Gavin Michael Booth on his split-screen single-take feature Last Call
Gavin Michael Booth, the director, and co-writer/producer of Last Call, talks to us about the making of his feature length split-screen movie comprised of two single takes, the hard lessons he's learned about distribution when it comes to independent films, and why short films still have a lot to offer feature directors.
There is a line in Lord of the Rings that I often paraphrase and apply to filmmaking. 'Film really is an amazing creature. You can learn all that there is to know about it in a month, and yet after a hundred years it can still surprise you'. It never ceases to amaze me how film can keep breaking new ground, when so much ground has already been broken.
Gavin Michael Booth is a filmmaker who went on his own great adventure doing just that with his latest feature Last Call. The film is the split-screen tale of a desperate man trying to call a suicide hotline, and the conversation we see play out on both sides simultaneously in two single takes. Before learning how Booth went about making it, I first ask what made him set foot toward filmmaking in the first place.
"My dad would take me into movies all the time. E.T. was the first thing I ever saw in the theatres a kid. All that classic Spielberg/Lucas stuff, Star Wars obsessed, Indiana Jones obsessed. The Goonies, Gremlins, all these things were what I saw in the cinema for the first time and I just fell in love with that fantasy storytelling.
"My dad's a photographer, so we had an 8mm camera growing up. I had a heavy adapter so I could do single frame stop-motion with my G.I. Joe or Star Wars figures. Lego animations were big. I was always creative in that way, without realising it could be a job someday, that there's people who actually make these movies and they don't just appear magically on my TV.
"Around the eighth grade, I bought a VHS camcorder after saving up my paper route money. Then my neighbourhood friends and I would make movies and cast our younger brothers in them. They were all terrible parody movies, like Indiana Jones and the Lost Remote Controller, or Friday the 13th: Part 17. Making all these hilariously bad films, even editing in camera by just stopping the record and lining up the next shot before recording again, not understanding there was a whole post-production process of cutting shots up and putting them back together. By the time I got to high school, we had a pretty advanced video production course, so that's when it took over my life and I thought, 'This is what I want to do'."
A look at Booth's credits shows that since then, he's done most of the roles needed of anyone to make a film. Writing, directing, producing, editing, cinematography, sounding editing, even starring. He jokingly references the theme tune to Garth Marenghi's Darkplace 'based on melodies originally whistled by Garth Marenghi'. He's pretty much done it all.
"Short of doing music, I think so, yeah. That's largely out of necessity. I grew up just before social media, so when I was getting into film there wasn't a Facebook group to go on and say, 'Hey, who else likes to make movies? Who's a camera guy? Who's got this and this?'. Film equipment wasn't cheap then. There weren't DSLR cameras, not everybody had a MacBook that is as powerful as anything Hollywood can do. So, it was a little bit out of necessity until I met people.
"Really, I only wanted to be a writer. That was it, and writing is still my favourite part of the process, but I fell in love with directing and producing. Especially learning to wear the producers cap, and instead of waiting for other people to get projects going, I can always be the one to just say, 'No, we're making something'. I don't like sitting and waiting. I didn't become a filmmaker to sit and wait. I want to make things."
What does experience in so many roles offer him as a filmmaker?
"It can be difficult to let go and let other people other people do things [laughs], but also, there's a lot of BS that comes with this industry, so I will always know if a crew person is pulling my leg, or asking for more gear than they need when we're trying to do something on a tight budget. I can say, 'Well, no. I know your job too, and I know it can be done for less'. A lot of my projects have very small budgets, so I like to challenge people by saying, 'Look, I know there's bells and whistles that we'd like, but what do we actually need to make this? Is there a way to make it with the basics, but ultimately be more creative? Can we move faster? Can we work quicker?'. So I think having a basic understanding of all the processes helps. I've even taken an acting class, just to get an understanding of what actors go through, so that I can hopefully better communicate to them.
"The biggest help, I would say, is being my own editor. That saves me time and money on set, because anytime we're running out of time or money, which is happening constantly on an indie film, I'm able to quickly calculate in my head. 'Okay, don't need that shot. That's a dream shot, but we don't need it. I can still edit from shot 1 to shot 3 and eliminate shot 2, and know that it won't compromise the movie.' The wasteful side of film, I really don't like. Any gear sitting on set that never gets taken out of its case, just burns me because it's a huge waste of money that we could have spent on something else that will show up on screen."
Not a second is wasted in his new film Last Call. With two single-takes captured simultaneously by two separate camera teams, with two actors performing over the phone, he would have needed to call on all his various technical experiences. Where did the idea to make a film in this way come from?
"I'd been mildly obsessed with single take projects since the music videos of Spike Jonze in the 90s, like his video for the song California by Wax, and I've since done 8 or 9 music videos in a single take format. I did a project for Blumhouse called Fifteen, which was the world's first live short movie and single take by nature as there was nothing to cut to, or cut out, because we were running live. I did have a project called Four Shots, a school-shooting related project that was going to be shot split screen and in a single take, but after many iterations of that were funded, another real-life American mass shooting would cause somebody to get cold feet and pull their money out, so we never actually got to camera.
"Then, Daved Wilkins, who stars in Last Call and wrote and produced it with me, came to me one day in a coffee shop and said. 'I know you like the single-take idea. What do you think about a man calling a suicide hotline, and maybe we see both sides of the phone call?'. It was, click. That's it. That's the achievable version of this format that I want to do. Then we developed the script and shot it about a year later."
With the script developed, how did they approach the technical element of making the film? I ask if he's willing to say how many takes were needed, or if it's a closely guarded secret.
