Ep19 – Screenwriting and Directing Indie Film: The Shade Shepherd


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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on some awesome guests today. We have on Jordon Hodges and Chris Faulisi. Jordon is the writer of The Shade Shepard, and also an actor, and Chris is the director and a writer on The Shade Shepard. Thanks for being on guys!

Jordon and Chris: Thank you for having us!

Geoffrey: I got to watch this film through a sneak preview. I thought it was pretty fun, interesting, and well written. I guess you guys are getting some pretty cool distribution on it.

Chris: Lionsgate.

Geoffrey: Lionsgate! That’s pretty awesome. That’s not easy to do. It’s available on Amazon, but before I get into that, I wanted to get your origin stories for how you guys met and how things got started. I know this isn’t your first gig together.

Chris: No, it’s not. You wanna give that story, Jordon?

Jordon: Yeah, I was on the corner of La Brea and Santa Monica, as cliché as that sounds. It was outside the Target food court. A friend of ours, Will, he was an actor in Faulisi’s directorial debut, Proper Violence. If you haven’t seen that film, it’s great. It has Randy Spencer, who plays my brother in The Shade Shepard. We talked, I liked him, and we did this 43-minute pilot/short film, he just DP’d it. He was a kid with a red camera. He was smart, and I love the way he made that film look. I was gearing up for a feature that I lead as an actor and also wrote/produced called Sand Castles and I brought Chris on as a DP. Randy played my uncle in that. Faulisi knocked it out of the park. I knew he was a writer/director and I pitched him over and over again on different treatments and stories till I got him on the hook for this one.

Geoffrey: What about this guy drew you to him, Chris? Obviously, he liked you because you’re pretty talented and you had a red camera. I’m sure it was more than that, but what was going on? You guys merged/melded, you liked his work, or did you read some of his stuff?

Chris: In the beginning, it was via our friend Will. You trust friends of friends and it was a pretty cool project. I was just working on another TV project. This was early on when I had just moved to LA. Ove the course of that, and working on Sand Castles, which was shot in Indiana, we became a lot better friends just by working on that movie together. I got to meet his family and see where he’s from. We’ve been friends ever since. He’s been pitching me on a bunch of things.

Geoffrey: That is something in the industry where you find somebody you connect with and enjoy working with. You find projects to work together on. Even Michael Bay, he’s got his crew and they all stick together from film to film. I think it’s really important to show that this is a relationship business. You guys both represent that.

Jordon: We’re very different in a lot of ways, he’s got a mad scientist vibe about him with how eccentric he is. When we come together on films, we’re very similar. He compliments the things I lack and vice versa. Chris was with me on my wedding day, we’re buddies. It’s important.

Geoffrey: I think it is important to work with somebody who fills in your gaps and brings their voice to the project. That adds that level of completeness that it needs. From what I’ve understood, The Shade Shepard was very much a group project, it wasn’t all one guy. You guys all came together and added your own voices to it. That’s what made it really original, which is cool because it works. You can watch a lot of film and see when they start to go off the rails. I’ll always lean over to my wife and go, “Three, four, or five writers, at least.” You can tell it’s a hot mess and the narrative doesn’t make sense. But at the end of your film, I knew there was one writer for sure because it all came together and looked really good. I was very happy with how that came out, so kudos to you guys. I want to talk to you guys about working together as a writer and director.

Chris: Obviously, since I was a writer on this project, it’s a little different than your normal relationship. … I write on a lot of projects that I direct because I want to be that involved with the screenplay. It all starts with the screenplay. In a lot of ways, my writing process is an extension of my directing process. I like to work with a cowriter because it allows me to not go into that insane mode where it’s just me and a blank page. I can really struggle with that, which is one of the reasons I don’t consider myself a writer, primarily. I can overthink things to the point where it’s detrimental, so having someone there to talk back and forth with and go over things can help push me along when I have to get something out.

