Thoughts on MR. JONES, THE GRAND and The Campfire Production Company

Ross Dinerstein likes to keep busy. At this year’s SXSW he had not one, but two films that he produced in the program, and he plans to return to Texas in the next month, filming another. What’s most interesting about Dinerstein, and Campfire, his freshly launched production company, is the diversity of his projects. The inaugural slate (both played SXSW) of THE DIABOLICAL and THE NIGHTMARE, while both being dark in nature, approach the shadows from two very different corners. THE DIABOLICAL is a haunted house story with Ali Larter that takes a very surprising SciFi twist. THE NIGHTMARE  is a documentary from cult hero Rodney Ascher about experiences of sleep paralysis .  It played Sundance as well and seems like an easy fit for just about any festival program. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dinerstein during SXSW and talk at great length about his new venture, and some of his experiences producing.

“Campfire is essentially a continuation of what I’ve been striving to do for the last couple of years,” says Dinerstein. Content Media has partnered with Campfire, giving Dinerstein a direct route to international distribution with the same people he has made ten movies with, going as far back as THE KILLING ROOM (2009). “It’s essentially to be a film-maker driven  collective or collaborative company,” he explains about the goals of Campfire, continuing, “I mean, the writer/director of THE DIABOLICAL works out of my office for free and we go to lunch and we talk about movies.” With a big work space in Culver City, CA ripe for collaboration, Campfire can be a place where like-minded artists come to discuss their projects and search for inspiration. “The idea is to have people share ideas and talk about things,” Dinerstein says, “we give each other homework… I make everyone watch “Blue Ruin” and  “It Follows” because I think those movies are fantastic.”

The joint work space encompasses preproduction to post-production, with writing space as well as editing bays. The artists can learn from each other. “We just rented one of our offices to the ex-show-runners of “Covert Affairs,” he says; “their experience is completely different from mine – and they’re interested in what I’m doing. They’d like to get into that,  and I’d like to get in their world.” Another person housed at Campfire is Jeremy Platt, who manages Evan Katz, Jim Mickel and Adam Wingard. “It’s another way to get a different point of view, Dinerstein says, “you can go to his door and say ‘Does this make sense to you?’ ‘Do you have advice?” He does the same thing to me.”

If Campfire seems focused on low budget indie genre films, you might be surprised to find this includes documentaries. “I think the same reason why I like genre movies is the same reason I like Docs,” the producer says. Much like Genre films, Docs often have an audience built in. Campfire’s next project is about the founder of Compaq Computers, IBM’s main rival in the 1980’s. “They were the first company to do the personal computer,” Dinerstein says, “on a daily basis, they took on IBM and won. IBM had a tremendous amount of hubris and size prevented them from being able to take on the challenge from Compaq. Ten years later, IBM announces that they are exiting the PC business because of what Compaq did.” Of course, at this year’s SXSW, one of the must-sees has been Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs’ documentary. “The values at Compaq were the exact opposite of Apple,” the producer says. “It was all about creative culture and treating everyone with respect and elements of family. They kept production of computers in Texas, instead of taking things overseas. Rod Canyon, CEO of Compaq, created this amazing business. The cliché of starting in your garage — three guys in an Ihop came up with this idea and built the business from the garage.” Dinerstein describes the film as the classic David vs. Goliath story with Goliath being IBM, and Goliath wins. He hopes to have the film finished in time for next year’s SXSW, and is returning to Houston Texas to shoot more at the end of August.

diabolical

The Diabolical

Campfire is a natural next step after several years with Preferred Content, the company Dinerstein and partner Kevin Iwashina had for five years. “He is probably one of the best domestic sales reps in the business,” he says of his former partner, “he sold most of my movies. The two movies that are in SXSW, he’s selling domestically.” Dinerstein says Iwashina was interested in taking Preferred Content more into sales and consulting, whereas he wanted to focus on producing. “It was a very organic time for both of us to go our separate ways in a very amicable way,” he says, “It was just one of those thing where I’ve had a business partner for my entire career and I was ready to be on my own. I hit that point. Kevin recognized that. It’s the most grown up thing I’ve ever done.”

One of the things that has changed the most since Dinerstein entered the industry is VOD and streaming services like Netflix. I asked how his relationship with the final end of most of his films has changed over the years. “It helps because I’ve become very  involved with them and I have a good relationship with them,” he says. He even uses them as a resource now as he is putting together projects. “They won’t obviously give you any data,” Dinerstein says, “but, they’ll definitely tell you what is helpful, what they like.” Although people are not going to see a big film like Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time on Netflix, it has become the point of consummation for most indies. “They are very supportive of the indie genre space,” he says, “and that’s where most of our fans and people that like those types of movies, that’s where they are.” Although it may be hurting the ‘transactional VOD’ model as Dinerstein calls it, these fans who are discovering his films on Netflix are very important for getting the word out, as well as for future projects. “We want them to go on our Facebook pages and write comments and leave messages,” he says, “because I look at all that stuff as I’m developing – the fans are who pay the bills. They are the ones who consume our material.”

