Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Exclusive Interview with Daniel Boneville, writer/director of Lily

I came home one night, probably a little intoxicated (okay, definitely intoxicated), and I decided to watch a bunch of the short horror films that had been starting to pile up by my TV. The first film I grabbed was "Lily", from Daniel Boneville. After a minute or so, I stood up, took out the DVD and put it aside... now, I didn't do that because it was bad, not at all. In fact, it's an awesome film. I did that because it's intense and surreal, two things that my beer soaked brain wasn't able to handle at that particular time. I'm glad I did set it aside, as when I did sit down to watch it the next day, I was sucked right into it... and if you like surreal films like this (think "Jacob's Ladder"), "Lily" is a film for you. It's about a guy, desperate for salvation, who's lured into a Faustian business arrangement with a mysterious stranger who makes him adhere to a bizarre set of terms that will test the fabric of his reality. On top of that, the film stars Peter Facinelli, who you may remember from "Six Feet Under", "Fastlane" and, uh... "Dancing With The Stars". Dead Harvey had the opportunity to ask the writer and director, Daniel Boneville, a few questions about the making of the film and, as usual, it's a long read... but definitely well worth it. There's lots of insight, advice and stories and Boneville was more than happy to share...

First off, tell us about yourself as a filmmaker. Who are your influences? What's your directing style like?

First and foremost, let me thank you for the opportunity to even answer these questions, and for your interest in my work. You guys are doing an awesome job over there!

Ahhh, the salad days of youth. I grew up on movies like "Jaws", "Rocky I-IV", "Predator", "Commando" ,"The Karate Kid Part 1 & 2", "The Dark Crystal"; and these movies will always have a special place in my heart thanks to the glorious adrenaline-fueled memory of the 1980's. But as I moved into my teenage years, it was primarily the works of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone that set me down a path towards appreciating the art of filmmaking on an entirely different level. Other directors I admire include: Coppola, Woody, Coens, Kubrick, Spielberg, Mann, DePalma, Fincher, Fellini, PT Anderson, W Anderson, Altman, Henson, Nichols, Tarantino, Lyne, Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Stallone, Gibson, Malick, Solondz, Payne, LaBute, Soderbergh.

As far as my directing style goes, the visuals come first and foremost in my mind and the rest of the pieces fall into place afterward. I've always shot all my own work, so I go in with a pretty extensive shot list based off the script or concept. I must admit that I have a tendency to shoot a lot of coverage, most of which is planned, and then whatever strikes me on the day. For a movie like "Lily", which clocked in at 35 minutes, I shot well over 25 hours of footage. Though that seems excessive, it's a large part of how I was able to accomplish a more cinematic look shooting video, paying meticulous attention to achieving the quality that I wanted. I typically spend a few days by myself going out and shooting location cutaways that could be relevant to any given scene later on in the editing process.

I've also served as editor, sound designer, and composer on all my work up to this point, so I tend to think about these aspects of the process very early on. Having done this since college, I've gained a large respect for all aspects of the filmmaking process, and I've been able to achieve a sense of self-sufficiency when it comes to getting things done at the level I expect, without having to rely on the whims of others. Being able to to wear multiple production hats also obviously cuts down your budget invaluably.

In terms of story, I enjoy rather quirky sensibilities and dark humor, and never shy away from the stranger aspects of things. I like movies with energy where you sense the director's hand behind them, as opposed to a more generic approach. I try to welcome any and all creative collaboration from the people I work with, and to establish a comfort level amongst the actors and crew.

Film School: Yes or No?

I attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The primary reason I even applied to that film school was because I knew both Scorsese and Stone had studied there.

Where did the idea for "Lily" come from and what was your motivation to get it made?

Through my job at NYU, working for the film industry liaison, I was able to meet Oliver Stone on more than occasion over the years. Eventually, he invited me out to Los Angeles and I wound up working for his company Ixtlan. During this time, I also had the opportunity to work as assistant to actors Jennie Garth and Peter Facinelli. Peter saw some of my earlier work and was impressed by the visual tenacity. He commissioned me to write the script for "Lily", in an effort to collaborate together for the first time; so essentially the movie was written with him in mind as the lead. He wanted to do something in a surreal style based off the work I had showed him, so that was the starting point for our story's genesis behind "Lily". My roommate at the time and writing collaborator had a dream where a young woman was dug out of a beach at dusk, wrapped in plastic. That single image was the seed from which the tale grew, and we subsequently incorporated an extensive "beach dig" sequence into the movie.

The rest of the cast fell into place after Peter was signed on. Maggie McOmie, who has rarely engaged in projects since starring with Robert Duvall in "THX 1138", was a thrill to work with – especially considering that "Lily" pays homage to George Lucas' aforementioned classic. I've known KC, the lead actress, since high school in New York. People like John Klemantaski and Brooke DeBettignes I met in LA, and they're just incredibly supportive and talented. I was also very fortunate to snag make-up FX artist Justin Stafford, who has worked on countless Hollywood blockbusters including "The Grinch", "Planet of the Apes", and "Spiderman 3". The crew was comprised primarily of friends that I've known since I was younger, and they really made the completion of this project possible.

