What was your background in filmmaking before directing this film?
Thanks to some amazing people like Joe and Jerica Henline, David Cook, and others, I was given my first opportunities to work on sets as a crew member, which provided life-changing relationships and learning experiences, beginning in mid-2013. Within my first year, I partnered with an incredible team that was gathered by Seth Rice and Alex Lerma, two incredibly talented friends of mine, and along with the help of numerous screenplay consultants, I wrote and directed a short film titled Wanted in 2014. That was the first of several projects that Seth, Alex, and I created together.
All in all, I worked on about 50 film projects before Last Call, including features, shorts, commercials/promos, music videos, and more. Besides writing and directing, my role in the rest of those projects varied immensely, from being a Set PA on my first film to being a Locations Manager on two features to doing a lot of editing and acting. That variety even extended to voiceover work and being a recording artist for the end credits song of an animated brick film (Bound).
In the Spring of 2016, amidst a year-long period, I had devoted entirely to screenwriting, Seth Rice and I reached out to a DP friend of ours, Seth Haley, who we had long wanted to collaborate with. We originally set out to do a commercial project together, and Last Call was actually born as a promo idea for a motorcycle company. It was initially written as a 90-120 second piece. But when things didn’t materialize with the company, we liked the voicemail concept too much to just walk away from it, so I jumped back into writing and turned it into a 6-page short.
How did this project help you grow as a filmmaker?
I could write a short book on this, but I’ll attempt to summarize briefly. This project was a fantastic opportunity to practice relentless intentionality in our approach to filmmaking. When I think back to Wanted, I know I have to cut myself some slack because we all have to start somewhere, but it’s embarrassing to think of how haphazard my decision-making was, and I was determined with Last Call to swing to the other side of the pendulum. Every decision had to be made with purpose, alignment, and calculation. Everything in the film had to be there for a reason, and everything else would be thrown out the window.
In light of this, one of the most gratifying moments for me was at the 2019 CWVFF, when a young filmmaker walked up to me and said, “I loved Last Call. I watched it 7 times, and I studied every shot, and I saw how every shot told the story.” I told him, “Dude, you’re my hero. Somebody actually paid attention.” The film is 9 minutes long, less than half the length of our first short, Wanted, and I think we told more story in those 9 minutes than we had previously told in 20, because we built in so many layers of depth, and no matter when or where you look at the screen, a piece of character and/or story is being communicated.
In fact, there are elements of the story being told audibly that don’t even show up on screen, brilliantly executed by our composer Zachary Horner and sound designer Joseph Santoyo. I wish I could go deeper into all of the exceptional work delivered by those two and each other member of the team because the vast majority of it inevitably flies under the radar of the average viewer. This project tremendously helped to solidify what I was learning at the time: Great storytelling has just as much to do with the telling as it has to do with the story.
Any moments from creating this film that impacted you personally?
There were a lot of neat moments, but I’ll just pick one. The filming of the first and third scenes was equally exhilarating and difficult, being that they were designed to mirror each other, and they were both one-shot scenes of almost 3 minutes in length. Not only that, but they each had to be precisely timed to the pre-recorded voiceover track of our actress, Deborah Bates. Seth Haley had to pace his camera moves perfectly, and our gaffer Nathanael Brunner had to light the house so that we could shoot through the whole lower level without seeing any of his setup.
Meanwhile, Garry Nation had to stay on top of complex blocking with impeccable timing as well, while nailing each of his subtle reactions to Debbie’s VO track, all in a single take, since there would be no cuts in post. Everything had to be flawless, so just one little goof meant that we had to scratch the take, and we didn’t have days to rehearse or shoot it; we only had a couple of hours per scene. Watching each of my teammates tackle their respective challenges with such patience, professionalism, and meticulous performance was truly a humbling privilege.
How did you work to honor God in the process of making this film?
My faith is part of who I am, and it permeates everything I do. We prayed over the project during different phases, and God blessed us in some extraordinary ways, including the elaboration of certain story elements that He took, built upon, and shaped with more beauty, depth, and profundity than we could conjure up in our own minds. That being said, I have to honestly say that in the future, I’d like to be much more proactive, deliberate, and strategic in how we seek the Lord, involve Him, and honor Him in each aspect of our process.
Had you attended CWVFF before making this film?
Yes, I had attended each year 2014-16. It’s always one of the highlights of my year.
How did it encourage your journey as a filmmaker?
