I watched “Stefano Formaggio” a couple of times and enjoyed it very much. How did its screenings at the Catalina and Carmel Film Festivals go?
It went really well. Catalina’s a really beautiful place. It’s just off the coast of LA, and it’s a nice vacation spot, so it was a lovely festival to attend. It’s steeped in a lot of Hollywood history so it was really good to premiere there. People really enjoyed the movie; we had a full house.
How about Carmel? Was that a big success as well?
That one particularly was because we shot the film in Carmel. A lot of the people that were involved in the film obviously came up to support it, and see the work up on screen, and it was a nice crowd. People had some personal attachment to the film and even if they didn’t work within the film or help us out in some way, Carmel’s such a small community that everyone knew the locations so it was an excitable crowd. You could hear people seeing their town in a different light, which is nice.
Does it have any other festival screenings coming up?
We’ve had that couple and we’re still going to some festivals but we decided to release it online as well. It’s one of those films that we really wanted to get out there and we did a couple of festivals with it but we wanted people to enjoy it, wanted people to see it and we kept getting requests for it. It gets to the point where the festival schedule takes you so long that you think: “Let’s let people watch this; this is made to be enjoyed.” It’s actually quite difficult to see it at festivals, because they’re in all these far flung places, whereas this generation wants to see it now. We’re not going to stop doing the festivals but you can see it online. The festivals like you to be exclusive, but we decided that people do need to see it. A lot of people worked very hard on it, and as a filmmaker it’s very hard to sit there and watch a hundred people see it at a time, when really you want to show it to lots of people.
Let’s move onto the film itself. It seems to me that “Stefano Formaggio” has a progression of intimacy. We start with initial flirting between Stefano and Jasmine and that leads to greater contact and then we see a different kind of intimacy. Was intimacy something you wanted to consciously explore?
The real thing I wanted to explore in the film was duality. Pretty much every scene happens twice and it’s all about perception. The theme of beauty runs throughout with this underlying tone that it’s your perception of something that can really inform the outcome, and the outcome might be wrong. That’s why each scene plays out twice, there’s a lot of ideas of duality in there, if things happen twice or if there’s two sides to every story that you need to know. The intimacy comes from knowing something on a surface level and on an intimate level. In any relationship or any thing there’s always two sides, and one usually is more intimate than the other. When you have a better knowledge of something, you sometimes discover different things. There’s a difference in taste or things aren’t what they appear, and that comes from having a more intimate knowledge of something.
It’s interesting you mention duality. The date scene had distinctive lighting that seemed very natural and as the scene progressed it got darker; the greater revelations come about largely at night. Was that part of the duality, these changes in light?
There’s a tonal shift in the movie from the light to the dark, and we were hoping to do that subtly but consciously. As we get further and further into the story and the evening, it is the shift of the movie from light to dark. The start of the movie’s very bright, the eerie stuff happens in the evening which is a classic device anyway. The shift in light in the date was for two reasons. It’s a time shift to show how long they’ve actually been there, but also we were subtly getting the tone and tempo darker. The music changes as well, we worked very hard on that scene because that is the dark shift, where the story takes a turn even if we don’t think it is, where the more confusing stuff happens like the way he acts with her at the end of the date. We are supposed to start getting moments of “That’s not quite right,” which we tried to introduce very gently. That was definitely something to thank the director of photography for — his lighting was amazing; and our colorist as well. In a technical film sense, we worked very very carefully on those things. It was no accident. It took a lot of work because we shot that scene all at the same time, so it didn’t actually get darker.
You filmed in Carmel, which looks utterly gorgeous. Was that because it was the right setting or was it more a matter of necessity?
