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THE STORYTHE ART OF INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING
Portland in the fall is a solitary city. A city where a lonely man can lose himself, insulated beneath the cold, and the clouds, and the rain. Mason (Joel David Moore) is just such a man. A gifted artist, Mason is never-the-less neurotic and reclusive, living a life of anonymity, working from a drab cubicle in a florescent-lit phone bank, repeating the same meaningless conversation with faceless strangers ad nauseam.
Mason is never truly noticed by anyone, save his boss, Berkeley (Zachary Levi), not quite a friend, but a sole source of companionship in an otherwise isolated existence. That is, until he meets a gregarious co-worker named Amber (Amber Tamblyn), a girl struggling with her own loneliness and need to define herself. Amber's jovial demeanor and seemingly carefree attitude provides a sort of catharsis for Mason, and allows his true gifts to come to light as she poses for his art.
It is an unlikely, and unusual courtship that helps Mason find peace for possibly the first time in his life. But as Mason's defenses lower, and the man inside is revealed, there may be something behind the surface darker than anyone expected. For not everything that is hidden should be found, and not every love is meant to be. And you can't paint over your past...
Director Adam Green: Spiral is a story of a reclusive, lonely and troubled painter (Mason, played by Joel David Moore) who has a real shitty job at an insurance phone bank; he can't really distinguish between reality and what's in his head; he thinks he may have done something really bad in the past, but he's not quite sure.
The interesting thing about this movie is when you hear the title Spiral and you hear the premise of the main character, you think "OK, this is a movie about this guy unraveling." And in fact it's actually the opposite; as the story progresses you watch the character get better rather than fall apart. This all happens through making a friend at work who's also ostracized, who just started there; who isn't good at her job and doesn't have any friends, but really just has that need for attention.
Joel David Moore, whom even his agent describes as a "funny, geeky guy," had a good sense of himself early on.
"When I was about 5 years old, I thought that I wanted to be a clown," says the 28-year-old Portland native, who first learned his craft in his home state of Oregon, where he earned a BFA in Performance Arts from Southern Oregon University, and was a company player in the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Until recently, Moore's aim has been fairly true. In the five years since he moved from Oregon to Los Angeles, the actor has parlayed a series of television commercials that took advantage of his scarecrow physique and unorthodox mug into full-time work in television and films.
Now he's getting serious. Moore's dedication to his art, which is no secret to those who know him, produced the most ambitious effort of his career: an independent feature film on which he is co-writer, co-director and star.
Spiral, a small-budget psychological thriller, is guaranteed to be the springboard for a small, ambitious and unusually close-knit creative team made up of Moore and his best friends.
Moore and co-producer Jeremy Danial Boreing wrote the script for the new film a year ago.
"I was getting a massage," Moore says. "I woke up and went, 'We need to do something we can make with our bare hands. We need a 16 mm camera, some lights and $150,000.' "
Although the figure proved far too low, the friends realized they could clear their schedules between Thanksgiving and Christmas and secure private financing.
"The whole point was we don't want to give up our creative control," Boreing says. "We thought if we revisited 'Spiral,' we could still keep our arms around it. It was 10 weeks before we got to Portland."
They put together a cast and crew that included more veteran filmmakers - co-director Adam Green and producer Cory Neal, among others - from a previous film Moore had acted in, a horror movie called "Hatchet."
"They've sort of acted as spirit guides," Boreing says. "Our schedule is extremely ambitious. Their mentorship has been what's allowed us to move so quickly."
Actress Amber Tamblyn, the star of TV's "Joan of Arcadia" and the film "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," whom Levi met at a food co-op, also came on board.
By eschewing Hollywood indulgences and standard pay, the filmmakers have kept costs down. Even bringing 20 cast and crew members from Hollywood and hiring an additional 60 in Portland, they'll produce "Spiral" for roughly half of what it would have cost as a studio film, they say.
"If Hollywood were to do this, it would cost $2 million," Levi says. "Every one of us is working for free because it's a labor of love for us."
Moore says: "My mom had said, 'I sort of expected to show up and just see you, your friends and a couple of video cameras.' "
A man with a plan
At the creative center of it all is Moore, whose passion has clearly infected those closest to him.
