Messing with the traditional three-act structure of a film is tricky business, but if done right, a non-chronological storyline can keep the audience guessing and help expand the feel of a low budget film.
In his first feature, Julius Onah wrote The Girl Is In Trouble and then put it into a tropological blender, unifying the story with the hardboiled narration of its noir-influenced main character. Watch the film for yourself on iTunes or Amazon and more, and read our interview with Julius that covers everything from scripting playful non-linear tangents to shooting the film on 35mm in New York's Lower East Side.
NFS: The main character starts your story off by saying something like, “I remember this story in bits and pieces.” The structure of your film is in bits and pieces, as in, not necessarily chronological. How do you define the structure of this film, and why tell it in this way?
Julius Onus: I’ve always liked fragmented stories. I would define this story as non-chronological. The idea of going back and forth in time and going on tangents, making non-sequiturs here and there -- I’ve always liked stories like that. It makes it a bit more unpredictable in terms of structure. One of my desires was to step away from everything I’d done up to that point, which was fairly chronological and traditional in terms of structure. I made a couple of shorts that were in the style of this. I really enjoyed that energy and playfulness. When I was writing this with my co-writer, Mayuran Tiruchelvam, we wrote the film that way. It was a lot of fun in terms of making a film like that. There are also production benefits to making a film like this. There were a lot of little vignettes and little moments, when you’re a low budget film, there’s a way to make that film feel bigger and more expansive using a structure and a style like this. There were production benefits and creative benefits.
NFS: What was the process of scripting out something that’s not chronological? Did you have in mind plot points and mix them up, or what?
JO: We outlined the whole movie chronologically. We knew how it was playing from beginning to end. And then we put it in the blender from there. We decide when we were going to jump back in time, forwards in time. My co-writer and I had a long sheet of paper where we played out the whole movie between the characters time wise. That way we would be able to keep track of what was happening. We were ultimately thinking ahead because we knew a script supervisor would need that. So we were able to lay the foundation for our script supervisor. But also for the editor. We thought it would be helpful for them too. We tried to do as much of that homework in the beginning.
NFS: The unpredictability that you get when putting the chronology though a blender, can that work for any story? Is this story conducive to it? What happens to the audience?
JO: I don’t think you can use this technique on any film. I think you need something that is going to serve as your organizing principle. In this case, it was the voice over and the point-of-view. It automatically turns into a voice over account. I think of an example of the use of voice over in Arrested Development. There are lots of non-sequiturs there, combined by the Ron Howard voice over. It’s really hard to structure something in a non-chronological way without the unifying factor of something like voice-over. I think it suits different kinds of stories. Unpredictability with story was in particular because it’s a thriller. On some levels, you’re always playing a magic trick, pulling the audience in different directions towards certain elements of the story, so when other information is revealed down the road, you're like, "Oh wait, I lost track of that." And you surprise them a little bit more. For our film, because we were doing a thriller, suspense element, we were able to deviate from the typical structure.
NFS: With the voice-over, there’s a noir quality. Is there a film noir influence?
JO: Noir was a big influence for me. I’m a huge fan of noirs. We wanted to make something that had a noir-ish component to it, but didn’t feel like it was trying to ape a noir. Overall, our goal was to have noir influence the story, but then go in our own direction. Columbus just naturally has this very low, base-y growly voice, so that gave it more of a noir-ish quality. Had it been anyone else, it might have been very different. The goal was to hark back on the noirs that were influential to us whether it was Pick Up on South Street or Naked City, but in a way that felt very contemporary and alive in style, structure, music and references to things such as Facebook. I hope we stepped a little bit away from the obvious references of noir and made it more of our own film.
NFS: All these different vignettes which require many different settings for different types of characters. Can you talk about your production?
JO: The whole thing was shot in New York, the majority of it in the Lower East Side. I lived in the Lower East for many years. That’s home for me. It was really exciting to roll out, walk down the stairs and shoot on your own street. We shot some in the Bronx, some in Brooklyn and Queens. We really wanted to make a film that felt like a New York film and reminded us of the New York films we loved. We worked hard to capture as much of the city as possible.
NFS: What kind of look and feel did you want, and how did you communicate with your DP to achieve it?
JO: I had an amazing DP, Richard Lopez. We had a great relationship. We tried to go beyond what was typically expected to prepare. The film, though, is a hand-held film. That was partially a decision that had to be made because we were a non-union low budget film, and we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot! We would be moving on our feet very quickly, so that was part of the reason it was shot that way. I’m also a bit of a film purist, so we shot the movie on 35mm. I really wanted it to have a feel that was timeless. There’s something about video that at times doesn’t have the same sense of texture and the same sense of depth as something shot on film. So we fought very hard and were very responsible and planned as much as we could so we could shoot on film and take advantage of our limited time.
NFS: Did shooting on film affect the number of takes you did, was it a positive or a negative?
JU: It ultimately didn’t affect how many takes we did too much, because the bigger pressure on us was time. There was only so much time anyone could shoot. So shooting on film versus digital, I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made. There’s a certain amount of time it takes to reset the crew, and only a certain amount of takes the actors can do. Sometimes you have to take a step away so the actors can rethink or rework. Shooting on film didn’t really affect our production too much. But we got that added benefit of what I think is a better production value.
NFS: Are people shooting a lot of independent films in NYC? Was it difficult to get a 35mm camera? What was your experience?
JU: The easiest part is getting a camera, because so few people are shooting on it! The cameras are pretty cheap. Everybody’s shooting on digital and there’s a fear of shooting on film because people think it costs too much. But there are ways you can budget your shoot to do that. There are a lot of directors who still insist on shooting on film. I think some movies are better suited to be shot digitally. This was a movie where shooting on film worked for us. We planned accordingly and made the room to do it. There’s fewer people doing it, and some people by now have jus grown up on digital. And yes there are fewer labs, but nonetheless, there’s ways to do it and it can be important to use this tool as a storyteller.
NFS: What camera and film stocks did you shoot on?
JU: We shot on an ARRICAM Studio on Fuji 500 stock.
NFS: This is your first feature film. Based on what you’ve learned, what’s your advice for other filmmakers?
JU: Find something you’re really excited about. Find something you’re passionate about. I think that’s the most important thing. If you’re making a movie, it’s something you want to share with an audience. You have to be excited enough to take it though what might be years of your life -- writing, development, pre-production, shooting, post. I love the Lower East Side. I love my neighborhood. I took everything I love and tried to put it in my first film, and it’s been a great experience. You have to start with something you love.
Thank you, Julius!
If you want to see the finished film and how it plays with the structure and the noir genre, stream it for yourself.
What do you think about messing with the chronology of a film's plot? Any success stories?