Absolutely not necessity, it was wish list though I didn’t know it. I always wanted the film to be a dark fairy tale, and I originally wrote the movie when I lived in Greenwich in London, which has this lovely village feel to it despite being part of London. It was a very independent place, it had this storybook quality to it in a Charles Dickens sense. Then I moved to America and LA is completely not like Greenwich, but what was very interesting is you’ll pass these houses in LA that are like a fairy story cottage. They’ll be next to an ugly apartment building, but there are little ones around in LA. I started thinking: “That looks like Jasmine’s house; that looks like Stefano’s house,” so I started getting the idea that we could pick these houses out and make it like a fairy-tale quite easily. We were going to shoot in LA doing that, but everything was going to be very tight because obviously I didn’t want the street cleaning sign or ugly apartment building in. We needed to create this world. I also have a side job as a travel journalist. It’s a hobby that turned into something I do quite regularly now. My girlfriend and I got invited to Carmel to do a journalist trip where they bring you up and plan an itinerary for you for the weekend, tell you you’re going to stay in this hotel, eat at this restaurant. We got to Carmel, checked into the hotel which is sort of Dutch/Danish-themed. We woke up in the morning and went “This is where Stefano and Jasmine live, it just is.” We asked at reception where this restaurant was and were told it’s down here on this corner, and we asked what’s the actual address and she said it doesn’t have an address. “What do you mean it doesn’t have an address?” “Everything is just ‘the purple house on the corner’ in Carmel. Everyone knows where everything is. You pick up your mail from the post office. It’s a village.” I was really charmed by the place: You can’t build more than two stories; Clint Eastwood used to be the mayor. It’s got this Hollywood history, it’s all very fairy-tale, I just fell in love with the place and people’s charm and thought we have to shoot here. This is where they live. It was never supposed to be a certain geographical location — it was always “Somewhere Land.” I thought “This is the place.” I got back to LA and my producer pointed out “It’s six hours north of LA, it’s going to be tough. Let me take you the storybook Mediterranean set at Universal Studios, because I think we should shoot there because it will be easier.” I said “Sure, but I think we should shoot in Carmel,” and he said “Let me take you there,” and we did that, we walked around and I said “It’s not right, it looks like a film set. We’ll have to put so much stuff in here as well to make it as beautiful as I want it, because it’s kind of a blank canvas, it’s not right.” And he said to me “We can’t shoot in Carmel; it’s going to be logistically impossible. Well, not impossible but difficult. What if something like a light breaks and you’re not in a city and need a bulb? It’s going to be tough so we need to plan for that.” And I said “Come with me for one day. We drive up there and stay the weekend. I’ll pay for everything and if you leave that place and tell me we have to shoot in LA I trust you.” We got up there and he just said “All right, I got you. We’ll do it here.” Because you just get it — you go to Carmel and when you are immersed it is like Storybook Land. There were logistical difficulties with being there but the community offset that by being so helpful and lovely. All that cheese in the first scene is real cheese that, when we went to the local cheese shop to take some pictures and talk to the guy about cheese and get some ideas from him, he said “You know what, let me just come and do it.” We said “We can’t really afford to pay for all this cheese, we need a couple of pieces and then we’ll use set cheeses.” He said “Don’t use set cheeses, let me just do it. I will come at 6 AM and set you the whole thing up.” That was the kind of help we got from Carmel and that’s why it looks like it does. We had a fantastic set designer who dressed those sets very meticulously, but we had such a great back canvas up there. I’m gutted I couldn’t shoot more up there. If we had had longer up there and shot some bigger shots. It was just so beautiful. We had a lot of stuff that was very close in, because we only had a couple of days in the city.
The story of you finding the perfect location is like a fairy-tale in itself. You were there for one reason and just found it. Then your producer got it as soon as they saw it as well.
We took two producers and the art director, and everybody was like, “This is the dream, you have to do it.” We like the challenge of it as well. A lot of independent, short filmmaking is all about trying to cut corners, and none of us wanted to do that on this film. If we’re going to do it, let’s commit to it fully and if that’s the right place for it, that’s the right place for it, we need to make that happen.”
You’ve mentioned the images you were going for. Are there any inspirational images or films or filmmakers that you drew upon?
