I graduated from the American Film Institute’s Directing Program in 2006 with a handful of scripts and a short film. It was not the best time to be breaking into the business. Despite AFI’s stellar reputation, I was entering the work force at the beginning of the writer’s strike — I couldn’t sell a script, I could barely get a meeting, and I certainly couldn’t get a job directing.
After a year and a half of flirting with Hollywood development deals and screenplay options, my writing partner, Dwight Moody, came up with a simple idea that we could produce outside of the Hollywood system: a man trapped in a basement after his house gets besieged by a landslide.
That idea was the beginning. I ended up introducing a smaller location into this situation; a smaller location meant higher stakes, not to mention, a smaller budget. We fixed our sights on the idea of a man trapped in his car during a mudslide. One character, one location. This was 2008. Before "Buried," before "127 Hours," before "Frozen," before "Brake," before "Wrecked," before the apparent trend for this type of minimalist action film.
If I had made "Detour" then (it opens for limited on Friday, as well as on video-on-demand), it might have been the start of the trend. But like so many others in the business, I heard the siren call of Hollywood and got diverted. Instead of making the film for nothing with some friends in a garage with a junker and a couple wheelbarrows of dirt, the script got around and as luck would have it, people really liked it.
With this initial buzz came the promise of money — a real budget for a movie that was meant to have no budget at all. What started out as an experiment in the simplicity of filmmaking, something I could make myself, was turning out to be much bigger than I could have imagined. All of a sudden we had over a million dollars and name actors attached to the project.
And so the slippery slope began, and the Sisyphean trek lasted two and a half years.
Over the course of these years, we “had” funding, or more accurately, the promise of funding, three times. The project always fell apart and did so for a variety of different reasons: I had never directed a feature; a product-placement company would pay us to put tools in the movie but only tools that would make our main character's ordeal a whole lot easier, and a whole lot less dramatic; a name actor would do the movie, if we funded his other movie; another name actor loved the project, but only if I fired myself and hired his friend to direct it; another name actor loved the project, and attracted a whole new level of funding, but died just as we were about to get the project off the ground.
There was also the company that promised funding … if I wrote a role for the wife of the head of the company. I’m sorry, did you read the script? It’s one man trapped inside a car; I’m not sure where I’d fit her in (the irony is that this incident inspired us to write a scene for a woman of similar type, and that scene, a dream sequence, ended up in the movie).
Almost three years were spent enduring cliché after Hollywood cliché, and experiencing stuff that I’ve only heard joked about in Hollywood, only to realize that, yes, this stuff does happen and, furthermore, it has become my reality.
I stepped back for a moment and took comfort in the fact that I had written this film to make for nothing and, you know what, I realized it was time I did just that. I offered the role to Neil Hopkins, an actor with enormous talent who I had worked with in the past and who I considered a friend. In other words, he was someone who would not only knock this role out of the park, but also trust me as a director.
I decided to set a date and start shooting, with or without funding. As fortune would have it, a good friend and colleague decided to invest a small chunk of change into the film and we went ahead and started, without having any idea how to pull off some of the trickier material down the line.
My directing professor at AFI used to tell me, “If you have 10 grand, set a date and move forward. If Tom Hanks calls you on Sunday and tells you he wants to be in the film, he better be there Monday morning, or you’re shooting without him.”
It’s all about momentum. Everything around you, people and circumstances alike, will tell you to wait, to push, to hold off just a little longer, so that the timing is perfect. The fact of the matter is: The timing will never be perfect. It’s the director’s job to get the train moving, because once it starts moving, people are more likely to get on board with you.
I was fortunate to partner up with three very talented producers, Carrie LeGrand, Melanie Miller and Diane Becker, who each brought additional funding and resources. It was a team effort, and together we were able to get the movie in the can and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.
Fast-forward four years — two and a half getting the project on its feet, one and a half shooting and editing it — and "Buried" and "127 Hours" and the other movies I listed above had been released. It probably was not great news for us that these movies seemed, at first glance, to be similar to our film, but we didn’t let it deter us from seeking distribution. There are multiple stories to be told within any genre, and despite sharing a minimalistic survival theme, these other films are dealing with very different protagonists in very different circumstances.
I subscribe to the notion that a dramatic character is defined by his or her behavior; specifically, his or her proactive attempts to rise above the given circumstances. If the circumstances are so dire and so limiting, the character has nowhere to go, nothing to do to help himself, and the end is inevitable.
While our character, Jackson Alder, is stuck in a confined environment in "Detour," he’s stuck in an SUV. None of his body parts are ensnared and the size of his car, when compared to a coffin, looks more like the interior of the Taj Mahal. Jackson is free to move around his environment; he can investigate his situation and utilize the abundant tools around him in order to try and escape (tools that most of us have in our own cars — a bottle of water, “The Club,” camping chairs; tools that we never thought in a million years could get us out of such a horrible situation).
The intention of the film is for it to be a vicarious thrill ride, a story where the audience can picture themselves in their own car, in this same exact situation and ask: What would I do to survive? Would I do what he’s doing? Oh, that’s a good idea…or, no that’s a terrible idea, don’t do that!
The audience needs to relate to the main character, needs to be able to put themselves into his shoes. I wanted Jackson to be an “everyman.” While "Buried" depicts a situation that most anyone would find horrifying, the character (played by Ryan Reynolds) is an American contractor living in Iraq who is kidnapped by terrorists. This is a job that is as foreign to most Americans as Iraq is, an occupation that carries with it risks and pressures that most regular people never encounter.
The main character in "127 Hours" is an adventurer. I like to go for hikes every once in a while; but this guy, Aaron Ralston, left his job with Intel in order to pursue a life of climbing mountains. Ralston is a real person, and the movie is based on a true story, but his on-the-edge existence is far too daring for most of us to embrace in our everyday lives.
Jackson Alder is both you and I. He is on his way to work and a disaster befalls him. This very same thing can happen to you, and it just might; mudslides are a common occurrence where I live in California, and I own a car, who’s to say I won’t find myself in his situation? What I can say for sure is that I would never find myself in the situation the character in "Buried" finds himself in, or the situation the character in "127 Hours" finds himself in. For me, as a director, I wanted to focus on a story that would, literally, hit home for everyone watching it.
In an entertainment culture where a high-concept increasingly trumps a well-crafted story, the onus is on the artist to reinforce the notion that story is all that really matters, story is what makes movies authentic, and story is what makes people buy a ticket at the window.
Level 1 Entertainment got behind this story, and later Gravitas Ventures also got behind the film, despite any potential concern of "Buried" or the other movies having already been released. They didn’t see this as a problem, because they enjoyed watching "Detour" and believed that others would do the same.
I’m hopeful the audience will get behind this movie, not because it is similar or dissimilar to any other movies, but because they care about the story and will empathize with the character’s physical and emotional journey. When it comes down to it, it’s not about stars, money, or glitzy special effects; it’s always about story.
"Detour" is a genre film: a disaster-thriller. But, for me, it was always a character movie “disguised” as a disaster-thriller. I recently had a meeting with an agent from one of the top talent agencies in Hollywood. He loved "Detour" and spoke of the independent film industry rebuilding itself through the current trend of microbudget films. We got to talking about my process, about storytelling, and he asked what I wanted to do next.
After pitching two scripts that I wanted to make, both of which fall into the category of the nearly impossible-to-make $5-10 million indie flick, he recommended I make another microbudget.
Well, I just finished shooting my second feature, "The Mirror," which I shot almost entirely on my iPhone. If someone recommends I shoot another microbudget after this one, I’m not sure how much more micro I can go. There’s always radio plays, I suppose; and you thought Instagram was retro.