First of all, we wanted to give a big thanks to Tom for taking the time for this interview! If you are an aspiring filmmaker or actor, this interview provides some insight into what to expect. Tom has been apart of the Nebraska filmmaking community for quite some time. Read the interview below!
He has directed several features and shorts, including: Naomi Jones (2017), The Nuanced Side (2017), Adoption (2016) and, of course, Green on Green (2018). Tom also produces and acts in a majority of these projects. You can check out his podcast, Loomings, which you can find here. As a Nebraska-native filmmaker, he has learned to compensate for a lack of abundant resources. With the help of Ben Matukewicz, he conceptualized Aksarben Creative to help contribute to the growing film culture in the Midwest.
- What inspired ‘Green on Green’ as a filmmaker?
With my process that there are usually a few moments of inspiration that combine together to make something that seems like it can sustain a feature. Unlike my protagonist, I’d read Moby Dick a few years ago. It wasn’t something I anticipated having much of an impact on me, but I found myself obsessed with it in a number of ways that compelled me to explore similar territory in my own writing. I was surprised to find out that the book is barely about a whale hunt–it’s only the last few chapters, really–and instead about a man’s hunt for a reason not to kill himself by finding some sort of meaning or at least an excuse to think there might be some inexplicable element in life. Ishmael does this through an immersion into a number of different lenses (cetology, philosophy, drama, biology, etc.) which provided me with an idea of how to structure a feature.
Obviously Nebraska is no place to shoot a straight adaptation of an ocean adventure, so I thought of some low budget alternatives and came up with the idea of the secluded cabin and caterpillar hunt for our whale, which metaphorically worked pretty well as a symbol of metamorphosis in this particular story. I wondered what a mumblecore Moby Dick might look like and then the fact that we’d shot my previous feature, Naomi Jones almost entirely in offices and the scenes were pretty much all extended conversations prompted me to want to film something that was less based in conversation and something that told its story visually. We went from 30 scenes on Naomi to 135 scenes in the Green on Green script.
This seemed to be the right kind of way to deal with some pretty heavy topics–environmentalism is ostensibly the movie’s central theme, but I think Camille is using our societal, self-imposed apocalypse as a stand-in for her version of Ishmael’s dilemma. Self-destruction, and, to some degree the question of suicide, is integral to the way I constructed the narrative, but I didn’t want the movie to explicitly acknowledge Camille’s depression because I’m not sure she has confronted it herself. Characters in pieces of entertainment often have a clarity about their emotional states that I don’t find people in real life do. This let me use Camille’s search for meaning and clarity as a metatextual plot device through her self-imposed journey to turn her life into a memoir. She emphasizes the contrivances, which was my way of getting the humor in.
Tonally, I was shooting for something more like a Whit Stillman adaptation of Moby Dick than the John Huston one.
- For indie projects, sometimes finding the right cast can be difficult. How did you assemble this one?
Almost all of the cast of Green on Green had worked with us on previous movies. Rachel Dinan (Camille) had actually auditioned for the lead of Naomi Jones and impressed me enough that I knew I wanted to work with her in some kind of significant way. Leah Cardenas (Rebekah) was the lead in Naomi Jones, so I had a pretty good idea of her range and had started to become friends with her outside of film projects, so it was an easy decision to bring them both in for this. We’ve had a pretty exciting trend of actors sticking around and taking on production roles as well–in this case, Leah joined our team as a producer. I don’t write for specific actors generally, but I’ve found that it’s a much quicker process bringing actors back than working with new ones because the returning talent is familiar with our process and the rhythm of my dialogue. We don’t have much time to shoot these movies, so actors who can come in prepared and know what I look for in a scene are invaluable. Having already worked with us is absolutely an unfair advantage in getting cast in whatever we do next.
