Hi Film Folk,
Heist-horror movie The Vault starring James Franco, Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Maning and Scott Haze is out in cinemas, on iTunes and digital download tomorrow (Friday 8) and the Film Doctor team were lucky enough to sit down with the film’s director for an In Conversation.
Dan Bush is an American director, writer, producer and editor who co-wrote and co-directed Sundance-opening The Signal as well as sci-fi thriller The Proxy starring Amy Seimetz (You’re Next) and Melissa McBride (The Walking Dead) – and now brings us The Vault.
Find out how he got to where he is today below!
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into filmmaking?
I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. I knew that I wanted to make big movies since I was probably 8 years old and have been working towards that goal ever since. I went to film school at Chapel Hill and immersed myself as much as I could, putting on plays and learning about acting, then eventually teaching – I taught acting throughout the years.
By the time I left film school, I’d been getting hired a lot as DP and started taking work in the Art Department, working with different Production Designers. I actually had the opportunity to work with David Wasco at one point, early in his career, before he did Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino movies.
So, I left film school in 1993 – a few years before the digital revolution started to happen – and in the late 1990s got with this film troupe. We didn’t have $20k to buy film stock, but we realized that all these cool, little cameras were coming out – we didn’t have interchangeable lenses but we could work on performance and story.
So I let go of my love for this intense cinematography and lighting for a little while to just embrace the “neo realism” of it [laughs]. We just started making short films and watching each other’s short films in this bar in Atlanta where we all connected. And that eventually led to this thing called “Dailies”, at a local theatre. We would come up with these challenges for each other, e.g. make a movie based on a photograph or different story structures. We were just constantly making movies on the weekends, by any means necessary.
The Signal – it was like a precursor to V/H/S and all these other vignette collaborative movies. And Bruckner (David) actually went on to do both Southbound and V/H/S.
When I was very young I’d just made a deal with the universe that I’m going to make movies, come hell or high water and I’ve just been working my arse off to try and maintain that promise ever since.
I’ve done a bunch of shorts, because I think shorts are important – not just to prepare yourself to be a better feature filmmaker, but I think short films have the potential to be more lyrical than narrative and can bring you closer to more innovative ways of using the medium of film.
And during that time, were you explicitly making your own stuff or did you do any commissioned work, e.g. commercials or music videos?
Well, I’ve used the tools to set up my own production company, yes. After The Signal I think all of us just thought we’d be ushered into Hollywood, getting representation and maybe be up for some projects – and I was up for a lot of stuff – but nothing really congealed and I think people were waiting to see what we can do on our own.
So I just kept writing. I was in development a lot after The Signal; and whenever we found ourselves in this Catch 22 of development hell, where money is dependent on actors attached and actors get attached when you get the money, I just went back to my deal with the universe and just worked on another movie. It’s the same now. I’ll just start making a movie, by any means necessary, short or whatever.
I got solicited by Fox to edit movies; I edited Dan Fogler’s Don Peyote, an insane, crazy fun movie. I’ve been hired as a Producer and as an Editor on a lot of stuff. I did a bunch of work with Discovery, a web series called Forward Thinking, which is all about future forward technologies that are currently changing what it means to be a human being. I did that for several seasons. So, I’ve kept busy – lots of endeavors, all film-related. It helped pay the bills while I was in development.
Right before The Signal, I used to do a lot of crew work. I remember when I was on Road Trip, all covered in paint, I asked Ivan Reitman to read my script – and, yes, he was generous and polite, but I realized that no one’s going to take me seriously if I was still crewing on movies. I just needed to be a Director.
How does your mentality change with every different role you take? Do you wear “multiple hats”?
I think that, whether you’re writing or directing or editing, the goal is to honour the story – and everything comes from that. So, you’re honouring the structure of the story, you’re honouring what the elements of the story are and the protagonists’ journey, I guess. You have to be in service of that.
If I’m directing, I’m also writing. If I’m editing on someone else’s movie, I’m also kind of “writing”, constructing moments and reveals. Concern for character – and a belief in the character – and concern for story is at the heart of all those endeavors. So, I guess the simple answer would be it all comes down to storytelling. But, you have to put on a different brain, for sure.
Even on a movie that I write/direct/edit, like The Vault, it’s very different when it’s shot. There are often limitations and creative and logistical choices to be made; independent filmmakers don’t have the luxury of endless takes until you get exactly the one that you had in your mind. You have to be open to what’s happening.
I pre-visualised every shot in that movie – and I always do – but I also had to keep that at bay, because of stuff happening between these specific actors, the things that happened on the day and the attributes of the location itself. If you’re stuck hardcore and dogmatic about what you wanted the movie to be like in your brain, you’re going to miss all these awesome things that are actually happening and are available to you in the moment.
