Director Josiah Signor on Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Micro Budget Indie Party Movie
Through film history, there are those films we qualify as good "party movies" (Sixteen Candles and Dazed and Confused come to mind). But on the low-budget end of the spectrum, scenes taking place at a party can sometimes be the surest way for a film to scream "amateur". Is it the garish lighting that accompanies party scenes, or the awkward clusters of bored friends posing as background actors? Josiah Signor tackled the party genre with much success in Bastards of Young, and in this No Film School interview, he explains how he created his well acted, well paced, nuanced feature debut -- a micro budget "party movie" that's actually pretty damned good.
Josiah Signor's Bastards of Young follows a group of 30-somethings for an annual Halloween party tradition, and was shot on a very small budget over the course of 12 days. Before you read our interview about the film (that you can now see on iTunes and Amazon) here's a look at the trailer:
NFS: When low-budget movies try to do party scenes, they can go so wrong, so quickly. Why do you think that is? What pitfalls did you avoid, and what did you strive for to make Bastards of Young so much better than that?
Josiah Signor: I think things go wrong for low-budget films when they try too hard to seem like they are bigger than they actually are. You have to work within your means. That doesn’t mean you can’t be original or daring or try new things. But audiences are very savvy nowadays. They don’t want to feel tricked, and they will notice.
I feel like everyone says they made their movie for no money, but we really did not have any money. So, we knew our limits and worked very hard to stay within those limits while making the images feel like we actually had some money. The party scenes were definitely the most difficult. We scheduled the scenes that required the most extras together so that we only needed them for two or three days tops. (It is really hard to get free extras to commit to anything. Sets can be really boring for background actors, especially ones who have no idea what they are getting into.)
The other thing we knew from the get-go was that we did not want any wide shots. I worked very hard in pre-production with my DP, Mike Rossetti, on how we would shoot it effectively and believably. So 90% of the shots are medium to medium-close. I wanted it to feel like the viewer is at the party, how they would see things. This helped tremendously in making the place feel packed, even though we had very few actual extras.
NFS: I always think about background actors in party movies. When you've just lured a bunch of friends into being background actors on the pretext of fun and free pizza, it's no surprise that they're often bored and bad at being extras. How did you wrangle yours, and get such decent performances from the background cast?
JS: The whole crew was in costume, so anytime we needed some people crossing or whatever, the grip or the art department or even myself would do so. I highly recommend getting a casting director as well. Mine did a phenomenal job of finding me a great group of actors for the main cast. But the added bonus is she knew of several actors who were happy to do her a favor and come to set. And because it was a party, we had beer and snacks and such, so people seemed to have a good time. We all did, really. Having a great set, great people to work with; the vibe is super important. We all laughed a lot, improvised a bunch, and just kept that party atmosphere going. I think that definitely comes across. And my costume designer was genius at having no budget but magically throwing together a ton of Halloween costumes, so many of the extras are several different characters.
NSF: What about your main cast -- what was your philosophy as a director working with actors?
JS: Chemistry. Chemistry between all of the main cast with each other, and chemistry with me. And being loose.
I am not a stickler for the words I write. The best part about writing a script is the collaborative aspect. It’s just a blueprint. I wrote the script, but two of my close friends wrote the story with me. And we are three men writing roles for women and men. There’s a limit to that. So before each take, I would really work with the actors, especially the women, and ask, “Would you say this?” “How would you say this?” “Is this line stupid?” Sometimes we would even decide together that saying nothing at that point is way better than any line we had. Or saying the exact opposite, etc. That process worked out beautifully and made the realism really pop because there was a comfortability that grew from that. We trusted each other, all of us, to make the best thing we could with what we had to work with.
But all of this begins in the audition process. New York City is FULL of amazingly talented actors. Hungry actors. I saw so many I wish I could have cast. I would watch them and think to myself, “Would I hang out with this person? Would the other actors hang out with this person?”
NFS: How long did you take to shoot the film? What did you shoot on?
JS: We shot the whole thing in 12 days! That’s all we could afford, so that’s what we did. (Nearly gave my AD a panic attack, but she rocked it and we made our days, every day.)
Everyone loves to ask “what did you shoot on?!”, which I always feel is a compliment and a diss to the cinematographer at the same time. If you have a great DP and work with that person well, you can shoot on anything and it will look fantastic. It’s 90% the DP, 10% the camera, in my opinion. I have seen movies shot on 35mm or any other great camera that look like flat video; and have seen things shot on crappy pro-sumer cameras that look beautiful.
