“Create Your Own Opportunities” Matt Eskandari Talks ’12 Feet Deep’, ‘Trauma Center’, and ‘The Long Night’
“As a filmmaker, the best way to learn is by doing,” stated filmmaker Matt Eskandari. “Making shorts is a way of learning how to tell a story, how to shoot, or how to create characters. I wanted to learn the process, so writing shorts is like an athlete practicing 100 free throws, so they’ve prepared for the game.”
The writer-director also said that simply getting the work off of the page changes the way a screenwriter hears and sees the work. If bad dialogue hides on the page, it will come to the light in the table read or while filming. “It’s not until you do it that you realize your strengths and weakness as a writer.”
Since knowledge and technology are so readily available, many people question the value of film school. For Eskandari, the school was more about the learning process while working with his peers, and the ongoing relationships made it more helpful than trying to learn the process on his own.
“Not all of those relationships will last, but to be in the film community, you have to get involved. Nobody can do anything alone. You need other people – other artists, other creators – to discuss ideas. Then, when you are ready to submit to a festival, you’ve worked with artists who can help you tell if your project is ready.
Working with other artists helped Eskandari create the award-winning short The Taking, which propelled him to nationwide exposure. He was chosen by Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg to participate in the Fox Filmmaker Competition, On the Lot. “I got an agent, a manager, and I could get some movies off the ground.”
Despite the early success, he felt frustrated when he got a few small-budget films made, but couldn’t get anything larger in the works. Frustration led to him writing a movie he could make on his own for $50,000 rather than $20 million. The research led him to an article about people who get stuck in pools.
The Self-Contained Thriller
Always making sure to “play with the audience’s expectations,” Eskandari created the script for 12 Feet Deep. The contained thriller unveiled the story of two sisters trapped underneath the fiberglass cover of an Olympic-sized public pool. “I knew what kind of film I wanted to make so I focused on character, story arcs, and character. That film got made quickly and opened more doors.”
“It led to opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten if I had waited around. You have to create your own opportunities as an artist. You can’t hope someone is going to greenlight your story. You have to be on top of yourself. If you can’t tell your $20 million dollar story right now, put it in a drawer and work on something you can get made.”
When he discovered the idea of a pool cover closing on two characters, he had to figure out how to create additional conflict. In Open Water, for example, there was the possibility of being attacked by sharks. For Buried, there was a ticking time bomb of lack of oxygen. For Locke, the issue focused on Tom Hardy facing a difficult situation head-on.
“They needed to face an internal monster, which we fleshed out as an abusive father. We did create a janitor outside of the pool, who became a sort of a foil for our own heroine. He became a dark shadow of who she could become if she didn’t change her life,” he added. “You have to trust yourself as a writer and ask yourself, ‘How would I get engaged in this story?’”
Basically, the difference between a $5,000 contained thriller and a $50,000 thriller essentially comes down to production value on the screen. “That gap is getting less and less. For those two budget levels, you can tell the same story, but there’s a difference when you can hire a union crew and professional actors. But a compelling story is going to be the same no matter how much you have to shoot it.”
As a filmmaker conscious that the film was going to be made even if he made it himself, he came in with a different perspective. “When you’re fully committed to an idea, it really comes out on the page. I read a script for a film we’re working on called Trauma Center, where the writer did a great job setting up the story in a hospital. The woman is shot and forced to stay in a hospital overnight, where these two bad guys want to silence her because she’s a witness.”
He noticed an authenticity to the screenplay, which helped the script climb up the ladder, reach the Blacklist, and then find a producer. “If you have the passion to tell a story, I feel like it will come through in the story. It’s always been interesting to blend genres or take a traditional genre and find a new twist or turn on it.”
Finding a New Perspective
“We live in an interesting time where everything is a reboot, franchise or IP, and people say there’s nothing new out there, but Hollywood has always done that. Ben Hur has been remade three times. Gone with the Wind was based on a book. So it’s weird that people think you need to jump on original stories. It’s really about unique perspectives and unique voice. Then, you’re drawn to it more.”
Currently, Eskandari is set to direct three movies: Trauma Center, The Long Night, and Absolution. “Every project, the director is going to bring their perspective into the story. Then, there is the reality of making a script. So I go to the line producer and ask, ‘How many days do I have to shoot this movie? 15 days? 20 days?’”
Gathering all of the information will then change the screenplay. With Trauma Center, he immediately loved the script, but then found out they needed to shoot the script in Puerto Rico, which changed the story. Then, they cast certain actors, which changed the dynamic. Finally, he found out he only had twelve days to shoot the movie, which would begin three weeks later.
“Trauma Center was set somewhere like Miami or LA, but you can’t hide the fact that you’re in Puerto Rico, so I had to alter it to fit that world. If I get a script where the storytelling is strong and the characters are unique, I know there are aspects we need to highlight, so I meet with the writer and then we’re constantly rewriting. A film is written on the page, on set, and then in the editing room.”
Filming on a tight schedule and making compromises means creating a North Star, or “core thematic element,” so the project isn’t going too far off track. “Every movie is a different thing. For Trauma Center, it was a cat-and-mouse chase about two sisters. The core element then was suspense, the two characters, and their emotional arc.”
“With The Long Night, it’s a father-son piece. In the back of mind, I knew it was going to be a psychological thriller set on a farm, where Bruce Willis is playing the grandfather. He has this contiguous relationship, where he’s bonding with the son and the son learns some things are worth fighting for. As long as you have that core relationship and thematic [thread], then that’s all that matters.”
With every new project, the writer-director comes in thinking, “How can I elevate this story?” Eskandari concluded, “But the best advice is to go into the project with a collaborative spirit. You’re the director, but not the dictator. Go in knowing you have to accept ideas and trust the people you’re working with.”
“Trust other artists in different departments because you want them to contribute to what you’re making. Tell the best story you can possibly tell and you’ll be much more thankful once the experience is over. You’ll grow as an artist and become better at your job.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.
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