"Oh, we're an open book with it. We made the movie for 50,000USD, so we didn't have the luxury of a lot of rehearsal. We had 10 days to rehearse it, and 4 days to shoot it. Our goal was to shoot it like a play, doing the performances twice per night, and hopefully getting 8 full takes. We managed to get 5 full takes. The approach was also very much like a play in that we had two camera crews running simultaneously, we didn't shoot one side and then the other. We would rehearse one side of it in the morning, then in the afternoon we rehearsed the other side, then we split the cast and crews off to run both together.
"What was interesting, was that because the camera teams were filming every rehearsal, learning the path of the actors, the focus pulling and hitting all their marks, we were able to watch every rehearsal back each night and make adjustments. It was almost like a football match or basketball game, and the coach being able to watch it back later and say, 'Oh, we can we can see a light cord hanging there, get rid of that. There's a mirror there, so the camera can't arc that way or you're gonna catch that reflection.' So we used those rehearsals as game tapes, essentially, to go back through and learn how everybody on the team could better align themselves."
Two separate camera teams recording two feature-length takes (one of which shot by Booth himself and the other by cinematographer Seth Wessel-Estes), is a feat in itself. For the two lead actors, Daved Wilkins and Sarah Booth, it also must have presented a new type of challenge in that they were never present in each other's company to perform against.
"There were times when Sarah would say, 'I don't think this movie is working. Daved just feels so monotone on the other side of the phone, it's hard to get to the emotional level on certain takes'. When you're acting on stage with somebody, there's an energy coming out of it that she felt was lacking over the phone. But that was that was the challenge. How do you grow empathy for somebody that you've never met? How do you get sucked into their world when you just have that tin sound over the phone? When she saw it put together with music, could see the way the two sides work together, she said, 'Wow'."
While the shoot would have been one of the most complex Booth has undertaken, the post-production by comparison was one of the simplest, and quickest.
"We shot the movie late September 2018, and we were at a festival February 2019, so it was a quick turnaround. There was no edit other than aligning the two shots, and just playing around with the key framing, because that was the only thing that could be controlled in post on the visual side of things.
"The score was also recorded live in a single take. Our composer Adrian Ellis wrote the music, then we booked a theatre and had an audience of school kids come in to learn about how film music is written and scored. They were like our witnesses to prove the music was also done authentically in a single take. And then with the sound mix, it was a fairly simple turnaround too. There was no ADR as I made sure that our production sound people did such a good job, because I didn't want to do a single take movie and then have to replace big chunks of dialogue later. Otherwise what would be the point?"
Booth and Wilkins both curated their own festival release together, which included a hometown premiere in Windsor, Ontario, as well as screenings in Toronto and Montreal. The film also had a short theatrical release during Suicide Awareness Week. When it came time for wider distribution though, they decided to take a less traditional route.
"I hate film distribution, and I generally dislike most film distributors. I think it is a very evil and corrupt portion of this business that needs radical change, and I think it's coming as it gets easier for people to connect directly with their audiences. The truth is, having distribution for an independent film does not guarantee you an audience outside of the audience that you can build on your own. It's still going to come down largely to who you can get to watch your movie through your own social media and marketing efforts. So often, you are inviting a middleman to take all, or most, of the profits for very little work and unfulfilled promises.
"I've seen every side of a bad distribution deal that exists on previous films. Part of the conceit of doing this film for $50,000, was that it was an amount of money we felt safe recouping on our own. It allowed us to have the flexibility to work with a smaller distributor that was new to the game, so as we're trying to prove ourselves as indie filmmakers, they're trying to prove themselves as the new kid on the block for distribution. We had a much more excitable team in Mutiny Pictures, a company that we felt was looking out for our best interests and not just the bottom line."
Booth has achieved, and learned, an awful lot about independent filmmaking across his incredibly varied career. If he could go back and give himself some advice at the start of it, what would it be?
"Move to a city that has production sooner. So, for me, Toronto is four hours away, it's the production capital of Canada, and I waited until my 30s to finally move there and dip my toe in that pool. When I moved there it was just 'boom'. I met 15 other filmmakers immediately, I was whisked into the Canadian film system to get grant money to make features.
"Everything happened so much more rapid than when I was struggling out on my own. I was fiercely independent and trying to build the film scene here, but there was already an existing one just down the road. I just wasn't ready to move to the big city. I had a lot of fear of giving that a try, but everything would probably have happened a lot faster if I'd sucked it up and moved there a lot sooner."
And finally, brining things back to short films, Booth is still very active when it comes to short content too. What is it about the medium that he still finds rewarding despite his successful move into feature films?
"For one, it's staying busy. I always like practicing my craft because I don't believe I've peaked or got anywhere close to being an expert in filmmaking yet. It's an opportunity to work with new actors, new crew. One of the things that's interesting to me now is that I'm directing things I didn't also write and produce. That's fun for me because I do want to get into television directing and be hired to direct features that I haven't taken from the seed of the idea, right through to finding the financing. So it's a good way to learn to work with other teams and learn to collaborate. I'm always collaborative, but when you when you're the producer, and you run the show, you collaborate the way you want to collaborate.
"Then the other thing is just playing with different genres. I don't get a chance to do a lot of comedies, I don't get a chance to do a lot of sci-fi, so some of my recent work has been in genres that I don't normally play in. That's a lot of fun, but it also helps me think, 'Well, maybe I'll write a comedy.' Something I might have shied away from, but having directed a short I might find it's my wheelhouse after all."
You can follow Gavin on Instagram: @GavinMichaelBooth