"I felt like I’d been preparing my whole life to make this film"
"Jasmine", LAFA's big winner of Best Film for the January competition, is a highly entertaining thriller directed by Dax Phelan. An intriguing story leading to a surprising twist, our lead judge, Skip Bolden, considers this film as an excellent achievement in filmmaking. In the following interview, Dax let us into his world, explaining the concepts and challenges behind the creation of this film.
Great job on Jasmine. Dax, before Jasmine, you had done a documentary short... How did you prepare to make the jump to your first feature from a directing perspective?
Because “JASMINE” is such a personal film, I felt like I’d been preparing my whole life. My interest in directing dates back to high school when my friends and I used to convince our teachers to let us make home movies instead of writing papers and such. But I never imagined that I’d one day be making films for a living because I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist and filmmaking, as a career, just wasn’t something that was ever considered as an option. I fell in love with screenwriting at Southern Methodist University, dropped out of the Pre-Med program, and started making short films there, including the documentary short, “Crash Where You Land,” about homeless teens in New Orleans. My film professor, John Carstarphen, had gone to the American Film Institute and was a real inspiration. He had just made a feature film in Dallas and it was getting a lot of buzz – and, for the first time, it all seemed possible. So, I applied to be a Directing fellow at the American Film Institute. I didn’t get in. Fortunately, as a backup, I’d also applied to be a Screenwriting fellow. And I did get in. For the first semester, I sort of felt like a director masquerading as a screenwriter and was pretty frustrated because, as screenwriters, we had to work in the sound department on the short films being made. So, I got to watch a bunch of other directors at work. There were a few good films made during my time there, but most were lacking, albeit technically proficient, because the scripts were weak. All of a sudden, it seemed that getting into the Screenwriting program was a blessing in disguise. So, I decided to put my directing aspirations on hold and focus exclusively on screenwriting because, at the end of the day, story is the most important thing – to me, anyway. (I never imagined that ten years would go by before I’d be behind the camera again.)
While I was at AFI, I was hired as a development intern for veteran producer Mace Neufeld, who was producing “The General’s Daughter” for Paramount. There, I did a lot of coverage and story notes on various projects, further sharpening my story sense. When I graduated from AFI, Mace hired me as Story Editor under his new first-look deal at Sony. A year later, I was promoted to Creative Executive and got to work with a lot of great screenwriters on their scripts, in addition to finding projects for Mace to produce. Still, on nights and weekends, I was always working on my own material. After selling my first script in 2003, I amicably parted ways with Mace and company and began writing full-time. For a while, I was perfectly happy just being a working writer. But, as years went by and none of the scripts I’d written were being produced (often for reasons beyond my control), I began to yearn to see one of my projects actually get made. I also wanted try some techniques that normally aren’t encouraged in mainstream moviemaking. I wanted to explore ambiguity, non-verbal exchanges, improvisations, and things like that. I had an interesting character in mind (an everyman investigator, who can’t trust his own mind), but I didn’t have a story yet. Anyway, when I first met Jason Tobin while working on another project over in Hong Kong, a little voice in my head said, “If you ever get around to fleshing out that idea, this is the guy.” I didn’t even know how good of an actor Jason was at that time, but something told me he would be the right person to help me bring this character to life. When he was in L.A. a few months later, I showed him Lodge Kerrigan’s film, “Keane,” and said, “I have an idea for a character, but I don’t have a story. Let’s come up with the story together, I’ll write the script, you’ll play the lead, I’ll direct, and we’ll shoot it on the streets of Hong Kong.” So, my journey back to the director’s chair was pretty circuitous, to say the least.
Can you talk about the challenges of writing, producing and directing a film like this... How did you take the project from conception to completion?
