Friday, June 5, 2009

Talking with Thomas C. Dunn: Writer and Director of The Perfect Witness starring Wes Bentley

Thomas C. Dunn is the director of the captivating movie A Perfect Witness (in Europe, it's titled The Ungodly) starring Wes Bentley (American Beauty). I was thrilled to speak with him about this amazing directorial debut film, his work as a screenwriter and his collaboration with Hollywood greats such as Beth Grant (Little Miss Sunshine) and Kenny Johnson (The Sheild). He also spoke to me about his sucess as a playwright and his ongoing collaboration with writer Mark Borkowski (Cost of a Soul). The two co-wrote the screenplay and continue to write even though Thomas resides in LA and Mark in NYC. I cannot wait to see what they will produce next. A Perfect Witness was one of the best psychology thrillers I have seen to date and I was quite amazed at how the two completed the film in such short time for the film festivals.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer/director?
I’ve been writing since I was really young, mostly short stories--hopefully not my best work, then I started writing poems in high school…short plays, full length plays…now I’ll go back and forth from plays to screenplays. As far as directing, my friend Mark Borkowski showed me this play he was writing and he was stuck on the idea and I told him, “The reason you can’t move forward is because it’s not a play, it’s a screenplay.” We began to collaborate and finished it together…we just kept working back and forth until it made sense to both of us and we had in mind that he would play the lead role of the serial killer and I would direct. It was his first major role in a feature film and my first time as a director. That became ‘The Perfect Witness.’ For the international release, it’s called ‘The Ungodly.’
We wouldn’t do the film any other way even when it was suggested…It’s sort of the norm, just from a financial point of view, if people see that Mark didn’t have a big name as an actor or I haven’t directed several other films, there’s always a risk. We had offers to move in a ‘bigger’ actor, a more experienced director…but for Mark’s role as the serial killer, we wanted someone you couldn’t recognize from ten other films. I thought it was perfect for him because you simply don’t know what to expect…Mark’s unpredictable as an artist and a person so he just really fits the role.

You filmed in Philly…that was his choice, right?
Well, we wrote mostly in LA and NY. The film was supposed to take place in Philly but it was cheaper to do it in LA…After we scouted Philly though, I said, “Let’s just find a way to do it in here…It’s got the sort of edgy, inner-city grit and realism we want.” And we found a way to make it happen.

Mark said it only took twenty four days to shoot...
He exaggerated. It took twenty-two or twenty-one, depending how you count—on one of our days, the camera had a problem and we only shot two hours. But I had a brilliant cinematographer, Paco Femenia. He kept the crew going, the actors were locked in, everything was storyboarded and we always made sure we made our days. Sometimes you’re forced to take short cuts, but there were a few scenes, like the elevator scene…when I was told by my first AD we weren’t going to have time to do it, and I just found a way to make sure we still got it in…you know that scene where the nurse is standing in the middle of Wes and Mark and she can sense this crazy energy between the two of them?

Yeah, and I’m so glad you made that decision to keep it, it was quite well done. The bloody scenes were also intense, what was that like behind the camera?
We had a special effects person, Steve Tolin, to help design all of that but in the end it’s interesting…if you look at the scene where the waitress was terrorized…someone once said to me that was a hard scene to watch because it was so bloody but we purposely didn’t show any blood in that scene! The audience pictures a lot more of what’s going on then you actually see. It’s the emotional toll on the victim that was important to us, not showing blood.

Aside from Wes Bentley, were there any other mainstream actors in The Perfect Witness?
Yes, Beth Grant, who plays Mark’s Mom, has been in everything. She’s just an amazing actress. She’s been in Little Miss Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Rain Man, The Rookie, Matchstick Men…she’s had a career that’s spanned decades. There’s also a small scene where a cop stops Wes and Mark from fighting…

Yeah, I remember him and he actually trusts Mark’s story that Wes’ character is freaking out because he’s not on his meds…
…he’s one of my best friends, Kenny Johnson. He was on The Shield for years and he’s now on Saving Grace with Holly Hunter. And then Joanne Baron, who plays the sister, has done a ton of work and was really a pleasure to work with, so these actors may not all be household names but they’re really experienced, professional and enthusiastic. Even the waitress, Marina Gatell…she’s a well-established Spanish actress, just not as well known over here.