With that in mind, what kind of projects might Campfire be interested in? Dinerstein’s response is long, showing both that he has thought a lot about this, and that the company is really open to a lot of material. “We’re not afraid of first time film-makers,” he says, “we’ve done it a lot and I’ve done it a lot. We’ve had so much experience I can fill in the gaps. We always respond to contained thriller, grounded SciFi, new takes on existing ideas. More classical films, long takes, long lenses. You know, more of a sort of European style from the 70s.”

Dinerstein has worked on so many films, it would be impossible to talk about all of them, so here are a few of his thoughts on four of them: the two that played SXSW, and two of my favorites from his past.

THE DIABOLICAL

THE DIABOLICAL finds Madison (Alie Larter) and her children in their quiet suburban home awoken nightly by an increasingly strange and intense presence. Madison seeks help from her scientist/science-teacher boyfriend Nikolai (Arjun Gupta) to destroy the violent spirit that paranormal experts are too frightened to face.

About the development: “Easily the most fun movie I’ve ever made out of 25 movies – from start to finish. The development process was a breeze. These were awesome guys who become very good friends. It came from a general meeting with the director because I liked his music video reel. He pitched the idea… we pre-optioned the idea, we pre-optioned a script that didn’t exist. I met him in July of 2013 and we were rolling camera February 1st of 2014.”

About star Alie Larter: “We made it always with Alie Larter in mind. So when I went out to my friend, an agent – ‘Alie Larter is the prototype. Do you have some one who’s like Alie Larter?’ ‘Why don’t you make an offer to her?’ And we did – first offer, she met with us and signed on. She’s amazing… she’s incredible in the role. She’s beautiful. She really related to all the ideas and the concept and was just a pleasure to work with.”

About the SciFi twist: “I’ve made a lot of haunted house movies. I would never make another haunted house movie unless it was completely different in the way that THE PACT was a haunted house movie with a serial killer. This has a twist and makes the movie original and non-derivative and as original as I’ve seen in some time.

About the shoot: “We are confined to a space of shooting in this house but the movie feels big is and is big and every element of it is shot with anamorphic lenses. The cinematographer is extremely talented and every ounce of it was composed and Alister [Legrand, director] is brilliant…and visually… his idea of story and logic…he’s a star. … It has a ton of visual effects. We spent a good 5-6 months on the effects- had a really great team called Spontaneous out of New York.”

THE NIGHTMARE
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HE NIGHTMARE features eight people suffering from sleep paralysis, unable to move, speak or react as they fall asleep or wake up. The paralysis is often accompanied by horrifying visions. A documentary, the film features re-creations of the subject’s nightmares.

On ‘Doc’ as a genre: “There’s an audience built into it. And you have to tell a story in a visual way as much as with dialogue… With genre movies you can’t just put a camera on a tripod and light it. You have to actually have really interesting lights and you have to move. I think the challenge you have with documentaries is how do you make someone in a conference room interesting.  The Nightmare is a perfect example of a mix of what I’ve been doing the last couple of years- making elevated, high-end cinematic genre films. And you couldn’t have a better partner than Rodney Ascher.

About meeting and working with Rodney: Rodney is really close friends with Nick McCarthy who directed THE PACT and he did some graphic and DFX work on it as a favor to Nick. So, I met him at Sundance 2012 when ROOM 237 premiered. Obviously no one knew what ROOM 237 was or legally if he could release it. Fast forward about 18 months ago: a friend of mine, Glen Zipper who produced UNDEFEATED, the Oscar-winning documentary, had met with Rodney and Rodney had said ‘I have this documentary.’ And Glen said ‘I’m the doc guy, but I’m not comfortable in the genre space and would love to introduce you to my friend Ross.’ Rodney said ‘I know Ross’ and the three of us had lunch. We agreed then and there we’d make the movie and I was like ‘give me 30 days and I’ll get the movie financed.’ I got it financed in 72 hrs.”