Geoffrey: My experience in working with directors is that they’re different. They either know exactly what they want, or they don’t know what they want until you show it to them. It sounds like you’re getting in there and getting your elbows dirty by really being involved in the process. Jordon, since you guys are friends and buddies, I’m sure tensions have flared especially when you’re working on a screenplay together. What was it like working with a director trying to get this vision figured out? I’m sure you guys had different visions of where this thing was and different takes on characters. What was your take on that?

Jordon: I went into it knowing that Chris was going to direct it, but he was going to write it with me. He made a good point that a blank page can drive him crazy. Our relationship while writing, for a majority of the time, I was the one on the keys and he was the one on the couch. We’d have a conversation and I’d type as we were talking. Once we got to the end, we would pass the script back and forth to dive in but went down to arguing about dialogue. Going back to what I said about a friendship where they fill in gaps you have in yourself, Chris doesn’t have a ton of bad ideas in my perspective. I hope I don’t have a ton of bad ideas in his perspective. If we were faltering, usually the other would pick up the slack and figure it out. Faulisi had the idea with the ending, which I don’t want to spoil for someone who hasn’t watched it.

Geoffrey: It’s a good ending. It’s a shock.

Jordon: Thank you. That was totally Faulisi. I helped evolve it and do the groundwork with him on it, but the origin was his idea. There was one time in the home scene where the brothers are talking and laying out their lives to each other, we were both stuck on that. We made some attempts, then I honestly got pretty drunk one night and just wrote that scene. I sent it off, then I woke up the next morning thinking, “Oh my god I’m an idiot!”

Geoffrey: You went full Hemmingway.

Jordon: Yeah, and Chris liked it. It wasn’t perfect but he responded to it. It was a bit of a give and take.

Geoffrey: I think the one thing you really need, when you’re working together as a writer/ director team, is trust. You have to be able to trust the other person’s vision and voice. I find ego is the thing that really gets in the way. With you guys, you’re able to put the project first and put your egos aside, that’s when something special happens. Alright Chris, so when you got a drunken draft from Jordon, how was that looking? Was it singing to you?

Chris: It wasn’t perfect, I think there were a few typos in there. But if I remember correctly, Jordon, that was the conversation in the bowling alley where the character is actually drunk.

Jordon: Oh, you’re right.

Chris: Because of that, it was sort of a method writing thing. That’s why it started to work. I think that draft was too long, and we had to change some things, but there’s definitely dialogue in there from what he wrote while drunk that migrated its way into the film. I like having things put in front of me and then dissecting them. For me, that is the easier part than starting from scratch. One of the ways he and I compliment each other is he’s very confident and will plow forward at any given moment. There were times where it was like, “Hey, do you want to take a stab at this?” I don’t know if we did it on this film at all, besides the first draft, but in other projects we had collaborated on [the shooting script]. He can write a draft of a screenplay in three or four days; he can just barrel through it. That’s not a screenplay we’d be ready to shoot, but it gives us something there. If we got stuck, he would just take a stab at a section or a scene by writing down something quickly, and now we’re looking at something.

Geoffrey: Get the bones done there and parse through it.

Jordon: Knowing that it sucked. I was well aware that it wasn’t good.

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Geoffrey: We were talking about confidence. I think confidence is key when it comes to screenwriting. I’m not a director, but I can only assume on set that you want to be pretty confident when you’re in the chair and calling some shots. I think that coming off as confident is important. I always tell students that if they’re working with people and feel nervous, just fake it till you make it. Chris and Jordan, have you always had that kind of confidence when it comes to the work or did you have to grow into it?

Chris: I’m not confident at all. I think what you’re saying is really important, but I am absolutely not a confident person. But I can be confident in that lack of confidence. Filmmaking is inherently collaborative. I don’t really buy into the auteur theory too much.

Geoffrey: No?

Chris: No, I believe there’s some validity and it’s interesting to talk about. That’s not to say directors aren’t artists, but films are made by more than one person. Unless you’re setting up the camera, acting in every role, and literally doing everything yourself, there’s other people involved. I like to approach things in a really collaborative way. For me, “I don’t know” is one of the strongest answers, if you can be confident in saying when you don’t know something, you can open yourself up to better ideas.

