'Tilt': How a Big-Budget Art Director Made the First Trump Horror Movie
Kasra Farahani may have made 'Tilt' before Trump was elected, but his film is already an artifact of the existential horror of our times.
That Kasra Farahani had a previous career in art direction comes as no surprise. His sophomore feature, the horror-thriller Tilt, has a strong and affecting mise en scène despite its low budget—something that only a person with an intimate understanding of the many different elements of filmmaking could accomplish.
After 10 years in the Art Director's Guild working on films such as Men in Black III, Farahani has made the first-ever Donald Trump horror movie. (Though it does feature a jump scare involving a person wearing a Trump mask, the horror is of the psychological and atmospheric variety.) Capitalizing on the existential dread pervading Western society at the moment, Tilt follows a soon-to-be father, Joe (Joseph Cross), as he works on a documentary about the sociopolitical forces that bolstered the "Make America Great Again" movement. As Joe travels further down the rabbit hole of research, he becomes increasingly obsessive and manic, alienating his wife (Alexia Rasmussen) and eventually becoming a threat to everything and everyone he holds dear.
"At the largest, our crew was maybe eight or 10 people. At the smallest, it was me and my DP and my actor."
No Film School caught up with Farahani prior to his film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year to discuss why it's essential for low-budget films to lock locations before hiring crew, why you should never let yourself off the hook as a creator, and why he always shoots on the "amazing" Leica 1.4 series.
No Film School: Critics are dubbing this the "first Trump horror film," but I can imagine you made the film well before he was elected.
Kasra Farahani: Yeah, it's funny. One guy yesterday at a screening misunderstood the film entirely. He thought it was set after the election. I was like, 'Do you have any idea how long it takes to make a movie? That would be impossible!'
There's a lot of political stuff going on, and people think that we are trying to lean into this Trump thing. But we wrote this in the autumn of 2015. There were maybe 15 Republican candidates at the time, and Trump was very much considered not a real candidate. So we weren't going for that. We were, however, going for the emergent white male rage that was in the "Make America Great Again" message. Those rallies were definitely on our minds [as we made the movie], and they made their way into this kind of handsome, disarming, privileged white male character [the protagonist of Tilt]. Even though he's outwardly very liberal, I think, inside, he might secretly prefer Trump to win.
But no, we certainly would never in a million years would have thought it was going to go this way.
NFS: So, in a way, your movie was prescient.
Farahani: Yes. The politics were relevant, and that's how we got into the documentary stuff. You know the way it works with ideas—you have one good idea, but it's not a movie, and hopefully, you pick up one or two other things, and then together you start to see that they, as a composite, tell a story. We wanted to make a film about this documentary filmmaker because myself and my friends can relate.
Here we are, this product of practical generations of people that came before us and did hard, maybe more boring jobs, but they made a stable life for us and we all have some stability or inherited wealth in the middle class. So you can be like, "Oh, what do I want to do? What kind of artist do I want to be?" In Tilt, this privileged person—because of his middle-class status, because of his being male, because of being white, and because of his above average intelligence—has always felt entitled to a certain success. You're watching the moment where he has this realization that he's not gonna achieve this glory that he feels entitled to and that he always took for granted. He has to be a father now, so time's up. He's pretty angry about that.
"The things that are truly scary are the things that are happening all the time in real life."
[Making a] documentary is a great way to explore his outwardly-liberal tendencies, and candidly, to express some of our own. But also it was a great opportunity to have this contradiction, where this character, maybe even unbeknownst to himself, is sort of a hypocrite. He's unemployed. His wife is the breadwinner. He's emasculated in some ways. Like I said before, maybe he secretly would really prefer to live in the golden age of the American mid-century that he's railing against.
NFS: What was the first image you had for this film, if not Trump-related?
Farahani: It started with my co-writer, who had this really dark image in his mind—which is weird for either of us because we're not horror people. We're pretty squeamish, to be honest. But he had this really scary image of a man standing over his sleeping wife.
NFS: That moment in the film was terrifying.
Farahani: That was terrifying. That was the seed of it.
We wanted to make an inexpensive movie. We wanted to shoot in my house. We were interested in making a "true" horror film that feels real as possible. We started to talk about what's really scary, and there are a lot of tropes about horror, like the guy in the mask with the machete or whatever. But the things that are truly scary, for us at least, were the things that are happening all the time in real life. What could be scarier than the person closest to you, your partner, who you're supposed to be safest with, that you've chosen to be your mate...what could be scarier than that person turning out to be the biggest threat to you?
