though you have great moments all through the process, when you edit, you discover great moments that were always there that you never realized before. And I really like finding the right rhythm and pace for things. All the rest of the time you’re getting ready for this, and you’re bringing together raw materials, and editing is where you condense it all down into the film–the thing people are going to experience and, hopefully, enjoy. It’s very exciting. Plus, Gary, the editor, and I have a very good working relationship. We’re both interested in finding the best possible movie and he shoots straight from the hip. I really enjoy the rigor of our process.

12. What will you change the next time around?

Well I would really like it if the camera truck doesn’t get so lost it ends up in Philadelphia. Other than that, there’s lots of changes I hope to make. Tons, really. I think that’s a good thing though. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy with the movie, I am. But the process is always challenging you, always raising new questions, always presenting new opportunities. I think if you ever get done with a movie and say, “wow that was perfect, I hope next time is exactly like that,” then it’s time to quit, because you don’t have anything else to say.

13. What has surprised you most about the whole experience?

I don’t know that there’s really any one thing. I discovered a lot of new things through the experience–I think that’s the principle joy of it. But I don’t think you can ever be prepared for how hard making a movie is until you’ve been through it yourself. You can read the books and watch Project Greenlight, but nothing can really make you understand. It’s probably not as hard as the army, but that’s about it. The other thing that really took me back were the women that I encountered researching this project. It’s a little weird being a guy and dealing with a subject like this. First of all, women are really weirded out by it at first. Second, we do not have the natural appreciation for the subject that women do, since we’re primarily spectators in the whole situation, whether we like it or not. But the women I met were all so caring and articulate. No woman is without some experience in this. Everyone has at least worried that they might be pregnant at an inopportune moment, even if it’s just for the two minutes until the pregnancy test tells them they’re not. So all women have had to confront this decision to some small degree. And it’s so complicated. It’s an area where knowing what’s right and wrong and knowing even what you want and don’t want is impossible. I truly believe it’s one of the hardest situations any person can ever have to face.

14. You’re also the co-president of a production company, Eighty-Watt Cinema.

Yup. I’m a control freak, I like to do things my own way. Or sometimes Josh’s way.

15. How do you feel about the industry in its current state? What about the independent scene? Where do you see yourself and Eighty-Watt fitting in?

I think Hollywood is being a little stupid, but that doesn’t represent much of a change. The difference is that right now the stupidity arises from the fact that Hollywood is not being allowed to run Hollywood at the moment, Wall Street has got hold of the reins. I have no problem with Wall Street except that the film industry is an odd business, and it isn’t like other businesses and can’t be run the same way, but a lot of the people now handing down the big decisions don’t really know much about it. And as far as the independent scene goes, I think it’s a little fucked up too. This is all fine, by the way. They’ve always been in trouble and they probably always will be. That’s necessary in an artistic business, it’s what allows artists to do what they do. And it gives the young people like me a way in. If it wasn’t fucked up then making movies would be like making cereal, and when was the last time cereal really rocked your world? I think Hollywood gets too busy worrying about guaranteeing next quarter’s profits to Wall Street and the Independents are too busy feeling marginalized or wishing Hollywood would adopt them to just focus on making a good movie.

16. What would you say to other budding filmmakers trying to put together a successful short?

I say find something that excites you and then dive in, headfirst.

17. What’s on the horizon?

More movies, of course.

18. What part(s) of The Surprise are you most proud of?

There are things I’m proud of, and some things I hope no one notices, but I don’t really want to tell you what any of them are.

19. How do you like to approach a project?

I like to figure out what I think this whole thing is really about and start exploring that. And as we go through each phase of the process I get the opportunity to look at the project in different ways, as my own perspective changes and as the perspectives of the other people working on the film are introduced. And frequently the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Producer Q+AProducer Q+A with Joshua P. Dilworth

1. How and why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

It’s funny. I’m not sure I ever really decided in the conventional sense. Well, that’s not quite fair. I suppose I should start at the beginning. I did a good amount of theater in high school, but when it came time, I unreservedly checked the little box on my college applications that read “No, I do not plan to participate in college”. I wanted to have time to throw the football around on Sunday afternoons.

