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NEGATIVE interview w/ Joshua Caldwell


After he takes a picture of a random young woman on the street, amateur photographer Hollis is shocked when she knocks on his apartment door and threatens his life. Urgently demanding that he and the photograph must leave town with her or she will have to kill him, Hollis reluctantly obliges. While on the run, she reveals that her name is Natalie and she’s an ex-MI5 agent on the run from the Colombian Cartel members that she double-crossed. Just as she was about to escape for good, Hollis’ photograph of Natalie surfaced and now the Cartel knows her whereabouts. Now, she must confront the demons of her past before any more innocent people are murdered.

Joshua Caldwell, the director of NEGATIVE was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions about his movie, Los Angeles, and the importance of music in film.

Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this, I really appreciate it. How are you today?

I’m great, man. Couldn’t be happier. Not every day you get to release a movie out into the wild.

How do you go from being a kid born and raised in Seattle Washington to directing LAYOVER, a French-language film about a woman trapped in Los Angeles?

I started making films in high school. We had two really cool things that made it possible: 1) a two-period-a-day media class that had an inventory of digital cameras and Avid editing systems and 2) the tradition of our ASB officers (student body officers) making parody films to announce things like the homecoming theme or the winners of ASB elections. That was really my film school because we had no money, a hard deadline, and 1200 kids to entertain. Plus, I got to try out a bunch of different styles because we were copying other movies. I made a Usual Suspects parody, a Snatch-style heist film, a soap opera, and—my final high school masterpiece—an hour-long Star Wars film.

Following high school, I went to Fordham University in New York City. There I shot films on my own, trying things and experimenting. While Fordham didn’t have a film school, they had a fantastic theater program so I had amazing actors to work with, many of whom are now working in the industry. My senior year I made a film called The Beautiful Lie, for which I won an MTV Movie Award for their “Best Film on Campus” category. I thought that my career was set and I’d be handed the keys to Paramount Pictures.

That, of course, did not turn out to be the case. Instead, it was a powerful lesson in that no one in Hollywood is going to hand you anything. You want it, you have to make it happen. I started writing scripts, had a couple optioned, I directed music videos and short films, and eventually landed a job working for Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator of CSI. At his production company, I started doing a lot of work in the digital space, working with brands and digital partners like Yahoo and YouTube to produce content.

But directing was always my first love, and I started to feel that itch about making a feature. It’s not like I hadn’t tried, but I was struggling to find both money and a project that felt worthy of it. Then, two things happened: I read an article about Ed Burns’ making films for $10k and I saw a movie called For Lovers Only by the Polish Brothers. The film was shot entirely in France and also made for a budget of around $10k. I figured I could get $10k together. Ultimately, we got $6000 and I wrote a film that I thought could be made for $6000 and wouldn’t be about two people in one location. That film was Layover. This little French-language indie film with no stars that didn’t screen at Sundance has been instrumental in my career. All three of my last projects happened because of Layover. So, you just never know.

Joshua Caldwell

The screenplay for NEGATIVE by Adam Gaines has elements that are evocative of the conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s but is in no way beholden to them. It takes a somewhat familiar story and messes with it enough to make something original. What was it about the screenplay that made you want to direct it?

The idea for Negative was something Adam and I developed together. Back in college, I had this idea for a short film about a man who takes a bunch of photos in Central Park, goes and gets them developed, and finds this picture of a beautiful woman looking directly into the camera. But I couldn’t figure out what happens next. It obviously never got made.

I met Adam and read some of his material and thought he had a great ear for dialogue. He had written a Layover-type story; dialogue heavy but low budget and his characters just really came to life. I wanted to work on something together. I pitched him the photograph idea with a twist. What if the woman is a spy and did not want her picture taken? So she comes to get it back. That’s all I had. But I also said, “What if we made It Happened One Night, but as a thriller and without the romance.” The idea being two people who are at odds and don’t really like each other are forced together on this road trip. I was also interested in a sort of non-Bourne type thriller. In a normal film, the trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix would be a blip, but I was curious about how these two characters would spend those 10-20 hours. What would they talk about? How would they get to know each other over that time? What would change from the beginning to the end?

