For the release of DANGER ONE in theaters and VOD, Craig had the great pleasure of interviewing director Tom Oesch about his upcoming action/thriller film. During their chat, they discussed everything from creating a shot list instead of storyboards to learning to have thick skin. Read on to learn more.
Nightmarish Conjurings: When you describe the movie to people, what do you typically tell them?
Tom Oesch: I tell them that, on the surface, it’s a midnight movie. A throwback to the types of films I grew up with in the 90s. It’s for everyone who likes their crime thrillers with a healthy dose of dark comedy. Think of it as Shallow Grave on wheels or the crazy cousin of A Simple Plan. But I also tell them that, on a deeper level, it’s meant as an indictment of capitalism. What I mean with that is that it deals with the anxieties and anger of the many, many working men and women who are staring down an uncertain future in an economy that they’re told is doing great. That could be the young dad struggling to support his family, working endless shifts, or the old pro terrified of losing his retirement. We wrote this in the aftermath of the Great Recession but it’s still as relevant now as it was then.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What attracted you to this project?
TO: Well, it was a combination of things. My dad was a doctor so I grew up around sick people and late night emergency calls. And that’s probably the reason I’ve always had a soft spot for medical thrillers, you know, like Coma, Extreme Measures, Re-Animator. I think those are really effective because we’ve all been to the doctor or to a hospital, so it’s something we’re familiar with. And it’s a place where you’re very vulnerable, as a patient, so there’s something inherently frightening about seeing such a structured environment get corrupted and spin out of control. The other thing that I really liked about the idea for DANGER ONE was that it felt like a father-and-son story, which I tend to respond to. The two protagonists, Tom Everett Scott’s Dean and James Jurdi’s Eric, they aren’t related obviously, but their relationship has a similar dynamic: Dean thinks he’s taking Eric under his wing, that he knows what’s best for him, that only he can teach him how to be a man. Eric, on the other hand, tries so hard to not ever become like Dean but eventually he does just that. Like father, like son. To me, that family theme, whether it’s your real family at home or your surrogate one at work, that’s what made the story something universal, something that most of us can relate to. It gave it a heart.
Nightmarish Conjurings: The style is very fast paced, what tricks did you use to achieve your particular look?
TO: What I wanted to do was to let the story motivate the style. So, early in the movie, that breathless energy reflects the feel of what’s quite literally a high-speed job. You know, being a paramedic, racing around in an ambulance, all that. And at that point there’s still an elegance to the aesthetic. But, later on, the fast pace gets more manic and raw, mirroring the characters’ experience as everything around them goes to hell. That’s why we tried to keep the camera in constant motion, zipping around the place, pulling the viewer along with the action. And also why we often intercut really tight close-ups with much, much wider shots, like back to back, with that semi-jarring juxtaposition adding to the energy because your eye has to do quite a bit of work to keep up. We also used a lot of jump-cut transitions to get us very quickly from scene to scene. And then there’s also the propulsive film score that doesn’t ever really take a breather, driving the images like a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, my director’s cut pushed the plot along even faster because I had yanked out three scenes during editing, leaving it a few minutes shorter than the theatrical cut. I have an extensive editing background and I’ve become pretty good at recognizing what’s essential and what’s fat. Even as early as the screenwriting stage. Our original script, the draft we pitched, it was very lean and actually shorter than what we ended up shooting.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Your past work has mostly been editing on documentaries or reality television, how did that prepare you for making this movie?
TO: You know, editors tend to make very efficient directors because they know exactly what shots they need and don’t need to tell the story. And they know what will cut together well and what won’t. That’s a good skill to have, especially on low-budget films where you just don’t have time to goof around. For example, I didn’t get to storyboard DANGER ONE but instead I created an absurdly detailed 500-page shot-list that pre-edited the entire film on paper. That may sound excessive but without that type of planning we wouldn’t have gotten a movie this ambitious in the can in just 23 days. No way. Then, I’d say the other big thing I got from working in TV is a thick skin! In other words, it teaches you how to work within a certain hierarchy. That’s much more difficult than it sounds when you have a creative job like directing or editing. Because that inevitably makes your work personal. But unless you’re able to finance your own movie, and most of us aren’t, you have to accept the pecking order. Even when you don’t agree with opinions and decisions made above your pay grade. That’s part of the job description. And working as an editor is like boot camp for that. Your work gets noted extensively every single day, and sometimes even shredded to pieces, but over time you learn how to deal with that without pulling out your hair or committing murder.