NFS: As Joseph [the main character] descended into mania and obsession with his documentary project, I was reminded of some filmmakers I know.
Farahani: Totally. I can totally relate to it. I mean, I can't tell you how weirdly meta this movie was. We're shooting scenes of him going through this footage and editing this documentary, and my editor and I edited the movie at that desk in that office. So we're sitting at that desk, at that computer, in that office, editing footage of this filmmaker going crazy while he is editing this footage. Super, super weird. Both in the literal sense and in the more deep-seated psychological way, you start to relate.
"I can't tell you how weirdly meta this movie was."
I think that any film, or really any piece of craft or art, takes a certain amount of mania and obsession because it's so protracted and long and there are so many pieces that you have to obsess a little in order to get it finished. So often, people lose their work ethic. I think that happens to Joe—he has all these grand ideas, but he's gotten a little untethered. He's spending too much time looking at some things, and then other times when he should be working, he's just wandering around in the streets of LA, trying to provoke dangerous situations, kind of testing himself to get to the point where he ultimately blows up his life.
In all of that was our exploration of trying to find true horror, which is in these weird, senseless things that you read about in the newspaper every week. Last week, there was the terrible murder on Facebook live. Later, there was an interview with [a friend of the perpetrator], and she was like, "This guy was a nice guy. He was nice to me. He was nice to my kids." That's what I think the real horror is. These people aren't Boogeymen. It's just not that tidy. It's probably more like this dude who, admittedly, had some wires crossed the whole time. You don't do something like this unless there's something wrong—unless you have a vulnerability and maybe a mental health problem to start with, but I think that's probably a lot of people. What you're seeing is the unfortunate confluence of a few variables that didn't play out well, and you're watching how it leads to this guy's unraveling in a short period of time.
NFS: I certainly think Tilt is a commentary on the state of mental health in our country. Joe issued many cries for help, but every time he did, his situation was downplayed. It's almost as if we willfully deny it.
Farahani: Exactly! I think you're 100% right. He's a scared, and I think this is an important thing—I really hope comes through in the film. He's as terrified at what he's doing as anybody. There's a scene where he tries to tell his wife what's going on, and he says to her, "I'm not safe." And she misses it. She's a smart woman. But she's also tired; she just worked a shift. But I also think, exactly like you said, that we all have this incentive to pretend things are okay. It's incredibly inconvenient and disruptive to acknowledge big things like this, and I think we have a propensity to be like, "It'll be fine." Sometimes, loved ones ignore these signs, and it boils over in really dangerous consequences.
NFS: Can you tell me a little bit about the production? How did you decide to shoot in your house? Did you have any other limitations of scope?
Farahani: For sure. We had a lot of limitations, and it's total cliché to say this, but it ended up making the movie a lot better. I knew that the lion's share of the heavy-lifting performance-wise would have to be that way because that takes time; the actors have to be able to focus. That's what we could afford. So we wrote a script where everything took place inside the house, but it was very important to us to open up the film. That's we have these scenes of Joe wandering LA and courting danger.
At the largest, our crew was maybe eight or 10 people. At the smallest, it was me and my DP and my actor. There was extensive scouting. My DP and I are very good friends, so we hang out all the time anyway. We'd see a movie and then go scouting in these really seedy places in LA. I grew up in LA, so it helped I knew where to look. Basically, we knew we might not have any crew, so we wouldn't have any lights. We were looking for places that were beautifully lit on their own.
"We knew we might not have any crew, so we wouldn't have any lights. We were looking for places that were beautifully lit on their own."
Also, in selecting the camera package and the lens package—that was the only thing that we spent a little bit of money on, and even that we got a good deal on. That camera package—the value, not the rental price—was four times the budget of the entire movie.
NFS: What was the camera package?