It did really well in Europe, right?
Yeah. You know, our original title for The Perfect Witness was The Ungodly, but it had to be changed in the US. We were told any title that can be viewed as potentially negative toward God, distributors won’t pick up, because there’s this nebulous fear of some religious backlash. It’s absurd. We’re catering film titles to the US bible belt which probably wouldn’t watch it anyway. But in Europe and everywhere else, it’s being released as it should be, as The Ungodly. The UK release, for example, is in September, 09.

Were there many challenges to making an independent film?
Yes, time, money, resources. But the lack of some of these also forces you to be even more creative and that can actually improve the end result. So there’s no excuses. I made the film I wanted to make. It can be a double standard when it’s finished though because we all complain about Hollywood releasing big budget films with tons of effects and very little story then when certain films are made independently, we complain because they don’t have those same effects. So I think it’s important that we balance going to see blockbusters with also seeing independent films. Even supporting local musicians at shows and buying their CD’s there, it really make a big difference to truly independent artists and helps shape the landscape of what films and music are made in the future.

How did you guys get the money to do the film?
A lot of the money came from Spanish funds and some of it was private equity, just individual investors.

How did you get the money from Spain?
A Spanish company had read one of my other scripts and approached me about funding it. Mark and I had just completed writing The Perfect Witness though and when I told the Spanish company about this other screenplay, they asked to read it too. They called afterwards and said, ‘we love it. Let’s do this first…’ We were really the first US/Spanish co-production and we needed to hire some Spanish actors and crew. It was a great asset to the film though because we got access to European talent that we might not have had. I went to Spain for some casting, parts of post-production…I also worked with the composer in a little village on a mountain outside of Barcelona. As a result, I think the film has a European feel blended with Americana and I really like that about it.

And you wrote a lot of plays?
A play I wrote, The Thread Men, was just published by Samuel French as one of the best short plays of 2008…

What’s The Thread Men about?
These two people get locked in an elevator together: one is a psychiatrist and the other one acts increasingly crazy. The elevator just becomes this pressure cooker. And the audience starts to realize that these two characters share some secrets from their past…It becomes increasingly tense and dangerous as the psychological chess match between the two of them plays out.

Hmmm, I like the sound of that…sounds like you were an English major?
Yes…I was around film all the time but didn’t take film courses. I graduated as an English major from UCLA.

Do you feel this (English) degree helps you?
Not particularly. I mean, it exposed me to new writers and novels and gave me an opportunity to write. At the same time, I think I was already on this path of discovery and was learning before university and am still learning long after…

When did you meet Mark (co-writer and actor of The Perfect Witness) anyway?
I met Mark when I was in college. We would be working on stuff together back then and it would get to 3 in the morning. I’d say, ‘I have to leave to finish a paper that’s due in the morning.’ And he would say, “what, a new play?” I would say, ‘Mark, a paper. I’m in college, remember?’ He always forgot I was still a student (laughing). We would be collaborating on this intense play and then I would go home and have to write a Chaucer paper.

Wow, LA seems so cool.
Mark and I have a crazy story of how we really first got together…we did a play, Everyman. It’s a 15th century play written in verse. It alternates between two character dialogues and monologues. Mark was playing the character ‘Knowledge’ and I had this small, five line part. The lead guy suddenly quit though and the director…he was crazy…said, “Anyone else want to do the lead?” And I said, “I will.” It was that simple. The director would just leave the theater and everything was up to the actors to do themselves.

