Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.
Today in Part 2, Sean discusses the up, downs, ins and outs of the first feature film he wrote, directed and produced.
Scott: You made a full length feature film yourself, wrote and directed it. What is the story behind that?
Sean: Sure. Actually, what I was going to say, and I’ll get to the ins and outs of that in a second, what I like to tell my students is I’ve screwed up so many times that I can tell them how not to screw up. The film is a classic example. What happened was, in the long version of the story, I wrote the script as part of my Honors thesis when I was studying in Australia. The first draft of that was a mammoth 190 pages.
Scott: There you go.
Sean: Yeah. All written in Word, as well. It was all self-formatted, which was a joy. When I handed it in for my thesis, I had managed to winnow it down to about 163 pages or something like that. The story is about three 20‑somethings, post graduates, going through the quarter life crisis. I wanted to write a film – what I’ve always felt is that age group of your mid to late 20′s when you’ve graduated and you’re in the working world and you’re in that awkward phase between almost becoming a proper adult the way we understand an adult these days. I felt that there are very few films out there that examine that age group. Usually that age group is mainly the cast of horrors or the Transformers. It’s not really examined too dramatically. I wrote this film and then after I finished it I read it and wasn’t happy with how it turned out. You see, Australia is a country that has very little wrong with it. It’s very stable. It’s very easy to earn a good living over there. In the end, when I read the script, it felt like it was just three middle class people whining.
Then I went on the trip round the world and I realized that it would be a far, far better film if I set it back in South Africa where being middle class carries a huge amount of issues around it. We still have many racial issues in the country and all sorts of other things. Suddenly, they were no longer just three middle class people whining. It was actual genuine problems that were a part of their lives.
I came back to South Africa and I spent a while re‑writing the screenplay to fit the country. I hadn’t actually lived in South Africa in my 20s so I had to spend some time getting used to it again and, of course, changing the dialogue and speech patterns that fit more how the locals speak.
Once it was done I sent it off to a number of production houses but no one picked it up. In fact, I got a rejection letter the very day we started shooting.
Sean: Which I replied very gracefully with thank you very much, now I have to go on set, but thanks. I raised money on the stock market to get the film funded and I was very open and honest with all the cast and crew right from the start in saying in order to make this film there’s no way I can pay any of you. The only way we’re going to get this film made is purely by good will and the graces, which was actually quite surprising. I sent the script off to all the various casting agencies in the country and said right from the start that I don’t think your actors are going to get paid for this. In fact, they’re almost certainly not going to and they’re going to work very long hours, but they’ll be the lead roles. I ended up casting for almost two weeks, seeing people constantly.
I was very lucky. Typically, as you might expect, after casting for two weeks and it’s the very last people that walked through the doors that ended up getting the roles. We shot for about 18 days and I think the total cast and crew was around 15, 16 people. We shot in about three different states because it was a roadtrip movie.
Scott: That’s quite an undertaking, 18 days and traveling as opposed to one location.
Sean: What I said to the crew and cast was it’s a seven hour drive from point A to B. That’s our rest period. After all, only one of you has to drive. The others can take a nap.
Scott: Guerilla filmmaking at its best.
Sean: It was a lot of fun. It’s easier to look at the hardships now. I still remember it was some ridiculous thing about we paid a 50 percent deposit on the sound equipment and then we were seven hours away from Johannesburg and the guy who owned the equipment suddenly wanted full payment. The sound recordist who was working for him refused to record until we went and paid. I’m in the middle of buttfuck nowhere and I’ve somehow got to get this transfer in. I had to drive an hour from then set to get to a bank and try and get the transfer going in the middle of the shoot.
Scott: That’s great. That’s the kind of stuff that steels you for the business, if you can survive.
Sean: Definitely. The thing is, as well, that wasn’t the end of it because after the shoot, what I did was we took six months off after the shoot because I just felt that if we started editing and we looked at the footage all we would do is see what we didn’t do and what we got wrong. Whereas, I felt if we gave ourselves at least six months, when we came back to the footage we would look at it and appreciate what we had actually done. That turned out to be true. The downside of that was that the stock market crash came so I was kind of wiped out. Literally, I ended up living in and working at a backpackers for a while, basically getting room and board. That was the only way I could survive until I got my first teaching job. It took me a while to get back on my feet before I could even go back and attempt to look at post production.
Then beginning of last year (2011), just as I’m kind of getting back on my feet and we’d had a good cut of the film, one of the actors died. He was in his mid 30′s and had a heart attack. Then this year (2012) in March, my lead actor committed suicide. It was a dual tragedy. The first tragedy being, of course, he had committed suicide and that was a friend dying. The second tragedy to it was, with regards to the film, we’d been planning on looping a fair number of the scenes and pretty much all the scenes in the film contained three actors in the same room.
Now that he’s dead, we can’t do any looping.
Scott: You’re still in post, then? Not a finished product?
Sean: Not at this point. What’s been a nice, odd little spinoff of the Nicholl is I’ve had a few people in production houses in South Africa who I’ve chatted to go OK, show us your cut and let’s see what we can help with when it comes to the sound. Ironically, I met the one through one of my students. His dad actually owns one of the two Dolby studios in South Africa.
Scott: Good luck on that.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Sean digs into “Killers,” the screenplay he wrote that won him a Nicholl fellowship.
Please stop by comments to thank Sean for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.