Big Screen Streaming
-Interview with Filmmaker Daniel Slottje by Roger Market–
Movie director and screenwriter Daniel Slottje is wrapping up production on Family Business, his first feature film, which is due on the film festival circuit in 2017. Here’s a taste of what’s to come:
Slottje is currently in the MFA film program at Columbia University, but he’s been in the film world since childhood. He’s written, directed, and produced several shorts since 2008. When I spoke with Slottje in December, we talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker, how he comes up with his stories, the qualities he looks for in his cast, and much more.
@: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
@: It began very early for me. I made films with friends back in high school, running around with the family’s video camcorder and editing on…back then, the family would have the one desktop computer. So I always made movies back then. Ended up studying film and philosophy at Hofstra University. I had some really great mentors there. From there, I got a job with a retired U.S. congressman named Robert J. Mrazek, who had decided in his later years to start his second career as a film producer. I was taken under his wing, and I worked for a year and a half with him as he produced a movie that came out last year called The Congressman. I was his executive assistant throughout that process. Learned a lot from him, and then went off, and so began the process of launching this venture to begin work on my own first feature film. So it’s been a long time coming.
@: You got your start doing short films. Did you have any difficulty transitioning from shorts to features? Did you learn anything new in the process?
@: Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities. The joys of filmmaking, like collaborating with actors and crew, are the same in a lot of ways. The same infrastructure has to be built up to begin a short as the infrastructure that’s needed to create a feature. It’s just, then you run so much longer with it. I found what it takes to make a good short was expert planning, down to the finest detail, and then you go out, and you execute that plan. With the feature, I did a greater amount of prep for all these creative decisions to come, but inevitable would be—we would have to pivot. There would be curveballs that we couldn’t have anticipated. On my first go of directing feature length, the thing that makes the ship sink or swim is whether or not you’re able to pivot effectively, because surprises are going to happen.
@: How do you typically come up with your story concepts?
@: [Family Business] is very true to my own life. It’s a family drama movie about this father. He’s divorced, his ex-wife is a famous actress. He’s here because she’s ill, and he’s down and out in his own life, so, hearing about the illness, he comes back to the house to try to win her back, but he might have some ulterior motives of his own. And there’s a big twist at the end too. But the way I’ve been describing it is it’s sort of a more cinematic version of A Long Day’s Journey into Night, if you will. There’s more of a precedent in the American theater than in the cinema, per se. So it’s very much in that family drama, American stage tradition.
In terms of how I generated the idea, a lot of it came from combining stories that are very personal to me with what I thought would make a good story—and how I could make that into a very dramatic and emotional story that audiences might actually want to watch. “I drew on family” is the subtle answer.
@: Do you think your environment (i.e., where you live) has a significant impact on your storytelling?
@: The movie is set in upstate New York. I filmed it in my hometown of Ithaca, New York, where I grew up, and there’s a strong connection in the film to nature. There’s sort of a reverence for the lake that I grew up on, and the woods, and there’s a wonderful fascination with weather and wildlife throughout the movie. And I think a lot of that is connected to having grown up in that environment, for sure. There’s also something very isolating about—this family is isolated in this house. The environment, the wind, the cold of upstate New York. The cold is a huge, huge part of it. The cold wind that sort of isolates them is…it’s impossible to separate that from sort of their psyches, if you will.
@: Have you had any serious doubts as a writer or director, and how did you get past them if so?
@: I think everybody does. The antidote that I’ve found for doubting myself as a writer is just matching that, surpassing that, with insane work ethic. I do write every day. I have my own trick where…I can’t necessarily always work on my big macro project every day, but then I have these other writing exercises that I return to when I’m not writing screenplays. But I find that as long as I’m doing something daily, creative, at the start of the day, it sort of…I don’t know, it just helps me hold me head up high and show that I’m putting the work in.
But yeah, I think everybody has those doubts. This script underwent mass revisions. There were earlier iterations of the script that had more characters or maybe the themes weren’t as pointed. That is when it’s imperative to have a good, trusted group of hard readers who will read your stuff and help you workshop it. I think that’s imperative.
I’m in the Columbia MFA grad program now for filmmaking, and every time I go into those workshops for screenwriting and television writing, it feels like you’re going through a whirlwind of notes. But it always makes you stronger, as hard as it is to figure them out, to not take it personally, to maybe take a day after to digest those notes and grow from them. I had that same process with Family Business, but it was that—giving a script to readers and then really taking what they had to say under serious consideration and being open to rewrites. And if you do practice those rewrites, it gives you confidence when you’re actually on set, going to battle. You know that the cards you have in your hand are…you have the winning hand. If you put the work in.
@: When you’re filming a movie based on true events, how do you decide how much real life to use?
@: I was always open in veering away from the truth, but for the sake of bolstering the dramaturgy of the piece, whereas I didn’t veer away from the truth in order to protect myself or people I know. You’re always masking who this character is, who that character is. At the end of the day, though, we’re here to tell a story—and to tell a story for the sake of an audience. With that in mind, that’s when I would heighten or veer away from the truth. If it would make the story better, that’s when I would improve upon real life. In terms of the truth ever going too far, I think it’s when you write the stuff that is potentially very embarrassing in yourself or it feels to close to the vest, that’s when you know you probably have something good.
@: What scene are you most proud of?
@: Obviously, we’re not this big superhero movie, so we don’t have a Titanic to sink at the end or Marvel Avengers to fight and blow up New York City or whatever. But our comparable climax…it’s a family drama, set over the course of a day as the father is trying to bring his family together. It sort of all leads to his last hurrah, the climax of the family dinner that night. I’m very proud of that scene, I’m proud of the actors in it. Everyone in that scene just achieved something that required a lot of…it was very taxing on them emotionally to live in that place. It took us two full nights to film the dinner scene, and I’m just very proud of the actors for their performances in that scene. Yeah, I’m definitely excited for people to see that.