The challenges of writing the story and, later, the script were mostly financial, methodical, and geographical. Because no one was paying us to develop the material, Jason and I could only really work on it in between other paying jobs. As a result, it took us longer to lock down the story than it normally would. Next, we had to deal with the fact that Jason and I have very different approaches to the material. He approached it from an actor’s perspective. I approached it from that of a writer. I came to enjoy this part of the process because, although our approaches were very different, we would often arrive at the same place. That was thrilling and ultimately changed my own process. I now consider my actors to be my co-writers on everything I do. Geographically, we had some difficulty because we were rarely in the same place at the same time for very long. (Thank goodness for Skype!) Once I felt like we were pretty close to having the story locked down, I flew to Hong Kong, sequestered myself in a hotel for a month, and wrote the script. We had the script budgeted, partnered with a production company, and tried to pre-sell some foreign territories at Cannes, but were told that our stars weren’t big enough and that our concept didn’t have enough of a hook. When I asked what kind of hook they were looking for, they said, “Nazi zombies.” That was a bit depressing. I mean, I like well-executed B-movies. They can be a lot of fun. But, at that time, I was running in the opposite direction or, at least, trying to. Eventually, it sort of dawned on us that we had written “JASMINE” for the sole purpose of making a movie, but we had written it in such a way that the budget exceeded our reach. So, we decided to rework the script in such a way that we could make it for nothing. I put up the first $30K personally, hoping that, if other investors knew I had skin in the game, they’d be more apt to step up, which they did. We found a window of opportunity where all of the actors were available and decided to go ahead and shoot the film, even though we didn’t have enough money for post-production yet.
Although everybody worked very hard and I had a wonderful local producer in Jen Thym, the shoot was extraordinarily difficult due to the lack of funds, lack of time, and acts of god. I had shot-listed and storyboarded most of the film in advance, but typically had to throw out my preparations and start from scratch every morning when I got to the set. That was pretty painful. From a directing standpoint, I wanted the film to be deceptively complex and reward repeat viewing, which essentially meant I had to make the film twice: once for first-time viewers, who would have one experience, and again for repeat viewers, who would have a completely different experience. (Of course, this double-duty extended to the writing of the script, the shooting, the editing, and, as you’ve noticed, even the sound mix.) So, when I couldn’t get all the shots I wanted, I had to figure out other ways to encode this information and, often, on the fly. But, hey, this is the business I’d chosen. Still, we did ultimately manage to shoot every scene in the script and even reshot a few scenes that were ruined due to bad weather. I returned to LA with my hard drives under my arm and, shortly thereafter, hired Chris Chan Lee (“Yellow”) to edit the film. It was my hope that, if I could get a good rough cut together, I could use it to raise completion funds.
While we were working on this, tragedy struck very unexpectedly when I lost my dog, my grandmother, and my mom in a less than a year’s time. That fucked my head up pretty good and, to be honest, I couldn’t work on the film. I just couldn’t. I had to walk away and get my head right and that took longer than I thought. A lot of people thought the film would never get finished and some of my cast and crew distanced themselves from the film because they thought there was something wrong with it. That was hard, too. I was very, very, very lucky that Chris stuck with me through this very difficult time. Anyway, when I finally came up for air, I re-watched the cut. Although I’d once been very happy with it, it no longer rang true for me. I don’t know if it was because of what I’d been through or because I had new objectivity or both, but I knew we had to start over from scratch. We completely overhauled the film and, I have no doubt, made the best possible film out of the footage we had. We even pulled unscripted moments from pre-roll footage; everything was fair game. I showed the film to Lodge Kerrigan, who I’d met during the interim and whose work has been a big inspiration to me, and he said, “You’ve got a good 92-minute movie, but it would be a great 75.” Chris and I went back into the editing room, trimmed some scenes that we’d let breathe too much, and called it quits at 80 minutes. We finally had picture lock.
I began searching for completion funds full-time and my actor/producer friend, Nicole Watson, and her partner, Jon Anderson, who had recently formed Blak Dot Productions, came aboard as Executive Producers. With their support, I was finally able to start looking for a post-production house. I had met producer Eric Klein back when he was working at Local Hero in Santa Monica and liked him very much because he made me feel like my film would be in good hands. He was also up to date with all of the latest post-production processes and was really good at explaining many of the things I would have to do but had never done before. He had moved to Digital Post Services in Hollywood, so I followed him there. He soon became a very close and very trusted collaborator. This film had many such angels.
