Interview: Director Tom Knoblauch on ‘The Debut’ and Independent Filmmaking

Once again, Tom: thank you for taking the time to do this. I always begin with a very basic question, so that is what I will do here. When did the concept for The Debut pop into your mind? Talk about the process a little, starting from a fleeting idea to this finished product.

Thank you, Jared! I love what you’re doing with The Burrow Reviews and appreciate this opportunity to cross paths again. The Debut grew out of an unintentional annual tradition that started in 2017, which is that I started making short films. For some reason, it always seemed easier to wrap my mind around making features than shorts. It’s counterintuitive, but Ben Matukewicz and I always thought in terms of a bigger tapestry than what you can do with a short when we were starting out. There’s something about the fact that it’s formless—you can go anywhere with it. It can be more like a sketch, it can be completely planned out, it can follow a normal plot structure, it can be more experimental, etc. Without the expectation that you really have to sell it as a traditional movie to a paying audience, I really didn’t know what to do with a short. Then, in 2016, Mat Kister asked me to make a short for a comedy anthology at the Prairie Lights Film Festival, and I decided to figure out how that works.

That led me to making a short every year and opened up some possibilities. I feel like The Debut is the first one where I figured out how to take what I’ve been trying to do in features and create a miniature version of that. The idea grew out of circumstance, which in this case was that Will Forget would be in town for one day. Will is the kind of guy who has charisma to spare, whose face is always doing something interesting, and I’d been trying to figure out how to work with him again.

So that’s where we started: I have Will Forget for eight hours. What do I want to do with him? We kicked around a couple of ideas that I still hope to get to at some point, but would be impossible for us to film in one day, and eventually I decided to draw on some universal fears I think filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike share—that nagging feeling that you’re an imposter and not good enough. The twist here is that Will’s the kind of guy you still enjoy watching even if I make him actually an imposter and not good enough. I wanted to do something with that, and I wanted it to turn into a chase movie.

I’ve never done a chase movie before, but I’m increasingly interested in the momentum of that kind of story structure. Seeing all of the crowdfunded projects around Nebraska, I thought this may be the way to tie together the themes and structure I wanted to capture. Several crowdfunded projects don’t go anywhere, and some take so long to get out to an audience that the anticipation has grown far beyond what it should. It’s intentionally vague whether the protagonist actually is some kind of deranged genius or just a guy who is afraid of rejection and willing to alienate everyone he knows to protect himself from it. If I had to guess, I’d say the latter. I think that’s more interesting.

Upon initial viewing, it seemed like many of the scenes were unpolished (I mean this in a good way). Was there any improvisation, or perhaps some last-minute changes to the script that you’d like to share with us?

There’s something exciting about watching a movie that you can’t quite get ahead of—assuming you trust that the narrative is under some kind of control. I always work from a complete script that I’m happy with, but I don’t go to a set expecting the scenes will end up looking much like they do as written. In some sense, this is because we often have the bare minimum amount of time to shoot anything, so I have to work with whatever is available, and I have to get my shots or we have no movie. How we get there is a lot faster if I play around with the ideas and essentially write a new draft on set with my cast. On this movie, the staging was really loose and I would pitch a lot of little changes as we shot that the actors could try or not try. This meant that, though I knew what the beats were, how we got there was something I was discovering with the camera.

This isn’t drastically different from how we’ve shot before, but the actual framing is close and draws attention to the unpredictability on The Debut whereas I may have done more static wide shots for something like this in the past. I also had the advantage of having worked with every cast member before, so I knew what they could handle and they know how I work. I highly value actors who can come in and mess up what I’ve written because this feels truer to me. We’re definitely operating in an elevated sort of surreality on this project, and a certain stylization of dialogue, but real life is full of people flubbing what they mean to say or not quite making sense. I love a scene where I can see characters actually thinking of what to say rather than just going from line to line. A line that’s a good example of this is when Will says something about “I have to foster the evolution, as though David fostered Wallace.” That makes no sense; it’s the kind of thing someone makes up off the top of their head when they’re trying to sound smart and didn’t hit the mark. And Will did make that up on the spot, which I thought absolutely fit his character. Ultimately, it makes his character vulnerable and it makes me laugh. Those moments can be harder to script than to find in the moment.

Similarly, Will and Erica Gardner yelling at each other passive aggressively was not scripted. It came out of rehearsing the scene, and I encouraged them to keep playing with it until we got to the scripted end of the scene and I just followed them with the camera to see what happened. To some extent, this is an attempt to capture that Robert Altman-esque sense of controlled chaos. It may not be clear while you’re watching that it’s more than chaos, but hopefully you can sense that I’m in control as it goes on and you can see the fuller shape of the story.

