Thursday, October 30, 2014

Darren Darnborough ("True Blood") on Directing, Passion & Cheese: "Stefano Formaggio" EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!

You might recognize Darren Darnborough as Callum on HBO's "True Blood", or Ajax from Darkness Descending, but most recently he's tried his hand at directing for the screen.  "Stefano Formaggio", which we reviewed right here, was a feast for the eyes and even had a little something for the thinkers out there, too.

Darren Darnborough was nice enough to answer my questions via e-mail, and the resulting conversation is printed below.  Our topics included getting into the business, being on TV and, of course, "Stefano Formaggio" (which is ONLINE and available to watch right now!)

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FCFR: You've worked as an actor exclusively before stepping into the directing chair for “Stefano Formaggio”, but you're also a writer.  Could you talk about how you started in the business of acting and what made you decide to jump ship and get behind the camera?

DD: I began performing when I was very young, first with weekend dance classes and school plays like most.  Then after seeing a local pantomime, I joined their associated Saturday drama class.  That led to doing panto each year, a few shows (both amateur dramatics and school plays) including some new musicals in the West End.  I got into TV as my school headteacher offered me and a friend the afternoon off to be extras on a government film that was shooting at the Natural History Museum.  I jumped at it, and we ended up making friends with the lead teenage actor, who had his own TV show, Billy Webb.  The first instance of nepotism struck when he introduced us to his acting class and agent Anna Scher Theater, and from there I moved to Sharon Harris Drama School, who was my first real agent at 16 years old.  I booked my second audition, a Dr Pepper commercial, and off we went.

I haven’t really jumped ship.  Whilst I’m getting very involved in filmmaking, I still go on auditions and work as an actor and voiceover artist.  But when I first got behind the camera significantly was at university.  I enrolled in Royal Holloway University of London’s drama degree, but after a couple of weeks, I realized I may get bored as much of the curriculum were things I’d covered for years as both a part-time acting student and now professional actor.  I jumped ship on that course over to the Media Arts program at the same University, where I gained my degree.

Filmmaking has always been something that I wanted to be more involved in, but it’s hard to penetrate in the UK, especially if you are reasonably successful in another capacity.  Working your way up in film requires a lot of interning, low paid work and minimal opportunities.  When I moved to LA, there’s filmmaking talent and ambition everywhere you look, and people are motivated to just make films. It made it much easier to get a team together and shoot.

FCFR: How long of a shoot was it and what was the budget you were working with?  You had an amazing creative team behind you, and the results are, as they say, up there on the screen.  Literally, this could be a feature you'd see at your local multiplex.

DD: Thank you for the compliment!  That was the look we were going for, so nice to hear it.

The shoot was over 9 days – 3 days in Carmel, 3 days interiors and studio in LA with some travel / set-build days.  Our budget was around $50,000 which may sound like a lot, but even with this money we were cutting all available corners, rushing and paying people minimums, whilst relying on a lot of favors.

It’s incredibly expensive to make a film properly, legitimately, and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and has the necessary equipment and resources to do their job to the highest level.  We had an absolutely amazing professional team involved, which I think shows, but you have to respect their skill and give them what they need.

I think these days, with available technology, it is easier to make a cheap film, but the project has to lend itself to those techniques and conventions. You can shoot a "found footage" movie on your iPhone, but not a romantic epic.  Many low budget filmmakers also concentrate too much on the action / story, to my mind -- which is paramount -- but they forget to create the world of film, the set decoration, the camera techniques.  It’s the beauty that I find in the whole process, and literally designing every minute element of that story that appeals to me, and I hope shows in this film.

FCFR: What is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?  Are you more of a writer type, comfortable with the story in your imagination, or someone who likes the shoot?  Or maybe you're more interested in the editing room, where it all starts to really become a movie?

DD: That’s a tough question.  I guess I like all of it.  I probably would say the heavy development is the best stage – when you know you are making the film, and you start working on all the small details, such as when we were studying the characters and deciding what Jasmine’s florist would look like, or that she has a harpist in the courtyard.  Color choices, costume, set pieces – all those details that create the world.  The bad part of that is that it all seems to happen very quickly when you get greenlit.

The actual shoot was incredibly fun and a proud moment – seeing it come together and being able to work with friends and loved ones is awesome.  Editing is actually not so pleasant… the first edit you see back worries you, as it neither looks like what you thought you shot, or how you want it to end up. Plus you have to make difficult cutting decisions, which lose people moments, lines, sometimes whole characters, which is hard as a first-time director.  But once you tighten the edit, do the sound and VFX, the color, the music, all that good stuff, it really comes alive.  My editor Katie Hetland was excellent, and then the team at Go!Electra in Norway took it too a new level with color, VFX, sound and music.

FCFR: In terms of imagery, “Stefano Formaggio” is breathtaking.  The depth of colors onscreen is brilliant, your coverage is fantastic.  Did you have an idea of the locations while writing?  How much pre-production work did you have to do to ensure that this short would be visually stunning?

DD: Thank you!  There’s various elements involved in this look.  When I originally conceived the idea, I was living in Greenwich, London, which is a very quaint district with an artisan village feel.  I loved the sense of intricate design and detail, structure and fairytale whimsy about the place.  By the time I moved to LA and realised the talent was here to build my team, I started looking at more local locations.

Part of the fake and replaceable facade of L.A. means that there are quite a few "storybook" looking houses peppered around the streets.  These buildings got me thinking about my main characters, the story, and how this really could work well as a twisted fairy tale, so I started to develop that strain.

