LA Film Festival Interview: Sam Patton on Desolation
Sam Patton makes his Directorial debut with the Horror/Thriller Desolation that premieres on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 at the LA Film Festival. We had a chance to sit down with Sam to discuss the film.
Sam Patton: How are you?
Mark Krawczyk: I’m doing well, thank you. How are you doing?
Sam Patton: I’m doing well. This festival has been pretty fun and entertaining so I’ve been having a great time.
Mark Krawczyk: That’s good. Pretty excited, you’ve got your premiere Wednesday for Desolation, correct? At the LA Film Festival?
Sam Patton: That’s correct. We are looking forward to it. We’re getting to see a lot of other film makers premiere their films and try to take notes for the Q&A after, trying to make sure we have a great premiere party. It’s the first time for all of this for us so we’re very excited.
Mark Krawczyk: I know we don’t have a lot of time today, so why don’t we get started? I’ve got a question for you. I’d like to usually start off by asking the directors if you could tell our audience what Desolation is about?
Sam Patton: Desolation is a contained horror film … Thriller film, I’d say thriller, a contained thriller about a woman, her best friend, and her son. They hiked into the wilderness to scatter her late husband’s ashes and now they’re on their way out and a creepy hiker begins to start following them and he seems like he’s up to no good. Spoiler alert, he is up to no good. That’s the basic premise of the film. Within that, I believe we’ve crafted a really compelling character story about a family dealing with grief and loss and dealing with anxiety about the future and coming together to face life’s challenges as exemplified by the external story of the film about this creepy hiker.
Mark Krawczyk: It is definitely a creepy film. I got a chance to watch the screener, working on my review actually for it, but one of the things I wanted to ask was, what was it about the script that attracted you to this project?
Sam Patton: That’s a great question. I went looking for a contained film knowing that I wanted to be able to make a movie that didn’t require permission from the system, that could be made outside the system and could be made cheaply and quickly and with friends. I didn’t want to have to wait for someone to say yes, and then of course, this is the producer in me talking, I did want to try and raise some money and make it the “right way” but I wanted to be able to put a date on the calendar and say, “We’re shooting then,” and be able to stick to that date. For that reason, I wanted a contained film, producer-wise.
I also wanted to work in the genre because I’ve been working on genre films for a number of years below the line and I’ve come to really like them and I’ve come to really like what’s possible from a creative standpoint to take risks and explore things inside of a genre film that maybe you don’t get to do outside of it in a comedy or a drama where there’s a lot of pressure to make people laugh or make people cry. In a thriller, you can explore different genres and a different kinds of scenes and characters. The creative challenges all led me to this genre and then I went looking for a script that sort of fit these parameters. Desolation was actually the first script I read on my search and I loved it, I loved the characters. I pretty quickly fell in love with them and wanted to get them out of the woods. I realized it was crazy just to want to make the first script you read so I read a dozen other scripts and I just kept coming back to this one going, “No, no, no. This was exactly the script we needed.” We developed the characters but really, it was them that pulled me in and pulled me through to shooting and editing.
They came to life when we cast them. Jaimi, Alyshia and Toby and Claude, they brought so much to these characters that when we showed up to film, they were fully formed. My role was just there to adjust and do the blocking because they had these strong characters forming. That’s what got me through the whole thing. That’s what matters to me. Some directors I think are plot first, then character. I’m definitely character first, then plot. Plot is very important but I think building a really strong set of characters and then sending them down the road of the plot is the way to do it. That was this film for me.
Mark Krawczyk: There’s some excellent and strong characters in here. Did it take a while to find the right mixture of cast for this film or did you pretty well have someone in mind already?
Sam Patton: That’s a great question. I keep asking filmmakers here because I’m getting to talk to a lot of filmmakers at the festival, “Did you write some of these roles for the characters?” Hearing that, because I didn’t. We got the script and we had to go looking to cast them and I don’t think I’ve ever written a role for an actor and I’m kind of fascinated by that process. I know Quentin Tarantino does that basically in every time he goes to make a movie. No, it took a while to … We had an excellent casting director named Andy Henry. He was able to have a really good reach and get a lot of tapes from women and kids who wanted to play Sam who really had a range of very interesting takes on the character and we looked and looked.
