We spoke to American indie film director, Brian Padian, about his career so far, and his upcoming debut feature-length movie, the black sea.
So Brian, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking?
I always wanted to direct films but it took me awhile to get going. As a younger person I attended the American Film Institute (receiving an MFA in Screenwriting) and naively presumed I would follow the John Sayles model: sell spec scripts and/or get hired to write screenplays and then simply take the profits and use them to fund directing my own scripts. What I did not account for, blinded in part by youthful ambition, was the impossibly high odds of a screenplay getting any attention at all, much less being sold. Selling a script is a rare, exotic thing and for most writers it is a long, fruitless grind (to put it generously.) I did finally get a sliver of attention for one script but ultimately it did not sell or lead anywhere. Slightly burnt on the whole undertaking and on the churn of daily life in LA, my wife and I relocated to Portland, Ore and after some time I finally began directing short films as training/prep for my debut feature the black sea.
What’s your back catalogue like? Tell us about some of the previous films you’ve made…
Prior to the black sea I made four or five short films of varying topic and quality along with a couple music videos and a PSA (public service announcement). My favorites among the short films are I’m Your Man from my wife’s short story about a married couple running late for an appointment, and The Big Black Dark, a film noir (shot by DP Scott Ballard who also shot the black sea, both on Super 16.) Directing shorts was an essential step for me before taking on a feature, allowing me to make a lot of mistakes and get a feel for using camera, crew and the whole production apparatus. No matter how much you think you know about directing – and I had been on lots of sets, worked years in the film industry and read countless books on directing before doing it – the moment you are actually on set as director everything goes out the window. It is important to know this prior to attempting a feature.
What films and directors have inspired you in your work?
10 films off the top of my head: Naked, The Big Chill, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Picnic at Hanging Rock, L’Intrus, Winter Light, The New World, Waiting for Guffman. I love many directors: Claire Denis, Robert Altman, Richard Linklater, Jacques Tati, Ramin Bahrani, Miranda July, Ingmar Bergman, Lynne Ramsay, Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Andrea Arnold, David Lynch, Terence Malick, Mike Leigh, Kelly Reichardt, Hal Ashby, Billy Wilder et al and so on.
Tell us about your latest work, the black sea. What was your thinking behind making such a movie as this?
Before I even had the idea for the story I had self-imposed parameters for making my first feature: one location, a few characters and a basic plot. In other words cheap and easy to shoot and unambitious in scope, really just to get the whole first feature thing out of the way. I hatched the general premise: five friends at a beach house on the Oregon Coast for a weekend, one of them disappears – and began writing the screenplay. This was back in 2004. However, right in the middle of finishing the first draft I had a health scare – I will spare the specifics but it was big and unnerving – which forced me to stop writing for a year or two. When I returned to the screenplay the general premise for the movie still worked but my outlook was so transformed by my experience that the pitch and register of the screenplay changed. What began as a sort of throwaway Hitchcock-ish disappearance plot morphed into a dark meditation on friendship, marriage, and oblivion and came to mean something deeper to me. It became a movie I had to make.
So who is your cast? Any real stars in the making?
Casting was vital. In the black sea a lot of the narrative happens under the surface, so the actors all had to feel like actual friends and convey the quiet things that happen in friendships, the unspoken sense of history. At the same time each person is part of a couple – three in all – so there had to be chemistry within each couple and in the group as a whole. We saw a lot of people but it finally clicked in place with these six: Cora Benesh is both actor and filmmaker, the co-writer and co-producer and star of the indie film, City Baby. Erin McGarry has been in Grimm and Portlandia and a host of indie films and has a great naturalistic style and a habit of nailing everything on the first take. Corrina Repp is a fixture in the Portland music scene and makes her feature film debut in a lead role here, in a seemingly effortless manner. Bill Sebastian is an LA-based director and actor (most recently of the indie film Qwerty) and does both with a deep dedication and focus. Matt Sipes is my longtime friend and has been in a few of my short films and conveys great warmth on screen and is also making his feature film debut in a lead role here. Finally, Joe von Appen is an actor and cinephile, with a wide pool of filmic reference to draw from and a very funny personal style. Overall, they are a young, vibrant, attractive bunch, brimming with talent and great potential. I suspect great things will come from them all.
You are in post-production now, right? What’s the next step for the film?
Yes, we are colour correcting the film right now and then we will go out to film festivals. Along the way we will determine the best avenues for exhibition and distribution. This part is all new to me and the options are seemingly changing day by day so it is a little like wandering into the muck.
Tell us a little about your directorial approach: the writing, the filming, the editing… ?
The script phase comes easiest to me. Or rather, the act of writing comes relatively easily to me once I have the idea and characters in place. The writing is the most joyous and boundless part. I am typically able to generate a lot of pages and cut mercilessly when/where necessary. That said, with the black sea the screenplay went through multiple iterations over the years. It took a long time to pare it down and find the focus.
As for directing, I love being on set with actors and crew and finding moments and solutions that could not have been anticipated. Nothing beats that feeling. But production also comes loaded with stress – a suddenly non-working camera mag, a sneaker wave that obliterates a long dolly move on beach, constant mental tally of gas receipts, schedule anomalies, insurance, working with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) – that I did not thrive under, or at least that I did not thrive under on my first feature. For future projects I’ll budget for other people to worry about those things. The director, during production, has to kind of split himself between the day-to-day operations of cast, crew and the more enduring throughline and narrative of the film. There are many distractions. I was thrilled when we wrapped, primarily because of what we got but also because that phase was done and I could move on to post.
As for editing, I really love to edit but if I am alone with the footage I fear I will subconsciously make choices that make me look better as director or writer, serving a different entity than the film, so I don’t edit my own things. I have had the same editor, Evonne Moritz, on all my short films and on the black sea, and can not imagine making a movie without her. We have worked together long enough, and been friends for longer, to have a shorthand and a relaxed approach to working. She improves things that I am too close to to see and her involvement elevates the work in countless ways.
What’s next for yourself?
I am making a short documentary about the composer Jesse Jones, a unique artist quickly on the rise, who did the score for the black sea. Also, I have several feature screenplays ready to shoot. One is a college drama about a hike gone wrong titled After the Summer. Another is a Bunuel-like satire called Mason Poorboy, and there is also a cheapo horror script titled Devil’s Bend. I love all these screenplays, as distinct from one another as they are – and I am eager to make them. I am hoping the black sea can generate a tiny bit of buzz or excitement to attract money/investors to fund them in whole or in part (especially because I would definitely prefer not to crowdfund again, like ever.) I am also not opposed to selling a spec script or getting hired to write and using the money to fund directing my own things, which shows the depth of my naive mania. Even after years of heartache and rejection, there is still child-like optimism, always hoping, always thinking ‘this could be it!’ This self-delusion is more a necessary part of working in film than a laudable trait because in what other field would you not have given up by now? That said: I will continue to write and make films.