This project was such a great guinea pig for experimenting with more recently developed thoughts on our approach. Though it certainly wasn’t anything spectacular as a story or as a film, it was a terrific playground in which we could toy around with all kinds of fun things. We essentially built ourselves a little sandbox that was very limited in size, forcing us to be creative and figure out how to innovate within that confined space. That being said, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
Most of my core team members actually weren’t all that enthusiastic about the film when they saw the edit. We sought out the input of our consultant, Micah Austin, and even did a completely different version of the final scene, in an attempt to figure out what was bothering people. But nobody could put their finger on what wasn’t working for them, and one of our main guys eventually sent a message stating, in so many words, that we simply needed to “embrace our failures and move forward.” I thought, Wait a second, are we calling this project a failure?
Another of my teammates said it would be a film that some people would love and some people would hate, and sure enough, when I submitted the finished product to two online short film exhibition platforms, one loved it and the other very much did not. What I found funny about this unimpressed group was that all their criticisms were about the things that were my personal responsibility. There were no issues with the film’s technical aspects or the acting, and there were high compliments for the cinematography, the production design, the music, and the sound design.
But everything about the story and character development — my job — was an utter disappointment to them. In years past, receiving that kind of feedback would’ve probably discouraged me. But this time, I simply used it for further benefit. It was just another mechanism of education. I have a lot of books by John Maxwell on my shelf, but the one with my favorite title is “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn,” and underneath the title on the front cover, the word “Lose” is crossed out and replaced. In the end, Last Call became something that showed me how to live that mindset in my work.
What other training/networking resources were helpful in your journey?
The most important thing, as it always is, was having the right people on my team. Every time I’ve written and directed a project, I’ve been out of my league when standing alongside my teammates, which is precisely where I want to be. It can be uncomfortable, humbling, and easy to feel insecure when surrounded by top-notch talent with whom it would be useless and embarrassing to compare myself. But I cannot say emphatically enough how big of a difference it has made to collaborate with people who I have to chase and keep chasing. Other than that, the thing that probably helped me the most with Last Call was the year-long period I devoted to screenwriting.
Why are you passionate about the message of “Last Call?”
Other than the obvious reasons, what makes me passionate about it is that it hits very close to home, similar to our first short. Wanted was about adoption and foster care, and I have an adopted younger brother. In Last Call, we feature an alcoholic dad who tries to appear put together on the outside but is an absolute train wreck on the inside, which resembles someone who has played a significant role in my life (not my dad, though). This not only provided me with some inspiration and guidance for the character but also made it feel more personal.
The message of the film is definitely two-fold: On one side is the persistence of genuine love, on the other is forgiveness for failure. I wish I could get into all the layers and intricacies of how we depict this, but one of the things I like about it is how the forgiveness issue is not being addressed from the daughter’s side of the relationship, even though it’s her father who’s in need of it. What the daughter is attempting to facilitate is not her own forgiveness for her dad’s failure, but rather her dad’s forgiveness of himself. The complexity of his character stems from the fact that her persistent love simply increases his feelings of guilt, regret, and shame. Meanwhile, the complexity of Lindsey’s character stems from the fact that by loving, she makes herself vulnerable to pain, and she has to endure the reopening of old scars and wounds in order to break down the walls between them.
How can people view “Last Call?”
To see it in its best form, watch it on Vimeo: LAST CALL on Vimeo
If you like it and want to share it with others, go to the Facebook video here: LAST CALL on Facebook
Any additional comments you would like to make?
I can’t do an interview about this in good conscience without paying full credit and respect to those who crafted this emotional journey with such elegance and precision. I’ve already mentioned several ways in which their talent was displayed behind the scenes, but that was just scratching the surface.
Think about it: I asked our DP Seth Haley to chase Garry Nation around a small house with cramped spaces, while operating a heavily outfitted camera on an easy rig for nearly 3 minutes per take, and nail all of his own focus pulls in a single take. He did it. I asked Garry Nation to take on a lead role without a single word of dialogue and consisting only of reactions to the pre-recorded voiceover tracks of Debbie Bates and to portray a complete character arc in 9 minutes using nothing but his body language. He did it. I asked Debbie Bates to take on a lead role consisting of all the dialogue in the film but without a single word of it spoken on screen, and to portray a complete character arc in 9 minutes using nothing but her voice. She did it. I asked Zachary Horner to compose a comprehensive and thematic score in which the theme would be invertible, allowing us to musically create distance or closeness between two notes, depending on what we needed to feel in a particular scene. He did it.
And that doesn’t in any way capture the myriad of elements contained in Seth’s cinematography, Garry’s and Debbie’s performances, or Zach’s score. And I could likewise rave about Seth Rice, Bryan Fellows, Joseph Santoyo, Nathanael Brunner, Harmony Haley, David Cade, and the rest of our team. I’m so proud of all of them, whether or not anyone else likes the film… or whether or not they even like the film themselves. 😀
It is inspiring to learn about all the intentionality and teamwork that went into this film. This is an encouragement to all of us as filmmakers to find messages that matter and pursue creating the stories with excellence!