Actually, the woman, Jaimi, who plays Abby, the mother in the film, she auditioned in those tapes for Jen, the friend, and she had an amazing take on that character. She was amazing and we knew we needed to build a cast that worked together and so when we did a callback session, we actually had her read both characters to try and find the chemistry. You can go back and look at those tapes; she, Alyshia and Toby, they have a scene together, they’re just outstanding. They actually read a scene that I’d written right before the casting session that they’d never seen before. She and Alyshia had to cold read and seemed like best friends from way back and that’s an amazing feat right? They’d never read these words before but they made it seem like they’d know each other for years and they were happy for each other. You can’t fake that kind of chemistry, that’s amazing stuff.
Then we had our cast and when I offered Jaimi the role, she knew she had read for both characters so she was really hoping she could play Jen and I offered Abby, and at first she was like I just don’t get this character, she’s so mean to her kid, she’s so lost and confused. I said yes, yes but it’s up to you to find her in all of this and bring her out and I think that challenge for her … She couldn’t have been better for the role because she pulled that character in its third dimension. We had this strong mother who was damaged by what had happened to her emotionally, psychologically and was not really being herself and not really seeing what was in front of her and counting her blessings and kind of self-absorbed and in her own hub. Then we had Jaimi, who’s not like that, who really wanted to find that love for her son in this whole thing and she pulled in this other direction and we reshaped some of the dialogue and I’ve adored what she did with the character because I think that really brought it to life.
That’s what’s awesome about a great collaboration with a really talented actor. They feel so strongly about getting behind their characters’ point of view that you can take somebody who is maybe not behaving the way we want to see a hero behave and get that to how we can still understand that and how we can still understand why they’re acting that way and how that’s not really them, they’re trying to be a better person. She did that. All in all, the casting process went steadily along but it was a very interesting challenge. The first chance you get to make the movie is when you cast, so we took it very seriously and I’m thrilled with the cast we built because they did an amazing job.
Mark Krawczyk: They did have an excellent chemistry and it really came across on the screen. What also came across, I will say, is the location that you picked. Did it take a while to find just the right woods? Because the woods you have in this film is almost a character in itself.
Sam Patton: Thank you for saying that. We did spend a lot of time trying to just adjust stuff because when you have ostensibly one location, one setting, you can’t go cheap with the audience. You’ve gotta really think about what it says and how it feels and how it looks. We looked at shooting in a lot of different places. I think our original plan had us shooting near New York City, outside of New York City in a state park but we scrapped that plan when our producer from New York had to take another project. Then we looked at LA and the location budgets were just gonna be out of control even if we drove out of the city. We looked at Indiana, where one of my producers was from and his family had a house and there were some terrific woods but no mountaintops, no lakes, no vistas, it was the Midwest.
Then it occurred to us that we had shot some great movies … Well I don’t know how great they were but I shot some student films when we were in college in Ithaca, it was shot in Utica, New York and everybody had such a great experience. We knew one of the city planners named Paul Buckley there and he was just a big film buff and he just loved having filmmakers in the town to make movies, so we called him up and I drove up to scout and he already had me several locations that ended up in the movie ready to show me. I took pictures and from that point on it was Utica or bust.
We did have to go up to Woodgate, New York which is a little bit further out from Utica, a little more of a vacation area, more of the lakes and the mountaintops, the finale of the film. We actually ended up staying there for a few more days and shooting some more deep woods stuff but the majority of the film was back outside of Utica, believe it or not, behind the golf course. There’s a good patch of wilderness behind the golf course with some trails through it that we carefully shoot around so you don’t see them. That was a little more like shooting in a studio lot, we had golf carts to move the equipment. Still, we ran into bees, we had a whole day of people getting stung by bees so it was the outdoors. We contended, we battled with the elements.
It was very important to me to try and trace them from that big open lake and mountaintop at the beginning, this wide open thing, to a more claustrophobic, closed off world towards the end of the film, just to sort of mimic their character journey through all that and the plot’s journey. We were very careful to look at the leaves in each patch of wilderness to see, does this match this? There’s actually, I don’t know how obvious it is, it’s obvious to me because we shot it but there’s one point where we cut to some re-shoots, a couple points where we cut to additional photography from a year later and it’s actually 2500 miles away in Los Angeles. A year away and 2500 miles away and we were very careful to try and match the color and the leaves and transition it so that you bought it. It was a challenge that we embraced fully from a visual perspective because you’re right, the movie could’ve fallen apart if you found the characters wandering into something and you didn’t buy that it was the wilderness. It was very important to us to get that right.
Mark Krawczyk: It matched up very well but I think it had to do with the style that you shot it. I noticed the poster and the credit sequence and even the approach. Even though the film is in modern times, it had a very nice retro horror feel to it. Was that something you decided when you got the script or was that a choice made after you read through it?
