Interview with ATM director David Brooks
I recently had the chance to sit down with David Brooks, director of the Horror / Thriller ATM, which is available now through Video On Demand and sees a theatrical release April 6th. After the journey from the Valley to Hollywood, I stepped from the veritable playland that is Hollywood Boulevard into one of the sleek offices that so typifies where much of the business of making movies is actually done.
Excerpts from the wide-ranging interview follow.
ATM is a very tightly focused film, with the three main characters alone together on screen for much of the time. Brooks had this to say about casting these three critical roles:
We got very lucky with the whole casting process, also just the timing. We were ready to send the script out in town the same week that Buried [written by ATM pen Chris Sparling] sold to Lionsgate at Sundance. So there was a momentum there surrounding Chris, and then luckily people really responded to the script. So I met a lot of really talented and interesting young actors. For me, it was really just trying to figure out who I thought would be best for those roles.
Brian Geraghty, who plays David, he was coming off of The Hurt Locker at the time, and had done a film called The Easy Practice that I loved. The great thing about Brian is he's such a sweet, nice guy, but he's got this quiet intensity to him that I thought was great for where the character needed to go and what he needed to become. I have to say after that first meeting, its was just a no brainer for me that he was the guy.
Then Josh was attracted to the role of Corey, which was great, because I was such a fan of The Wackness. I really loved the film, and I think he's just great in it. The thing about Josh is he's so funny. In person, he's just one of the funniest people I've ever been around. He's such a warm guy to be around, but also, The Wackness just showed he's got incredible range. He can go from comedy to drama, and then beyond on both sides. I probably didn't realize until I met with Josh how important the comedy aspect maybe would be. [Corey] had to be annoying in a way, but you still had to like him, and I think that's what Josh was able to really do.
And Alice, again, I was just a fan of her work. Again, I just thought that she was going to bring the sort of depth to the character needed. It's a challenging role in general, but also in the situation, because it was so intimate. In other words, the three of them, and me and the crew really in this very small space, and she's really the only female. Unfortunately, crews are still mainly guys. So it's a tough situation for an actress I think in general to be in that. So I needed someone who was tough and could handle it. So it was great.
As in most Horror / Thrillers, the victims are only one side of the coin. Brooks and his team also put due consideration in the killer, looking to create a strong character with a memorable look.
I think we though that that parka image had the potential for that. It was certainly something in the script all along, and something that Chris and I had talked about. I really wanted the villain to be a character, not just a big man standing out there. There was a temptation to like, “Right. Let's find the biggest extra in Winnipeg and stick him in a parka.” I really understood that we had to find an actor, and it was a role. You had to try and create something with it so it wasn't just this sort of big... He's still a big guy, but he's not seven feet tall. That to me I thought was more interesting. So in crafting the look, I think that was a big part of it, just who would be cast. It was really about, “Alright, let me see you walk...” It was like casting runway models... Just trying to get a feeling for something that would be scary, but not overtly over the top, trying too hard. And then the look, in how we lit it, and when we decided to show his face.
As we were tracking, there was certainly questions like, “Should we ever show his face?” Some of the earlier shots we ended up going in and darkening, which we planned to do as we shot it. It's towards the end of the second act that we start to see his eyes. For me, it felt like a natural shift. At a certain point, I felt like the audience wants to get something. So to hold it back the whole time, particularly with where we go in the end, it felt sort of, again, too much. At a certain point, he shouldn't just be this cloudy figure. We should get a sense...Spoiler alert, but there's a moment when Josh Peck runs outside, and there's a moment between them there that I knew that I'd want to see his eyes. So it was half practical, and half, “Well, I really want this moment to play like this, so maybe we'll find a point to transition.”
The vast majority of the plot in ATM lays out in an enclosed ATM vestibule, a space about the size of a walk in closet. Such a tightly contained space presented numerous challenges and opportunities for Brooks and the cast.
I think that was part of the excitement for it, particularly looking for my first feature. I think the chance to do something contained, on the one hand, it's a more manageable kind of film, but also that poses all the challenges that come with making that interesting again. So I think that was a big aspect of what excited me about it, was trying to give it a scope or make it more than just a tiny little film.