"He is the most creative person I know," Boreing says. "His strongest attribute is also his Achilles' heel. His explosive creativity has been the best thing and the hardest thing in putting this project together. A great script needs five ideas. Every day, Joel comes to the table with 10."
Moore attended Mt. Tabor Middle School and Benson High School.
"I just adored him when I met him," says Ryan, his agent. "He was 6-foot-3 and probably weighed 110 pounds. But he was just so confident. Generally, at that age, if you're confident, it's because you're a football jock. He was just like, 'This is what I do. I'm going to have a career as an actor.' "
Moore scored work in commercials as a teenager, gaining entrance into the Screen Actors' Guild with his second gig. "They said, 'OK, you're going to have to join this thing called SAG,' " he recalls. "I said, 'I don't want to do this stupid thing. They're taking all my money.' "
He hosted a children's show and worked at the radio station at Benson, which had no drama department.
"We literally were splicing tape together," he says. "I always knew that I didn't just want to act. I loved the behind the scenes stuff. When I moved down to L.A., I wanted to dabble in different things."
Ryan saw a special combination of talent and drive in the gangly youngster. "There are certain people that walk through your door; they have everything it takes," she says. "If they can keep themselves together on a personal level, all you have to do is present them.
"He has a plan, and he stuck to it. He has never stopped working."
Moore arrived in Hollywood after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he also worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He wasn't an instant success.
"I was working at Circuit City for a year and a half," he says. "I thought, 'Man, I'm a good salesman, but I don't want to do this.' "
Ryan says Hollywood types didn't exactly take to Moore's quirky exterior. "Everybody was like, 'It's going to be too much of an uphill battle for you,' " she says. "'It's gonna be too much work.' "
But Moore proved them wrong, getting roles in a list of TV series that included "Boston Public," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Six Feet Under" before landing a regular role on the Heather Locklear vehicle "LAX."
By the time he auditioned for the oddball comedy "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," a hit that starred Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, Ryan's confidence in Moore's abilities was robust.
"On 'Dodgeball,' I walked his commercial tape into the casting director," she says. The woman tried to assure Ryan that the role would go to a name actor. "I said, 'You have to look at this.' She watched the tape, they brought him in, he got the job."
Next month, the film "Art School Confidential," in which Moore works alongside John Malkovich, Angelica Houston and Jim Broadbent, premieres at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Carving out a corner
It's not hard to imagine Moore and his gang going the route of other young collaborative teams like Wes Anderson and his Texas college buddies Owen and Luke Wilson, who energized the independent film genre before moving into the mainstream with films like "The Royal Tenenbaums."
"We want our little corner of that world," Boreing says. "The DVD market has gotten so big so fast, a film can make so much in DVD sales. Independent films can be very lucrative. We're in a good commercial place with indie film.
"What we really wanted to do was, as a group of friends, make films. It's been a great adventure. I think we all feel stronger on every level for the experience."
The handsome Levi, who'd seem like the bet for any romantic leads, agrees.
"We knew going in that we were four guys that had never done this before," he says. "Even if we never sell it, I feel like that was money well-spent. At the end of the day, we've got this piece of art."
"I didn't know how things were going to fall together until they fell together," Moore says. "I never took a directing class. You can go to school for a lot of this, or you can just be on set as much as you can.
"We don't feel it now, but we're gonna all sit as a big group, all the guys that I hang out with and party with and go to church with and say, 'We made this.' "
MOORE: It was interesting. I knew that I wanted to work with Adam again on something but I didn't know that as soon as he finished HATCHET, 5 months later, we agreed to do SPIRAL. And we had been talking the whole time about HATCHET and trying to find something we can work on so it was just a delight to grab this. Adam and I worked together very well.
Sometimes you don't know how co-directing is going to go, but because we did so much work before, looked at shot lists and did everything that we could before we got on the set everything was figured out. And, of course, life and being on set shows you about having to deal with being thrown for loops. But we were prepared for the loops and Adam and I are very creative guys and met at a level of hustle and passion and creativity.
