An Interview with LAFA Winner Nicolaus Taylor ("Madness")
Nicolaus, congratulations on winning Best First Time Director (Short) for Madness. A truly impressive debut film! Before we chat about your filmmaking process, we'd like to get to know you a little better. You come from a fascinating background: born in Sydney, Australia, you grew up in [Louisville, KY] and joined the U.S. Navy! What made you decide to pursue visual storytelling after serving the U.S.Navy for so many years?
Thanks so much. I've always wanted to make movies. I made video projects in middle and high school whenever available. I made my first actual movie right out of high school at 18. Even after I joined the Navy, I was making shorts and entering contests online. joining the Navy was a means to an end- meaning, I couldn't find a job in 2008 (like many people) and didn't really have any direction in life. Didn't have any money for film school, or even public college. A friend of mine joined the Navy, and I was like: "I could do that!" So I did. Military service is so great for a lot of reasons: stability, decent pay (especially if you move up the ranks), see the world, great benefits. Serving in the Navy afforded me the opportunity to follow my dreams afterwards. Not to mention meet my future wife. So I will always be grateful for that, but filmmaking is where I truly belong.
What were some of your early steps into the filmmaking world?
My first narrative film was a mockumentary about ping pong that I made with my friends, circa 2005. It was... not very good. Although it was funny, I had no real idea what I was doing. I was just such a huge fan of the Christopher Guest movies ("Best in Show" particularly), and I knew so many funny people that I thought I could do it. And it's out there, on YouTube now if you ever want to see it. I like revisiting it every once in a while, cause there are some really great things about it. But also a lot of cringy things, you know. From before you knew what you're doing as a filmmaker. Then I remember applying for Spielberg's "On The Lot" show in 2006-ish. Didn't get in, obviously. But that was a cool experience- I made a micro short about a hit man that was terrible at his job. It wasn't until after my time in the Navy that I got serious about it, though. I made a series of shorts called "Nick Gets Sick" that I filmed, where I get an illness in every episode. And it was a great experience in genre bending, and learning how to do certain things. Like Ryan Connolly with Film Riot (who was a big influence) I wanted to make films, but also get better at making films. So I really pushed myself. So I think (I hope) you can see the progression with each episode of that series. Each one getting a little better, and pushing the envelope a bit more both visually and storytelling-wise.
Alongside your directing career, you also work as a visual effects artist on huge Hollywood films like Avatar 2 and Avatar 3. What is your biggest takeaway from these gigs?
Yeah- it was a shock and such an experience working on those. My biggest takeaway is that all of filmmaking is a group effort. I don't think people realize that. From the lowest microfilm to the biggest blockbuster, you're only as good as your team. I worked with such great people on all projects, and I am a very inclusive Director, by which I mean- I love getting input from everyone. We all want to make the best possible product, and that's why we are there. No one wants to make a crappy film. So, even working on something like "Avatar", you do what Richie Banneham (Visual Effects Supervisor) or Jim Cameron wants, of course- but there's always room to make things better and everyone's input is valid. The better everyone is, the better the end product will be. And that's true whether you're working with 1 or 2 people, or a team of hundreds.
Let's talk about Madness, which is your directorial debut. You wrote this unique story with John D. Hernandez and Jeremiah Preston. Why did you decide to bring this story to the screen, and is it influenced by real-life events?
I guess I should first say- SPOILERS, if you haven't seen it- haha. It's on YouTube now, so check it out and come back to finish this. We started with the twist. It was actually John's idea. His idea was: what if you had this method actor, who didn't consciously realize they were filming a movie? How would they react to the resets in between each scene? To the inconsistencies? How would the other actors react? You always hear about actors getting so inside the minds of their characters for their roles, ie. Heath Ledger for the Joker or Daniel Day-Lewis... So we really developed that idea of a character who is reliving this traumatic event over and over again like "Groundhog Day", but we wanted to have a realistic explanation that most time loop movies don't have. And from the feedback I've gotten, it kind of works. And we're so glad for that. It wasn't inspired by anything out of our real lives except for our love of filmmaking and the process.