In this case, we shot on the RED.
NFS: Tell us how you finagled your film on what I can only guess was a tight budget.
JS: “Finagled” is the perfect descriptor for this movie.
We were working with pennies, so I called in a lot of favors. I worked like crazy on many other film sets and got to know really talented people in all departments. So when the time came to make my film, I knew they would come through for no money and they really, truly did. Beyond what I could’ve hoped for actually.
And we did things like shoot in an apartment that was already furnished to save money that way. For added production value, we found rooftops with great views, bars that I frequent that let us shoot there for free; we even walked the Halloween Parade in Manhattan and shot in the subways, guerrilla-style, with our actors in costume, which really added something special.
If you can’t afford it, find it and steal it.
NFS: When you look through the annals of "Party Movies" a huge percentage are set in high school. Luckily, Bastards of Young is not! Can you talk about why you decided to make a party movie using a different generation, and what does that changes about the genre?
JS: It usually is indeed high school kids. And it also always seems to be actors who are not at all high-school age playing those roles. And then there are films about the older generation, but not so much about being in your 30s and dealing with divorce at that age. It’s happening a lot more now, to several of my own friends; I see them feeling a little lost. So we really wanted to play around with that. And then decided to set it at a party to liven it up, add some comedy, and, to me anyway, make it more realistic in doing so.
The whole idea, really, with Bastards of Young, was to explore what it means to be in your early 30s. There doesn’t seem to be too many movies that play around with that. That’s my age group, and I still like to party, and we do party. But it’s tricky, because every now-and-then you feel old, even though you’re not actually that old. Not old, but not young anymore. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck. If I go to a party with people in their 20s, I am the old guy. If I died now, my obituary would say "he was so young!"
So I am not sure if we are changing the genre really, just tweaking an already existing structure I guess? There is some truth to “writing what you know” -- and, in doing so, you learn some things. Hopefully, it becomes relatable to all age groups, not just my generation’s.
NFS: You have a ton of music from a ton of different bands in the film. Can you talk about what’s behind the music, and why you took that route, instead of working with a composer or score or something?
JS: Music was by far the biggest challenge. It’s a Halloween party for most of the movie, and parties always have music. And they usually have music all night. And they usually have a wide variety of music, especially 30-somethings in Brooklyn. Rap, Rock, Electronic, Folk -- you name it, we needed it. And we needed wall-to-wall music for the most part. What I found, then, is that silence became kind of a score in its own way. That if we composed too much music, it would become over-saturated. I had my talented cousin score a couple of scenes, but, otherwise, the party music is the score.
The good news is that, like actors, talented musicians in this city are plentiful. The bad news is, we couldn’t afford to pay them. My music supervisor also worked for no money, and she did a fantastic job of finding what we needed. I could not have found the music we found without her. Movies are collaborative. You can’t do it alone. I mean, I guess you could, but the value of having others help out is priceless. I am so happy with the bands we found. And I have discovered so much new music in the process.
NFS: Do you have any advice for like-minded directors from what you figured out on finishing your last feature?
JS: You really have to not be afraid to fail. I knew going into this it might not work. Lots of shit can happen, for better or worse. I knew there was a chance this whole thing could collapse and I would have nothing. But I was willing to risk that. Luckily, it paid off.
Safe is stupid. I mean, set safety of course is super important, but you need to risk something in order to make something people will want to watch. And also just doing it. That has been said a million times, but it’s true. Do it. Make it happen. Just know what your limits are and push those limits, but still work within your means.
NFS: Bastards of Young just came out on iTunes. Should we check it out?
JS: No. Please don’t. I love working in bars and restaurants and hope to do that the rest of my life and not further my film career. So whatever you do, do not see this film and do not spread the word about it. It’s also on Amazon streaming and XBox and Playstation. Don’t rent from there either.
Thank you, Josiah!
Like Josiah said, if you don't want to see Bastards of Young, don't watch it on iTunes here or Amazon here. But if you do, check it out, and heck, maybe get some ideas on crafting your own party scenes!
Do you have experience with party scenes on film? What are you favorite party movies of all time?
[Photo Credits: Ben Hider]