In a film where it's contained and you've only got 20 days to shoot it, prep is everything. So I storyboarded the whole film, and then we really spent a lot of time thinking about how can we really... We built the vestibule as our set / giant prop, if you want to call it in a way, and just trying to figure out how can we really build this thing to make the process as streamlined as possible, with the walls flying and cameras mounting where we wanted, and all the lighting for the most part built in. So we tried to address as many of those big kind of challenges ahead of the time. I think for the most part, it worked well for us. When you get into the rhythm of shooting at that point, you're looking at the pages, and you realize you've got eight, nine, ten pages of stuff, but it's not complicated, so just have to plow through. But I think the big challenge was for the actors, just finding ways, even from a blocking perspective, keeping it fresh. That becomes a challenge. I was really adamant that we had to shoot it in order. As a directory, you want to try and put the actors in the best position you can. So I felt like at least doing that, we had a sense of, “We were there yesterday, now we're going here.” But still, that was I think probably one of the biggest challenges, was both visually working out, “Well, how do we shoot this? We were this way yesterday. So now let's maybe come come over here,” or whatever it was. So that was, yeah, but fun, part of the excitement of it I think, was trying ti figure that out.
I always wanted to try and give it a sense of scope, beyond just this spacial containment. I thought even within that, we could make it claustrophobic when we needed to, but not small, if that makes sense.
ATM can be categorized several ways, as a Thriller, under Horror, or more particularly High Concept Horror. Brooks has this to say about where he places his film:
I always though it of it as a thriller, as a suspense kind of thriller, but it's interesting to see how people...I call it either way. I think it still probably falls in that category more than horror. I think it's much more about suspense and seeing characters in this very intimate situation. We wanted to be quite violent and make the most out of those specifics rather than have lots of gore as it were. So that was something that we certainly thought about. I think fundamentally, hopefully, it's a fun ride. What really drew me to the project was that it took me somewhere unexpected. So I think hopefully that audiences can look forward to that. For me, certainly my goal is to try and take the audience on a ride that hopefully they're surprised and they have some moments of shock.
As a first time feature director, this was the first time Brooks had the opportunity to go through the full test screening process, an experience he described as both “priceless” and “terrifying”:
It's interesting, because in post, we went through various test screenings, that start off very small, friends and family, then it's a 400 person thing The early ones, it's very much, “Well, let's just get a feel, in case we're way off.” So you don't know as much as in the later ones when the film is really done or getting close to done. It's terrifying to a degree, but it's really kind of great, because you get surprised. There are things that you thought would play big, maybe they don't play quite as big, and things you thought were a tiny little moment that play huge. So it's exciting. I think there's nothing better. I cut the film myself as well. So to have the perspective of 400 random strangers, it's priceless, it really is. It's fun. Particularly in a film like this, I think when you see it in a theater, on a big screen, because there are a couple of moments where people literally jumped out of their seats. So that's fun.
Speaking of the big screen, like many movies in recent months, ATM is getting a VOD (Video On Demand) release side by side with it's theatrical release. As a filmmaker, Brooks can't help but have mixed feelings about the small screen supplanting the big screen in movie-going:
It's a obviously a great way for people to see your film. It's doing very well on VOD, which is great, but the flip side obviously is that we all try and make it for the big screen.
For me, the big screen is the best was to see anything really, but I think particularly with this. With the sound and everything, it just plays great in a big room.
You want as many people to see your film as possible. That's why you make it. You make it for people to see it. As a filmmaker, I would love everyone to see it on the big screen. Obviously, that's not the reality, so it's great that people get to see it. But I will say it's a great thing. As far a distribution perspective, getting the movie seen, it's fantastic. So it's exciting on that level, but for me, the best way to see a film is on the big screen. I think one of the hardest parts of making a film is when you get to the end of it and have to do the different versions of the film. It slowly get's smaller and more compressed. Once you see it in the 4x3 stereo mix down, you're like, “Were's the movie?” But again, that's probably me as a filmmaker being more sensitive to the experience than people you are just seeing it the first time.
Now that his first feature is complete, Brooks is looking to the future. He may write and direct his own material, but for now really enjoys the process of collaborating on a project as he did with Chris Sparling on ATM. Ultimately, he wants to move on to bigger and better things.
I think I will absolutely at some point write something that I will go on to direct, but I'm not actively writing anything at the moment. I obviously wrote my shorts and things like that that ultimately got me into this business, but I'm really looking to... I had just a great time working with Chris Sparling on this. I really enjoy that process of collaborating with writers. So for me, that's something that we do.
I want to make big films. I think that the films that I loved growing up, from Heat to Black Hawk Down... I'm a massive Kubrick fan, which goes without saying. I'm an admirer of what Christopher Nolan's done. A film like Inception, the fact that we was able to do that I think is inspiring on a level. So when I say “big films,” I mean I'd like to make films that reach a lot of people and have a something to say. So my only qualifier with material is that it has to feel fresh to me, which is a challenge. You read a lot of things and a lot of movies made, either you see everything coming, or “Oh, it's a really good scene from that movie and a really good one from this film, and we'll sort of jumble it together.”
I want to thank Mr. Brooks for taking the time, and wish him luck on his future projects.