From Indie Drama to Cranston Thriller: Director Tze Chun Talks 'Cold Comes The Night'
Director Tze Chun came up big in 2010 with his debut Sundance drama Children of Invention, which he also self-distributed. Now he's back with his recently-released sophomore effort Cold Comes The Night, starring none other than America's darling bad-boy Bryan Cranston. Read on for our interview with the filmmaker as he discusses what it's like to build on his humble indie roots.
Check out the trailer (if you're into that kind of thing):
NFS: Congrats on your premieres. How has that experience been and do you think you've carried over your audience from your previous film Children of Invention?
Tze: Yeah, somewhat. I went to the LA and NY premieres and it was nice to see all the people who had supported my previous movies and who continue to support. However, I feel like this movie has a way different audience because of the genre. I think most people will be watching it on demand because of Bryan Cranston not, because the director is me. [Laughs]
NFS: When did you shoot the film and how long did it take to complete?
Tze: We shot in November of 2012 for 4 weeks; two 5-day weeks and one 6-day week with 1-day breaks in between. We had a really compressed timetable because Bryan was coming off of press for Argo and then going straight into shooting season 5 of Breaking Bad. So we really only had a 16 day window to shoot with him.
NFS: Were those days really packed? How did you manage your time with him?
Tze: Mynette Louie was our producer and we're relatively organized, we don't create unrealistic schedules. Those days were packed, but I think we only went over on 1 or 2 of those days.
NFS: What kind of things do you do when scheduling to keep it practical?
Tze: One of the things we were very careful about when we were location scouting was that we needed exterior and interior and the lobby of the motel all in one place. We knew that a company move always takes longer than you think it's going to take. So we were lucky and found a location where everything was in one place. And just doing as much pre-planning as possible so everyone knows where they're supposed to be so we're not winging it on the day.
"There's no catch-all as a director, you need to read your actors and see what they need."
NFS: I have to ask: who was responsible for Cranston's accent?
Tze: In the script it was just supposed to be American, but from the very first time that we talked Bryan thought it would be interesting to play Topo as very much distant and mysterious or 'other' -- and he thought a Polish accent would make him more unreadable. And also for a guy that's going blind it's a very lonely existence, so he thought making him an immigrant on top of that could be an interesting layer.
NFS: There are a lot of tough situations in the movie especially for the Alice Eve character. What was the environment on set and how do you think you arrived at those performances?
Tze: I think that every actor needs a different environment to try to do their best work. There's no catch-all as a director, you need to read your actors and see what they need. And what Bryan needs and what Alice needs and what Logan needs are very different. So the challenge on set is usually if two actors are in the scene together you need to create two separate worlds to make them as comfortable as possible going in to a scene.
"Part of the reason I've been able to keep making movies is that I haven't been unrealistic in terms of the type of budget I'm working with."
NFS: What's one thing about the process of making Cold Comes The Night that was massively different from Children of Invention?
Tze: Children of Invention was very observational, very naturalistic -- the entire movie is pretty much handheld. We shot with a lot of telephoto lenses. We were trying to make a movie that was like an Iranian new wave movie. For this movie our influences were different, it was definitely a bigger budget and there were more people on set and more people to answer to. What was nice about COI and my short films is that it has felt like a gradual ramping up in terms of budget and in terms of the number of people who have input on set and in the edit. It's been nice to be able to take those gradual steps as opposed to just jumping straight into a bigger budget movie having done nothing before.
NFS: Was that a goal of yours while pursuing your career, were you very consciously taking it slow and pacing yourself or did it just happen by virtue of circumstance?
Tze: Well, I think part of the reason I've been able to keep making movies is that I haven't been unrealistic in terms of the type of budget I'm working with. For Children of Invention I knew there was a limited audience for the movie so I wasn't going to ask for some astronomical sum in order to make it. And it's the same with Cold Comes the Night, even though it does have stars, it's still a very low-budget. Part of it was just knowing that in order to get the movie made we had to be realistic and to make the investors comfortable.
NFS: Did that spill over to the post-production? Did you have more people breathing down your neck so to speak?
Tze: Not necessarily. There were certainly more producers, but it was a Sony negative pickup, so even from the script phase they had notes. They test screened it -- which I had never done before -- and in general all the notes were really smart. I really liked working with all the producers and distributors. It was just different from COI where we just showed it to a few friends before going to Sundance. So this was more of a process but for me as a filmmaker it was interesting to go through that process, it's actually nice to have more dialogue with people you respect as you're trying to shape the movie and finish the movie.
Even if you don't agree with a note it might bring something up that can be improved somewhere else. It's funny when filmmakers are like "Oh, my producers are so stupid, they're giving me the dumbest notes, I hate them!" Well, when did they turn dumb? Was it somehow after they were smart enough to invest in your project and then suddenly they lost all their brain cells? If you thought they were smart when the were giving you money then their notes probably have some validity.