As the film was nearing completion, we began submitting to festivals, hoping to land a big premiere. As the rejection letters piled up, I started to wonder if the film would ever play anywhere. When AFI FEST passed, it was especially painful. I mean, when your own alma mater rejects you, that’s pretty bad. I was worried that I’d spent years of my life making a piece of shit. Then, Roger Garcia (Hong Kong International Film Festival) and James Faust (Dallas International Film Festival) decided to take a chance on us. Everything changed after that. Still, in many ways, the fight was just beginning. The film’s first review was mixed and, oddly, inaccurate. We quickly realized that the reviewer had seen an incomplete version of the film, which had been sent to them by mistake and without our permission. We tried to rectify the situation, but the reviewer was in such a hurry to beat everyone else that they ran the review anyway. Can you imagine? Making a film is never easy, but I feel this one has had a harder journey than most.
I love the beginning of this film where we go from lingering music over black to the cacophony of busses and cars whizzing past your character, seen from the back. It's a beautiful visual explosion and an intriguing puzzle to introduce as your teaser before the opening title. Can you talk a little about how you incorporated sound into the story... Especially because there's a huge pay off with the gibberish dialogue that the character is hearing in the film.
I’m pleased to hear that you liked the beginning of the film because it’s very different from the beginning of the script and there was a lot of trial and error involved before I felt like we’d finally found the sweet spot. In fact, originally, I hadn’t planned to have any score in the film. The film also began with a completely different scene. But the new opening was very much inspired by Mike Figgis’s work on “Leaving Las Vegas” and Francis Ford Coppola’s work on “Apocalypse Now.” In the published script of “Leaving Las Vegas,” Figgis mentioned that the opening shot of Ben filling his grocery cart with bottles of booze was taken from a scene later in the movie and put at the front because it managed to say everything the audience needed to know about the character. Also, on “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola found what became the opening shot amongst some B-roll that was on the cutting room floor and, then, of course, enhanced it with sound design. So, when the original opening we shot wasn’t playing as well as I’d hoped, I began searching for alternatives. Ironically, the shot we ultimately used was a moment we improvised while we were walking back to the grip truck after wrapping our shoot in the cemetery. I think I said something to Jason like, “I feel like Leonard would walk along the top of that divider.” So, Jason hopped up there and did the scene. Afterwards, I had no idea if we’d even be able to use it in the film, but thought maybe it could work in the trailer or something.
Then, when Lisa Fowle, Erick Jolley, Eric Klein, and I began working on the sound at Digital Post Services, we were constantly experimenting. I’m not one of those directors who knows exactly what he wants and I’m a little suspicious of those who say they do. I like to be prepared, but I also like to try things, I like to get lost a little, I like to be surprised, and I like to take my time. The sound design and the mix took about a year to do and there were many breaks when we’d all be working on other things. Then, we’d come back to “JASMINE,” hear the mix again with fresh ears, and start again. People say you write a film three times: when you write the script, when you shoot the film, and when you edit. Personally, I think it’s written 5 times: when you write the script, when you shoot the film, when you edit, when you do score/sound/ADR/source music, and, if it’s a film that’s open to interpretation like “JASMINE” is, when the audience sees it and fills in certain gaps themselves based on their own life experience. So, for me, doing the sound is really a chance to write/direct the movie again. Anyway, I was very lucky to have collaborators who cared as much as I did and who were very patient with me. They’ve won over a dozen awards on the festival circuit and, believe me, they earned every single one of them.
The way you light "Leonard"/Stanley in the hotel scenes against the glass is really intriguing and character revealing. How did you and your DP collaborate to create the language of portraying this character?