What were some of the visual references you chose to communicate your vision to Veronica Smith, the cinematographer?
I created a lookbook of sorts- a couple sheets for what each scene would look like. It was a lot of Fincher, Nolan-esque images. And I drew up some storyboards for a couple shots that I thought would look good. Veronica was so good at meeting and exceeding my expectations for the visuals of the film. I am very grateful to have been surrounded by an amazing, but small crew who elevated the entire thing to more than I thought it could be. But Veronica was the real genius- and the other main thing that really helped was our location. We shot in a real house in Moorpark, CA and they had this lighting system that was controlled by an iPad. So we just messed with the lighting until we got it where we liked it, and Veronica placed another light overhead (in the kitchen) and it just worked perfectly. And it helped that her partner, Neil Watson is a professional camera operator and director as well. So they knew what they were doing and they helped make me look like I knew what I was doing.
The three cast members Adam Kitchen, Ian Neville, and Gilbert Roy had great onscreen chemistry. How did you work with them to achieve these excellent performances?
Honestly, the main part of that is just that they're such great people. We had an open casting session, they were the best of what we saw and I could tell that they were genuinely good people, not to mention phenomenal actors. We had a lunch after casting them to sit down and talk with all of them together, before we shot anything. And that was like a meeting with old friends, truthfully. It was so smooth and fluid. They were cool, funny, honest people and we all got along so well. They understood their individual characters as well as the story overall. Then we ran rehearsal before we shot. They asked questions and ran lines with each other in between setups. They made the most of their downtime, which speaks to their craft and dedication to their roles.
What did you love the most about being on set, and was there anything different than you had imagined before?
I loved the collaboration of working with everyone. Next to filmmaking and storytelling, my favorite thing is the feeling of a group achieving shared goals. So I work well in groups, and my time in the military has also made me a better leader which also helps in Directing. You have to be able to communicate your vision to others, but also be flexible enough to accept other points of view to make your vision greater. I had been on a few smaller sets before (other than Avatar), and the one constant is everyone works together to make the best possible product. It's not like working at a large corporation or something, where you don't feel your input is appreciated. In fact, it's exactly the opposite- you can directly see your efforts making the production better and it's so easy to take pride in something tangible like that.
Did the 2020 pandemic affect your production at all?
Yes and no. We were teleworking anyway just because it was more cost-effective. Our editor, Jon Villegas, was in Miami for a good chunk of it while John Hernandez and Jeremiah were in LA. I was in LA until the summer and then I was mobilized with the Navy reserve so I was away for the last leg of the post-production work. So, it did slow down things quite a bit, but I don't feel like it hindered our ability to create a final product. We shot in January 2020, so luckily we got everything we needed before the pandemic shut everything down. And we were such a small production, everyone was working from home anyway on this project in their free time. So I would say not really.
How did you recruit editor Jonathan Villegas and what was it like to work with him?
Producer John Hernandez actually found Jon online. He asked him if he was interested, and Jon was very enthusiastic about joining the team. I also have to mention that he won an award for Best Editing for "Madness" at one of the other festivals we applied to, so his work kind of speaks for itself. Working with him was awesome, though. He was so intuitive to the feeling and pacing of the film that we honestly gave him minimal notes. We all loved him so much and his contribution to the film that we brought him on as a Co-Producer on the project. And it wasn't just a title, he worked for it. Aside from the amazing cut of the film that he produced, he found our sound mixer Will Rosati who, again, elevated the film with his amazing soundscape. So it would not have been the same film without Jon Villegas.
What message do you wish the audience to take away from the film, and what comments did you receive so far?
More than anything, this film has always been a "proof of talent" for everyone involved. From the beginning, Jeremiah, John and I wanted to show the world what we were capable of as filmmakers. I told the whole cast and crew that this film is a testament to all our abilities as filmmakers. We are a bunch of unknowns, you know? No one will hire you unless you show them what you can produce. That's true of any job in the film industry. So I want people to know that I can direct and produce a great film. I want people to know that Adam, Ian and Gilbert are phenomenal actors. I want people to hire Andres Montiel as a production designer for his amazing work and attention to detail, or Jon Villegas for his editing skills. The credits of our film were deeply important to me to honor everyone that worked on the film. Not just a scrolling list of names, but an exploration of the art of making our film, which was why I created the end credits sequence where we're exploring the space and showcasing the names of people that made our film possible. And the reception has been great. Everyone I've shown the film to loves it. Not that they would tell me if they didn't- haha! But I truly hope it is enjoyable, exciting, and thrilling to watch. That's all I really want.
