An interview with writer/director/cinematographer Derrick Sims

As evening falls, two hunters, a 10-year-old boy and his grandfather, wander into the darkening woods to track down their recent kill. To their horror, they discover that, instead of a deer, they’ve shot a trespassing neighbor. With a history of land disputes with the neighbor’s family fresh on his mind, the grandfather decides to hide the body. As the night wears on, the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred. The young boy begins to wonder if everything will truly be all right… come morning. A haunting thriller set in the scenic woods of rural Arkansas, COME MORNING is beautifully shot, fraught with tension, and a brilliant first feature from a director you should know.

Writer/Director/Cinematographer/Editor Derrick Sims’ feature was the first film I ever found programming Austin Film Festival, my first world premiere, so it holds a very special place in my heart, and now, almost 2 years later, the film arrives on VOD (and DVD and Blu-Ray) through Monarch Entertainment. I had a chance to catch up with Sims in and around his shooting schedule for THE REMAINS, a feature on which he is serving as Director of Photography, a full-length version of a short that premiered at Shreikfest in the last week.

Much of Sims’ background is as a DP, or in editing, or color-correction, all jobs he ended up doing on Come Morning. However, for his first directing experience, he came upon an idea that was both intensely personal, and completely invented. “It is loosely based off me and my grandpa, and our relationship,” he says, “he used to take me deer hunting all the time when I was a kid. No one wanted to hunt with me because I talk too much. He was old and he didn’t really care.” Of course, he never shot anyone on one of these trips, at least not that he’ll admit on record. “I had just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and I was currently reading First Blood,” he says, “and they’re both survivalist kind of stories. There’s also this Johnny Cash song that I was a big fan of, that talked about a guy accidentally shooting someone. I guess it was just a perfect storm of things going on in my head as I was driving to work one day.”

The film came to Sims fully formed in his mind, at least visually. “I imagined it geographically, where we actually went hunting and went down to the creek beds, and so we’d have to go back to the house and get the wheelbarrow [after the man was shot],” the director says, “all the locations that we shot in are right where me and my grandpa would have went. Some of them had changed, like they had been logged out and we had to find places that looked similar.” When they went to shoot, they were actually able to use many of the places that had colored Sims’ memories of his hunting excursions. “A lot of it was shot on my grandparent’s land and on my parent’s land,” he says. “The house that they’re hunting in, the deer house [I’m sure he’s calling it that thinking us city folks wouldn’t know what a deer blind is], is actually the house that my grandfather and I hunted in except we picked it up and moved it to a location 10 miles away that look more like how it did when I was a kid.”
Shooting in Arkansas provided its own set of difficulties. The film was shot in twelve days, with temperatures ranging from the lower 80s to the lower 30s. “When I imagined it, everything was dead and kind of gray,” he says, “but Arkansas weather is strange, October is kind of a hit and miss month.” The leaves still green, Sims knew he would just have to deal with it, because shooting any later meant shooting in deer season itself. “I was like ‘we’re not going to be in the woods shooting a movie when people might be shooting at us,’” he says, “because a crew member will die.” Arkansas doesn’t have much of an established film industry (although strangely this makes the second film I’ve covered shot there), but the crew got a great deal of help from the local population, and the town of 400 where Sims grew up. “Everyone knows everyone really well,” he says, “I put out a call for a dead deer and a dead coyote which you would think you could find, they’re everywhere. All the local cops knew, so we had our selection of dead deer. We could go out and be like ‘naaa that one’s not that good’ and wait for the next one.” The coyote took a little more searching, but, according to Sims, “five days before the shoot, one of the local cops called us and said ‘hey out on the road there’s this dead coyote and he looks pretty fresh.’ And we put him in the freezer. So that’s the kind of help we had, people looking for dead animals for us.”

The most difficult thing about shooting Come Morning turned out to be the dual role Sims in which found himself. “I have constantly evolving emotions about it all,” he says, “I consider myself a DP — that’s what I do — on Come Morning I knew I really wanted to direct it, this is a story I want to tell, I don’t want to just shoot it.” His goal was to find a DP that had a similar style to him, so it would look similar to how it might have if he had shot it himself and he found one, but it ultimately didn’t work out. “I decided that maybe I should shoot it myself,” Sims says, “and so I did and during the shoot I said I will never ever do this again because it was just so… I mean take all the pressures of being a director, and add all pressures of being the DP, combine them…” His voice trails off as if remembering storming the beach at Normandy. “The way I remedied it,” he says, “was that I cast the film about six months out, and I would literally send them notes every few days and talk about the characters so when we got to set there weren’t too many questions.” The actors had months and months to pour over their scripts and work everything out with the director before the time crunch of shooting a feature in 12 days. Sims also had every shot planned out, everything storyboarded. “I drew out all the lighting schematics for each location,” he says, “and walked them with the gaffer. If I was making decisions on the day, it would have been impossible. But on the other hand, it was miserable.” After shooting the film, Sims found the stress hard to shake: “Afterwards, I was still waking up in the middle of the night freaking out about the lighting in the room and my wife needed to remind me that the shoot was over.”