Farahani: An Alexa Mini. Alexa's amazing in low light, and the Mini is really small, and when you have no people and you need to move quickly, it's really awesome. We shot on the Leica 1.4 lenses. I don't know if I'll ever want to shoot on anything else again. There are a lot of people that want to shoot on Anamorphic. I love Anamorphic, but the look of these things, and how fast they are...we can almost shoot in the dark. I'm not certain about this, but I think that even The Revenant used this lens package at some points. It's amazing. It comes in so many focal lengths. These are silly things, seemingly, but they're really important when you don't have a crew. The lenses are all the same size; it doesn't matter what focal length you're using. Not having a 20 lb. lens makes a real difference about whether you can get the shot or not in a situation like this. They're beautiful and impeccable and they let you shoot places that up until very recently were not available to you if you didn't have the money for lights. I was so happy about that.
We found these seedy locations, and they were all stolen, to be honest with you, with the exception of a couple of interiors. One was a conference room in my brother's office, and one was a woodshop that my dad uses as a storage place. But other than the house, I really think every single other location was stolen. I don't advocate for that. I worked as an art director on large studio films for 10 years.
NFS: I didn't realize you had a background in art direction. How'd you get into directing?
Farahani: Yeah, I come from the art department. My degree's actually in product design. Then I became a concept artist for a long time, and then an art director, and I did a little bit of production design, then I had a short that I directed.
I definitely benefited from all the lessons that I learned about how things are supposed to be done with a lot of resources. Being an art director is not as creative as it sounds. It's a lot of logistics. For example, I lived in New York for a year, art directing Men In Black III. I did the 2012 and the 1969 headquarters, which we built in the Marcy Armory. It was a huge set—probably 10-12,000 square foot set that we built from scratch.
"If you take the job seriously as a director and you don't have a lot of money to make a movie, you can make your money go shockingly far if you plan."
This is gonna sound crazy, but I spent on that one set 100 times more money than I spent on this film. When you're the art director, you're there from the very beginning, and you have all the departments that have their needs. Special effects wants to blow through this wall, and stunts wants a pad embedded into the ground for safety. Visual effects wants green screen up to 12 feet, but lighting needs to be able to get a 20k here, a 10k here, and they need to hide their cables. All of those things go through the art director, because you have to accommodate those needs. That experience was incredibly helpful for me to be able to make production money go very far. I know exactly where the waste is.
NFS: Where is production money wasted, usually?
Farahani: I'll tell you exactly where the waste is. It's indecision and poor planning, and not having a lot of your decisions made before your payroll gets paid. We scouted and locked every location before we started any crew. That's harder to do if you have a more technical film, if you need a lot from your art department, or you need a lot from stunts and visual effects. But because of my background, I have a lot of experience in visual effects, and I was able to anticipate those things. Basically, when we location scouted, it was just me and my DP. Then you're not spending any money, and you're not wasting any time.
We had to know down to the hour what time to shoot a certain place, because we didn't have any lights. We needed to know whether it was dusk, what time this light comes in, etc. If you do take that time, and if you take the job seriously as a director and you don't have a lot of money to make a movie, you can make your money go shockingly far if you plan. That's really how to save money.
NFS: How did your background in art direction influence the visual world of your film?
Farahani: We had a limited ability to affect things. I like to feel like my home is pretty well-decorated, and my friend Margaret, who was our production designer, has an amazing eye, and she brought a lot of beautiful things that she owns. We rented a few things that were indispensable, like the pinball machine and stuff like that. But a lot of it is, again, in just selecting the locations and trying to find ones that are really evocative.
Growing up in LA and having seen so many LA movies that present this really manicured, glitzy version, what I was really interested in is "the ugly palm tree movie" or "the sad palm tree movie." I wanted to put a lot of palm trees in it, but I wanted to find the ugly, misshapen, dying ones—which there are a lot of in LA—and tell the story of the more "real" LA. There's a lot of visceral, inherently dramatic, and pretty places to shoot in East LA, where I live. I'll give you a little secret: a lot of the time when Joe is silhouetted walking, it's me walking, because it was just literally me and my DP. It's this part of LA called Vernon, which is so industrial, with almost no residents.
"It's probably the most visual part of our movie, and we got it more or less for free. We could never have afforded to recreate something like that on our budget."
The thing I'm most proud of, in terms of production value, is this scene on Halloween that takes place in a Day of the Dead Parade in LA. I've grown up going to it and I love it. We were only about halfway through the script when we hit Halloween of 2015, and I just knew that I wanted to use that somehow. Before we even knew how the movie turned out, we went down there, just my DP and I. That's me walking through that crowd, and my DP following me, shooting this footage before we even knew exactly how we were gonna use it. Then we sort of figured that out in the script. It was great. It is probably the most visual part of our movie, and we got it more or less for free. We could never have afforded to recreate something like that on our budget.
