Emily the Criminal was one of my most anticipated Sundance movies this year. I love a crime story, I love movies set in LA, I love Aubrey Plaza and the choices she makes as an actor. And John Patton Ford's feature directorial debut doesn't disappoint. It's a taut crime thriller with black comedic elements, and a story of desperation that many of us will relate to deeply.

Saddled with student debt, Emily (Plaza) works a grueling food delivery job. One day, she gets roped into "dummy shopping." Yusuf (Theo Rossi) takes stolen identity information to create fake credit cards, distributed to his shoppers. They buy expensive stuff, turn over the goods to Yusuf, and get paid cash in return. It seems an easy enough racket, so Emily gets in on it, despite her concurrent attempts to make money legally.

After the film's premiere this week, No Film School hopped onto Zoom with Ford and talked about his process and how he made a pandemic film.

Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I read this was a project that you developed for several years, and you had a lot of obstacles to overcome. How did you stay persistent through that process?

51727157239_260e6e3625_bJohn Patton FordCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

John Patton Ford: I always believed in it, I guess. There's certain ideas that I have, and I get kind of jazzed on them for a couple weeks, and then they kind of lose their flavor a little bit. But for whatever reason, this one just stuck. I never really ran out of gas on it. You know? So I guess that's the short answer.

NFS: Your casting process was really unique due to the pandemic. Can you walk us through how that looked and how you made decisions?

Ford: Oh, God, casting was the worst. For me personally, I feel like a movie is mostly writing and casting, and then just 10% fun other stuff that maybe you get to do. But mostly, it's writing and it's getting the right people.

And for me, I like to be in the room with actors. And then I go back and look at the tape later, and I compare, how did I feel about them in person versus, how do they come across on tape?

Very often I do what we call chemistry reads, which is where you get two actors together in a room. And then you're casting the relationship in a way, more than you're casting an individual. Of course, with COVID, none of that could happen. I couldn't be in the room with people, and we certainly couldn't put people together in a room for the sake of a callback.

It had to all be virtual. It had to all be, just looking at reams and reams of what we call self-tapes, or when actors record themselves doing the scene, which is very often really awkward and embarrassing. I mean, just as much as it sounds. And I had to cast the whole movie like that. And the whole thing was just, like, we were doing location scouts. And I'm there on my iPhone, watching some poor guy audition in his basement. And we have to make a decision now. Is it going to be him or somebody else?

I'm like, "God, COVID." I never met Theo Rossi, who's the co-lead of the movie, until right before we started shooting. I never met him in real life. I had two or three Zoom calls with him, and that's as much as I got. So there was a lot of just like, "Fingers crossed. I hope this works."

51842224090_bd7db3acb7_kCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: What other suggestions, especially for indie, scrappier filmmakers—what suggestions would you give to make a COVID production work?

Ford: Well, number one, hopefully, no one will have to take that advice.

NFS: Yeah!

Ford: COVID production work. Hmm. I don't know if there is really any special advice beyond what you'd usually do. I think build relationships with your department heads, make sure that you are on really good terms with people like your production designer and your DP and your AD and all those people, be good to them before the movie starts, and let them know that you really care about them and you really hear them.

Because when you're shooting during COVID, everything is just mildly less convenient. Everything is just slightly harder. So if you've got those relationships in place, it's going to prevent a mutiny from happening. That's advice that I'd give anyone regardless of COVID. But I think with COVID, it becomes even more important.

People can't see. They can't see your face. You got a mask on. And with a movie, you're constantly trying to emotionally connect with people and communicate and articulate what you want. It becomes that much more difficult when people can't see your face.

So in my case, I started going on dog walks with my production designer, months before we started shooting. She lives in my neighborhood, and whenever she was taking her dog for a walk, I was like, "Just come by and knock on my door, and we'll just go walk and talk about the movie."

So by the time we started shooting, there was this really rich, very genuine relationship there that transcended the mask. You know?

NFS: This was your feature debut as a director, but I know that you've worked extensively in commercial directing. Is there anything from that background specifically that helped you go into this first feature?

Ford: I should say, I've directed commercials, but I'm by no means like a successful commercial director. I've done a bunch, but I'm not like some super in-demand commercial guy. Yeah, there are a lot of things. With commercials, you don't have a lot of time to tell a story, and you have to be very economical, and you have to know exactly what you want. And very often, you have to pitch those ideas up the line.

On a commercial, you can't just go out and wing it and try to make something cool and personal and improvise. No, you have to sell a client at an agency on what you're doing. And it's great practice, because it forces you to articulate your ideas to other people.

And in terms of commercials, you have to articulate your ideas to people who aren't creative and who may not really imagine much of anything. So I found all that stuff immensely useful.

I also worked with a DP named Jeff Bierman on this movie, who's been a friend of mine for a long time, and he and I have shot a handful of commercials together. So we have a kind of shorthand. And we can work together really swiftly. There's an understanding there about each other's tastes and each other's strengths. But making a feature is nothing like making a commercial. That's two different things.

51841600863_b2b7154b77_kCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: I had never necessarily heard of this particular criminal underworld. I'm interested in how you landed on the story.

Ford: Good for you for asking the question, because you're the first person to ask that question. [...] When I first moved to LA, I lived in a neighborhood that I won't name, and I felt that there was a lot of criminal activity going on in the neighborhood. I just got that vibe.

My dad was in the FBI. And so, growing up, I just heard a lot of stories about organized crime, and it felt familiar enough to know the telltale signs. And then maybe two years after I moved to LA, sure enough, on the cover of LA Times was this massive worry about a huge FBI bust of a local mafia group.

I can't really say much more than that, because I feel it's unfair to a lot of people. This was in 2012, I want to say. And one of the things that they were doing was credit card fraud. And the way they do it is they'd get people out the streets to be dummy shoppers, and they would organize them in a warehouse in Sherman Oaks.

And then of course, in the summer, they made something like $4 million in LA, just stealing. You wouldn't think they would've done that well, but they really did. You can get the entire FBI affidavit off the internet and read all the details.

Even some of the dialogue in the movie comes directly from wiretaps that I read in affidavits. So a lot of the crimes they were into were drug running and guns and stuff. I was like, "I don't want to make a movie about that." But the credit card thing was so specific and odd and just like, "Oh, that is real." There's something that feels so real about that. I've just never heard of that. That's kind of where it came from.


Check out even more great coverage of Sundance 2022 from No Film School.