Tom Cavanagh, star of hit television shows The Flash and Scrubs, talks to Exit 6 director Mark Brennan about the making of his new short film TOM & GRANT. He also discusses how directors should never think they know an actor, and asking yourself before launching a crowdfund campaign 'why does the world want to see your short film?'
When I sit down to speak with Tom Cavanagh, it’s been a few weeks since wrapping season three of The Flash on which he stars, and then in the days just after that, wrapping of his short film TOM & GRANT. Even over the phone, he is effervescent with enthusiasm, not just for his film but in the 'doing' of something and creativity itself. I feel energised just speaking to him. Surely the shoot went well.
“Well, it's rather a miracle, anytime anybody sets their mind to put something in the camera, and that actually occurs [laughs]. It always feels to me like you really climbed a mountain. Every time I've done anything that is, for want of a better word, a ‘shorter’ project, it seems to take largely the same amount of work as a much bigger project. Whether you're shooting four days or 40, there's all that machinery and artillery and manpower that you have to put in place. You need sound design and you need production design and you need actors, you need all of it. It's the same as marshalling forces for your giant movie. Sometimes we think, ‘Well, it's just going to be a shorter shoot, so it will take 10% of the work.” It just isn't the case.”
TOM & GRANT will be an R-rated change of step for Tom and his co-star Grant Gustin, who many have come to know and love in the family friendly TV series The Flash – especially Gustin who is the titular clean-cut hero of the show
“This is a complete departure from what we're known to do together. This is a heist movie with the two most inept bank robbers on the planet. Their way of talking is fast and cryptic; it's not the dialogue we see on The Flash. It's not speechmaking, it's back and forth, "What did you say? How did you pronounce that word? That's incorrect," "Don't tell me it's incorrect, I'll look it up," "Don't look it up," "I'm going to look it up," "I'm asking you not to look it up, don't look it up," "I'm looking it up." [I must interject here, dear reader, to tell you this one-man, two-part exchange is very funny to listen to.] “It's just dialogue done in the manner that stays a little bit ahead of the viewer, in the manner of, say, Withnail and I. One of the things that I am drawn to is a dumb person completely confident that they are a smart person. I love that conceit where someone is completely assured of their thing, and they could not be more wrong. I find that immensely appealing. We’ve doubled-down on that in this movie.”
After wrapping the latest season of The Flash, Tom and his team had a window of just a few days to shoot TOM & GRANT before the cast and crew all went their separate ways for the hiatus period before shooting begins on season four.
“We really had a narrow window. Grant and I are in every scene in this movie, and he had another project shooting through the jungles of Costa Rica to get to. Both of us were off on our way to our ‘hiatus projects’. Grant beseeched me to make our film later in the summer instead, but my understanding of those things is when a door opens, you need to just dive through. So, I shot him down accordingly and said, ‘No, we're shooting it now’ bravely forging forward without knowing whether we could make it happen! Through the good will of the angels, we actually managed to pull it off, and as I speak to you now I’m spending the day editing.”
With a hectic and time-limited schedule, coming off the back of a back-breaking season finale and well aware of the amount of work it would mean for himself and everyone involved, what was it about this project that convinced Tom he had to get it made?
“There was a number of things. One of the things that we like about this is, it feels like a beginning rather than just a closed circle. In other words, I’ve set this up so this could be a full-length feature or a television series. That was the goal, to be able to put that on the table in front of the entertainment industry powers and say, “Look, here’s an option.” I know how the industry works. I largely assume that most of the stuff that I do will get cancelled quickly [laughs] because those are just the numbers. Occasionally, I have a feeling about something. I had it on a television show called, Ed, Scrubs, The Flash. Sometimes you just think, “Well, you know what? There’s something to this.” I don’t want to go that far out on a limb, but I definitely feel that this is quick and contained and funny. It also has a reflection of the political times that we’re in, which was one of the things that spurred us to getting it done sooner rather than later. In presenting appeal to it, that might be part of it. Also, for Grant and I to explore these kinds of dumb guys, it just felt like this is the moment to get this done. “
There’s something in the water on the set of The Flash. Not only do the cast and crew live in each other’s pockets for months at a time while filming the successful TV show (one that demands a grueling turnaround by the end of each series), they hang out together on the weekends and then when filming is over, they all get together again to make short films. Fellow Flash stars Jesse L. Martin and Rick Cosnett co-directed their short film The Letter Carrier last year, also making the most of the expertise and enthusiasm of the team they work with every day.
“We are the beneficiaries of a very hard-working, very talented crew on The Flash. I was able to call in many favours. It’s remarkable because people are largely working for free on this project. I felt some good old-fashioned guilt about asking people, two days after wrapping Flash, to spend a week working crazy hours on this bank heist movie. What I realised as we got into it was that the people who actually show up after working this insane schedule, are the people who love film. That creates this incredible environment. There's no clearer indicator than, ‘Listen, you’re not getting paid. Will you do it anyway?’ [laughs] All these people were there out of the pure love for film and the joy of working together. It was just a monumental week.”
With a seemingly limitless pool of talent to call upon, all that remained to secure was the funding. Despite many involved working for free, there were still many costs to cover and for that Tom and his producer Betty Dubney turned to crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. I’m curious as to Tom’s thoughts on artists who have the benefit of large fan bases using crowdfunding.
