Sunday, May 28, 2017

TwoOhSix Interviews: Creating Time Trap with Directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster (SIFF 2017)

The day after Time Trap's world premiere at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival, I had a chance to sit down with directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster for an in depth discussion on everything it took to put this film together. An hour later, I felt like these guys were the type of film makers who love making movies at least as much as I love watching them and that enthusiasm made for a very entertaining and informative interview.

Where did the idea for Time Trap come from?

Mark: Ben's girlfriend left a "space cake" (cannabis edible) in her apartment. Ben and I ate it and watched Frozen and then Ben went off to another room and was gone for hours.

(Laughter from both)

Ben: So, yeah, my girlfriend went out of town, Mark and I were hanging out at her place. I've never eaten edibles was delicious! We kept eating more and more until we ate this entire cake. I couldn't handle it so I went into the bedroom and I was on a roller coaster for like seven hours. The story didn't directly come out of this experience, it was more just the concept of time after not knowing I had been in the bedroom for so long.

I went to Scotland to do a commercial when I got an email from Mark, who was traveling in Thailand, with the first draft of the screenplay which was about halfway done at the time. We were in the process of putting another movie together, which was a really cool story, but we immediately thought this one was so much better so we just started working on it.

Mark working on the script in Thailand.
Throughout the movie there are a series of reveals that help the story to unfold in a very cool and original way. Was all of this part of the original story or did it evolve over time?

Mark: Some of it was, like the fountain of youth mythology with the conquistadors. We always knew who the bad guys were going to be, and the guy who was going to come down, although there were also a lot of ideas we had while we were shooting. We would say, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did this? Well, why can't we? We still have another week." There's lot of cool stuff that came out of that process.

Larger scale films, like Rogue One, have a second round of shooting where they can add in ideas, but we didn't have the luxury of doing that. For us, it was more like a work shopping production process where the writing is always happening. If we suddenly had an epiphany to change something like a line of dialog, we could just call the actor back in and redo the sound real quick. We would do stuff like that if we knew it was going to be worth the time and the money to improve the story.

Ben: A lot of that comes from being pretty technical film makers. We could control our process and I could do stuff like editing on a laptop in my apartment. We used the help of bigger facilities to do our final mix, and mastering, and all that stuff, but it helps being able to just dig in and change stuff on our own. I do a lot of work on commercials, so if we needed to pick up a shot for the film, we would just piggy back on top of that since we would be there with the equipment and resources ready to go.

Given the limitations you had, the movie still looks great. How were you able to achieve such a high level of quality while working off a pretty small budget?

Mark: One of the key things we had to figure out was finding the right places to put the money we had. Ben is really good at figuring out what program he needs and then just learning how to use it by watching a tutorial video on Youtube. If he can figure it out, we'll do that to save money and then we can spend properly when we have to hire someone to do stuff like the more complex effects shots.

Ben: We anchored all of our spending on the practical effects and the physical production so we could get our story figured out. For the visual effects, we just had to either figure it out on our own or raise the money later by showing financial backers proof that this is a cool story that is worth investing in. While it was an okay strategy for this film, and it worked, I don't know if I would want to do it that way again.

Mark: There was a lot of stuff that happened that was miserable and we both privately told people that this was the worst experience of our lives, but in the end, we made a movie that we are really proud of. We made a movie that we would want to watch when we were kids and that's as good as it gets.

In the movie, there is a reference to The Goonies and Time Trap definitely has that same 80's vibe. How much thought went into recreating that type of feel for the movie?

Mark; My last semester of college, I worked as an intern for Richard Donner's company and, on my desk, I had a model of One-Eyed Willy's pirate ship from The Goonies. I feel like my time there kind of worked its way in and had a big impact. We are also both huge fans of movies like Back to the Future and Jurassic Park and you never really get away from those types of influences.

Guys like Tarantino and Scorsese, while they're all influenced by these old school guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks, we're influenced by the films we grew up watching. Everything after Jaws, which was the first big blockbuster, everything from the 80's and even the early 90's, that's what kind of shaped this movie. If you were to take out the cell phones and WiFi cameras, it could totally be a movie made in the 80's. We realized we could pretty much do anything we wanted technology wise up to about the time that Terminator 2 came out and things started to go full on CG.

Ben: The 80's thing also bleeds into our movie because, when you're on a low budget the way we are, you end up in a sort of 80's world of technology to work with. A lot of our effects are practical but they might also be augmented by VFX like if we have a shot inside one of the caves, we could insert a matte painting to make it seem taller. If you look at the mine car chase from the second Indiana Jones, the way they did some of the cave backgrounds, we did the same exact thing.

For one scene where everyone is frozen in time, we were going to create an environment with visual effects and run a virtual camera through it. We opted instead to build a 12 foot tall miniature of the exact same cave and then we ran a wide angle lens camera through it with a little crane. That same miniature is also where a lot of our back plates came from that were used throughout the film.

12 foot tall cave miniature used for filming key sequence.
The score for this film is really impressive and epic in scale. Tell me about where that came from and who created it.

Mark: Oh, we got so lucky! Our producer, Zachary Matz, was on the board of some overseas film festival where he met composer Ziaotian Shi and was able to bring him on board. He's really awesome, he would send us some stuff and we were like, holy shit, this is really good!

The first time Ben sent me a cut with Ziaotian's score on it, I wondered if the music was ours or if is it from another movie. I couldn't believe it. He recorded the full score and then we added more to the movie so he just kept working and working and he was really a trooper. We probably abused him a little bit with all the changes but, in the end, he was really proud of the movie.