We were ankle-deep in pre-production when serendipity struck – I am also a travel journalist and the city of Carmel-By-The-Sea invited us to visit to write some travel articles. My girlfriend and I traveled up, and when we woke up in this perfect fairy tale village, with its quaint houses and cute customs, I just thought, "This is where Stefano and Jasmine live!"

That weekend turned into a part location scout, and the people in Carmel were so hospitable and it just fit the scene. There’s even a Cheese Shop there who ended up building Stefano’s cheese display for us.  My producer, Marius, had some logistical concerns for us to shoot there, so we checked out some other locations including Universal Studios, but it just didn’t feel right.  Carmel had a magic quality that I knew would not only permeate the screen, but also the team, their performance.  I told Marius that he had to come to Carmel for one night – if he didn’t share my sentiment, we’d stay in L.A.. We drove up overnight, and by breakfast, he’d agreed.

I had very specific ideas of what each location should look like, and we found them in Carmel, with a smattering of movie magic by shooting the interiors in L.A.

But the other major factors in the film's imagery has to go to our creative team – Alex Fymat excelled with his set design (the whole of Stefano’s cheese factory is hand built from scratch); Hallgrim Haug’s cinematography, who mentored me perfectly; and Havard Smavik, our colorist based in Oslo, Norway, who spent the best part of a week with me making sure every shot was the right tone and shade for what we needed.

FCFR: It's interesting that every shot of “Stefano Formaggio” is gorgeous – and similarly, our two leads, Alice Greczyn and Pasquale Cassalia are jaw dropping – but beauty becomes a veneer that covers up the psychosis at the finale.  Was this what you were going for thematically, or was it a more unconscious thing?

DD: Haha, I’m surprised you noticed!  Yep, we definitely had an ugly-deficiency on that set.  It was ridiculous, even my crew were super attractive so we used many as extras!

Yes, it is a definite theme – the film’s tagline is “Perfection is Deceptive” – there’s an underlying statement that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and also a theme of duality in the movie – every scene happens twice but with different outcomes, exploring the light and shade of each.  Also, in our story, it’s actually the cheese that is making these townsfolk more attractive, but that’s subtle as we didn’t have time to explore that notion too much in a short time.

FCFR: How did you come to enlist the help of Greczyn and Cassalia? 

DD: Very different ways – I met Alice at a dinner party I threw at Sundance Film Festival a few years back around 2008.  She just had a very striking quality about her, and as I’d already been thinking about the role of Jasmine, I just thought, “That’s my actress.” Lucky for me, it turned out she was an actress, and we remained friends and so when the time came to shoot, I made sure we planned around her schedule.  She also has the same look as the girl who inspired this story.  I am so glad that worked out, Alice is fantastic in this, and I wouldn’t have seen it any other way.

Pasquale was much tougher.  We were in heavy pre-production and I still hadn’t found a Stefano, my title character.  He had to be Italian, attractive, and charming enough, with the ability to play sinister.  I watched a ton of demo tapes, but nothing was of interest.

In a desperate attempt, I called a casting director friend of mine, Pamela Shae, who casts the likes of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Charmed".  I explained that I knew she was way out of my league for this project, but if she has any ideas off the top of her head . . . and she replied, “Yes – your guy is in my office right now.” I was unconvinced of this coincidence, so Pamela pulled out all the stops, arranging a casting day with over 20 actors for me to look at, and . . . she was right. Pasquale was indeed the man, and I very much enjoyed working with him.  He’s a very understanding and responsive actor.

FCFR: Now maybe I can shift gears a little and talk a little more light.  And with that in mind, I need to ask you . . . why cheese?  What inspired your writing of this film?

DD: A bizarre night of cheap happy hour wine and conversation is the honest answer.  In London, I had a pretty friend that worked at the market, and was seeing The Cheese Guy, very casually.  One night he took her out on the first proper date, but it ended abruptly with no real explanation. She met me for wine to drown her sorrows, and we started bouncing around reasons that it may not have worked out.  They started sensible, went bizarre, and when I woke with a very sore head in the morning, one of the ideas felt like a film plot . . .

FCFR: What can we look forward to from you in the future?  Do you see more directing on the horizon and will you continue acting?

DD: Definitely am and will continue acting.  I’d like to direct some more, so hopefully this film will bring those opportunities in commercials, music videos and feature films.  I’m working right now developing a feature called “Andy & Chaz Destroy America” which is based off the Andy & Chaz web series we did a few years back on YouTube.  We’re raising finance and looking for a co-production deal on that now.  I’ve also just finished writing a thriller with Timothy Linh Bui called Flash, that we’ll be going out with soon.  Aside from that, I’m also launching an exciting new web service to help actors learn lines with Jessica Rose (of "Lonelygirl15" fame) called

FCFR: If you could offer yourself one piece of advice that you wish someone would have given to you when you first started out in filmmaking, what would it be?

DD: Go to a better film school.

And . . . respect momentum and work hard.  If you have a good idea, work on it, build your team, but then have confidence in the momentum as that will build around you in tandem with your effort.

FCFR: Thank you so much for your time and for “Stefano Formaggio”, Darren!  Now frankly I'm going to go find some cheese to nibble on . . .

DD: Good stuff – Stefano has an appointment for you!  :-)

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Thanks again to Darren for taking the time to answer my questions and for being a class act to boot!  Do NOT forget to follow him on Facebook and Twitter and visit the official "Stefano Formaggio" website!

If you haven't had the chance to watch "Stefano Formaggio" yet, click this link right here!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!