So, you have to be open-minded; you have to be somewhat loose. I think movies are like kids – you have to parent them and they’re going to turn out exactly like the way you want [laughs]
Tell us a bit about how The Vault came about and how you put it together? How did you get James Franco involved?
Yes, it was a long process. It was 8-9 years ago when we wrote the first draft. My writing partner, Conal Byrne, and I were watching a documentary about the Warner Bros. movies from the late 1970s to early 1980s. They covered Dog Day Afternoon and The Shining . That’s where we turned to the idea of horror-sci fi.
So from all the cards that we had on the table and for me the image system that arose quickly was this crime…or heist meets horror, at the intersect with this image of a hostage. I thought about how affected I was by the documentaries I’d seen on Munich and the Olympic hostage crisis or stuff I’d seen online, on bank heists and hostage situations from the 1980s. Bad pixelated pictures, which become even more horrific in situations where there were no survivors. So, that image rose quickly, the image of the hostage. And it scared me. And I just thought, if it’s a vehicle to explore these extreme human conditions, then go for it.
We knew we wanted to make something full of spectacle, full of these extremities. The movie was originally called The Trust, there was this kind of double meaning to that. We had the story of two siblings that had to come together despite their differences and hatred for each other, in order to survive, so that was sort of the heart of the movie. And the hostage element – everybody in the movie is a hostage, trapped by certain forces.
I wrote the script as an all-male movie, except for the tellers but later on we tweaked it, making it about sisters. It sort of developed over time, I think we might’ve written 20 different versions of the movie over the years.
While we were in development, different people became attached at different times – and we were going to potentially make it at different times – and every time that it’d fall through, we’d go off to work on something else, like The Reconstruction of William Zero or Ghost of Old Highways; I just kept making movies, because I can’t wait for money and attachments…or you’ll never get anything done.
Has there ever been a time where you felt too many revisions hurt the film?
We had a movie called Aurora, where we were so open to development and different potential financiers and investors or even actors who were going to potentially get attached, that by the time we were done with our final draft it was so different from our first draft – and it, quite frankly, have become so…formulaic. It was exactly what one of the investors was demanding, but it was exactly the kind of formulaic stuff that would turn off a good actor in a heartbeat. It’s a weird game.
With The Vault we landed in a really nice place. There were iterations of the script where what you think was going to happen with Franco (James) probably did happen, or what you think was the reveal about this character, was the reveal, but I think you need to write to your limitations. Or, at least, let the limitations encourage creativity, like “If I can’t have this, how do I make it effective without it” – sometimes, a very wonderful thing would happen.
There are some scenes that I lost, that I was very in love with it. Some of my favourite scenes in the movie were these sort of Sam Shepard-esque scenes between the siblings, that was all the backstory about how they got here and why they decided to do this. But they all got cut.
But we only got 16-17 days to shoot, so it was the right decision. I mean, those were the darlings that I had to kill and it was really hard, I loved these characters and watching their stories evolve and how it relates to the evil in the bank, etc., but I love it now, without the backstory – I think it’s kind of cool like that, and unique. It’s not really what the story’s about. It’s more interesting to watch these characters evolve within the circumstances of the bank.
You mentioned 16-17-day shoot – were those consecutive days? What did you shoot it on?
Yes, we shot that consecutively in Atlanta on two locations. So there was only one real full company move. We shot for about 3 weeks; I think we managed to do one really short week and then two longer weeks. Then, we went back, about 2 or 3 months later, to shoot the final scene with the girls; we shot that in LA. And then there was a bunch of pick-ups, that wasn’t part of principal photography – and, in fact, wasn’t even part of the budget – which we just went out to get, to have some “connective tissue”. Things we weren’t able to catch on the day. And that’s where being an independent filmmaker helps, because you can just pull that stuff together yourself, with your own gear.
We shot it on the Cannon C300 Mark 2 – which I didn’t want to shoot on at first, as I considered the Cannon 300 as more of a reality or documentary camera. And we were shooting in a lot of dark spaces, so we needed a lot more of a sensitive camera.
But Andrew Shulkind did a bunch of camera tests – even of like a match burning in the dark – and compared them with like Alexa and all, and there were pros and cons, but we ended up going with this one, as it looked amazing and fit our budget. It’s just like every tool you use in your movie has to match your vision and your budget. I was very happy with the way it turned out.
And tell us about your post-production process on The Vault?
The movie was cut in Premiere. I was overly indulgent on the first cut of, what I call, “the ghost attack” – it was twice as long [laughs] But, yeah, I realised no one cares for it to be that long and, also, I need to be more impactful on the story level.
