Ten executives meet in secret to sell off their company – one by one they are murdered, leaving the profits to be split by fewer and fewer shareholders. In COFFEE, KILL BOSS, director Nathan Marshall and writer Sigurd Ueland have found the perfect mix of comedy and thriller, a sort of TEN LITTLE INDIANS meets WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S meets WALL STREET. The laughs are original and sharp but the style is pure fifties, like something from the Hitchcock cannon (or really Hitchcock through the lens of Mel Brooks). Tonight COFFEE, KILL BOSS makes its Los Angeles premiere, and I had a chance to speak with Marshall about the film and what just makes it so different from most of the other indies rounding the festival circuit.
The script for the film came out of a screenwriting class at UCLA, it was early and changed a lot but Marshall says “from the beginning it just sort of stood out… with its vivid cast of characters.” He and Ueland talked about working on it together at some point down the line. Marshall loved the fact “we were sort of in this confined space, this bland office environment – one of my first jobs was working as a file clerk and the amount of paperwork that went on there was unbelievable. I was like ‘wow, I can’t believe this is how modern companies still work.’” COFFEE, KILL BOSS tapped into that “the silly cubicle culture, and [Ueland] found a way to put that into a script but do so much more than just commenting on office life in America. It was a classic murder mystery, so it could really be an entertaining movie as well as be a statement on corporations in America.” The script picked up some steam by placing in some major screenwriting competitions, which “earned it some legitimacy and allowed us to attach actors and finances to it.”
Of course, one of the main selling points was that the entire film takes place in one location. Marshall admits “you can’t escape that bottom line financials are what makes a movie doable, and it was attractive to everybody that the script could all be done in one controlled environment.” In many ways one location is every filmmaker’s nightmare and every producer’s dream. COFFEE, KILL BOSS, set in an empty office building on the weekend, really utilizes every cranny and nook of the set. Marshall saw this an enormous challenge, trying to wrestle with just exactly what he could bring to the film visually so it wouldn’t feel like the cast was constantly running over the same ground. The trick he embraced was that over the almost two hours of the film, it “sort of aesthetically changes from a comedy to a 1950’s style thriller.” Marshall says “it happens in the script and we wanted to mimic it visually that it transitions from one genre to another genre while you’re watching it.” So the opening of the film “is a very bright, cheerful, evenly lit world” and as the film progresses “not only does the lighting become more high key and more stylized and more dramatic, but the shot choices become more extreme, more dutch-angled, more long running thriller shots.” In terms of reference points, Marshall admits the first act was very influences by “Office Space, the TV show The Office, anything that had the word ‘office’ in the title.” And as more executives get killed off, the film lives more in the world of “film noir, classic Hitchcock films like Rear Window and North by Northwest , something very visually recognizable as a thriller”
The other greatest strength of COFFEE, KILL BOSS is the ensemble cast, a collection of instantly recognizable (but sometimes unnamable) character actors, who all have a chance to shine in this crazy world. At the center of it all is Eddie Jemison, most famous for his role is the OCEANS movie as tech Livingston Dell (also director of King of Herrings, a film I profiled here). Marshall knew Jemison was the perfect choice for the role. “Literally I had been telling people for the previous three months that the guy had to basically be an Eddie Jemison type,” he says, and then one of his producers brought the suggestion to him as a real possibility – he and Jemison had worked on a pilot that didn’t go – ‘would Jemison be interested?’ Once he came on board, the rest of the cast started to fall into place. Marshall says “as well as just being a great guy and very solid actor, Eddie is somebody who is respected by other actors … so we were able to go out to other people and say Eddie Jemison is playing the lead and we got a much more immediate, excited response than we would have gotten other wise, people liked the script, liked the project but he was the piece that people got excited about initially – ‘oh, I’d love to be in this film with Eddie.’” The rest of the cast come together quick, “very piecemeal – different people had different contacts with different people.” These other pieces included character actor legend Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, The Descendants), and other instantly recognizable faces like Richard Riehle (Office Space – inventor of the ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat), Chris Wylde (who once had his own show on Comedy Central), Peter Breitmeyer (The Middle, Fargo), Noureen DeWulf (Anger Management, Outsourced) and Jack Wallace (Boogie Nights).