@: Did anything surprise you during or after filming? Any disasters that forced you to change course or, conversely, any happy accidents?
@: The crew was always at that house, so in that sense, it’s a single-location film. One of the beautiful accidents that came about that is that it allowed us to have this flexible schedule where we were kind of all living in the movie, and the actors were kind of always in the headspace of their character, and the cameraman was always at the ready with his crew to be like, “Oh, look, the light over there is really phenomenal.” And we could go take that scene that we didn’t plan to shoot until a week later and then go shoot it in that light over there. Because we were just kind of connected to the location in a way that allowed us to pivot day to day like that. Another example would be the weather. We were able to make impromptu decisions to improv scenes because phenomenal things were happening with the snow. So we were able to sort of improv scenes based on the weather, the wildlife, the light that presented itself to us over the course of the full month of living together in this house as the cast and crew.
Very often, we would jump into the scene with the actors and really explore it with them. I would go in with an idea of how a scene should play, and the actors would go into a scene with an idea of how it should play, but then we would just play around. We would throw a wrench into it. Maybe give the actor a note not even to make the scene better or worse but just to try something out of left field. That would often lead to just super awesome performances.
Things didn’t always run smoothly on the set, though. One day, after a particularly taxing scene, Slottje and the crew found that all the footage had somehow been deleted from the camera. He also described other small disasters, such as the landlord asking for more money for a location or encountering issues with the utility company. But always, Slottje and his team were able to pivot and find a solution to the problems at hand.
Even when there wasn’t a problem, though, Slottje found ways to improve the story. Some mornings, he would be so inspired by performances from the previous day that he would write new scenes and add even more depth. His actors were always up for the challenge, and Slottje had a lot to say about his tight-knit, hardworking cast.
@: What qualities do you look for in your cast members?
@: They’re truly the most important thing. I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody else (laughs), but if you don’t have great actors, you don’t have a movie. All of these guys, I needed them.
Yeah, there are a lot of qualities. You will notice that the great actors are all very smart. You can tell when they’re willing to really explore a scene with you. I tend to spend longer casting films than most directors. We actually had budgeted two days of auditions, and we ended up casting for five full days. The reason is…when there’s somebody who’s really in the running, I like to be in the room with that person for up to an hour to really play with—I think the thing I’m really looking for in an actor is somebody who has the ability to pivot and is energized by that.
@: What tips can you share for other filmmakers looking to produce a quality film on a low budget?
@: I left a job with a producer to go produce this movie, and what that meant for all those years was working a variety of different day jobs, mostly service industry day jobs, to cover my own personal overhead. And I truly can tell you that, over the last four and a half years that it took me to make this movie, it was the sole focus of my life. It was a part of me every day. From the second I woke up, I thought, “What can I do to get this movie made?” There can be nothing “hobby” about it. It really, truly needs to be in you in a way that—for me, there was never a doubt that I was going to get the movie made. And there were a lot of obstacles.
We had tried to make it at a bigger budget, and we couldn’t raise that budget, and then I had to revise a script for budget. And even then, there were many hurdles of trying to pull the money together. Even after two and a half years of trying to pull the money together, and putting the budget together so it was much, much smaller than it had initially been, we were still like a thousand dollars short of what we needed to pull this thing off, just a few weeks before we went into production.
Not irresponsibly early, but at some point, you need to set sail. You need to push the boat into the water and just declare to the universe that this movie is going to happen. Hell or high water, it’s going to happen because you find a way. You tell the universe, “This is happening now. It’s not up for debate.”
In terms of more practical—I also wrote with budget in mind. I knew that if I kept the locations limited and the cast small, that could either be an advantage or a disadvantage. But I said, “OK, let’s have a small cast, but that’s going to allow me to write more three-dimensional characters than most Hollywood movies would have.” And I said, “OK, let’s have one location, but how can I use that location to dramatically challenge my characters? How can I use it to build a sense of claustrophobia and austerity and strictness and coldness, and find the perfect piece of architecture to sort of express what I’m trying to express with it?” So I feel like there’s always a way to take your disadvantages and turn them into an advantage.
@: What kinds of movies can fans expect from you in the future? Will you do more true stories? Shorts? Features?
@: I’m prepping a second feature right now. All of these movies for me, what’s important is movies with original and strong characters. Characters that go on an emotional journey. I feel like so many Hollywood movies just have these two-dimensional characters and these sort of passé characters arcs that just aren’t that interesting to watch. And so if there’s one thing that I hope people can note with my work, it’s that—the character first, they care about real people.
@: What do you hope audiences will take away from Family Business when they see it?
@: It’s a movie about a nuclear family. There’s a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter. What I would hope is that each person watching the movie relates to one of the characters. Maybe not the one who is the most like them in terms of exterior, but I hope that everybody who watches can connect to this family and see themselves in one of those characters. Hopefully, they can take them on some sort of cathartic journey that reminds them a little bit about their own family, even though it also gives them a good laugh or two along the way.
Roger Market is originally from Montezuma, Indiana. He graduated from Wabash College in 2009 with a BA in English and a minor in history. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts in 2013 from the University of Baltimore, and his book Life on Other Moons is the result of that study. He is a writer, an editor, a photographer, a graphic designer, a TV junkie, a lover, and a friend, and he dreams of writing for TV one day. He is enamored with technology. If time travel were possible, his first stop would by July 20, 1969, to experience the first lunar landing—one of the single greatest moments of American history. You can like Roger on Facebook or follow him on Twitter. You can also circle him on Google+.