A week before production started on his feature film debut, and with Thanksgiving only two days away, writer/director Jason Headley still hadn't cast one of his three leads.
Most filmmakers will tell you that pre-production is the key to a successful shoot. But sometimes, things just don't line up that way. Writer/director Jason Headley knows this all too well. A Bad Idea Gone Wrong is Headley's feature debut, a comedy about two not-so-bright guys determined to find one great heist to set them up for life, even though neither of them has experience with theft of any kind. This dynamic duo breaks into a house in an exclusive gated community and manages to set the house alarm from inside, trapping themselves inside. Soon, they discover they are not alone.
Headley and his production team based the start date for production on their availability, then set out to find their cast. Similar to the film's characters looking for a solution after boxing themselves in, Headley and his team had to scramble to pull together their cast in the nick of time. Thankfully for them, their casting worked out perfectly, earning the film the Best Ensemble Award at SXSW 2017.
"We were very literally doing pre-production while in production for the first week."
No Film School had the opportunity to interview Headley during SXSW to learn how his experiences making web comedy shorts translated into making a feature-length comedy, the importance of casting a film that almost exclusively focuses on three characters, and strategies to keep a film moving that takes place primarily in one location.
No Film School: You've done a ton of web shorts, including the fantastic It's Not About the Nail, and the web series, At the Bar. What was the transition like for you moving to a feature-length film?
Jason Headley: Well, the funny thing is, I was doing these shorts and the last batch of shorts that I did were these caveman shorts, the Pioneers of Language thing. It was kind of a big production to do for not getting money. You know, I had to have cavemen and be out in the middle of nowhere. I remember saying to my wife, the amount pre-production we did to get that thing going would be the same amount of pre-production to do this feature, except we did a lot of pre-production to shoot for one day, versus shooting for seventeen. So I was prepared in that way.
Now, 17 days isn't a very long shoot at all, right? But compared to shooting for a day or two days or three days—my longest shoot prior to that was three days. The thing that I learned is I'm responsible for the tone. That's the biggest thing. The tone of the story, and the tone of the set, and making sure that those things can work together and that we're telling the right kind of story all the way through, which sounds really easy, and I would have thought would be really easy, but when you're there, you realize that these threads kind of start to spin out and you got to keep your handle on them.
NFS: Can you tell us about the genesis of the story for the film?
Headley: Well, the genesis of the idea or the wanting to make a movie like this was just the fact that I'd written a bunch of feature scripts and I was wanting to get them done and I grew tired of not getting them done. So I decided I wanted to write something that would be production-friendly. I tried to limit the number of moving parts as much as humanly possible and tried to tell a story that was still about real characters with real conflict, that grows to a meaningful, satisfying ending. I just kind of gussied up all my craft and tried to see if I could pull this off. That was the idea.
Then I kind of backed into the story a little bit from there and started thinking about old friendships and being stuck in life. I talk about the movie being about three people who are trapped in their lives who end up trapped in the same house. It's this feeling of wanting to get unstuck and maybe not finding the healthiest outlets for that.
NFS: Speaking of being stuck, your film is essentially a chamber piece with three characters comically trapped inside a house. Did you turn to other chamber films for any insights or inspiration on how to keep the story moving when you're in this contained environment?
Headley: Yeah. I watched a lot of things, and it's funny, because it didn't even matter tonally if it was the same, I just wanted to see what people did in limited locations. So I watched everything from Dog Day Afternoon to Reservoir Dogs, which if you think about it, a big chunk of that movie just takes place in that warehouse, but because they did nonlinear, you kind of get away with more things. I also watched this great movie by J Blakeson, [The Disappearance of Alice Creed].
The short answer is yeah, I just went and watched a bunch of things, and asked what's good about them and what's bad about them? 'Cause some of them aren't at all good. Oh, and Todd Berger, It's A Disaster. That was a great movie. It's nice to see when people pull it off.
NFS: What did you learn from those films in particular that you could employ in your own film?
Headley: Ultimately it's kind of the same thing, you know? It's just storytelling, and for this film, I just wanted to make sure it didn't lag, at any point, as best I could. At the beginning, because it's very limited in characters and they're on a very linear path, there's a period of time where you're just putting all the pieces on the board, so to speak. Once that happened, I wanted to just have a series of reveals and reversals that kept happening that kept the characters off balance, that kept the audience off balance, and just kept putting new information in that goes, "Oh, now this story that you thought was this? Now it's this."
"We had our cast the day before Thanksgiving and we started shooting the Monday after Thanksgiving."
NFS: Since it's only three characters and casting is crucial, how did you find this particular cast?
Headley: The casting was a real adventure because we set the production date before we had a cast. We said we were going to shoot in this window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It just fit for everybody, the producers and myself, so we were like, "Let's shoot it then."
Then we started going out and looking for a cast. We worked with a casting agent, Charlene Lee, and started looking at a lot of reels. Some were people that I knew and some were people I didn't know. It was a real adventure of really trying to get as much material into my brain, in front of my eyes, as possible and start winnowing it down, trying to see who was available. Matt Jones was actually our last offer that went out, and it was four days before we started shooting. So we were really happy when he said yes. We had our cast the day before Thanksgiving and we started shooting the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Headley: We sat together, me, Matt, Will and Eleanor. We did a read-through of the script the night before we started shooting and that was our rehearsal.