"I kept thinking 'Okay, have I done my job? Am I just talking in order to talk? If I've done my job I'm just gonna get out of the way and only intervene when I think it's absolutely necessary.' "
NFS: With Bryan Cranston being in the limelight right now in terms of our culture, what was it like for you as a filmmaker? Did you feel like you really needed to bring your A game? Were you intimidated at all by the experience? How was the relationship?
Tze: Me and my co-writers were huge fans of Breaking Bad and huge fans of Bryan. From the very beginning he had a lot of great creative notes about the script, so a lot of the process of working together and feeling like we were on the same team was just going through the notes process. He had a lot of notes about his character but also even just structural stuff about the script. And when we implemented them we found it made the script a lot tighter. So it was really through that process that we got to know each other and started to feel that we were all trying to make the same movie. And on set Bryan is very generous to the crew and cast. A couple of the cast members -- it was their first feature film -- and Bryan is very helpful and encouraging. He's so experienced so he certainly was helpful in guiding those scenes along.
"The more singular the characters, are the easier it would be able to cast somebody like Bryan Cranston or Alice Eve or Logan Marshall-Green."
NFS: Was there a difference in the job you were doing in terms of working with non-actors or first time actors and working with professionals?
Tze: In some ways it's the same. Working with child actors in my first feature and adult actors, a lot of it is just creating a comfortable environment so they can do their best work. And doing what you can to keep them present in the scene. But when you're working with someone who has a lot of experience like Bryan or Alice or Logan, there are times when you need to get out of the way, and I was very conscious of that. Every time I talked to experienced actors they said that younger directors -- sometimes they just want you to get out of the way. So I kept thinking "Okay, have I done my job? Am I just talking in order to talk? If I've done my job I'm just gonna get out of the way and only intervene when I think it's absolutely necessary."
NFS: For filmmakers who maybe have made one film but want to "move up" or be more professional and work with stronger actors -- do you have any advice for approaching those situations?
Tze: I think in terms of casting this movie, one of my co writers Oz Perkins was very adamant about trying to create these out of the ordinary characters that you might not see in a genre movie like this. And smartly he saw that as we went out into the casting process that the more singular the characters are, the easier it would be able to cast somebody like Bryan Cranston or Alice Eve or Logan Marshall-Green. So as we were writing it, we wanted to create roles that would attract name actors.
NFS: What do you think you did successfully to attract those actors with the writing?
Tze: For a character like Topo we talked about Anton Sigur (No Country for Old Men). We'd never seen that in a movie before -- everything from his world view to his appearance. When you write a genre movie it's very easy to say, okay this is a 'bad guy.' So we tried to figure out: what is that hook? His glasses, his hair, he's going blind but still hanging on. As much of that stuff you put in the script the better, and then you bring on people -- we had Amy Forsythe for hair and makeup and Anney Perrine was our costume designer -- to accentuate what's in the script and make it as realistic as possible.
NFS: What's your goal for the next project?
Tze: It was 2 or 3 years in-between Children of Invention and Cold Comes the Night, and it was difficult to convince people that someone coming from a small character-driven drama would be able to do a thriller. So I would like to do another thriller or crime drama, and that movie is called High Ground. Mynette Louie is producing it and I co-wrote with one of my best friends Mike Weiss. It's a heist movie set in New Orleans.
NFS: What was your path towards distribution and did you have a hand in that?
Tze: Cold Comes the Night was a negative pickup by SPWA, and what that means is that they agree to buy the movie for a certain price once the movie is done, but they don't finance the movie. So you take that letter to banks and then you cash flow the movie on your own. So SPWA and Samuel Goldwyn are putting it out. On Children of Invention, Mynette and I self-distributed it, we split up the rights in order to monetize the movie. We were doing a lot. I did all the graphic design, marketing materials. This movie is different, it certainly isn't a hand-off to a distributor, we're still involved in the marketing, but that being said we are certainly a smaller part of something big, rather than a big part in something small in terms of distribution. There's a certain loss of control that I'm not used to, but in the end, nobody decides to become a director so they can distribute their own movie.
NFS: For me the penultimate image of the film was one of the characters just slowly dying and trying to hold on to the money at the same time. And something about that reminded me of being in independent film.
Tze: [Laughs] That's so funny, that's amazing. Just bleeding out slowly... [Laughing] He's pretty much just a metaphor for independent film. That's really funny...
I think one of the most important things he mentions here is the ability to pace yourself, to gradually ramp up your productions instead of thinking you can go zero to sixty. A huge thanks to Tze Chun for lending his time to No Film School for the interview. Have any of you seen the film? If not, it's out on several platforms now, and available for purchase on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon VOD, and iTunes on March 4th. Share your thoughts below.