Sam Patton: Great question. It was something that I think we decided early on. The original script that the writers wrote, I think one of the first films we talked about was Steven Spielberg’s Duel. The script really didn’t show you the hiker up close until the very end. We see him a little closer in the final film but anyway, we were talking from early on about Deliverance and Duel and these old 70’s films so I was already thinking about the texture and the style choices of those kind of movies. Of course, Duel is very Spielberg if you look at it. We were already thinking in those terms and also, I sort of, as the movie industry changes and goes more digital and all these things, I’m kind of looking towards the past for inspiration. There’s a lot of what they did in the 70’s, probably my favorite era of filmmaking, that they did because they had tight schedules and low budgets.
A great example was a lot of use of the zoom lens. That’s kind of coming back into favor and I think it’s coming back as an aesthetic choice that reminds you of that era but in that era, in large part it wasn’t an aesthetic choice first, it was a production choice in that we’ve gotta move quickly, we can’t keep doing setups and coverage, we need to tell the whole scene. We need to be able to make dramatic camera movements but we don’t have a dolly in the truck, we can’t do all those very expensive moves, we need to do simple moves. The production challenges informed the creative decisions and now it’s a style. Kind of like, I’d imagine a fine artist might have certain colors on their palette because of the area they were working in and what the soil was like to make different [inaudible 00:17:56]. That informed the thing and now it’s indistinguishable from the creative choice.
The zoom lens, I wanted to take that strong creative choice for the same reason they did, which was the strong demand on the time and budget of the production. It was really fun because, after seeing Birdman a couple years ago, I was struck by the fact that that movie was ostensibly one long shot. I know there’s cuts but they’re hidden and there’s some cutting at the end but ostensibly it’s one long shot, one long take. I love that movie and I thought that this really proves that you should only be cutting if you have something to say with an edit. It shouldn’t be just assuming we’re gonna cut it all together and have it make sense.
Every time you cut needs to be cutting with purpose. I really took that to heart and so when we were making this film, this is another consideration. We’re gonna have less time to move the camera, we’re not gonna have time to grab shots we might use, we have to use every shot. If we can do a scene in three shots, can we do it in two, if we can do it in two, can we do it in one? We really challenged ourselves to go what can keep this shot interesting because we’re not gonna cut away from it, we’re gonna play the whole scene out in a long take.
It was a challenge for the actors too. I remember on the first couple days I had to tell them “You know, I understand you’re not on camera right now but you gotta bring it because we’re not gonna cut to you close-up” and they’re like what do you mean? No, no it’s gonna be off-screen, I can show you references. I’m not sure they fully trusted me with that on the first few days but by the time we had some dailies going they could see, okay you’re pushing in here for the tension and we’re talking off-screen, okay we get it. I think by the end of it we were … The clip that’s online right now was one of the last things we shot and I can see all the cylinders firing, the cast, the camera, were all working together. It was a lot of fun. When those stylistic choices, we all were on the page within them, it was a lot of fun to make the movie.
To answer your question more directly, I never wanted to be guilty of mimicry so we didn’t try to steal, explicitly, elements from that era of filmmaking. In fact, we probably referenced Martha Marcy May Marlene more than any other film and that was made in 2011. It’s more a stylistic choice for the love of cinema. We chose a film stock, as it were, by choosing our lookup tables beforehand and chose those pieces to be like if we were making this in the 70’s, what would that be like? Well, we’d be running around shooting 16mm but part of the movie is shot in HD. We’re like we’re not gonna have 4K and it’s like no, this is 16mm, that’s the resolution of 16mm. It’s very grainy and dark at times and to clean it up obviously you have this technology but we wanted it to feel down and dirty. We wanted it to feel Grindhouse in that way, not Grindhouse in a comedic way but Grindhouse in the down and dirty simple, narrative, you appreciate it, you could pair it with an A film and see it as a double feature. A movie for movie lovers, which is kind of what I wanted to make.
Mark Krawczyk: That comes across. I never felt like this was trying to be a retro piece but it was influenced and so I think that came across very well with it, especially with the visual aesthetic. One more thing, well a couple more things I want to ask real quick, but one is the glasses of the hiker. How long did it take you to find the right glasses cus it always seemed like you were able to get a glowing shot in the eyes, either fire or light. Did you have to do that in post or was that done during the shoot?