This would be an interesting question to ask Guy Livneh, the Director of Photography, actually and I’d be curious to hear his perspective also. For my part, it all started with the selection of Guy as the DP. Guy and I went to AFI together and I thought he was the best from day one when I saw the work he’d done prior to AFI. He was just on a whole different level. He worked with Patty Jenkins (“Monster,” “Wonder Woman”) a lot and I got to see him work when I recorded sound on one of her sets. I always hoped I’d get to work with him one day. I hadn’t considered him for “JASMINE” initially because I never thought I’d be able to get him. But, when a cinematographer I’d been talking to had to pull out, I decided to contact Guy, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in many years. Fortunately, he liked the script and, in a strange twist of fate, he'd worked with Jason before as a gaffer on "Better Luck Tomorrow." So, he was a fan of Jason's acting and, like me, believed he could do great things, if given the opportunity.
In the beginning, Guy and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what camera would be right for “JASMINE,” what aspect ratio would best tell the story, and what lenses would be our go-to’s. I was pretty adamant about shooting the film all handheld because I wanted the camera to breathe with Leonard. We opted for the 2.35 aspect ratio because we wanted Leonard’s face to be treated as if it was a landscape unto itself. There’s a real tendency to shoot Hong Kong with a lot of postcard-like establishing shots, but I wanted Leonard to be the focus, not the skyline. I also knew that I wanted to adhere to Leonard’s perspective, allowing the audience to see/hear only what he sees/hears. So, these guidelines informed a lot. Often, when I had to throw out my shot list due to time constraints and Guy and I found ourselves trying to figure out how we were going to shoot the scene, he’d simply take a step back and ask, “Okay, what’s the scene about?” Thankfully, as the writer, I always knew. Like I said, Guy and I had great confidence in Jason as an actor and, sometimes, we didn’t know what he was going to do. The cardinal rule always was: “Keep him in focus.” The breakdown scene in the hotel room is one of many examples where we did just that. Sometimes, the results were terrifying.
You juxtapose guerilla style filmmaking and grand production pieces really well in this film... What were some of the challenges in the physical production of this film?
In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I think the biggest challenge was shooting without crowd control in public places. Fortunately, Billy Lau, my AD, was a veteran and knew where we could legally shoot in public without interruption. The problem was that, during my preparation, I watched a lot of films that had shot in Hong Kong before me and noticed that many of them, including some big-budget ones, contained shots of people looking into the camera. Personally, nothing takes me out of a movie faster than a passerby looking into the camera, so I was determined to make sure that didn’t happen on “JASMINE,” which turned out to be much easier said than done. Making matters worse, we were shooting a lot of long takes, so, sometimes, we’d be several minutes into a take when someone would wander into the shot, stare at the camera, stare at Jason, and then start asking Jason questions while he was in the middle of doing the scene. Of course, the footage would then be completely ruined and we’d have to start all over. This was incredibly frustrating and it happened more times than I care to remember. But we did manage to pull it off eventually through repeated takes, by camouflaging the camera, and tricks like that. I’m very happy about that.
Jasmine - Official Trailer
The toughest “guerilla” shot to get, I think, was the one where Leonard chases Anna into the crowded street, they exchange heated words, she gets into a taxi and flees, and he chases the taxi. It was shot outside of Langham Place in Mong Kok and, in Cantonese, Mong Kok literally means “busy corner.” It’s just teeming with people and I never thought we’d get the shot, especially since we’d barely gotten shots that were comparatively much, much easier. In fact, I was the one telling everybody that our time would be far better spent finding a less-crowded location. But they convinced me to shoot it anyway and, just as I feared, the first couple of takes were ruined by people – scratch that, a lot of people – looking right into the camera. Eventually, I realized that, if Jason and Sarah made a really big scene, people would be watching them and not the camera filming them. So, they cranked it up a few notches and, all of a sudden, we got it. I was so shocked that I forgot to call “Cut!” and Jason ran all the way to the end of the street before he realized the camera wasn’t following him. Needless to say, he wasn’t too happy with me when he returned. (Sorry, Jason.) When you consider that we didn’t have control over the taxi either and Sarah just got into the first one that came along, it’s even more impressive. The movie gods were definitely on our side that night.