How did you go about securing financing and what was the approx budget?

The financing was raised through independent investors, mostly myself and people that I knew. When all levels of production are taken into account, for both Los Angeles and New York, I would say it cost around $15,000.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

I shot "Lily" on a single 24P digital camera - the Panasonic DVX1000. The movie was shot on and off for a few months over the course of a summer, but the actual shooting days probably amount to about three weeks.

What struck me the most about the film was the surreal feeling you created. What aspects of the filmmaking process were most important in creating that feel?

Thank you! Yes, that was the idea from the start. As I mentioned before, first and foremost it was the visuals, which I knew were going to be heightened to support the surreal nature of the piece. Each individual scene was designed to represent an aesthetically distinct and contrasting style. The hope was that when these varied scenes were juxtaposed, the result would have an intense, yet beautiful cumulative impact. For example, the contrasting black and white VS color sections were all in the script. Some scenes were meant to look gritter, the first time we're exposed to the "White Room" and Peter is bearded. Then later when he returns to that same room with his mother, the idea then was to achieve a more dreamlike quality via smoke, softer focus, and the twinkle lights. Some scenes were designed to employ frenetic cutting, while others like the beach wandering/digging sequences were designed to have long wide shots linked by slow dissolves. The scene on the cliff is shot handheld for the most part in aid of a more natural feel. The opening beach scene in Italian is like something out of warped Fellini film. Some of the primary visual/audio influences for "Lily" were movies like "2001", "The Shining", and "Solaris". The post-production work on "Lily's" visuals was also very extensive. Every single shot in the movie was later enhanced via filters such as contrast, sharpness, additional saturation, color correction, etc. This helped greatly in upping the production value and making the visuals look more cinematic.

The heavily layered sound design would also prove integral to achieving the overall surreal effect along with the music. My editing/sound partner and I had about sixty tracks of audio running at all times, which was an extremely tedious process in terms of sound editing, and most of the effects were made in-house. But if you put headphones on or play "Lily" on loud speakers, that kind of detailed work pays off because it sounds much more professional as opposed to many of the hiss-laden shorts you see out there. This was another way of making the production value seem higher. The music itself was primarily used as underscoring, with lots of layered female voices setting the tone. I recorded my soprano friend Kristin singing all different notes and melodies that I played her on the piano, and then multi-tracked those voices any way I saw fit. This kind of sound was heavily influenced by "2001" (Think of what you hear every time the Monolith appears). Other sections of the movie relied more on quiet to punctuate things, but all was planned in advance and noted in the script.

Tell me about the sets and the locations, this was another aspect that stood out for me.

"Lily" was shot in Los Angeles, and all post-production took place in New York. Los Angeles can can be a rather unfriendly place to shoot for people on a shoe-string budget. For a city that was basically built around the movie industry, I never realized how much red tape, annoying permits, and insurance there can be to deal with. Sometimes, you gotta just get what you gotta get, and if you get thrown out - so what? So here we were again trying to maximize a small budget by utilizing existing locations which I knew would be visually interesting like the Santa Monica pier, the Mulholland Overlook, secluded beaches in Malibu, etc. For the club scene we shot inside The Derby, where they shot "Swingers". That was probably the most expensive location per hour.

When it came time to build a set like the "White Room", we transformed my apartment into the set. We purchased about $900 worth of white fabric and covered every inch of the room. It was kind of amusing because our apartment looked that way for months and every time we had visitors, they would have to take their shoes off so as to not tarnish the white floors. The white twinkle lights were a favorite aspect of mine, but logistically difficult to string together in a functional way. They, along with the burning candles and unventilated room, caused the temperature of the set to raise up well over 100 degrees. In between takes, Peter would stick his head inside the freezer to survive. That dreamy blinking light visual came from "Eyes Wide Shut" if memory serves, from the party scene at the Sydney Pollack character's apartment.

I was happy with the exterior visuals cause it's much easier to make something that's already visually interesting look interesting. As I said before, this was all shot on one little handheld camera, with one additional wide angle lens; so I was pleased that we achieved a cinematic quality. The shot on the cliff at dusk where Peter shoots his lover is a favorite of mine. I also enjoy the visuals underneath the pier when Peter's waking up from unconsciousness. And of course, the turnaround reveal of the old woman's face near the end with the black eyes (an homage to "Jacob's Ladder" by the way). That was pound for pound probably the most expensive shot in the movie, because those contacts were custom made and there was extensive additional make-up applied; but it was also one of the earliest shots that I came up with, and another one of those images that helped define the movie. You can see "The Shining" influences in that sequence. Overall, it was fun to be able to shoot as far out there as I wanted in terms of style, because I knew this piece could handle it.

The editing was also something that stood out, as it's very frantic and fast at times. Is this something that came out in the editing room or is this something that was in the script?