All the actors have essentially an open invitation to keep coming back whenever we can get all our schedules to line up. This was the case for David Remus, Liz Matukewicz, Chris Fago, Katie Otten, John Bowen, Will Wright, and a handful of others on this one who had worked with us on 1-4 previous projects. Then there were a few newcomers to our process including Drew Valaika and Cassie Hunt, who we met through the Nebraska Wesleyan theater department–a group of incredibly talented and versatile individuals in which we will continue to search for new talent. Theater actors in general have a great work ethic and attitude on set.
- Can you speak to how other indie filmmakers (specifically from Nebraska) should go about casting (where to look, ect.)
Casting is one of those things that it’s really hard to teach and you learn it by screwing it up. I don’t think I had a good sense for how to cast effectively until we’d already made a couple movies. Your best bet is to make sure you’re working with someone who has previous experience and can do the work, but then also is interesting as a human being. I vastly prefer getting a cup of coffee with an actor to auditioning her/him. You learn what the person is actually like and what kind of life they might bring to your character from their own lives.
- What kinds of equipment do you need for a project like this?
We shot Green on Green with one camera, three lenses (35mm, 50mm, and 75-120mm), a boom mic with a wind-guard, and some very rudimentary lighting equipment that we rarely used. From a practical standpoint, we have a handful of memory cards for the camera on hand, a lot of extra batteries charging at all times, and multiple copies of the script on hand. Somehow no one else in my cast/crew likes coffee, so I’m always chugging the stuff but everyone else manages. Our operation has counterintuitively gotten smaller over the past couple movies. Often we had a three person crew, sometimes just Ben Matukewicz and I working with the actors.
- Where are your go-to filming locations? How should other filmmakers seek out these locations?
I don’t like the idea of go-to filming locations, but I’m a hypocrite and have already shot one feature at the same cabin we used for the final third of Green on Green. I’d love to never shoot in the same place twice, but sometimes it’s practical and then sometimes you’ve gotten a lot better at filming since the last time and you want to do the location the justice it deserved when you were there the first time. From a practical standpoint, the easiest locations where you have the fewest time restrictions are where you live and where your friends live. You can experiment more than at, say, a store that is open while you’re filming. A location that isn’t huge generally is good when you don’t have a lot of money for your shoot because it won’t look empty when you don’t get a lot of extras. We utilized the University of Nebraska at Omaha pretty heavily for this movie, and they were great about giving us access to classroom and lecture halls when we asked for it. We’ve also had a lot of luck filming in locally owned businesses who have been supportive of what we’re trying to do. Make friends and make connections and ask. It’s easy to think no one cares about your little movie thing, but often people are excited and supportive if you actually ask them to be.
- Let’s talk about the music. What’s the process for assembling a great soundtrack?
Music is incredibly important to me when putting together a movie from the early script stages. More than anything else, I need to figure out the tone and pace of a movie before I can write it and then figure out how to shoot it. Knowing, however vaguely, what kind of soundtrack I want expedites that process. I’ve settled into a routine of making a big Spotify playlist of any song I think fits the way I want the movie to feel. It doesn’t usually correspond to any particular scene, but it gets me into the emotional space of the movie. Green on Green had an 81 song playlist made up primarily of acoustic folky music. A lot of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Robert Altman once said of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that he was trying to make a movie where the audience walks out and they can’t say anything about the movie except what they feel. I don’t know that I’ve achieved that, but something about Green on Green felt like listening to Paul Simon’s album Graceland to me. So, I temped the movie to a lot of this same sort of music and then sent it off to Huston Hunter and Allison Axiotis, who had done the music for my past two movies.
They supplied a lot of original music inspired by the temp tracks and some made independently and then Connor Brandt of Omaha band The Real Zebos sent over a bunch of tracks he’d been working on just to see if any of them would fit. It turned out that they did. I was incredibly excited to start plugging the music into the cut. I had decided early on that this movie seemed like it could sustain songs with lyrics written directly for the movie, of which Huston and Allison supplied a few and then I recruited Bach Mai to make an end credits theme song of sorts that I ended up cutting up and incorporating elements of into other parts of the movie too. They could speak to their process better than I can, but I like to think a lot of it is them listening to my playlist, reading the script, and watching a bloated early cut that clues them into the same kind of emotions and rhythms I’m searching for and then they use their talents to do something in that spirit.