What is something you wish you knew before getting into filmmaking? Do you have any advice for beginners?
Getting your foot in the door seems daunting. And honestly, it is. I guess the thing I wish I had known from the start is: you don't need permission to make your film. I was always waiting for someone to offer me a job, or recognize my genius- but I hadn't even made anything worthwhile. People want to see what you can do. They don't want to hear about it. They certainly can't ascertain your abilities if you don't make anything. So I'm a big proponent of making your film any way you can. On your phone, if you don't have any other camera. If your film is compelling enough, you will get noticed. There are people looking for up-and-coming filmmakers. Studios, agents, whatever. You have to grab their attention. And you won't do that sitting around dreaming of doing something, you have to actually go out and do it. Networking is a big thing, too. Find other people in your area that love filmmaking as much as you do. And don't stop until you reach your goal. It's really simple, but we tend to overcomplicate and romanticize "breaking into the industry". You don't have to "break in", you just have to do it, you know? Do what you love, don't wait for someone to give you permission to do it.
Where do you see yourself in the future - will you focus on directing, writing, or both?
As of now, I can't imagine directing something I haven't written. My aspiration is to write and direct movies for a living. I feel like I have a lot of stories to tell, and I don't know if I can do a story justice if I didn't come up with it myself. I don't want to direct someone else's vision of something. But if I had to just pick one, I would say directing. It's the most fulfilling to me. I love every aspect of it, and the director is the Captain of the boat. You control pretty much all aspects of the film and I couldn't write something I had a vision for and give it to someone else to direct. That would break my heart. Because if it's bad, I would always wonder if it was my fault (as the writer) or someone else's. As a director, you own the failures as well as the successes and I can deal with that.
If you could have one filmmaking superpower, what would it be?
Wow- what an awesome question. I guess it would be a photographic memory? So I wouldn't have to keep referencing my shot list and wondering if we got all the coverage we needed? Haha! I feel like most of the anxiousness on set is that- wondering if you got everything you needed. Hoping that you can make it work in the edit. Either that or being really, really, ridiculously good at visual effects so that I could fix anything in post that I needed to. I'm working on that one, but a photographic memory I will never have!
What's next for you (any upcoming projects?), and what's next for Madness?
"Madness" is making the rounds at some more festivals till the end of the year. It's kind of bittersweet that some festivals have not selected us, while others seem to really like our film. That's always how it goes, though. We didn't have any notions of winning an Academy Award or anything, but it feels so good when your work gets recognized. So I really just hope people can watch and enjoy it. I honestly do- I've seen it hundreds of times, in different states, and still love what we've created. As far as what's next, I'm writing a lot of stuff at the moment. I have 2 short films that I want to shoot once things kind of get back to normal. One's a proof of concept sci-fi film of a feature that I've written, and the other is a short drama that's kind of personal to me. I'm writing a couple of other things as well- just to have in my back pocket in case anyone asks, and finishing my Masters in Creative Writing. So I'm just going to keep jamming. Going with the grind. Having my first major project out of the way is kind of liberating, and I can't wait to work on the next one. Using that momentum to just keep moving forward.
Is there anything you'd like to add, or someone you'd like to thank?
I'd like to thank the whole cast and crew of "Madness". I'm no Steven Spielberg or Zack Snyder and I acknowledge that I'm only as good as my team. And I feel so incredibly lucky to have surrounded myself with the people that I did for that film. I don't know how it could have possibly been any better. So many times you finish something and you're kind of not happy with it, or critical of what it could have been... not with "Madness". I think it is the best iteration of that film directly because of the talented people that worked on it. Every award we win, every kind word I share with everyone else. I love it, and I hope everyone that watches it does too.