Something we didn’t touch upon too much during the last interview was the process of funding a indie film, whether it be a short or a feature length. What did that process look like years ago in comparison to crowdfunding now? I’m assuming that you were making films before the eruption of these platforms, albeit without Aksarben Creative’s influence.

Funding a movie is pretty grueling. You’re either throwing a lot of your money down with minimal guarantee that you’ll get any of it back or you’re asking someone better off than you are to take that same risk. It doesn’t feel good, especially when you’re starting out and no one really has any tangible reason to believe in you. The worst part is that it doesn’t really matter that much if you made a good movie or not when it comes to the question of whether it will make a profit. Great movies flop all the time. It’s more like buying a lottery ticket unless you have a great track record and devoted following.

When Ben and I were putting together Almost a Weekend, we had a few problems: we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t know how long we needed equipment for, and we didn’t have any idea what to do with a movie even if we figured out how to finish it. In other words, there was not a great business plan to give to investors. We made things as cheap and fast as possible in order to get to a number that worked for us and didn’t put us in any real financial risk. I don’t think crowdfunding was anywhere near as prevalent for this kind of venture when we made our first couple of movies, so it was really not something we talked about. We just treated it like an incredibly stressful vacation that we’d figure out how to pay for ourselves. Then we got lucky with Adoptation where the movie had several sold out screenings that allowed us to go from renting equipment every time to buying the necessities that would allow us to make similar small projects whenever we felt the whim.

Basically, in order to be able to avoid having to raise money for every movie, we had to forego making any sort of profit on anything we’ve made up to this point. It all just goes back into the company to help pay for whatever else want to do. We’ve only just started a Patreon for the company this month in order to help establish a way for audiences to show that they appreciate our efforts beyond just buying a ticket. I’m not sure what that will yield yet. We’ve never been in the position of the protagonist in The Debut where we can’t face our backers because we’re our own backers. It’s getting easier every year to make a movie with just your phone, and sometimes I think maybe we should’ve just waited for that instead of buying real cameras. Younger people can figure that out, I guess.

You said in your last interview that many thought of your films as “heady” so was this a breath of fresh air for your creative fulfillment? I have to admit, The Debut is charming and I can only image how exciting it was to work on for everyone involved.

I’m trying to knock it off with the heady stuff. I really don’t think I’ve made anything legitimately intellectual, but every movie several people seem to come up to me and tell me they don’t get it. Maybe I should not have tried to adapt Moby Dick. Because of this, Ben and I have resolved to make something really stupid as our next feature. When I write a script, it’s not ever the case that I’m trying to be confusing. I like having abstract ideas and layers of meaning, but I’m not trying to make Inception or anything here in the sense that the plots themselves are really that complicated. The plot of my movies is usually just some variation on “person has to struggle with idea of who he/she wants to be and doesn’t know how to get there.” The Debut is not fundamentally different. I’d say what is different is the pacing.

A fast pace allows me to jump from idea to idea rather than dwelling on the same idea for an extended period of time. My earlier work really sat in the moments and let them develop for a while. I don’t think that impulse is always wrong, but it’s probably not what you hoped it would be when you try to do that with nonprofessional actors and an amateur crew. Long scenes need a lot more perfection than imperfection, which I learned the hard way. Short scenes, in some sense, mean you’re necessarily digging as deep on an idea—so the pace leans itself more toward the light and fun. The Debut was definitely my idea of a chase movie filtered through the old Hollywood artsy fartsy tradition rather than the Hollywood chase movie tradition. Put a dumb guy in a chase story and hopefully it’s not too hard for people to figure out what the movie is about.

What advice would you give to anyone who would like to make a short but doesn’t know how to execute the production? What’s the first step in shooting a short script, specifically in terms of funding and how that relates to the local scene?

Honestly, the most important thing you can do is to commit to the idea that you are going to make this thing—the type of commitment that you can’t get out of without looking like a complete idiot. Announce it publicly in some way even if you have no idea how you’re going to pull it off. That’s harder than the next part, because the next part is never going to go smoothly anyway, and you won’t be prepared for the endless problems of production if you aren’t really committed to not looking like an idiot who announced a movie that you abandoned.

Once you’re committed, then accept that everything you love about your project—whether it’s a full script or just an idea at this point—is going to be completely screwed up. It will look nothing like what you pictured, sound nothing like what you pictured, and you’ll see only the problems with your ideas for the remainder of the time you work on it. Filmmaking is a constant blow to the ego even though running a production likely only appeals to egomaniacs.

So, okay. You’ve got a short script. Your best bet about getting it made is that you wrote with some accessible locations in mind, rather than, say, setting it on the moon. If it takes place in places you already know, in some cases owned by people you have connections with, then this won’t be so hard to put together.