Yeah, absolutely. Tim Burton, “Edward Scissorhands,” that world, the way they dress, that’s something I wanted to put across in this film. Of course, Wes Anderson as well, in terms of the symmetry of the shots. Certain shots of mine are like a painting. That’s always been a way I like to look at film: Each frame is like a painting and it should be treated that way. A lot of people forget mise-en-scene when they’re making low budget films these days, because they’ve got a very point-and-shoot mentality to get it done. One of the things I appreciate about Wes Anderson is the meticulousness of how he sets up a shot and the camera moves. There’s a lot to be said for informing the camera move from the action of the actors, but that’s what you should do once you know what you want that scene to look like as well. It has to be a marriage of both. Obviously Wes Anderson’s stuff is super-choreographed. We were going for a little less than that but I still love that sense of the beauty. When I worked with the colorist and the graphic artist over in Norway, we planned pixels of those shots. It was very specific. In certain shots we pulled the color out of one flower. In that sense it is like painting a picture. You couldn’t do that without planning that and knowing what you need in each shot. The director of photography again was on the same page as me on that. We wrote the shot list out in an hour and a half at his house, not because we rushed it but because we were so on vision together with it, and that was one of the breakthrough moments for me, when I found that guy and I realized how much our visions matched. It became easy, you didn’t have to over-explain anything.
Can you tell us a bit more about some specific moments? One moment that I found interesting is the shot in which Jasmine moves quickly through her orders. The sequence emphasizes her beauty and is itself a very beautiful shot. What was particularly important for you in that sequence, both technically and creatively?
Creatively, I had the idea in my head that it looked cool. I also think people can get too hung up on filmmaking and forget that things should sometimes just look nice. When I was at film school, we would go into in-depth discussions about why the director did something, and maybe it just looked nice. It looks pretty and we appreciate that and that might be it; it might not always have deep meaning. That scene was primarily for that reason. Secondarily, it was a more creative way to show time passing. I didn’t want to do a sunset or a clock, I wanted to just show time passing, so we did it that way. I also thought visually it was a nice way to show something beautiful.
Technically, Alice [Greczyn] had to do the same thing twenty to thirty times, because to get those movements we had to film very slowly. We had a motion-controlled camera that was precisely timed to do the same shot over and over again so we could overlay the shots. We kept the camera static but it was a moving camera, so it was robotically controlled so that when we overlaid the shots, we had the selfsame shot to overlay to put all those arms in. We’re creating this magic in the world and the device is used there to stop us being picky about realism from this point forwards. We shoot the first bit as a realistic market, where people sell cheese. Yes, everyone’s super pretty and super dressed up, but that could be just a heightened reality. I wanted to start sprinkling some magic in.
What’s your view of the central characters? Were character mannerisms in the script or actors’ suggestions, your ideas or a combination?
Definitely a combination. The actors brought incredible moments to it, but what’s interesting is Alice, who plays Jasmine, had been cast in that role for the last seven years. We never had contracts but she’s a friend of mine, and the minute I met her I thought “That’s my Jasmine.” As we became better friends it was always on the cards that she has going to do it, it was just a case of when I was going to make the film, raise the money and she’d be free, because she’s a very busy actress. Luckily we managed to get the financing, at the same time where she was due a break in her TV schedule, and when we found out where that break was, we stuck everything in motion around that. So that was one of the impetuses for that, the timing of when we did that. So in that sense, Jasmine in the further drafts of the script was always written with Alice in mind. When I created the character, I didn’t know Alice, but every iteration of the script after that was Alice.