“I have two minds. I have done a lot of writing over the last five years, and this is the only one that I've put on for crowdfunding. The reason for that is I think, hopefully, you build goodwill over the years, and then you don't want to overstay your welcome, and you don’t want to take advantage of that. You don’t want to say “hey, give me money for this thing, and this thing and this thing and this thing”. It needs to be something clear. It needs to be something you don’t abuse. That’s one side, you want to be wary. A friend of mine, Zach Braff, raised a massive amount of money for a project that was dear to him. He's a guy who earned some goodwill from television show Scrubs and then wanted to move forward with the next phase of his career as a writer and director. I think that's a good way to do it. This project is one that I firmly believe in. I believe there’s something to this and I believe this is something that could lead somewhere and have a future, and so I think it's worthy to be the project that I ask people for help.”
The good will for both Tom and Grant showed when the film’s Indiegogo campaign successfully raised over £55,000 – not bad for a short film! All backers will be pleased to hear that every penny was used to make their namesake movie as high quality as possible.
“The director of photography, Ronald Richard, and I have worked together for over a decade. He’s an incredibly quick lighter, but incredibly talented also. It just looks rich. We shot anamorphic, in big feature mode. He just made it look incredible. Smaller project can suffer if they don’t have the tools or the expertise at their disposal. That was not the case in this. Ronald is just a bit of a genius, and I piggybacked upon that genius with this thing. And of course, it’s a bank heist, so another challenge on a small budget is car chases and gun fights. Those involved stunts and digital elements, visual effects. Once again, I’ve got the cream of the crop working with me, some of the best special effects guys. Mike Walls and Tony Lazarowich, for example. These guys are doing the big features that come through Vancouver. They donated their time to blow-up some windshields and help me with the gunfire and the scripts and this kind of thing. These guys are as good as they get. There they are on set at 2:00 in the morning just laughing and drinking coffee and making this thing look good. Directing, at its best, is collaboration. We benefited from some little geniuses at work.”
Speaking of directing and collaboration, one thing very close to Tom’s heart as a director is giving actors the opportunity to surprise you through that collaboration. Despite the tendency of the industry to pigeonhole actors into certain categories, it’s the freedom to surprise that Tom likes to encourage on set.
“One of the lessons I've learned in the entertainment world is you cannot assume that you know what an actor can do, because they're actors and they can surprise you. It happens again and again and again. Oftentimes as actors we can definitely fall prey to assumptions, "He's a nice guy," or, "He can only be the bad guy." You know what I mean? The thing that gave an actor a profile oftentimes is their ability. It doesn't mean their ability is limited to one set of skills in the toolbox, but oftentimes if a formula has worked, the forces in the entertainment world want to see somebody repeat that. That can be a dangerous situation. In case of a long-running television show you can't just go, "Yes, this is what this person does." I think it helps to know the abilities of the actor, but also to be aware that you don't know that actor. As an actor who also directs, my feeling has always been, I want to treat them as I would like to be treated.”
One of Tom’s most recent directing experiences was indeed on an episode of The Flash where his working style surprised his cast mates.
“Carlos Valdes, who plays Cisco on our show, he was like, "I thought you'd be all over us, and you almost never give notes." That's because I believe in them, I know they can do it. I know their talent, I see it every day. You set up a safe working zone and then you can talk to them as opposed to tell them what to do. If you feel the moment could be greater, you can ask them, "Do you feel like we can hold back on this thing and then release it a little further down the line in the subsequent scene?" An actor will know exactly what you're talking about when you're talking to them in collaboration, willing to trust them to do what you're looking for. That's the track I like to take. I definitely know what I want, and if there's something that I'm missing, I will tell the actor what I'm looking for and see what he or she thinks about it. Again, this is my working style and might not work for Ben Stiller or whoever is an actor that does a lot of directing. For me, you want to make it a collaboration. You want to feel that there's a sense of enabling on set and make it a safe zone for great things to happen.”
We reach a point in the interview where I would normally ask what advice would they offer filmmakers looking to make their first short film, but as so much advice has already been offered, I decide instead to return to crowdfunding. What advice would Tom offer those filmmakers looking to make their first pitch video for a crowdfund campaign?
“I wouldn’t know that I would call this advice. I could say what worked for us, and then you can decide or not to sally forth with it. For us, you want to explain the ‘why’ so that it's not just we’ll be giving the money, but why is it personal? Why would the world want it? All those obvious questions. I think the key is to find the character and the charisma and the humour in the asking. People underestimate the power of the joy behind it, the comedy behind it. That's something that you don't want to underestimate. It's one thing to have an earnest need for money, but the world is full of that. One of the things that can set something apart is that little bit of inventiveness for comedy or humour. You always need to remember that what you're talking about is entertainment, and so when you request people to reach into the pockets, you want to entertain them. The bottom line is always that. This is not climate change and climate-deniers and all this kind of stuff. This is entertainment. You can choose to say, “Bollocks Cavanagh, forget it, you don't know what you're talking about”. For me, you always want to remember that for the 30 seconds or the one minute or three minutes they're going to watch this, we’re also going to find a way to entertain them too.”
No bollocks here, Cavanagh. Just a brilliant mockney accent and some very wise words, indeed.
You can follow Tom on Twitter: @CavanaghTom