Travis Oates shares his thoughts on directing Don’t Blink, one of the best films of 2014
Terry Wickham: How does an actor mostly known for doing the voice of “Piglet” since 2005 and owner/manager of a comedy theater, turn around and direct one of the Best suspense movies of 2014, Don’t Blink?
Travis Oates: Well, I’ve been a professional writer for quite some time now. I’ve been writing for television and film for almost a decade. Most of what I do is polishes and dialog passes so it doesn’t end up on IMDB, but I have also sold 6 films and 7 TV pilots. I got tired of none of them being made, so when I sold ACME Comedy Theatre I made it a goal of mine to direct my own film. Zack Ward found funding for the project and the rest is history!
TW: Was directing always your end goal in terms of filmmaking?
TO: No, I stated out wanting to be an actor when I was younger. I had some small success at it, but when I started writing, that was where I found my calling. During the time I owned ACME I directed up to three shows a week and one short film a week. I fell in love with directing while I was there. Now, I firmly put myself in the writer/director camp.
TW: I see you had directed a short comedy film in 2011. Was that your first attempt at directing?
TO: Heh heh. I actually directed about 50 short films between 2010 and 2011. I directed my first television show in 2001. It was a pilot for a comedy sketch show. IMDB is actually a really poor resource for short films and smaller projects. You have to write them and make sure your stuff shows up there, and I’ve never paid much attention…
TW: I couldn’t agree with you more about IMDB. I’ve done a bunch of stuff not listed that maybe wouldn’t even get accepted by IMDB, not listed there. It’s one of the reasons I started posting a new Blog/Photo Gallery from every project I’ve ever done (33 total), until all my projects are listed in some way on my website. If I don’t do it, nobody will ever know about them.
TO: Yeah, it’s especially frustrating if you write pilots like I did for years. Unless the pilot makes it to air, it doesn’t go on IMDB. I was working constantly for 5 years, and if you looked on my IMDB page you wouldn’t see any evidence of it. I’ve even had movies green lit, be on IMDB, then have the film go into turn around and have it drop off. Frustrating.
TW: What movies or filmmakers inspired you and was there anything that molded your directorial approach on Don’t Blink.
TO: I’m a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. I was actually reading one of his biographies while we were filming Don’t Blink. I tried to employ some of the techniques that he pioneered. I enjoy a slower paced, smoother look to films. I’m not a fan of hand held or jerky camera work.
TW: I dislike the bumpy camera work as well. It’s one of the reasons that even though I’m currently making a “found footage” movie (called “Stash”) I’m mixing in fluid camera work.
TO: I can hardly wait to see it!
TW: How did the opportunity to make Don’t Blink come about? You not only directed the film but wrote it as well?
TO: Zack Ward and I had been friends for a number of years, (I had directed him in a few comedy shows). He was looking to produce a film and he knew that I was looking to direct one. I offered to write a film for scale if I had the opportunity to direct.
TW: Was this a project that took years to develop?
TO: Not…really. The development side of things happened incredibly fast. We were funded, greenlit and starting production in less than three months. The production itself was only a month. Post took longer.
TW: Lucky guy. Things don’t usually work that way. I wish that was the norm.
TO: Me too. It’s funny, the first time I ever pitched a TV show the network bought it in the room. I thought, “boy this is going to be easy”. I didn’t sell another pilot for two years.
TW: I loved that your film features an ensemble cast. I get tired of the two or three lead structure of most movies use. The films I make that I write myself, are usually designed for a group of characters carrying the story. Were you mindful of this when you wrote the script?
TO: I wanted the piece to be an ensemble, with the “lead” character shifting a few times. For example, Claire doesn’t start the film as a lead, but she becomes one in the second half. I like doing that kind of thing in a suspense film, it makes it harder for the audience to feel that anyone is safe. For example, some people were surprised that Mena Suvari was only in the first third of the film, as she was the biggest name in the picture. However, that was always my goal. I wanted the first person to disappear to be the biggest star. I wanted the audience to think that she might come back, because of who she was.
TW: That’s certainly a Hitchcockian tactic (Psycho) and I love the idea of a shifting lead. I’m all for storytellers not getting blocked into rigid character structure.
TO: I like it when a movie keeps me off balance. Too often I know everything that’s going to happen before it happens.
TW: Since you are an actor, did you select actors that were your friends or acquaintances in the business or were they found by the normal process (casting director suggestions, auditions, etc.)?
TO: It was a mix. Zack was a friend. I wrote the role of Lucas for Curtiss Frisle. Leif Gantvoort was, and still is, one of my closest friends…but he had to audition. Everyone else came from casting.
TW: Do you enjoy acting or directing more?
TO: Directing, hands down.
TW: Give me some specific moments during the making of Don’t Blink, in regards to working with your actors, which were special to you? Maybe it was something they did or said to you, or vice versa. I know on my movies, I can think of little moments that stand out.
TO: I’ll tell you about two. The first is the knock at the door in the third act. The camera is framed with Jack on the left and Claire on the right. After the knock, there is a moment, and then Zack’s character Alex slowly rises to a sitting position on the couch. That is my favorite moment in the film, (it usually gets a laugh). My DP, (who was phenomenal, by the way), thought I was crazy and didn’t understand the shot at all…until he saw it unfold. Sometimes, when you’re a director, you need to have enough faith in yourself to try something that everyone else thinks won’t work.