Pasquale was the complete opposite. He came on a few days before shooting. I had no idea who my Stefano was going to be. In my head, I knew him, but I hadn’t found an actor. By that point I had such a specific idea, and he had to be everything that Pasquale was — good looking and elegant and charming but just a little hint that something is not right. I was researching roles and people I might have to try and contact, and they were either too charming or too stereotypical. In the end, we were looking at a bunch of actors and getting close to the mark, and I don’t know who was going to do this, and I called this casting director and said “I know this is way below you, I know that you do much bigger stuff and I know you don’t need the credit and I don’t want you to do any work for it but just off the top of your head, here’s this character I need. Off the top of your head, please don’t spend any time on it.” She went “He’s in my office right now.” And I said “Come on, really?” She said, “Yeah, I’m coaching this actor, called Pasquale.” And then my skepticism crept in and I thought “She’s just trying to give one of her guys a job, but no, she’s not like that, she wouldn’t do that.” And she said “Darren, this is the guy.” I said “He can’t be.” I wanted to believe her because I don’t have any reason to mistrust her but that is too coincidental. I said “Look, I know he’s your guy, I’m going to set up a casting session for you on Monday, I’m gonna be there all day, I’m gonna bring in twenty actors, we’ll look at twenty actors, you bring in people,” and we stood there and we did that and she was right, he was the guy. And we did a screen test with Mandy and he was even more the guy. And it worked great. I watched all of his other work as well before meeting him. He’d been on the TV show “Touch” with Kiefer Sutherland and he’d done some short films and he was in “The Artist,” but sometimes it’s hard to see until they do your character. And in the film I think he absolutely nails it, and he’s a lovely guy as well.
The one thing I can say about our set was that everyone on the film was just lovely people and that made it a great environment because there were no bad eggs. If you have a bad egg, it’s tough. But that really added to that and taking everyone up to Carmel as well, I think everyone had that vacation feel about the work as well which again means it wasn’t hard. It was lovely.
As writer-producer-director you’ve guided this project throughout its production. What’s the journey been like from initial idea to completion? How has it been for you?
Long and slow and intermittent. There’s been all sorts of milestones for this project. I wrote the idea about ten years ago, I then wrote the first script about four years ago, so there have been milestones. It’s not like you work on it everyday but it’s always on the backburner. It’s always a film that I loved the idea of and I could see it in my head so clearly, I never wanted to not do it justice. I said I’m not going to make it until I get all the elements, until we can afford the stuff we need, until I’m in a position where I can bring all the crew and talent that I want. Whether it be a respected career position or where I know them and they’re available to me, and wait until the right time, because what we made is exactly what I wanted. I can’t say the journey was tough because it wasn’t my daily thing but it was always there. There was a time when we started to try and make it. I had come back from the Cannes Film Festival all inspired and a friend picked me up from the airport, her name’s Lauren Cohen, she’s now Maggie Green on “The Walking Dead.” She was all “How was Cannes?” and I said “I’m so inspired, I want to make a film and take it back there, I wanna do this.” She asked if I had any ideas and I told her this idea on the way back from the airport and she said “I love it, let’s do it, let’s make it together.” So we started working on it so she was one of the early producers on it and we developed the script and then realized we’d need quite a lot of money to make it so it went on the backburner again. And then a couple of years later I met a guy that wanted to get involved in filmmaking and he helped finance it and so we picked it up again. So there’s little bursts of things that we did throughout it.
Considering your experience, what sort of advice might you give to filmmakers wanting to make something similar to this?
There’s a lot of filmmakers out there that have the ethos , and you hear this from known people, I think Tim Kring said this: “Make something, just pick up a camera and make it.” We’ve got cameras in the palms of our hands now. I agree with that, I think technology’s great and it’s allowing people to do stuff. On the flipside of that I would say don’t rush your idea. I am so glad I didn’t take that advice and make this story on my iPhone with iMovie with friend’s apartments and whatever costume was available because a film like this was very specific and, in creating that world, I did need all the elements, I did need all the talent that I had. That’s not blanket for all film, there’s ideas that do work on an iPhone. As an independent filmmaker it’s constantly drilled into you that it’s all about the story. As long as you’ve got a good story it’s good. I agree with that to a degree, but I think filmmaking is a much bigger practice. It is about set design; it is about creating a world; it is about