Your next best bet is to shoot it all in one day. Your eventual cast and crew will have terrible availability and assume they’ll all get haircuts and gain 30 pounds by the time you schedule a second shoot day. That’s optimistic, anyway, and assuming they don’t quit. If you know someone who has equipment and wants to help, ask them! It’s a lot easier than renting equipment. Luckily, there are options for renting that won’t break the bank. We used Rockbrook Camera to rent all of our equipment until we started buying our own. You’ve got equipment now: do you know how to use it? Well. That’s a set problem. Don’t worry about that now. It’s bad, but, you know, you committed to this. You dug this hole for yourself so you’ll just have to figure it out.

If you have equipment and locations, then the rest is easy, right? Local actors are begging to work with you, right? Maybe. Don’t count on either their interest or availability. I didn’t really get any interest from local talent until I’d made two features. My casts up to that point featured mostly friends who wanted to do their best. I still use a mix of friends and experienced actors. The thing is that the local talent has no reason to trust a random person who thinks they know how to make a movie. And they’re not wrong, no matter how inconvenient that is for you, so don’t hold it against them. I think auditions are awkward, but a good way to find people is to go to local plays. See who is out there and what they can do. Talk to the actors you want to work with. If they know you’re supporting them, they’ll be more willing to look at what you’re doing. If you’re not a complete freak, that also helps, but that’s mostly out of your control.

Alright, now you have a script, cast, locations, and equipment. That’s all you need to make a movie. You can do it.

Do you have any crowdfunding horror stories? If not, what’s one you’ve heard before?

I’ve never crowdfunded anything because I’m a weird snob. It seems a lot easier than funding everything yourself, but not everyone has the means or wants to be desperately broke while waiting for the opportunity to get revenue on whatever you’re working on. I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus as far as horror stories go, though the kind of thing this movie comes from is seeing other filmmakers fail to deliver on their promises. Sometimes you get the money—other people’s hard-earned money that you really should have no expectation of getting—and then you don’t make the movie or you draw out the process over such a long period of time that the project becomes built up way beyond its ability to deliver. It’s usually just the millions of things going wrong and you hope the filmmaker isn’t trying to be the mumblecore Terrence Malick. The Debut is meant to be a satire of the latter.

I saw that you were accepted into the first of, hopefully, many festivals. This one specifically is in Lincoln (along with The Burrow’s home base). Could you give us some more details surrounding that screening, and insight on how one should submit their work to these festivals?

The Lincoln Short Film Festival is on May 3rd in Lincoln, Nebraska. The movies play starting at 5:30 PM. The Debut is at the end of the first block of films. There are sites like Film Freeway which are very easy for finding festivals around the world to submit to. Once you get a little bit established in the region, the festivals start reaching out to you. It’s also a great way to meet new collaborators. I’m unfamiliar with most of what’s playing at the Lincoln Short Film Festival, which is why something like this is a great experience for people working in local film. It often won’t come to you, so you have to seek it out. I’m excited to see what other people have been making and to get a chance to meet some of the people involved in the films.

Are you currently working on anything? And before you answer, anyone who has any level of artistic or creative drive is working on projects 24/7. In other words: I know that you are working on something. Would you like to enlighten us on what we can look forward to in the future, either with you or Aksarben Creative?  

I alluded to this earlier; Ben Matukewicz and I are looking to make a very stupid movie next. We had a pretty satisfying run of self-indulgent, indie movies that really embraced that indie feeling, but now we’re ready to make something that’s a lot broader—both in content and scope. The project is called Speakeasy, and it began as a really simple comedy that would be an easy shoot, but now it is a huge epic, by our standards.

The basic premise is this: When a second prohibition threatens an illegal speakeasy, the owners find themselves sucked into a vast conspiracy involving mind control, fascism, and the end of the world.

Don’t be fooled, though. It’s dumb. We’re writing it now and hope to start shooting by early next year. It’s a big undertaking, which is exciting in a lot of ways. We’re going from pretty much knowing how to make the sort of movie we’ve been making in the past 5 years to something drastically different. I have no idea how to make Speakeasy, so it’s back to square one for us. If we figure it out, I’m very excited to see what we end up putting together. Anyone reading this who is interested in working as a cast or crew member, should reach out to Askarben Creative and we’ll keep you in mind as we put this thing together.

I’m leaving you with the last word. If you have any thoughts on The Debut you’d like to speak about, now’s your chance.

Will Forget is someone I wish I could work with on every movie. If he lived in Omaha still, I’d basically just be doing The Will Forget Show. He lives in Florida, but the Florida film community has not utilized him much. Recognize that this guy has a special leading man quality and throw some work at him. Otherwise, I just want to thank everyone for giving our project the time of day, and I want to thank you, Jared, for your continued dedication to covering local film. It makes a big difference, and I really appreciate what you do.

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s