NFS: Did you find that the moments felt fresher because you really had no rehearsal time?
Headley: Yeah. You know, I'm open to things, like actors like to work different ways, but the nice thing about film is, it's not like stage where rehearsing is essential. You can just get it there as long as everybody knows where they are and what they're trying to do and what the scene means and why.
Because it was just the three of them, they had a lot of work to do. Every day, they had a lot of scenes. Everybody worked pretty much every day and they had a lot of lines, and at the end of the day, we'd be like, "We'll pick it up tomorrow with all of the new lines you have to know!" There was sort of a process of getting the scene up on its feet, so to speak, and just covering it and trying to be kind to them and not wear them down into the ground.
"The only reason I ever put myself in front of the camera was for the sake of being a better director. Daniel Day Lewis need not look over his shoulder."
NFS: Since you appear in a lot of your own shorts, did you ever think about playing one of these roles yourself?
Headley: No. I don't act. What I do is I write very specific things for me to say in a very specific way. Daniel Day Lewis need not look over his shoulder. The only reason I ever put myself in front of the camera was for the sake of being a better director. I did those Bar shorts with my friend, Scott McCabe, and I wrote one of those—I wrote two of them, actually—and I said, "Hey, would you do this with me?" I wanted to have the empathy of knowing what it felt like, even though those were exceptionally small productions. I know it's not the same when you're in charge, when I'm directing myself versus being directed by somebody, but it was a little bit of an effort to try.
NFS: Because you were shooting in one location for most of the shoot, did you shoot the film chronologically, or did you break up the schedule and shoot out each room?
Headley: We broke it up, mainly because it was just to save a little time. Once you're in the bedroom, just shoot out the bedroom. Which was kind of true, but also, we did have to revisit things, because we were shooting splits. Every day, we would shoot a little bit of day and a little bit of night. Then we'd kind of eke our schedule out, working more and more toward night, until our day off, then we'd reset, 'cause we had more night scenes than day scenes. We were trying not to shoot straight nights. It'd be brutal to everybody. The only time we had to do that was the very last night. We shot 4pm to 4am. Otherwise, we'd go noon to midnight, then 1pm to 1am, you know, drift a little bit that way.
NFS: Did you have this house lined up when you were writing this story, or did you have to find the house just like any other location, and then shape the film around the realities of the house?
Headley: It was always about the house. I had a certain style of house in mind. But then we had to go find a house, and then I had to doctor the script around the actual house. We actually did a little floor plan of the house and I named the rooms, then I changed those names in the script so that everybody could go, "Alright, this is the dining room." 'Cause a house of this size, "Which is the dining room? Is this the dining room?" We expected that. We were like, "It's that one." We had to label each room and then change those on all the sluglines in the script, so everybody knew what the hell we were doing.
We did a little tiny thing in a house down the street, 'cause we needed that wine closet and [the main house] didn't have one. We were going to build one and then suddenly somebody said, "Hey, people down the street have one, it was cool, he was letting me see it." I was like, "Do it." So we just took a little split crew down there and shot that scene.
"Sometimes it was like, 'Damn it, this house is huge and I keep putting us in this place where you can't even get an over-the-shoulder shot!'"
NFS: What kind of cameras and lenses did you use on your shoot, and did you have to make any adjustments for shots like when you had to turn around in that tiny wine closet?
Headley: We shot everything on the RED Epic Dragon, which is great. We'd just have to go to a wider lens sometimes [in those tight spaces]. I would joke around that we're in this big house and we always ended up crammed in these little corners like the hallway. You'd get shots even in a hallway or that bathroom that we had that scene in is just tiny. Sometimes it was like, "Damn it, this house is huge and I keep putting us in this place where you can't even get an over-the-shoulder shot!" So it was a lot of trusting that you can edit it and put it together. But that shot of the reverse on Darcy in that wine closet, that was snug. It was snug to get in there and get that, but it felt necessary.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest obstacle you faced in getting your film made and how did you overcome it?
Headley: Well, I guess the biggest thing was because we chose a specific start date and did it that way, there was so many things happening all at once. We didn't really have pre-production. I joked around, like, "If this thing had one more location, we wouldn't have been able to do it." We were very literally doing pre-production while in production for the first week. Still doing things that should have been taken care of before we ever rolled, but we were able to do it because we didn't have to run around a bunch.
"We did a read-through of the script the night before we started shooting and that was our rehearsal."
We were still putting together shot lists for scenes. We were just like, "Let's get the ones we know we're going to do these first few days." Then afterward, my DP Nathan and I would stay and go over to my Airbnb and work through the rest of the script, just start putting things together. A huge benefit was every night when we wrapped, Nathan and I would go over the next day's scenes and we were able to just walk into those rooms and say, "This is what we talked about doing. Does it still make sense?" And look through it and say, "Yeah, that's good. Let's keep it."
Then people come back the next morning with fresh eyes and also do the same thing, just look at it all one more time and say, "Yeah, I think this is going to work," or "You know, last night I was thinking about this, and maybe we'll change this. I think this'll be better." It was nice to be able to stand in your location every night and day, or, if there was a problem coming up ahead, we could go, "While we're setting up this shot, let's go over there and sneak a look at how to work in that door."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.
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