- Out of all the projects you have been involved with, what was your favorite one to work on?
They’re all a 1.5 year long headache and then a year after they’re out, I think back about how I want to do something like that again. Green on Green was certainly the most confident I’ve ever been on a movie and the first time I felt like I had a real idea how to take what was in my head and make it work on the screen. This movie started with an emotional script/topic and I felt like the process was much more about unlocking that feeling than it was about just making a scene funny or narratively functional. I used to want actors to stick to the words from the script, but more and more I’m pushing them to switch things up and feeding them new ideas on set and it’s incredibly fun to form a new draft of a scene on set. Leah and Rachel did a lot of scenes that got cut out of the movie, but watching them bounce off of each other was great fun and led to the Bernie Sanders impressions. David Remus does an improvised Barack Obama impression, too, so maybe I just like watching my actors do political impressions actually.
- Obviously, you have collaborators you work with frequently. What is it about that team that works?
The first time you work with a crew/cast member, you’re getting to know them. You’re trying to figure out how to get a rhythm down and how to balance visions with practical set management. The second time, you barely talk about any of that and just start to do it. The third time, you barely say hello because you’ve already started filming the scene. I’m very happy to recruit the troupe again and again because they know what I’m going to be like and what I’m looking for. Ben Matukewicz has produced and acted in every project I’ve ever done because he and I know how to work together and bring the best out of each other on screen. The thing about working in Nebraska is that a lot of your cast/crew are moving to LA or NY, so they leave you before you even have the chance to leave them. In one case, the star of our second movie, Adoptation, moved to Florida, but he asked if he could still be in Green on Greensomehow, so we gave him a 20 second voice cameo on the radio show Camille listens to. I love the people we’ve worked with and I love working with them. I hope to continue to do so while adding new people as we go.
- What inspired you in terms of your writing? How do you choose what should be a short vs what needs more time on the screen?
The only shorts I’ve ever made were shot and released while I was editing Green on Green. The truth is that they’re not projects I put a lot of thought into. I’d agreed to direct a short for a comedy anthology at the Prairie Lights Film Festival last year but had no ideas so, Leah Cardenas and I came up with something we could shoot in a few hours and then we did and edited it in a couple days. Later that year, Will Forget was coming in town for a couple days so he and I came up with another goofy idea we could throw together in a morning and then we pulled it off. It’s great experience to shoot anything with a tight deadline, and it’s a low pressure opportunity because there’s no expectation that a short will need to make a profit. I guess this is my rambly way of saying that shorts come together when we want to work together again but don’t have a huge shoot planned. Our features take months of writing, months of planning, at least a month of shooting, and then up to a year of editing, which is far too much work for a goof.
Each of our features has been something of a roadmap of my thoughts on life at the time of writing. Since it’s usually around 2 years from when I get an idea to when a movie comes out, it ends up going from something I’m in the middle of experiencing to something I can look back on from a slightly different life stage. Green on Green was written while I was in grad school, so it reflects that experience to some extent even though I didn’t study creative nonfiction or ecology. Since a lot of the movie deals with the search for an epiphany, or the idea of the sublime, I certainly felt that it would take a feature to get enough emotional resonance for something that ambitious. A great Romantic artist could answer that question of “What does awe look like?” in a single painting or poem. I needed 90 minutes.
- Any big projects for the future that you’re willing to spill the beans on?
Ben and I are about halfway through filming a season of a web-series called Craft, which we also star in as fictionalized versions of ourselves reviewing craft breweries. It’s sort of just a rip-off of The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon but we don’t go on a trip. It will be out in time for Octoberfest this year and I’m happy to work on something simple and silly instead of something as abstract as Green on Green can be. Sometimes people complain that our projects are too heady, so this next one is literally just us sitting around drinking beer.
Green on Green will be out later this week! Make sure to check out our review here.