So, I threw all of this at Adam and he really took it to the next level. I went off to do a series for Hulu and when I was done, Adam handed me the script. I think we did one or two passes and then we got into pre-production.

The casting of any film is crucial but in NEGATIVE there is no way the film could work if the chemistry between Natalie and Hollis wasn’t solid. Can you describe your casting process and how you landed on Katia Winter and Simon Quarterman?

So, funny enough, Katia and Simon were involved before we even had a script. I was attached to another project they were going to star in and as a result both of them had seen Layover and really loved it. While this other film was waiting to get funding, I approached them and said I had this idea for a Layover-style feature that would be a spy thriller. I didn’t have a script yet but I was wondering if they’d be interested in making a movie like that—basically just going out and making it ourselves, no one telling us how to do it or getting in the way. They loved the idea and signed on officially once they read the script.

In terms of chemistry, Katia and Simon are close friends in real life, so that made things that much easier. In a way, they came as a package, but honestly I can’t imagine anyone else in either of these roles. They completely owned their roles, playing characters neither of them had played before.

With a low-budget film like this, you’re not really going out to actors through their agents and making offers or doing casting sessions. We didn’t have a casting director. Sebastian Roche came on board because Simon knows him from a movie they did together. Josh Randall came on because of his friendship with Katia. We got Luke Hemsworth to appear in basically a cameo role because Simon knew him from Westworld. The rest of the cast was from my staple of actors I’ve worked with over the years, people who were great and committed and wouldn’t complain about not having a trailer.

Bill Brown’s electronic score for the film is both tense and beautiful while slightly melancholy. How important is the score to NEGATIVE?

Honestly, I consider the music to be 50% of the film. So, incredibly important. And in the case of Negative, incredibly challenging. Usually, I’m pretty good at finding stuff to temp in that’s close to what I’m thinking, but that was impossible on Negative. I couldn’t find anything that really felt right. It was either too dark or too quirky. So, I really put the onus on Bill and it took us some time to really figure it out. We had a lot of false starts. Bill would send me stuff and I’d just say, “I don’t think that’s it.” I’m sure Bill was frustrated, but after our history of working together, he knows that I wasn’t saying no to say no. It was really about finding the thing that’s right because it is such an integral part of the film. We did test screenings without the score, using the temp music we could find, and you knew from reactions that it wasn’t working and changed the viewing experience. So, I found it imperative we find the right sound for it.

Bill and I have now worked together on five projects and we both have an incredible amount of respect for each other. I think that gives us a little leeway to push and challenge each other. I’m not just trying to get music for my film. I want it to be something that Bill is excited to spend his time composing. So I challenge him a little bit because I know that we’re going to get to something great. And true enough, we did. And once we found that one cue that works, Bill was able to build out everything off of that. After that, the process went pretty quickly.

I could never have imagined the score being what it is and that’s why having such an amazing collaborator in Bill is important. I know what I’m looking for…I just have no way of describing it musically. So, he has to take my language and translate it into notes. In the process of doing so, we get to something great.

You work as both Cinematographer and Director on the film, how do you balance the responsibilities of both jobs without sacrificing the quality of one or the other?

I honestly found that it came pretty naturally to me. I had always had an interest in being the director of photography as well as directing but never felt comfortable making that leap. I love operating. While I wasn’t the DP on Layover, I did operate throughout the entire film (basically because we shot on a 5D without a director’s monitor, so I found it easier to just do it myself than stand over someone else’s shoulder). I find that what I try to do as a director with performance is connected to what I do with the camera as an operator. One completely works in tandem with the other.

The main reason I decided Negative might be the film on which to take this next step was to test out an approach that wasn’t popular among other DPs. That is, shooting at very high ISOs in order to minimize the amount of time it took to light scenes. I had become very frustrated on other projects at the amount of time we would spend lighting vs. actually shooting performance and felt there had to be another way. When we did Layover we used whatever natural light we could, pumped the camera up to 3200 or 6400 ISO, took 20 minutes to setup and then spent 8 hours shooting takes. As a result, we got great performances on a tight schedule. When I went to screen Layover for audiences I never once had anyone come up to me and say “I really liked your film until I saw some noise in your image.” Audiences just aren’t paying attention to stuff like that. I’m not saying that protecting the image isn’t important or that DPs are wrong in their approach, I was honestly just curious to see what we could get away with. And I felt like I needed to also be the DP in order to make that call.