Sam Patton: All of it on the shoot. There was a couple of times when we had some very strategically placed lighting equipment to get a glow in his eyes. I would say my biggest influence for that was the bounty hunter in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? who spends the whole movie with flames in his reflective glasses. Some people have said our villain looks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski, that wasn’t what I was going for although that’s probably my favorite movie.
The reflective glasses, I liked the idea that … Maybe this is gonna sound cheesy when I say it but that his role in the story was to reflect what they were going through and to embody what they were experiencing and so the fact that he doesn’t have eyes, as it were through the whole film, he’s just reflecting what’s in front of him, is sort of a thematically resonant thing. Then, spoiler alert for anybody who’ll be reading this, he loses those at the end. He’s exposed and it’s just a guy who’s not this supernatural allegory for their troubles, he’s just a guy, which is still a serious threat but he’s just a guy.
To me, thematically that’s what I wanted to say was life seems scary but we make it scary. Danger is real but fear is something we invent and create in our own heads and we have the power to confront our fears first and foremost just by telling ourselves not to be afraid and standing our ground. For me, that’s the journey they have to make as characters is they have to say … They make him into the supernatural seeming villain that he is, when really he’s just a guy and if they had ever just stopped to say hey leave us alone, he might’ve. He might’ve picked on somebody else because he’s just a guy but in their heads … It’s the same challenges then in the audience’s head, you’ve gotta get into the characters’ heads. In thriller and genre movies, you try to … It’s just a movie but we play with those emotions to explore what that feels like and so that was the challenge, was exploring that psychology for me. That was really the theme so the glasses play directly into that.
We didn’t look at too many but I remember being very pleased when the exact ensemble of his outfit … It was very detailed description in the script and when Valerie, our costumers person put that all together I remember going “Valerie, thank you, this is yes, this is great. This is him.” The first day we had him in full finished gear is the scene with the clip that’s online when he walks behind the tree. You don’t see the whole clip but I just remember thinking we got it, we got a movie here, this is great.
Mark Krawczyk: It’s a great design for a character and it felt natural and I think what helps is the environment you’re in in the woods. Anyone who’s been in the woods, if they’re alone in the woods and suddenly you’re being followed by someone, that I think connects with a lot of people. Definitely works there with the environment you had. What is the one thing you would like the audience to know about Desolation going into the film?
Sam Patton: I would like them to know that this isn’t your typical horror or thriller film. In a lot of ways, it’s not what you should expect from the materials because we’re gonna really get into who these characters are and why they make the choices they make. It’s really about them and hopefully, you’ll come to care about them and that’s what will be scary is seeing them put to the test. I love genre, I appreciate genre but sometimes when filmmakers rely on it they end up with shallow characters and not much depth to what they’re trying to say and there’s more than meets the eye with this film. That’s what I would want the audience to come in with and be a little surprised that there’s a little more going on here.
Mark Krawczyk: What’s the next stop for Desolation after the LA Film Festival and where can they find more information about Desolation?
Sam Patton: Well I can’t talk in detail about it but we are talking to … We’ve got some interesting offers, distribution is around the corner and like I said I can’t give any details but we’re very excited and when we can announce it, we absolutely will. There’s stuff in the works and I’m very excited and it will be coming to a home platform near you.
Mark Krawczyk: Fantastic. Is there a website or a Facebook where they can follow more information to keep up to date?
Sam Patton: That’s a great question. My producing partner is right here, let me ask her, one second.
I’m gonna give you the wrong answer but no, not yet. We are about to launch a company page for our new company which is Good For Nothin’ Films and that’s the producer credit on Desolation. We will also, with the distribution TBD that I can’t talk about, there will be more ways to follow along with the journey for the film. In a week I would have a very detailed answer for you there but it’s all coming soon.
Mark Krawczyk: Well we’ll keep up to date on that and keep following and we’ll post updates where we can. I appreciate you taking time today, talking to us about your film Desolation, which premiers Wednesday at the LA Film Festival, correct?
Sam Patton: Yep, 9:30. It premieres 9:30, there’s a premier party beforehand, we’re all very excited. Then hopefully there’s a number of people gonna be there, I’m very nervous but excited to see what reviewers have to say and really just looking forward to Wednesday.
Mark Krawczyk: Fantastic. Well again Sam, thank you for talking to us today and I hope you have an excellent premiere.
Sam Patton: Thank you, thank you so much, Mark. I really appreciate it and I hope we do too.
Mark Krawczyk: Take care.
Sam Patton: Cool, thanks, Mark. Have a great day.
Mark Krawczyk: You bet. Bye.