NFS: That came from foresight.
Farahani: It came from planning, that's right, absolutely.
NFS: This is your first feature?
Farahani: It's my second feature, actually. I did a feature called The Good Neighbor with James Caan that premiered at SXSW last year. It was a great experience, but in many ways, I feel that this is my first film, because my co-writer and I wrote this film, and that one, we didn't.
The one nice thing about making a film for almost no money is that you have total creative control. I probably had more creative control on Tilt than I'll ever have again in my whole career. Of course, the producers were terrific on The Good Neighbor, and they were very respectful and I had a lot of control, but it's very different when you can do whatever you want to do.
NFS: Besides planning and having foresight, what did you learn from your first time directing that you were able to bring to Tilt?
Farahani: The thing that I had a hunch about but never had experienced is that working with crew—fortunately, they're all good close friends of mine—people aren't getting paid a lot of money, and it's hard work. Everyone has to be nice to each other. Despite how small our budget was, we never had a day that was longer than 12 hours. Our film was too small to be union, but I'm a union member. I've been in the Art Directors' Guild for almost 10 years. I think that those rules are in place for a reason. I don't want people to be taken advantage of. So be nice to everybody. Have nice snacks on set that are healthy, not just junk food, and make sure everybody has a decent lunch. It goes a long way.
"Your collaborators are talented artists. They're not just functionaries there to execute. And if they are, then you probably hired the wrong people."
Also, the things that I learned most about are editing and scoring. I know a lot about pre-production and production itself, and because of the way large studio films have moved towards visual effects in the 10 years that I've been working, I've come to know a lot about visual effects. But editing is something I know very little about, and scoring is something I know almost nothing about. Music, generally, I would say, is by far my single biggest blind spot. It's a language I don't speak. It's a weakness of mine because it's one of the most impactful and cheap ways to get emotion into a movie. I had a great composer, Lucas James Putnam, out of Vancouver. I learned a ton about frequencies and how they play well with dialogue, or work against dialogue, and sound design, and when to let the sound design shine through versus let the score shine through.
Also, the editing process. For me, it's very rewarding and valuable to have an editor come in who has fresh eyes. Especially because I wrote the movie this time, with my co-writer, I have things that I'm precious and specific about. To let somebody who has no built-in ideas about how it should work just break all those preconceived ideas and present something new... sometimes it doesn't work and I want it to be the way I thought it should be, and other times it's way better.
Farahani: There are a lot of directors I admire, like Ryan Johnson and the Coen Brothers, who edit their own movies. It's a skill that I want to pick up and learn more about, but for the moment, I'm really liking this outside impression. I feel like you want that from all your collaborators if you can. Don't do what you think I want; do what you think works for the story. Your collaborators are talented artists. They're not just functionaries there to execute. And if they are, then you probably hired the wrong people, I think. You want to be working with people that have opinions.
NFS: What did you learn about working with actors?
Farahani: Thank you for pointing that out. That's another thing that I've learned the most about, because it's not something you get to do in the art department. What I've learned the most, believe it or not, is how important casting is.
This pains me to say as somebody who worked in the art department and felt my contribution was indispensable, but: you can have a beautiful-looking movie, a beautifully-scored movie, and if the cast is not right, the emotionality won't won't be there.
This is another cliché, but you really just have to do it. The opportunities and the resources are out there to make a movie for cheap. I could go on endlessly about how frustrating it is to not have access to financing, and how much nepotism makes an impact on how quickly you ascend in Hollywood and who you can get in your movie. But you hear time and time again: "Cameras are so cheap. You live in LA or New York or a big city, you could find people who know how to use equipment who are willing to collaborate with you."
That stuff is true. So my biggest advice to people is to check your work ethic and your own discipline in terms of sitting down and doing the thing that you want for yourself. Don't let yourself off the hook. I'm no expert at it, so I don't have any strong advice, like, "I get up every morning and I make coffee and I just sit down and write." It's not that. But maybe I'm lucky because I feel guilty if I don't do something productive every day. It might be reading a novel, or watching a movie or two, but I do hold myself at least to that standard.