We didn't not make our days very often. We rarely went into overtime. There were a handful of times we had to push over our normal 12 hours. But it went really well and a lot of that I have to give credit to Craig Borden, our first assistant director who also worked on HATCHET and our local crew in Portland, Oregon, my hometown. I set this in places that I lived in growing up. Mt. Tabor, where Mason played basketball is where I played basketball growing up. Amber and Mason would go feed ducks; that's where I would go when I was 4 years old. Portland is a beautiful backdrop for a film and it was wonderful to go to all these places that I knew. And it also helps in writing the film as well because then you know what you are dealing with, you know the locations.
MOORE: We made sure that we didn't go too long without having a suspense moment/a scare moment, so that people, the audience would't just get scared…We just wanted to remind them that while things were going well between Amber and Mason that he's dealing with some heavy stuff that's still haunting him. There is just something that is really disturbing him and he can't get rid of even though he's met this wonderful gal and is making him normal as he's ever been. He has, like, 7 lines in the whole movie and goes about 40 minutes without saying much of anything and then just spouts off his idea of painting and art and what it means and there's this pause at the end and Amber says what has hurt you and it was at that moment you're like this dude is getting it, this guy is opening up and maybe this is the girl who is going to bring him out of where he is. Right after that we throw in this kind of shocking image of something of a flashback of his that pulls you back.
WORKING ON A SMALL BUDGET
MOORE: We wanted the movie to be a small budget movie because we knew we were going to do it ourselves. We wrote it and again, it doesn't have an incredible amount of locations and we kept the imagery and action scenes at a level that wasn't a huge car chase or that million dollar stuff in and of itself. So, we kept it within our budget. We knew what was possible for us. And we even had moments within that budget that I think one of the important things to me was to be able to shoot this on film we shot it on Panavision cameras and Kodak film and I think that's where a lot of the cinematic beauty comes from. It has a warm feel and you are able to do so much with the film with the lighting because we had a great crew.
But the visuals in this movie are what drives the movie because a lot of this movie are just two people talking and the cameraman is playing a character, a part in this movie - voyeuristically speaking. He is watching Mason as he's going through his struggles. All of that was accessible to us. Because all of that is creating, between Adam and I, how the shot is going to look. We had these long shots of steadicam just moving around the world and one of my favorite shots in the whole movie is when Mason comes in from talking to Amber on the street and not inviting her up because he obviously has paintings of this other woman on his wall and he's not ready for that transition. Mason looks out, looks at the paintings, and then storms into the bathroom. That shot right there is just one shot. It just moves all the way around and introduces you to the block where Mason spends 90% of his time.
THE CAMERA WORK
MOORE: Well, thanks to the talents BJ (McDowell), our steadicam operator and Dustin (Pearlman) and Lewis (Fowler), our camera guys - the three of them were stolen from the HATCHET set because they did such a great job there and brought them up to Portland. They are the big reason why we could get away with a lot of steadicam shots. We didn't have to do a lot of wheels and tracking because it takes a lot more time to set that up. We did do all our tracking shots with a steadicam and we did do some tracking shots still, we put some on a dolly and wanted some things to be moving so we put on a three foot slider that we just put up sticks so we could just move the camera back and forth. So there were some tracking shots but 90% of what is assumed to be tracking shots is actually done on a steadicam. It allowed us to move a lot quicker and a lot more fluid and have more creation of the shots. And tracking also sometimes limits. If you are going to set up a dolly that is five feet â€" it only moves one way. If it's a shot that is coming from Mason to a doll sitting in a chair that is obviously imaginary, we want to pull from that all the way over to Mason and see the chair in the shot. You can't do that on a dolly. You can but it's easier to do it with a steadicam. A lot of these shots were tough on BJ, which is good. We tried to be as hard on our steadicam op as we could.