The editing process was long and involved, as always seems to be the case with my work. Damn this obsessive compulsive disorder!!! The montage work was indeed scripted in detail. However, I obviously couldn't account for every single shot that would ultimately be captured, so a lot of that is figured out in editing. The script itself had several sections specifically noted as visual montages, that were meant to be cut to music and sound effects, most of which I already had in mind or had already composed. There are long sections of the movie where there's no dialogue at all, and this technique is something I've played with before - where you let the power of the visuals and the audio tell the story on their own. That to me is the purest form of this medium. If you can do that and not make the movie drag, it's an accomplishment.

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. Any advice you can pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film?

Even though this was a small project, there are always hurdles and headaches in every aspect of the process. Trying to get any movie I've attempted made has proved difficult, but that goes with the territory I guess. The most important thing is to not get discouraged, no matter how tough things get. If you come to embrace the challenges and expect them, you'll set yourself up for a lot less heartache. If you're lucky enough to have people close to you that share a common goal, embrace and nurture those relationships. Stay humble and remember that decisions have consequences that may not always be apparent in the short term. Sadly, sometimes the people around you actually want you to fail to make themselves feel better, so don't let anyone tell you what you're worth or what you should do with your dreams. It can be difficult trying to establish credibility when you're starting out, along with dealing with the day to day reality struggles that any artist must face. Boo hoo! It's par for the course, and you gotta take the good with the bad in handling the many curve balls that life so wonderfully throws at you. Stay focused and persevere. Oliver Stone gave me a valuable piece of advice a few years back: "Let not defeat reign over your brow. The victory is truly in your mind - every day."

After it was all said and done, what would you have done differently?

I was happy with the end result, and impressed that we were actually able to match so closely what was written in the script. I knew going into this project that it wasn't going to be easily accessible to audiences. It's the kind of movie where you either go along for the ride or you don't. Most reactions to "Lily" have been polarized in that people either love it or hate it. It was of great personal significance that both Oliver and Peter strongly endorsed the movie publicly, as they're both seasoned veterans in the film industry and people that I respect.

Looking back, I probably could have made the story more understandable, though I do stand by the fact that there is a definite narrative to this movie, and it does reward on repeat viewings. It's pretty complex and dense for a short film, and that's something to strive for. What's funny is that I never really considered it a horror film when it was conceived, but more a surreal drama. I guess I can't deny the horror aspects when there's blood everywhere and a knife-wielding old woman running around. It has some very intense sequences, especially in the first six minutes. Those scenes are difficult for some to watch, even though most of the gore is off-screen. The "Birth" sequence at the beginning is a prime example of how effective and impactful the use of good sound design can be. In general some of the editing could've been toned down, but hey I was going for intensity.

Talk about the festival circuit, you won a lot of awards and screened at a lot of festivals. What did you learn? And what can you pass on to other filmmakers who've finished an indie horror and want to enter it into festivals?

I used WithoutaBox for the majority of my festival applications. If you're making a short film, the ideal time would be 10-15 minutes. "Lily" is 35 minutes, which pushes the boundary for programmers at these festivals, and on more than one occasion I was told that "we would love to show your film, but we can't find a proper way to program it into our schedule." I don't apologize for it's length because the story is what the story is, but it helps to have a shorter movie. Also, when you're dealing with movies that inherently contain challenging content or gore, that can be a disadvantage for acceptance. But there are a number of festivals out there that embrace unique and ballsy work.

At the festivals, try to make contacts that might be able to help you down the road in terms of investments. Short films only have a certain shelf life, so leverage what you can, when you can, into that next larger project. Also, whenever possible, befriend press people and try to get your name in print somewhere so you can add it to press kits, portfolios, etc. You may have to schmooze it up, but that's the game.

What about distribution? How's that going? Are there any lessons that you would pass on to other indie filmmakers who've just finished a film?

"Lily" hasn't been distributed. It was made for the most part as a calling card and financial leveraging tool for larger projects, unrelated to this particular content.

Where can people find out more about "Lily" or, better yet, buy a copy?

"Lily's" web page is:

You can view clips of "Lily" there along with some of my earlier work that gave me the opportunity to make it. In those clips you can see where I was laying down the stylistic groundwork in terms of visuals, editing, and sound design.

You can contact me directly at to purchase a DVD, or to discuss the movie. I would be happy to answer any questions.

If you were given an unlimited budget and full creative license, what would your dream project be? Also, what's next? Do you have any projects in the works?

Unlimited budget?!?!?! Why must you tempt me so? That's a big question. I guess it would be something along the lines of what I've been writing and raising money for now - a project that calls upon more of my own personal experiences in a unique way, is very interesting visually, and people can relate to more as a whole. I'm interested in having characters that, even if only on screen for a few minutes, are extremely detailed and interesting (Think John Turturro in "The Big Lebowski"). The surreal stuff is great don't get me wrong, but it's not what I've been directing my efforts towards as of late. I want to make my "Mean Streets" here in New York, getting more of my rather twisted sense of humor onto the screen, while maintaining an interesting dramatic story. My hope is to reach a larger audience than with past works, but still translate an individual voice, intensity, and stamp as a director. I would love to collaborate with Peter Facinelli again, and have crafted a role for him in the next project. I feel confident that although this next movie is much larger in scope and budget than anything I've ever attempted, we'll be able to pull it off.

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