The other moment is near the end of the film. Claire and Jack have a heartfelt conversation in near complete darkness about fear and their personal lives. It’s a very intimate moment. The two actors, Brain and Joanne asked me if they could try something. They wanted to have their characters scared yet laughing at the situation—the ridiculousness of it all. My immediate reaction was that laughing would destroy the mood. However, I let them try it, even though the day was running long. It turned out to be so human and touching. Sometimes, when you’re a director, you need to have enough faith in yourself to try something that you think won’t work.
TW: I applaud you for having the courage and willingness to allow risk. It’s not always good to play it safe.
TO: I was lucky that, for the most part, it worked out.
TW: The amount of restraint that you showed in keeping the lid on what makes people disappear is really impressive. I know that couldn’t have been easy because I’m sure the finance people wanted explanations for the audience or just themselves. Was that at all a battle to retain?
TO: Yes and no. Just as the audience of the film is sharply divided on the ending, so were the people making the film. Carl Lucas, one of the producers, was adamant about keeping the ending the way it was, others felt differently. I went back and forth. My own mother hates the ending, but my wife loves it. I do know, by the way, what is happening in the film, and there are clues to the “secret”. In fact, someone contacted me on twitter and guessed exactly what was going on. He caught every clue. So it is there…but it helps if you know a thing or two about theoretical physics.
TW: Speaking of which, did you wrestle with the thought that the audience might want to see more. Was that a dilemma you faced either in the writing stage or principal photography?
TO: When I watch a horror film, I’m only scared until I know the secret of what is going on. The whole idea of Don’t Blink is to have a film where that sense of terror doesn’t fade at the end. It stays with you. Some people vehemently hate me for that. Believe me, I heard from many of them. That’s why my film is always scored exactly in the middle on every site on the internet. I get a lot of 5’s and 1’s. I knew going in that that was going to be the case, so yes, I struggled with it. Contrary to popular belief I’m not the kind of person who wants to make a film to piss people off. I just wanted to make something different. Fortunately, most of the critics saw that, and we got very good reviews from the press.
TW: I think films that make you think are quite often the ones that stay with you the longest. We’ve all seen the predictable stuff that’s easy to digest that’s forgotten the moment we will the theater or shut off the Blu-ray/DVD player.
TO: Tell that to the internet. They think I’m evil. It’s okay though, I used to host a television show with Wil Wheaton. I’m used to internet hate.
TW: The location you used in New Mexico was beautiful. The cleanliness of the mountain resort actually worked in your movie’s favor as normally scary, or suspense movies focus on what happens in the dark. Since this movie was done mostly in broad daylight, or in well lit resort quarters made it unique. Talk about why you did this and how you found the location.
TO: It’s easy to scare someone in a dark, scary place. I wanted to see if I could make a beautiful place feel frightening. The location was perfect for us. Actually, the only real problem we had was that just like the characters in the film, we had no cell signal up there. To get any phone or internet we had to go down the mountain. I always laugh when people on message boards say they thought that that aspect of the film felt fake – we lived it!
TW: Tell me a little about your Director of Photography Jason Crothers and your Music Composer Mike Verta. Their contributions were definitely important to this film’s success.
TO: Jason was a godsend. I would use him in all my films if I could. He has a great eye and was a gracious collaborator. He took everything in my head and put it out on film. I have never met Mike Verta. He wasn’t the original composer for the film, and was hired without any input from me. The original film had much less music and the score was more…restrained. I wanted to play with how quiet everything was, how oppressive silence could be. Mike was obviously not given that note.
TW: I’ve noticed that silence makes people uncomfortable because they don’t know what to expect when the music isn’t telegraphing what’s to come. A perfect example was when I saw The Strangers in the theater when it first came out. tomandandy’s score was so unobtrusive and there were so many moments of silence, that all of us in attendance, sat on the edge of our seats.
TO: Yeah, I really wish people got a chance to hear the original score. It was written by a composer named Jonathan Green. It’s really quite wonderful—very minimal. I think that’s what made the producers nervous…
TW: How many shooting days did you get to make this movie?
TO: 24 days over 4 weeks.
TW: Obviously, I selected Don’t Blink as one of the Best Films of the Year. What’s been the response so far to your film?
TO: It’s been a critical success, definitely. We made more than a few “best of the year” lists for horror. The general audience either loves or hates the film depending on what they were expecting. I understand why the ending could be frustrating for some, and I’m truly sorry for that. If you’re mad, tweet me and I’ll give you the secret to the ending…
TW: What are your plans going forward in terms of directing? Might we see you make another thriller?
TO: I’m working on a bunch of things right now. I’ve had a few offers. I certainly wouldn’t shy away from doing another film like Don’t Blink…as long as the ending was clear and concise. 🙂
Travis – thank you for creating a wonderful movie that stands out because of your unique approach utilizing mature restraint, focus on acting and your ability to capture a palpable mysterious atmosphere.
TO: Thank you for the kind words!