About meeting people with Sleep Paralysis: “I’ve never had sleep paralysis, but the amount of people that have had it have been coming out of the works. My nanny, our DP on the movie (also the DP from THE PACT), our assistant had it, my graphics guy had it. And in all these screenings that we’ve done we’ve asked how many in the audience have suffered from sleep paralysis, it’s usually about half. I had a friend who I just met his new wife, he was one of my buddies from college. And I was at a wedding last summer in Houston and I told her I was doing a documentary on sleep paralysis. And she goes ‘whoa, I have sleep paralysis and I don’t talk about it.’ I asked her ‘have you ever seen the “hat man”’ and she takes me outside… ‘what do you know about “the hat man?” She’d never told anyone that she’d seen him – she thought she was the only one. So fast forward, my friend and his wife live here [Austin] and she came to the movie. She said she lay in bed for hours after seeing it because she’s absolutely terrified. I told her not to come.”

On keeping the film away from science or ‘experts’ and focusing on the subjects and their nightmares: “We made the conscious decision not to do it because we didn’t want to dilute anyone’s story. And we felt that the people are genuinely scared and then if you have some doctor saying, ‘actually its not a big deal, its just a melatonin overdose or they are too tired or drinking too much caffeine,’ we felt it would de-emphasize the importance of sleep paralysis in our subjects lives….what is would essentially pour water on the fire. And we felt like that was not respectful to them. The point is regardless of the reason, its a very real thing and it really affects these people on a day to day basis. But no, I get it, we’ve heard that from a lot of people.  The Director of DARK SUMMER [an upcoming Campfire film]– his mom is a sleep researcher at Harvard and she was very helpful at giving us advice and stuff. So, we could’ve interviewed her in a second but we didn’t.”

MR JONES

One of my favorite found footage films of the last few years, MR. JONES is a terrifying film about a couple that stumbles on an ‘outsider art’ recluse who may just be guarding a portal to another dimension.

On writer/director Karl Mueller: “Karl and I are not really fans of found footage but at the time sort of, if you’re in a low budget horror space, you needed to make a found footage movie so we made it as if it was an artistic found footage movie. If David Lynch is going to make a found footage movie that’s what we set out to make. And I think we were very successful.”

On the release (or lack there of): “A year later, we finished the film and the whole world was telling us ‘we don’t want a found footage movie.’ What was great about it was, about, six, seven months after the Anchor Bay release, we just all of a sudden started getting all these fans on Facebook. And I figured out it was because of Netflix. It found a life and audience on Netflix.”

THE GRAND

An entirely improvised comedy directed by Zak Penn, THE GRAND features an ensemble cast including Ray Romano, Woody Harrelson, Chris Parnell, Werner Herzog, Jason Alexander, Dennis Farina, David Cross, Gabe Kaplan, Michael Karnow and Cheryl Hines along with several real professional poker stars. The cast played an open-ended poker tournament with the film’s ending unknown until the winner of the tournament was determined… on camera.

On the whole undertaking: “THE GRAND was film school for me. I learned so much on that movie. Zack Penn had been in the business for a long time. He wrote and directed it. We had 43 speaking roles not one ounce of script – all improv- all the poker, all the characters all the actors were in character 24/7. Essentially shot in a vegas casino, in the summer it was 120 degrees and we never went outside. We would shoot all day or all night and I never knew. William Morris gave us the ‘scriptment’ – a fifteen page script of treatment for it … at the time I was a big poker fan and big fan of Zack’s. We just met and said let us come on board and we will figure it out.”

On his own Poker prowess: “I’ve never played a game of poker since that movie, because I learned that there are so many people who are such fanatics about poker and I was not going to commit all the time or effort to learning to being good. Learning all those tricks… I realized that- essentially I was going to be taken advantage of. There’s always a pro sitting next to you. I really haven’t played a hand of poker since 2007.”

On how you schedule a shoot with an outcome in constant flux: “We had Gary Marcus as our first AD, who had just come off of Tokyo Drift which is a hard movie to shoot. He said our movie was much more difficult. We had so many actors coming out of the woodwork that would say ‘I want to be in the movie’ – like Ray Romano.  Then we would find out that he is only available for three days. But he wanted to do this. Zack would sort of huddle up and come up with the storyline with the actor and sort of wing it from there.

On the game in the film: “In the movie, the outcome for the final table really worked for the story – that played out over 6 hours, there was a two-hour period where the person who was looking like they were going to win the final table would have made no sense for the story and destroy it. It was the one actor who knew the least about poker, he was trying to lose and kept winning. I remember talking to Zack, and we decided we’re gonna probably have to cheat this one. Or write a different ending. We thought about stacking the deck and rigging the deck and the actors wouldn’t know. Cheryl Hines [finally]won but Chris Parnell’s character was winning and he knew nothing about poker. The other thing was when the actors would lose, like Richard Kind – they’d be very mad. They all went into the final table wanting to win – they are all poker fanatics and so competitive. And essentially when you lost you were a wrap for the movie. That was the reason most of the people wanted to be in the movie – such an innovative idea.”

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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