Of course, as an independent film, Marshall and the other producers were making a lot of offers to people, not necessarily getting to read or audition a significant portion of the cast, so “there were a lot of question marks going into production. It wasn’t until we were actually on set and shooting that we saw the whole cast together and kind of realized what we had put together, he says. “As well as all of them being individually talented, they really just gelled. There was a group chemistry, they liked each other, they acted well together, they looked right.” Despite not having a typical audition process, Marshall was pretty confident with what he was getting. He says “we live in an era now where we can just get on the internet” and really see an actor’s skills. He advises directors “watch as many videos, download as many movies, look at as many TV cameos as you can, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what their range is, what they are capable of, basically the burden falls to you — you’re still auditioning them, they’re just not participating in the audition.” Of course, “and this sounds dark,” Marshall says, “you always have the back up plan of firing someone. And nobody wants to go to that place but if you show up on set and someone’s an asshole and the chemistry is just completely wrong and you realize on set that you are about to derail your whole film, you do have your ace in the hole, that you can fire someone. You may have to pay them out as per their sag contract, but for little movies, that may not be that much money, and then you are able to pull in your plan B. So you should go into production with your Plan B if you’ve never worked with these actors before.”
But that that didn’t happen on COFFEE, KILL BOSS. The biggest difficulty was actually in the combination of the film’s two greatest strengths. Marshall admits: “we were a little bit green in thinking that [having the one location]would really help us with our time issues and staying on budget. What we overlooked is that every scene has 10, 12 actors in a room talking at the same time. Every scene has murders and blood effects, people getting hung and any time savings we thought we had by the one location was very very quickly washed away by the complexity of the scenes.” But by the third day of shooting, the production team had responded by cutting back the budget in other areas and bringing on a second camera so that each scene could have more coverage. This allowed for more reaction shots, and punch ins – “the time loss was killing us,” Marshall says, and comedy is so much about timing and having close ups “we knew we weren’t going to have a successful film” if they carried on with their original one-camera plan. With the 2nd camera they were able to shot close-ups of the main dialogue as three-four person masters were filmed at the same time and this helped immensely with getting the film covered. But the primary photography of the film was shot in 12 days. “It was an absolutely brutal schedule” says Marshall, “and there were moments – a line here, a line there, a cutaway reaction – that we didn’t get, that I did miss, so when I look at the movie, I see all those.” They did what they could on the time they had, and you can imagine coordinating a shooting schedule or any pick ups with a cast this large is near impossible, especially when most of these actors were going on to other projects almost immediately.
However, despite any difficulties on set, the final product is something that everyone can really be proud of. Every actor has wonderful rich funny moments, the style as it shifts through genres really comes through and the film is a great ride through corporate culture. After making its debut as the Austin Film Festival opening night film, COFFEE, KILL BOSS has played a steady stream of festivals around the country, picking up awards and solid notices along the way. When asked about playing the festival circuit, Marshall has this advice to filmmakers: “I think its important to premiere at the best possible festival, with the most enthusiastic festival director possible. You want to have the best platform initially as possible. Obviously, I’m saying this to you Bears, but I think it’s true for anyone.” (Marshall is sort of playing with me, as I was the programming director who gave Coffee, Kill Boss its premiere, but he is making a point). He continues that you want the film to be mutually beneficial for you and the festival – they will do more for the film if it is something that seems the perfect fit for them. For Austin, this was a world premiere, and the script had actually been a finalist in the screenwriting competition, so it was a perfect match. Another benefit of playing a major festival as your debut is that it gives you great leverage after that. After going through the normal submission process of withoutabox.com (a film festival submission site used by a majority of U.S. film festivals) for Austin and few other good festivals, Marshall says “skip the withoutabox process and contact the director of other festivals directly …and just really politely say here’s the history of our project, we debuted at Austin, we won this award at this other festival, here are the actors in it, would you be interested in taking a look at it?” He says “a high percentage of the people who we approached in that fashion got back to us and said ‘great, I’d love to see it.’” Marshall also recommends that if your film is playing a festival, you should have someone associated with the film there for the screening, “one way or another, whether the festival is able to cover it or whether we have to put it on another credit card. Having it play at a festival where no one involved with the film is in attendance is sort of a lost opportunity. There is no chance of meeting anybody, there is no chance of meeting other festival directors, distributors, no chance of doing press. So somehow we find a way for someone to be there.”
COFFEE, KILL BOSS makes its Los Angeles Premiere at the inaugural Comedy Ninja Film and Screenplay Festival tonight, Friday May 30th at 7:00pm. Tickets are available here [http://bit.ly/1kpjyV1].