Geoffrey: That is so eloquently put and incredibly humble, sir. I believe you 100% and I’m sure you put people at ease on set. Jordon, what is your take on confidence? You’re an actor, so there’s a bit of cheating here.

Jordon: I’m confident because I feel like I know the difference between bad and good. I would say I’m confident by creating [original work]. There’s always that nerve to get an original idea. But once that good idea passes that threshold, then I become confident. I’m confident in my discernment of what’s bad and good.

Geoffrey: You’re a man of distinctive taste. But that takes experience to get there, you have to develop and cultivate it. I want to ask you guys something because Chris sparked a question in me. He talked about being an auteur director, and there’s always an argument there. Are you creating art to create art, or are you creating art to sell? I’d love to get your opinions on that. You’ve created The Shade Shepard and it’s a cool film, you’re getting it out there and marketing it. But it definitely has some artistic components to it, in the way the cinematography is and the way the story is told. And in how the characters bring it together. It’s not an arthouse film or a big action blockbuster, but it definitely hits a niche and I’d like to get your guys’ take on that.

Chris: If it’s going to be something that people watch, there has to be an element of art in it. Even a big superhero movie, which may be mass produced and is definitely commercial, if it didn’t have some level of art to it, I don’t think it would have the audience. There have to be people that care when working on these projects. But there’s always that fact, especially if you’re just writing screenplays and you want someone else to produce them, you have to have a foot in both worlds to really do something with it.

Geoffrey: What do you think, Jordon?

Jordon: I agree with Faulisi. To me, it’s that age-old battle where you want people to see it but you also want to hold your artistic merit. For me, something changed while I was making Sand Castles seven years ago. I’m okay with popping up in a movie once every four or five years, so at that point, I think it’s just artistic. My stories are a part of my voice and how I want to tell it. But then you want people to see it too. The Shade Shepard was a bit more flary, with the 80s vibe, than Sand Castles was. That was just a straight drama, the hardest thing possible to sell. I didn’t do it for that, I self-funded half of it. That was my education.

Geoffrey: The Shade Shepard has a distinctive 80s theme to it, with some pretty sick opening credits with boss 80s synth music, which I think was an original score. How late in the game did the 80s theme come to developing this script? Was it what you wanted to do right away, or did it come later out of practicality reasons? 80s and 90s are coming back, there’s no question. You’re seeing it more in cinema because guys our age are making movies now, so of course we’re going to get nostalgic. Just like how our parents were making movies about the 50s and 60s. Eventually, you’ll see films 30 years from now talking about TikTok. What was the inspiration here?

Chris: It did come fairly early in the process, but it wasn’t at the beginning. The first draft was a much shorter draft that Jordon used to pitch to me. Once we developed an ending, that was when we started figure out what we were going to do with the script, overall. I think it was that same draft where the idea of making it in the 80s came about. There were a lot of logistical things that it solves, but it was also something we thought was really interesting. There would just be technology and plot points that would be necessitated by technology that was just not a part of the story we wanted to tell. It took us away from character relationships, as well as the themes we were interested in. We liked it, we were both born in the 80s, and we had been working on an 80s film before this one which didn’t end up happening. We were in that mood to do something in the 80s. It started as one of those ideas we just floated, and we ran with it. We felt like it could work.

Geoffrey: The film is about two brothers hiking through the woods because one is on the run from the law. Hijinks ensue. It’s a drama about two brothers that save themselves by saving each other. When you write an 80s theme, it can sometimes write you into a corner. Were you able to come together to make the process easier?

Jordon: Once we chose we were going the 80s route, as a writer it was a relief off my shoulders, but as a producer, the weight evened out.

Geoffrey: Did it blow up the budget a bit?

Jordon: You just had to be smarter. The locations became so much harder to find, plus the clothing and everything. As you said, the 80s were coming back, so we did a lot of basement shopping at parent’s houses. As a writer, it was a relief because it got rid of the problems we were running into. It’s like, “We’re on the run, it’s an adventure film. Are we going to get hit by a drone?”