As far as the grand production pieces, a lot of credit really goes to Lindsay Robertson, who is a director/producer in her own right, but served as our locations manager. She had a real passion for locations and knew how to get them. Furthermore, she was able to do so at very low cost. I think we spent USD $1K total on locations in the film and most of that was used up by a $750 permit to shoot in a real police station. (Ironically, the police station scene was cut from the final film.) Had Lindsay not been involved, it would have been a very different film, I fear.
What were some of your filmic influences for this project and how did they help you approach the film?
It’s very interesting to me every time someone asks me what filmmakers and films influenced me because often their guesses are incorrect and that’s great for me because it exposes me to filmmakers and films and writers I might not have checked out otherwise. When we were shooting in Hong Kong, Matt Chavez, the first camera assistant, said my shooting style reminded him a little of Michael Haneke’s work. I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Haneke’s work at the time. I am now and the comparison makes sense, I suppose. It’s certainly flattering. A European reviewer referenced Christopher Nolan and Patricia Highsmith. These, too, are good guesses, but never entered into my thinking. An audience member in Kansas City referenced the short stories of O. Henry. I’ve never read O. Henry’s work, though I’ve read up on him and can understand the comparison. He’s on my reading list now for sure. Anyway, to answer this question in full would mean spoiling certain plot details, so I’ll just stick to filmmakers and films for the time being. I hope that’s okay. To the best of my knowledge, the following are the actual filmmakers and films that inspired “JASMINE”:
Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane.”
John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence.”
Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
Paul Schrader’s “a man in his room” films.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “Revenge” (TV).
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”
The Dardenne Brothers’ “The Son.”
Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant.”
Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” “Chinatown,” and “Frantic.”
The films of David Lynch (sound, mainly).
The films of Stanley Kubrick.
There's a lot of visual structure to this film. One of my favorite scenes is where two characters are packing the boxes separated by doorways. Almost as if they are boxed in themselves. What sort of production design plans did you have for the film?
I’m so pleased to hear you liked the “cleaning out the closets” scene. Like so many scenes in “JASMINE,” this was not shot as originally intended. I had planned to shoot a lot more coverage, but couldn’t due to time constraints. In fact, I spent a great deal of time stocking the apartment with feminine accessories and other details that I was never able to get close-ups of. It was very upsetting at the time. Anyway, I ultimately decided to forego getting conventional coverage, shoot the scene with a single master instead, and hoped repeat viewing would allow the audience to pick up on some of the smaller details like the photograph separating Leonard and Grace, the tags on the clothes in the closet, and so forth. I was pleased with the result and, in particular, the discrepancy between the speed with which Grace is boxing up items and the speed with which Leonard is. Shie Rozow’s cue of the “JASMINE” theme really elevated it as well. Regarding the production design, I had taken a bunch of screenshots from other films during my preparation and shared them with Guy Livneh, Lindsay Robertson, and the art director, Suki Lui. So, we were all on the same page, but we were often at the mercy of what locations we could get with our limited budget. Because the story contained a fair amount of ambiguity, I always tried to encode information about the character and his past via the production design, costumes, and so forth.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next project?
On the producing side, I’m co-producing Orson Welles’s final film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” with Filip Jan Rymsza (“Valley of the Gods”) and Frank Marshall (“Jason Bourne,” “Jurassic World,” “Sully”) and executive producing “Little Hard,” the directorial debut of Bel Powley (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”). On the writing side, I just finished an adaptation of Neil White’s New York Times bestseller, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” for producer Stratton Leopold (“Mission: Impossible III,” “The Wolfman,” “JASMINE”). “Exposure,” a thriller I wrote for producer James Su (“She’s Lost Control,” “JASMINE,” “The Other Side of the Wind”), is starting to heat up and I really hope to direct that. On the writing/producing/directing side, I’ve been chipping away for years on a thriller set in St. Louis, Missouri where I grew up. The story came to me in a dream back in 2010 and won’t leave me alone. Like “JASMINE,” I don’t think I have any choice but to make it. I’m looking forward to reuniting with members of my “JASMINE” team like Stratton, Guy, and Chris and to working with some new faces like Terry Groves and Len Kloosman at Maximfilms in Australia. It’s going to be great.
Interviewer for LAFA: Jay DasGupta