Freshman year at Haverford I blindly found my way into a improv and sketch comedy group called Lighted Fools. It wasn’t something I had ever planned on doing – and I auditioned on a whim, without telling anyone. But I guess they thought I was funny. Here was this different kind of performance – it awoke something in me that I’d be lost without today. It was in the Fools that I met Nick. And it wasn’t long before he was trying to convince me to do a play with him. And it’s not like either of us knew what the hell we were doing. I mean, Nick had been acting since he was a kid and I’d been in a few plays myself, but that was it. And when I say “do a play” I mean direct, produce, and serve as dramaturg, artistic director, set builder, publicist, music designer, casting director – well you get the idea. We were pretty much shooting from the hip, and employing the help of whatever friends had the time to lend a hand. But the play, a beautiful production of Wilde’s Salome was a huge success, and so we decided to keep “doing plays”. As we progressed, our productions began to incorporate film and video more and more – and so the eventual transition to filmmaking proper seemed entirely natural. By the time the curtain went up on Decadent and Depraved, a piece I wrote my senior year at Haverford about the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and the English cartoonist Ralph Steadman, projected images were completely integrated into the production. I always like the idea of coming at the audience from as many angles as possible – you have to really open your eyes if you’re to take it all in.

I especially enjoy the collaborative aspect of film – it makes for a very layered final product. But in general I think that certain stories are best suited for certain mediums. And ultimately, the sorts of stories I’m wanting to tell right now are best conveyed on film.

2. Was it a difficult decision? Was it an easy one?

Such things are never easy. Though a prominent businessman once told me over lunch that “the secret is that there is no secret”. If you can accept this, anything is possible. I thought for awhile about pursuing a Ph.D. in Performance Studies at either NYU or Berkeley, but eventually decided that the opportunity to make films was one that I needed to seize immediately. But I’ll have that Ph.D. if it’s the last thing I do, goddamnit.

3. Tell me a little bit about your background and schooling.

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a graphic designer and a development director. I’m the oldest of three boys, which is another story altogether. We were always very creative children – these days one brother is an art history major and a budding sous-chef, and the other is studying architecture. I attended a Catholic school called St. Agnes Elementary in Catonsville, Maryland, where I majored in kickball and strange hairdos. I spent my high school days at The McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland, where I graduated in 1998. I then attended Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, graduating in 2002 with a double major in English and Philosophy. Most recently I received a Professional Certificate in Directing from NYU SCPS.

4. Who and what are the greatest influences on your work thus far?

Marilou Allen, my boss when I was the Director of Serendipity Day Camp, taught me more about producing than anyone else. The thing is, she doesn’t even know what a producer does. But she knows a lot about people, and she knows a lot about tough decision-making. I think she’d be astonished to hear me say all this. I don’t really have any mentors or idols, though. I always said that if I was going to do this, I’d have to do it on my own terms. I try to learn from everyone I meet. And I read a lot of books. I’m a big believer in self-education. My liberal arts background sent me off into the world with a big appetite and a high learning curve. I’m just trying to keep up.

5. What attracted you to The Surprise?

Nick had been working on it for a long time, and I think that it was at a point where it was ready for the next step. In the theater you get to a point where the piece craves an audience. The Surprise was at that point. And it was such a choice-filled script. We used to say that if we gave it to both David Lynch and David Lean, each movie would be full and robust – and completely different. There was opportunity in the script, and that’s one of the first things I look for. If a script is already pre-directed, I’m not interested. “The Surprise had a very strong structural backbone and it raised very important social and moral questions. When Nick and I spent 6 hours one day arguing about it and ended up in a place nowhere near where we started, I knew that we had something.

6. How many people did you have in your crew?

About forty-five. We had an army. On the last day of the shoot, my second assistant director remarked to me that I’d yet to ask a P.A. for coffee. She radioed down to the craft services level and in 35 seconds I had a cup of joe prepared to my exact specifications. I thought, “I could get used to this!” In all seriousness, though, our crew was amazing. They went to war for Nick and me every day. They’re in every frame of film, though no one will ever notice.