With production complete, Sims moved into the editing chair. “I don’t enjoy the process of editing so much, but I do so much of it, there was never any doubt that it would be me editing,” he says, “and with editing, there’s not a time pressure.” As a first time director, he struggled to remind himself that what you put down on page doesn’t always make it to screen in the way you imagined. A producer told him, and he adopted it as a guide, “Here’s what you got, now work with it, and create the best narrative out of it.” There were no reshoots, he just had to make it work, and, after shooting in October 2011, he finished the first cut around Christmas, and started submitting the film to festivals in January. “I wanted to shoot for the top and see what we can get, and so we got denied by Toronto, we got denied by Seattle,” he admits, “the thing with festival submissions, if you are going to do an early deadline or a regular deadline, you are going to wait at least three months before you hear anything, often more than that, so it was just a waiting game for a while.” The whole time Sims kept recutting and changing things, and then he got the call from Austin Film Festival [from me, actually, I’m proud to say]. “We premiered literally one year to the day that we wrapped shooting which I thought was really fast,” he says, “I thought we were going to be on the top of the world, dominate, and then we didn’t hear from any other festivals for a long time after that, and so I took a little bite of humble pie.”

The subject matter may be part of the reason, not that it’s intensely dark in this era of slasher pics and torture porn, but there is something particularly southern about the point of view. “I showed the film out here in California,” Sims remembers, “the very first screening of it, a couple of them [friends and industry acquaintances]were like ‘Why is it so violent?’ and ‘why are they fighting over a fence and this little bit of land, it sounds kind of unbelievable.’ And I was like ‘you have no idea, these people are extremely poor, in the middle of nowhere and land is all they’ve got.’” In the film, the grandfather reacts in the way he does because there is actually NO WAY that anyone would believe that they DIDN’T SHOOT the interloper on purpose. “If someone is encroaching on your land in the South that’s a big deal,” the director says, “a lot of my festal stuff was in the South because I think people really understood more.” And the South was the next place the film landed after AFF. “We didn’t even submit to Oxford Film Festival,” he says, “but they had a film that got picked up by Fox Searchlight, and they didn’t want the film to play Oxford anymore and then I think Oxford contacted Austin and said ‘hey, do you have any suggestions.’” Of course, this call came to me, and in the way that programmers at every festival in the world do, I advocated for a filmmaker that I felt really deserved more exposure. Filmmakers pay attention; this is why you should all be easy to work with and to come to the festivals where your films are playing. I could have said any film, but knowing Oxford’s audience and knowing how cool Derrick was when he was in Austin, how he had worked the crowds and tried to fill his screenings, it was obvious to me who to recommend. Oxford called Sims, asked for a copy, and the day after receiving it, programmed the film. “So it screened there and I won a special jury award for cinematography there,” he tells me, “which was really nice.”

Fast forward to fall 2013 and few festivals later, and Sims is ready to hand off the film for wide release. “After we played White Sands Film Festival, we had a different deal set up, with Redbox,” he says, “and we had a sales agent. I thought it was going to do really well, well enough that I wouldn’t have to work on other projects for two or three years, so I was really excited about that.” Unfortunately, this is not how things worked out. “After two months I got a call from my sales agent that Redbox kept wanting to push it,” Sims says, “they pushed it in September, they pushed it in October and I told my wife if they push it in November I’m going to say ‘forget it.’” They did. Sims realized that this meant waiting through December and January (when studios would be filling all the Redbox slots), and he didn’t want to keep waiting month after month just to be denied. He cut his deal with his sales agent and decided to release it himself. Having briefly moved back to Arkansas to work on future projects, he took the film around to local cinemas and was able to get a theatrical run in several of them. He then went on to put together a DVD and BluRay release. “We already had our deal set up to get prints for DVDs for Redbox,” he says, “so I just went back to that same company and got prints, and sold them ourselves.” The first few months were great, with placement on sites like Amazon, but after a while the sales petered out and Sims knew he needed a wider reach. So he went back to all the distributors that had already looked at the film (and had already presumably turned it down). Monarch was interested, but saw the film was already available online, so Sims let them know exactly how many he had sold, and pulled it down and Monarch was in. It is a great testament to the filmmaker’s drive, this is now two years after premiering, three after filming, and five after writing the script.

Come Morning’s VOD window begins today and it will be available on Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Dish Network, Verizon, Blockbuster On Demand, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Google, and Xbox Live. In addition, the film will be released (or rereleased depending on how you see it) on DVD and BluRay, full of bonus material, including a hidden easter egg (that’s all I’ll reveal). “I’m always a huge believer in special features and stuff,” Sims says, “DVDs came out when I was in high school and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Extended Edition were kind of film school for me — the first time I’ve seen like ‘oh my god, this is how movies are made.’” The Come Morning disks will have a full commentary track as well a “half hour behind the scenes making of kind of thing with interviews.” Of course, as a cinematographer and color-correctionist, Sims encourages you to grab a Blu-Ray. I’m not trying to write a commercial here, I just think the reason there are even Blu-Rays available is pretty instructive for filmmakers. “The distributor wasn’t actually going to do a Blu-ray release,” the director says, “blu-rays just don’t make any money for them, unless you are doing Prometheus or something like that, but I told him that I already had Blu-Rays printed up ourselves for my own distribution and they were ‘like how many do you have?’ And we sent them the box and they repackaged them.”

Come Morning is out on VOD today, with DVDs and Blu-Rays available from most major outlets (including Amazon). This is an edge of your seat thriller, with lush cinematography and a really simple but gutsy story. Sims is a tremendous talent, and one you should be seeing more from soon.

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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