Sounds awful…
The play opens with the main character, ‘Everyman,’ dying and having to make an accounting of how he lived his life to God. Even though it’s this Christian-morality play, Mark convinced me to mime overdosing from heroin in the opening scene. Mark was modernizing it. The director just shrugged. So one night, during a rehearsal, the theater fills up with 50 women from some Jewish women’s group that had pre-paid to see a different show. The director rushes backstage in a panic and tells us we have to put our play up, even though it’s a Christian play. Half the cast had already gone home for the night but Mark just wrote their names on my hand and told me to go on and do it. I had to improvise almost the whole thing, looking down at my hand and skipping around actors who weren’t there, ad-libbing in verse…I’m on stage, sweating and anxious as hell, doing my best, and I can hear Mark laughing hysterically behind the curtains…and that was our first time working together.

You’re writing screenplays now?
I just finished a new script I will work to direct, called The Assassin Club…and currently, I’m working on a screenplay that will be filmed by a Greek director, Vangelis Liberopoulos…I just got back from a month in Athens doing research and now I’m writing it…It deals with the Greek riots that lasted about a month last December after a 15 year-old boy was shot by a policeman.

Anything that stood out to you when you were there in Athens?
When you get behind some of the things that happened, it’s really amazing. Take for example, the cops who worked 20-22 hours a day during the riots. Many of them had second and third jobs because they only make about $15,000 US a year. Because of the hours they worked during the riots, they had to quit these extra jobs so they’re really struggling for money. The government steps in though and gives them a bonus of 500 euros for all their hard work. Three months after the riots end though, the government says, ‘yeah, you know that bonus? It was more like a loan that we’re now deducting back out of your pay checks.’

That’s not right!
I spent the whole month in Athens hearing some really interesting things. As a writer, it’s important to be a good listener. If you mean what you say and do what say, you gain people’s trust and they can really open up to you. I think if you stop any one person in the street and sit down and hear about their life, they will become fascinating…

What are the European films festivals like?

They’re all so different. For example, in Brussels, there were 500 people screaming at me in a French to sing when I got on stage to introduce my film. It’s their fun sort of way of heckling the director. I just started ad-libbing the Willy Wonka ‘Oompa Lompa song’ with my own lyrics. It ended with something like ‘Oompa Loompa doompity da, here-is-my-film-enjoy-Voila!’ They just went nuts!

Are there any celebrities you’d like to meet…I always ask this cheesy question.
I don’t have a strong desire to meet this or that specific person. I’ve met a lot of celebrities and I mean, I absolutely appreciate their talent but I don’t really know them as people…Maybe there’s ones I’d like to work with but not just to meet…When I see independent artists creating music, writing scripts, etc., not really knowing if anyone will ever hear or see the end result of their efforts, that’s actually inspiring to me. I can appreciate them just as much for their hard work, belief and talent…

What was Wes Bentley like? I want to meet him!
He’s a great guy. He worked extremely hard on this film. Usually actors get some breaks, to relax in their trailers every now and then but we really worked him non-stop. He did a great job…he was in every scene!

How did you support yourself when you were still just an up and coming writer/director?
I did all kinds of jobs but just continued to write as I worked. Anything, everything. I mean I was a stockbroker in New York for two years a long time ago...

What a contrast!
Yeah, and I convinced them that I couldn’t work on Fridays so I would work four days, wrote three. I saved money and after two years, took off and traveled for 10 months through Asia, just writing, learning, jumping trains, crossing borders…I think experiencing other cultures is a huge asset for a creative person.

How do your parents feel about you having such a creative lifestyle?
They’ve never said throughout my entire life, ‘do this or do that’. They’re always there for me, unconditionally. They’ve allowed me to make my own choices and supported those I made. Sometimes parents try to steer their children at the expense of ruining their relationship with them. Just love your kids, support them and let them follow their passion…

That’s very true, if everyone did what made them happy, people could get a lot more done. Thank you so much for meeting with me to discuss your work. It’s fascinating, I love it.
Thank you and you’re welcome.

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