There’s this movie that I’m working on right now, The Dark Red, and my first cut of that movie was 2 ½ hours, whereas the cut I’m on right now is 1 h 45 mins… I had to go back to the story and be like, “OK, what does the audience want to see here?” and “What is the beat?”, etc. It is tough, but it’s also liberating once you can go “OK, let’s just hack here”.
I think editing is magic. In The Vault I was using stuff that wasn’t even intended for certain moments, like assets we’d shot and I was repurposing them in different places, and flipping the shot horizontally or scaling in on it – because we just didn’t have as much coverage as I needed. Especially, with POV shots – you never have the time to do your POV shots, because it’s the last thing anybody cares for, but it’s the shot that you need the most to build tension…I was grabbing pieces from where the camera was rolling by accident and stuff [laughs]
So, yes, it’s always a challenge. I’m getting better at letting that stuff go. I am yet to find an Editor that I’d love working with. I found Cinematographers that do better than me. You always want to work with someone who’s better than you, you know? I’m not saying I’m a great Editor – I just have done it by necessity – but I would love to find an Editor that’s got my sensibilities and can offer something else about the movie.
Tell us your process of working with actors on The Vault and generally. Did you get much rehearsal time?
Well, I wanted it like a play, I wanted to light the whole environment for 360 degrees shooting and then have the actors come in a week ahead of the time and rehearse the blocking and get everything. To put on a play and then shoot it from whatever angle we wanted to and not worry about re-lighting for reversals or anything.
Of course, we didn’t have that. In fact, much worse, not only did we not have rehearsal time or pre-lighting time, we also didn’t have the actors there on the same day. So often you’d see a scene with a few actors and actually it was shot on different days – they’re not even actually in the scene together [laughs]
You know, the nightmare of scheduling. And my AD, Christopher Blackmore, scheduling it around actors’ availability, trying to make it work. James (Franco) and Scott (Haze) had a bunch of big movies at that time, so, understandably, they had to honour those other movies and they had to do their best to make both happen. Often they’d be flying in, arrive in the morning, jump into make-up and be on set all day, and then leave.
At one point we had to wrap James at 6pm, to try make a flight…So it was a bit of scheduling insanity, but it was a great challenge and I think we did pretty good with it.
I spent a lot of time on the phone and flying out to LA; sitting down with Taryn (Manning) and Fran (Eastwood), and Scott. Scott had a lot of ideas about his character – the character was originally much more of a…simpleton. We just kind of developed the characters together, we spent a lot of time talking about it.
I like to have rehearsals and to do a bunch of work with the actors, to get them really relating to each other, really vibing off each other – and I know that that’s something that happens more in theatre than in film, so whenever I have the opportunity to do that, I’d do that.
Once I know that they have the beats and all the information – so if my writing is getting too poetic, I can throw it out of the window and be like let’s live in the moment, let’s fight for things. And then things happen and the blocking comes out of that. So I try to make the camera bend to the actors, rather them hit rigid marks – sometimes they have to, for safety and efficiency, but, in general, I try to make it as unpredictable, as possible. And sometimes it makes for some really great kinetic stuff. Other times it makes it really hard to cut, because you never have two takes that are the same.
What films do you recommend?
That’s hard, because it’s like every movie [laughs] Just…watch everything. I studied all the neo realists when I was at school, I really fell in love with everything that led on to Fellini and all of the stuff that was happening in Italy, because they were able to do so much with so little. It opened the door for a lot of stuff that later happened in the 1970s.
My favourite movies… The Thing and Alien are some of my favourite horror movies ever, the sort of classics… My top notch movies, like the movies that I love with all my heart are the likes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Harold and Maude… The Graduate… The 1970s era of filmmaking in America, things I grew up with and love.
And as far as horror movies, The Shining is the pinnacle – I don’t think I’ve seen anything that’d scared the s**t out of me more than that.
But, yes, I’d say watch as many movies as you can. Just feast on them. Find actors and directors that you love and watch all of their stuff; watch how their movies change over the years. Anything you like, how they did – find out, watch it down to each individual clip, frame by frame.
Any advice to emerging writers? Directors?
In terms of advice for writers and directors…well, writing is cheap, right? You don’t need a bunch of money and actors to write stuff, so…f***ing write stuff, keep writing.
If I can attribute any of my success to anything at all, it’d be the fact that I kept trying to make movies despite the lack of money. And with the cameras that are available today – I mean, there’s no excuse. You don’t need a lot of lights, the cameras are sensitive, have interchangeable lenses, they’re not that expensive…
The whole developing away, waiting for actors to become attached…I don’t think it’s a good way to break into the industry. There’s no excuse for not making a movie – it might not be a good one, but that’s OK. Fail. Keep making them.
Thank you, Dan!
The Vault is in cinemas, on iTunes and available for digital download tomorrow (Friday 8).