Geoffrey: It makes sense because, if you look at the period, back then it wasn’t unusual for people to go on a walkabout like that.

Jordon: There’s a point where I call my wife, in the film, because it’s long distance. [In the present day], wouldn’t he just be texting her the whole time?

Geoffrey: Exactly, it works for a period piece. That’s what this is. When writing a period piece, I always warn students I work with, you have to be careful that it doesn’t blow up the budget. It sounds like you guys were able to do it on an indie budget without it blowing up too much, which is good to know.

Jordon: It’s small-town stuff. That’s why, never say never, but I don’t ever see myself shooting something in a city. That’s why I came to my hometown for both The Shade Shepard and Sand Castles, because you have so many relationships where you grew up, whether you know it or not. People know you and they are going to open the door for you a bit. That’s where treasures are sometimes.

Geoffrey: Even that bowling alley, I thought that set was really great. I couldn’t tell if that was all set dressing or if the bowling alley actually just looked like that.

Chris: The bowling alley looked like that.

Geoffrey: Really?

Chris: Yeah, we had actually scouted that location for that other project because that was set in the 80s and it had a bowling alley in it. We loved this bowling alley, so when we were looking for a place [the characters] could break into, we thought about that bowling alley. You have to be very careful about blowing up the budget when you go period, but there’s a unique scenario when I’m the director and he’s the producer so we’re aware of what we can and can’t do. This didn’t change our budget; we didn’t get more money because this was an 80s film. I felt like we could move around our resources and pull it off. Because so much of it is set in the woods, we didn’t need to worry about it. If there were a bunch of large street scenes, think about the number of 80s cars we would need. It’s really difficult.

Jordon: On the thing with streets, Faulisi would go and taught himself how to take things out of images. He would remove trash cans and [other anachronisms], things that most people wouldn’t notice, but it bothered him. There’s a scene where we’re driving a blue van and we get pulled over. The van was three years off, it was a ’92 instead of an ’89, so Faulisi decided to change the entire front end in post. He sent it to me, I watched it, and I didn’t notice anything different.

Geoffrey: That’s awesome. I never caught it, I’m usually pretty good at spotting that stuff, so that’s impressive. You’re just like, “We’ll fix it in post.”

Chris: The day of, we couldn’t get a period van. Coverage wise, I shot it where we could cut out the front of the van, but that felt bad in the edit. I knew we had to see the whole thing and it was killing me, so I learned some VFX skills.

Geoffrey: I love your dedication, that’s fantastic. That’s what elevates a project and a script, paying attention to details like that separates you from the pack. Obviously, it’s working for you guys.

Chris: We are producing an app, which we talked about before.

Geoffrey: Yeah, we talked about that on The Break It Down Show, which is a great show I have the privilege of being a guest on. I want people to hear about it on The Successful Screenwriter, and I’ll tell you why. There’s always interesting ways to market something. What you have going on blows my mind with the marketing for The Shade Shepard.

Chris: It started as a crazy idea. We premiered the film at Newport and it was toward the end of that festival … I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if our film had an app?” If any other these other films [at the festival] had an app, I’d say, “What the hell is this? I’m going to download this just to see what the competition is doing, then forget about it.” When the film comes out two years later, if you still have the same phone, push notifications will tell you that you can buy The Shade Shepard. You might be so impressed that you go buy it. That was the idea for it, but now with COVID and our festival run being over; because we weren’t sure if we would be able to do it in a legal sense; it all worked out and I decided to teach myself to code and use Unity and Pixel Art because I’m a psycho. I think it’s an interesting way to promote a film and it makes an impression. Large films have tie-in apps and games.

Geoffrey: It’s the second screen experience, that’s what they like to term it. I love that you’re bringing that into the indie market because you just don’t see it. Most people are like, “Would you like a sticker?” But now they can download the app of the film. Hey guys, I wanted to say thank you for coming on the show. I’m glad we got to talk about a writer and director coming together and getting those unique perspectives. I really appreciate it.

Chris and Jordon: Thank you.



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