Ben: We had the score in place for some of the reels that were locked, but then we would make changes so I would be like "Okay here's the new one, change your score to reflect this." Finally, he just asked if we wanted to edit the score and he sent us all the pieces. He was open to that sort of collaboration. He lays down tracks the same way an actor might lay down takes so we could take all that and piece it together the way we needed it.

For the most part, the score is all digital although he was also able to get live instruments for some parts. He was doing something, I think it was a commercial, and had a live orchestra so he was like, "By the way, why don't you play this real fast." Ultimately, we wanted an orchestral, big score. There's no pop music in it other than a little bit in the background on the car ride.

Xiaotian Shi - from

Tell me about the cast and how you were able to bring them together:

Mark: It was a really weird process, actually. When I wrote the script we were going to cast out of Austin, because we were going to make it in Austin. When we started going through casting we probably knew who our entire cast was and then we had to tell them they weren't in the movie and that didn't go over very well.

Ben: The reason that happened is because we were going to do this as a found footage film which is part of the reason the Go Pros are in it. Our cinematographer, Mike Simpson, told us we had a really cool story that deserves to be told in a more cinematic way. He was obviously thinking a little bit of himself (laughing), but it's one of the best changes I think we made. Since we were able to raise more money because of this change, we started thinking about getting a casting director so they could hire people who were on a track and on television shows.

Once you had a casting director, did you hold auditions for each of the parts?

Mark: For some of it yeah but, before the change, we had already decided that Olivia (Draguicevich) would be Veeves after an extensive process between her and another girl. Based on the audition tapes between them, we were actually favoring the other girl for a while, but then when we met with her, we realized she didn't have the right look for the part. Olivia was still very young, she still looked like a kid and that's what we wanted.

After watching Reiley McClendon's tape, I thought he was good but we didn't know if we were going to go with him or not. After his first audition tape, he got back to us asking if there's another take we were interested in and to let him know because he was willing to take direction. I gave him a few notes and he recorded another audition and he delivered on those notes. My first experience with the guy, he was dedicated and he was open to whatever I wanted to do so it made sense.

Brianne Howey ended up with the role of Jackie and I really can't see anybody else in that role. With her, it's like on Cheers, they used to give Kelsey Grammer terrible lines of dialog just to see if he could make it work, and he did, so that's kind of what we did with her. We could just give her a line and she would always make it work. Last night, in the screening, just about every line that she has got a great reaction from the audience. Basically, whatever we're doing we want her to be a part of it.

Ben: Yeah, she's great. She embodies the sort of fun, 80's character more than anybody right now. The other characters are archetypal, like hero and heroine type of things, but Jackie is sort of like Kramer or something. Our instincts with Brianne and that character is any time she is in a scene and saying things, it's great.

Cassidy Gifford, Max Wright, Reiley McClendon, Brianne Howey, and Olivia Draguicevich

The movie is very fast paced considering how much is going on. Tell me about the process of putting it all together and keeping that feel intact.

Mark: It's always good to have an audience wanting more of something. I do think that we made the right decision between more character and having a brisk pace. We had been editing with the mind that it is going to go out to foreign markets and the buyers for foreign markets are very fickle, they want to get to the point immediately. Originally, the kids don't get to the cave until about 28 minutes into the movie, but now they go in at about 11:58 or something like that. What we have right now is the shortest version possible where it all still makes sense.

Ben: Pacing is hard, it's hard to tell when the concept needs to be in full swing and our final edit of the movie does that within the first twelve minutes. Mark does a lot of the editing from home in Texas so we would send a lot of stuff back and forth. I would send an edit back after I added score or visual effects and then he would be able to see what he did with all the new changes added. It just sort of grew that way and, at times, he had no idea what I was going to send him.

The story itself has a bit of an open ending. Are there any thoughts on continuing the story?

Mark: We have some pretty cool ideas. We actually started talking to a TV network and we really thought we were going to go in the direction of an eight episode limited TV series so I wrote out a 10 page thing to figure out where the story would go.

Ben: We had actually talked about doing it as a series even before that. When I'm on Netflix, or HBO, or any of that stuff, I'm way more apt to go find a cool new limited series over anything else. You can spend so much more time with the characters and the concepts and you can let it play out. You can't really do that in a feature so I've always thought it would be cool to tell the story that way.

Do you ever really feel like the movie is complete?

Ben: I actually just finished the last visual effects shot about 10 days ago and I have about 20 notes from last night's world premiere screening. Mostly sound, a couple visual effects, and I wish one of the jokes had worked better.

Mark: The post production process was pretty crazy for us because we were always making so many changes. Ben would send me a cut and I would have so many notes, sometimes I might have 100 notes. While watching a cut, I would go through and, any time I cringed, I would write it down. Once all the cringes were gone, well mostly gone because you can't fix everything, that's when we felt like we had a completed movie.

What do you want people to get out of watching the film?

Ben: Just to have fun with it. We tried to make something that was a little bit of a ride and maybe a little bit of a puzzle as well. It's a movie that anyone can enjoy and it crosses all demographics.

Mark reading a statement from his phone:
"The big takeaway I want people to have with this movie is that sometimes we are moving along in life operating with the very best of intentions and we make a very small screw up that changes everything for us. That mistake can cause us to lose everything we love but, no matter what, there is always hope, even more so when you surround yourself with people who care about you. It's not always the happy ending we want, but that doesn't mean we can't find happiness in the end."

Time Trap Movie Review

Time Trap is an official selection of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

View our complete coverage of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

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