visualizing costume and characters and things like that. If you have got a bad story, that stuff doesn’t matter, it’ll be a bad film, but . . . They say story is paramount, but it’s not everything. To me everything you see on screen is the everything, the music, the sound; that is to me the art of filmmaking. What I personally get frustrated about when I go to film festivals is when I see a good film but the sound is rubbish, and I’m like “You didn’t take care over a crucial element of your film, because you breezed through it thinking ‘Just as long as I get the story out, that’s important’.” So my advice to filmmakers is be true to what you want, and don’t let people tell you you can’t do stuff. There’s a lot of times when people said “You’re making it too big, you shouldn’t do that, you should use a friend’s apartment.” We used a friend’s apartment, Jasmine’s house is a friend’s apartment, it was the right apartment for her to live in. But to give you some idea of the meticulousness of it, I walked in with the set designer and said: “Look at this, this is Jasmine’s house isn’t it, it looks great?” He looked around and said “Yeah, this is where she lives, but I don’t think she’d have a brown leather couch here, do you?” I said “I’m cool with that,” and he said “Are you? Does Jasmine sit on a brown leather sofa?” I said “The house is right” and he said: “No, she doesn’t.” I said “What’s she sit on?,” and he said “A nice plush white one, with big cushions, and that’s what we’re gonna get. If that’s what you think, that’s what I think, that’s what she would do, then we get it,” and I love him for that, because that was his attention to detail. And it does really matter, even down to the fact that they had an electric guitar in the corner of Jasmine’s house. There’s a little side of her that’s a little bit rebel, just a hint. You’ll see on her list of things to do she’s got an ambition to write an erotic novel. Most people aren’t going to see that but that’s the detail that we put in and it is peppered through the film. So the advice is stay true to your idea, don’t just do it to do it, do it the way you wanted.
You’ve worked in theater, television and film. What for you have been the pros and cons of each medium?
Let’s do theater first. Pros: you learn a lot, you are working a lot and it’s a lot of energy and effort. Cons: there’s no money in it, which shouldn’t be a problem in an artistic sense but you can’t support a career that way. And for me it gets repetitive. If it gets too repetitive and I start doing it on autopilot it’s not fun or interesting anymore. TV in Britain — pros of it are that it’s exciting and it’s fun and I think Britain makes very good quality stories. The cons are the budgets are so low, again it moves so quickly and it’s churned out and I think attention to detail is poor. I did a TV show (that I won’t name) where the continuity was so bad that in one scene my hair was drenched from a rainstorm and then two seconds later it’s all blow-dried back. That would never happen in America where TV is shot like a film. You take two days to film one thirty-second scene. Everything is so pristine and beautiful and planned. The pros of TV now, are that TV is getting amazing. “Breaking Bad” was phenomenal; “Peaky Blinders” is the most stylish thing I’ve seen come out of Britain for a long time. Those are the kind of shows I’d love to be on, because they are so stylish and they’re shot so well and everything’s thought about. Pros and cons of film: Independent film is very very hard to get stuff off the ground running, and it’s very hard to make any money out of it. We released a feature film last year and it’s a three, four-year process and there’s all these pitfalls and all these ways to get the film out and be distributed. So you don’t do that for the money, that’s for sure. The pros of it are you get to tell a story, you get to work with people that you like and you get the feeling of making a great work that you appreciate the work you put into it and hopefully it inspires some people and they get some enjoyment out of it.
What’s next for you?
I started a new business which marries both my passions which is business and performance. It’s a company called We Rehearse. It launched recently out here in Hollywood and my business partner is Jessica Rose, who’s very well known for her work on “Lonely Girl Fifteen” which is considered one of the first web series. Her, myself and a guy called Richard Cambridge who was in “Hollyoaks” in England, they’re all out right now in Hollywood and we launched this site which is a rehearsal portal for actors. Actors can find rehearsal partners for their auditions and their jobs. So I’m really focused on that for the near future at least.
Creative-wise, we’re going to be putting together a feature film of the Andy & Chaz serial we did, which is about two British gangsters on the run in America. That’s being turned into a feature film which we’re developing right now. I have another project I’m in the middle of writing as well with a director over here called Timothy Linh Bui. He made a film called “Powder Blue” with Eddie Redmayne in the lead role, and Forest Whitaker and Jessica Biel. So I’m quite excited about that.
It’s been great talking with you, Darren. I enjoyed “Stefano Formaggio” immensely and I hope many more people will see it.
Thank you. I think everyone who worked on the film deserves for their work to be seen.