7. Could you speak a little bit about the difference between theater and film? Was the transition easy of difficult?

As a producer, the transition was very easy. There was a problem of vocabulary and nomenclature at one point, but that’s about it. You’re still telling stories and you’re still articulating visions. As a director I think the two are quite different, but I’ll defer to Nick on that one.

8. What was the greatest difficulty you encountered while filming The Surprise? How did you manage to overcome it?

Wow. Probably staying healthy. I almost completely lost my appetite. It was a good thing my Mom was around to force-feed me. We lost locations and camera trucks and plenty of money, but these were all repairable. I can fix problems, but only if I’m healthy and well-rested. There were times, too, when I was so busy running the show that I was forgetting to enjoy myself. The wonderful and talented Rebecca Perkins, who has done the makeup on everything Nick and I have ever done, took me aside one day and reminded me of what an amazing thing it was that we were doing.

Another producer I know once had the singular experience of speaking with Mohammad Ali. He said that it occurred to him that producing was a lot like boxing. You prepare for months, even years, but you only get 10 minutes in the ring.

It’s important not to lose sight of how you got here and where you are going, even for 10 minutes. Producers always have to see the big picture, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re running 5 hours behind schedule. But sometimes the answers are right in front of you, if only you can only see the forest for the trees. On a movie set, everyone has a specific job, and as a producer you want that degree of concentration and single-mindedness from your crew. It’s your job to understand the process as a whole, and to know how to most effectively shepherd the project in the proper direction.

9. What will you change the next time around?

I’ll have a lot more help during preproduction. And I’m renting GPS systems for every vehicle, damn the cost.

10. What has surprised you most about the whole experience?

I have a lot more respect for crappy films now. It’s a miracle that a film gets completed at all. And despite that fact that, for us, everything that could go wrong did in fact go wrong, we still made it through. You tend to notice your bad luck a lot more than your good luck. I think we had quite a bit of both.

11. You’re also the co-president of a production company, Eighty-Watt Cinema.

Indeed. Nick and I have always thought, from the beginning, that we need to control our own destiny. They say that film is the second most expensive art form – only architecture is more costly, as my brother Zachary can attest. Filmmaking is a business, and Nick and I are committed to learning that business, from the ground up.

12. How do you feel about the industry in its current state? What about the independent scene? Where do you see yourself and Eighty-Watt fitting in?

I couldn’t really tell you. We have big ambitions. But as I said before regarding the difference between film and theater, I think that different stories have different needs. Always story. Just because a film is risky and difficult, it doesn’t mean the project can’t or shouldn’t be made. But the reverse is also true. Nine times out of ten, films don’t get made because they don’t know what they are or what they want to be. There may be a great story in there somewhere, but it’s this sort of taxonomical extravagance that dooms a lot of projects. Too often a film is forced to swim upstream; its own shepherds want something for it that it doesn’t need. It’s an old Aristotelian notion: the virtuous person fulfills that role for which he or she is best suited. Virtue requires self-knowledge: know thyself (and thy project!). We’re committed to telling any story that has a chance of making its money back, and we’re committed to meeting the needs of every project we make.

13. What would you say to other budding filmmakers trying to put together a successful short?

Rob a bank. I don’t know. I think I’ve already said it – the secret is that there is no secret. And I’m not merely feeding you rhetoric. There is no secret. You need discipline, craft, perception, artistry, intelligence, composure, versatility, determination, gracefulness, courtesy, judiciousness, and decisiveness. But these are all life skills that you should be developing anyway. You do need to be well-read. And you need to immerse yourself in this job – there’s no testing the water here.

14. What’s on the horizon for you?

A feature, of course. And my own professional directing debut, with a short film tentatively titled In Burnt Norton, a piece that’s been brewing for some time now. I’m really excited about it, but it will have a glorious Q & A all its own, so I’ll cut myself short, for now.