Nightmarish Conjurings: How did you assemble such a great cast?
TO: I think that started with us deciding to cast against type as much as we could. We wanted to find some unique actor-character combos that would surprise the audience, giving them a clear signal that all bets were off. A great side effect of that was that a lot of awesome actors really sparked to the script because it offered them roles that they usually didn’t get to play. Like Bokeem Woodbine, Seann William Scott, Michael Rapaport. And you can see that excitement in the performances, too. I mean, Tom Everett Scott came on board only two days before we started shooting, so he had pretty much no prep time whatsoever, but he was so committed to making Dean the world’s most interesting paramedic that it now looks like he’d been living “in character” for months. As a matter of fact, we had so many great actors come in that we ended up doing some reshuffling at the eleventh hour in order to accommodate everyone. For instance, we initially cast Damon Dayoub as one of the two young ICE officers. But then we couldn’t decide between Angelica Celaya and Julissa Bermudez for the character of Brie because they were both so amazing. So we figured, well, let’s just cast them both! So we gender-swapped that ICE officer for Julissa and asked Damon to play firefighter Max instead. And it worked out great!
Nightmarish Conjurings: What challenges did you run into filming a movie about ambulances entirely around Los Angeles?
TO: Oh man, how much time do we have here? You know, having only 23 days to shoot a movie with this many locations, characters, and set-pieces was pretty nuts, I’m not gonna lie. Another tricky thing was getting the tone of the film right: When you’re mixing genres, like we did, you’re really walking a tonal tightrope. Our budget was so low, though, that the actors and I didn’t get any rehearsal time during pre-production to work all that out ahead of time. So we had to find the right tone for each individual performance during filming. Sometimes in a vacuum because not all the actors started working on the movie at the same time. And it’s a very delicate balance: Because some of the characters were quite eccentric, which meant that some of the other ones needed to balance that out and ground the movie with more restrained performances. Now, to make things even more challenging, that lack of rehearsal time also applied to all the fight choreography, which meant that the actors had to learn how to punch and brawl in a crazy short amount of time right there on set. The thing that got us through that were these “video-previz” that I had put together: Basically, I spent a week of pre-production with a group of friends in my producer’s backyard. And that’s where we choreographed all the fights and then filmed and edited them exactly how they’d appear in the movie. Kind of like video storyboards. Two months later I was then able to use those previz to show my cast exactly what we were about to do. And we were lucky that most of them were fast learners!
Nightmarish Conjurings: What was your favorite behind-the-scenes moment?
TO: There were a few memorable ones but the one that’ll stay with me forever was on my way home after our last night of principal photography. I was by myself in the car, driving through Griffith Park in LA, where we’d been shooting for a few days, and the sun was coming up. And it became a really emotional ride home because after four or five months of “go, go, go” everything finally slowed down enough for me to realize that I’d just experienced one of those big personal milestones that we only get a handful of in life. The one thing that I’d been working towards so hard for over twenty years had actually just happened. And it’s hard to describe but for a brief moment it sort of felt like I was at a crossroads. Like for the first time in a very long time there were a million different directions my life could go right now and I wasn’t sure which one it was going to be. It was like “Ok, now what?” and it felt strangely liberating. But then, you know, you snap out of it because you remember that there’s now a movie you have to go finish!
Nightmarish Conjurings: What lessons did you learn from this that you hope to take into future projects?
TO: You know, the minute we finished the movie I sat down and made a list, like a real actual list, of everything I wanted to do better next time. So now there’s a file on my laptop that’s literally named “lessons learnt”. And since I’m pretty comfortable with taking a critical look at my own work, it’s a long list, too. There are a lot of technical notes on there. And also things like making sure there’s a budget for both rehearsals and some pick-up days to fix mistakes in post. And then some common sense stuff like, hey, go join the modern world and use an iPad instead of lugging 50 pounds of printed paper around the set every day. Most importantly, though, it touches on the bigger picture: That when it gets tough, and it will, I have to remind myself that this work I’m doing isn’t really work at all but an honest-to-goodness adventure that I’m damn lucky to have gotten invited on.
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