But I tell you, there are plenty of scenes in this movie where we showed up, turning the camera on, set it to 3200 ISO (the max most DPs are willing to go) and found the existing lighting to be unusable. It would have required 2-3 hours to relight everything. Instead, I adjusted the ISO to an acceptable level and suddenly; all the practical lights were useable! We could throw up a key light and be shooting in ten minutes. The trade off for a “less than perfect image” (which, in my opinion, still looks amazing) was more time for performance, more time for coverage, more time to get everything we needed. On Negative, we rarely went all the way to twelve hours (the typical length of a shooting day) and never once did I leave set feeling like we didn’t get what we wanted. It was exactly what I was looking for.

On some days, particularly nights where we did have to spend some time lighting, we’d bring on a gaffer to help out so I didn’t have to do everything, which gave me freedom to work with the cast. But honestly, Katia and Simon and I did so much prep work prior to shooting that we didn’t have to do much on set in terms of performance. It was about creating a schedule where we could have the chance to work it many, many times and not just stop once we “had it.”

I noticed you’ve worked with Will Torbett as your editor on several projects now. Can you describe the process you have when working with an editor?

I like to say that I tend to shoot pieces of a puzzle and there’s only one real way to put them all together. It’s important to me that I work with an editor who understands that, and I mean down to the frame. You can’t just throw it together however you want, it won’t work and it’s pretty clear when it doesn’t. I’ve always edited my own work and because of that, I tend to shoot with an eye for editing.

Will understands all that, understands the footage I shoot and how to put it together and also looks for things that I may not – that’s the benefit of having someone who’s not as vested in the footage as I am. And I love seeing what he comes up with, even if ultimately it doesn’t work or isn’t the right approach. It may give us ideas for something else. Often, seeing the wrong thing can lead to the right thing.

Because we’re not sitting in edit suites (we cut Negative on our home computers) the dynamic is a little different. Essentially, we both edit, kind of like writing partners. Will does the bulk of the work, especially early on with the assembly and first couple of cuts as I try to 1) distance myself from the footage and 2) see what he comes up with independent of my influence. Once we get the film into a good place, I’ll take a pass at it. Meaning, I actually sit down at the computer alone and edit. Then, I send it back to Will to see what he thinks and have him do a pass on what I’ve done. We trade like that for a while until we get it to a place that works.

The last pass, once we’ve taken care of any notes, is for me to go through and really frame fuck. Really make sure that every cut is where it needs to be. I watch it and re-watch it and re-watch it and I try this frame, that frame, try twenty different cuts before deciding which is best. That process is incredibly important to me. I’m very protective of it, because I know that’s what the footage I’ve shot needs.

Both LAYOVER and NEGATIVE are films (to some degree) about getting out of Los Angeles. Are you using film to work through some feelings you have about the city you now call home?

I don’t know if they’re so much about leaving Los Angeles as they are about its inherent transitory nature. People are always coming and going and to so many, it feels like a dream. That’s Layover essentially: a love letter to a city that never quite feels real. That is, in many ways, it’s best when it maintains this dream-like quality. And then it becomes real, like in Negative, and turns ugly and unforgiving and raw.

The funny thing is that I no longer call Los Angeles my home. I lived there for ten years and really loved it but it was time for a change. Maybe the dream started to shift into reality? I don't know. Either way, I’m now based in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Surrounded by woods and nature and seasons. It’s great. And I couldn’t be happier.

Los Angeles is just such a beautiful city to photograph and has such a cool vibe that I hoped to capture. It has its positives and negatives, which are reflected in both films (more so in Layover), and probably reflect, in some way, my own feelings. But I’m far more interested in how the audiences engage with those elements than I am proselytizing my own view.

opens on digital HD and On Demand (iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Google, Dish/Sling, OnDemand, Vubiquity, DirecTV, and AT&T) on September 19, 2017, courtesy of MarVista Entertainment.