MOORE: I sort of took the reign in the editing in this movie and it was a great process. I put together this movie wonderfully but it was a two hour cut of it and we knew it had to be an hour and a half so we knew that we had to take 30 minutes out of this movie. So then we went into this frantic mode of everybody trying to give notes and nobody wants to cut any part of it. Nobody wants to cut anything that they have spent money and time on but we made some big cuts early on and lost some things that we wanted to have in this movie. And then I went back and cut things between the scenes here and there â€" cut a scene short here â€" maybe cut some dialogue and as I did that after my first pass of the movie as a whole we ended up 15 minutes shorter. So then we decided that we needed to put those scenes back in and cut the fat out and ended up with a movie that we didn't lose one single scene that we needed that we wanted to give the audience.
This movie is developed around kicks I guess: " the mystery of what's going on", "what is Berkeley going to do with the waitress, how is he going to deal with Amber's character " all these things" all scenes lead to the final shocking end and to get rid of a scene gets rid of the facts that we needed to tell the story. You could actually cut all the fat out between and keep the movie. It was really a nice with what we ended up with and, I hope, entertaining.
WORKING AS A TEAM
MOORE: It really was a movie by committee and it was a special process because it was. While we were able as a team to understand we had limited time every day and only three and a half weeks to do the film, everybody was just on their feet working hard everyday and wearing different hats, our line producer was our UPM, our writer was our producer in Jeremy, and we brought Cory on early in the process because of his strength producing and just came off of HATCHET and the two of them working together just helped the project become so fluid and EVERYBODY would put their hands in whatever way they could, whether it's just moving a light to try and get a shot done, and somebody running around saying, "OK Iâ€™ve got 7 minutes. We got to light this in 7 minutes and just pop it in." And our crew, Sarge, and the whole crew of electricians, we just had a crew that was really hustling on the set. It was cool and unique because people knew that we were making a unique piece here.
BOREING: And I do consider SPIRAL, which doesn't mean it isn't flawed "it's flawed in it's writing and acting and directing and everything - but it is a piece of art the same way a painting has flaws but it's still a piece of art. It's different than an action movie. We knew what we were doing and our hope is that we delivered something that folks would enjoy as one big painting in all different aspects.
MOORE: It was a movie by committee, that's true but the better way to say that is that as the process went on, our natural gifts emerged in a way that maybe we didn't know so, not that there weren't any bumps and bruises along the way, but no collaboration is completely painless but as we went forward we all learned where we can trust each other and didn't have the right skill sets to deal with certain problems. It wasn't a committee decision every time a decision needed to be made, it was a collaboration of certain kinds of people making certain decisions. Still, one person made decisions about the picture but there were 10 of us sitting around trying to figure out what something costs and funneled into these natural roles. It's a lot easier to be collaborative and productive but it was the way we all got through this process successfully.
INTENTION OF MAKING THE FILM
MOORE: We obviously went for making a film that was in the Hitchcockian genre. It's very deliberately paced and it's something that was an exploration of character for guys like Zac and I who have predominantly done comedy, and that's one of the reasons we chose to write this film for our company, because we wanted to branch out, not only as actors, but as filmmakers. I love Hitchcock and I love these old stylistic dramas and character pieces. Of course, we can't do it like he did it--he's Hitchcock. But because of who he is, and he's such a unique filmmaker, we were able to at least be in the genre of the kind of movie he made.
I think that what I'm most proud of about this movie is the style that is has, the cinematic appeal for such a low budget movie. We made a choice to spend money to get Panavision cameras and shoot on Kodak film, their Vision stock, which is such a beautiful stock. It's expensive. It would have been a lot easier for us to do it on HD and HD is wonderful. We'll probably shoot our next movie on HD. But for this specific movie, we wanted it to have the warmth and the life that film brings to the project.
MOORE: The company kind of came out of us doing Spiral. It was the catalyst of understanding that the four of us could come together and do more of these. We've produced a couple films since and we will continue to do it. Jeremy and I are writing a comedy. We're going back to that side of it for a while. We continue to push and be creative and find out what the next project as a company can be. We're always looking for good scripts and new, talented writers, and people who want to work with us on things.
Next up is a film called Shadowheart that we produced. That will be coming out later this year. We have a couple projects that we have optioned and are working on. We're trying to find the next project for us to dive into. The writers' strike puts a little button on what's going on. I'm overseas shooting, so when I'm done with that, we'll find something nice and meaty that we can sink our teeth into.