Featured Filmmaker - Jay Leonard
Trailer to Death Before Discomfort
Death Before Discomfort is a sardonic look at the injustices of day to day life, seen through the eyes of a misanthropic 30 something short order cook who is in a state of halted development. He is Ben Banks and this is his story, one that is ultimately about growing up and moving on. As his world closes in around him, Ben finds that some things worth changing for.
Interview with Jay Leonard
1) Jay how did you get into filmmaking?
I think I have a pretty common filmmaking origin story. I was 10 or 11 and my dad brought home this janky- ass camcorder and it was broken almost immediately. Like, I broke it so quickly that I don’t have any recollection of it actually working. I remember it being broken in some crazy catastrophic way that left the image looking like Predator-vision. Blobs of bright red and yellow and green. So I kind of made a decision then that influenced the rest of my life; what’s more important; making these little G.I. Joe movies with a good camera that would be a financial impossibility for a 10 year old me, or use what you have and adapt? I ended up making a pretty serious collection of non-sanctioned, P.O.V. shot Predator sequels.
Then at 11 or 12 a friend of mine had gotten a great camcorder for Christmas or some shit, and we started making these fun shorts on weekends and snow days. It became an unspoken thing, go to Matt’s house in the morning as early as we could, talk about what we were going to shoot and we’d be wrapping up a project before his parent’s came home from work. I was always in front of the camera in those projects and I kind of loved it for all the typical reasons that people do. Then I found myself giving more input and getting into these hilarious pre-teen blowhard confrontations with my friends about why my joke made more sense at that beat, or why we should move the camera the way I suggested. I shudder to think what his parents must have thought of me and my 14 year old pre-pubescent whine trying to articulate mise-en-scene to my peers (without even knowing what that meant). It gave me a charge, though, giving my input and occasionally seeing my jokes or angles or cut suggestions get a good reaction from the people we showed them to. That was the first spark of light for me.
Eventually we started cutting the projects too. You’ve gotta’ remember, this was way before non-linear editing was close to affordable for consumers. Avid’s were the size of kitchens.Matt had rigged up two VCRs and we’d spend all of the rest of our free time in his room, cutting these crazy little movies we were making. Then we got a cheap Radio Shack mixer and would line it into the VCR and lay a score in live over top of the tape. We’d make titles on Mario Paint for the SNES and lay those in. We had this whole little DIY middle school studio that was being run out of a bedroom in a time before DV cameras, or Adobe Premiere, or millions of websites that could teach us the right way to do stuff ever existed. I’ve been carrying that spirit around with me ever since, just trying to make the 12 year old me proud.
2) Who are some of your inspirations in film?
These days I’m really into the Duplass Brothers, Noah Baumbach, Joe
Swanberg, all those “mumblecore” guys that have matured into this new
wave of indie auteur gold standard. But it all started for me with the
indie film revival of the 90s. The first 3 Kevin Smith movies
(particularly Clerks and Chasing Amy), Ed Burns, Spike Lee, Richard
Linklater. My wheelhouse is really those talky movies about
relationships, romantic or plutonic. This is something I’m sure you’ll
hear a lot in these interviews, but Clerks was a pretty significant call
to action for me.
I was maybe 15 the first time I saw that movie. A couple of us rented it
from this little mom and pop video store near my house. The rumor was
that it was shot with a security camera! Punk rock!I remember turning to a buddy and saying, “this is a big deal.” I grew up on Die Hard and Star Wars so up to that point that’s what I
thought movies were supposed to be, but Clerks looked a lot like my
friends and I hanging out and talking shit. So after that filmmaking
awakening, I started tearing through movies, writing some TRULY awful
screenplays and plotting.
3) What have been some of your past projects?
Going into my last semester of school, maybe 2004, I decided to take out a crippling student loan to buy some gear. I had written this terribly trite feature length script that I was very proud of at the time and I was determined to get it made. If Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Guy Ritchie went away for a booze-soaked, inhibition free weekend in Thailand, my movie would have been their fetal alcohol stricken love child. There were dick jokes and gun play and…ugh. I plunged myself into debt for a 3CCD mini-DV camera with all the fixins’, shot that movie for 5 years and scrapped it with just one shot left to complete. It was a big lesson, though. I looked at it as my film school and the money that I had spent I considered my tuition.
The 30 characters, crazy locations and pyrotechnics weren’t me by any
stretch of the imagination, so I went back to the lab and re-watched all
the movies that I loved and took a look at why I loved them. They were
all personal stories about real identifiable people. Most of them had
one foot in the comedic and one in the dramatic. Most of them felt like
As a direct result of my first movie, the aptly named Failure Fantasy, I made my second, the aptly named The Winter of My Discontent. It was a small movie with just a few characters. It was about relationships and change. We made it for about $400 but you’d think it was $450 easy. It took 2 years to finish and I love it, but it was technically abysmal. It looks like it was shot through a dirty ashtray and sounds like it was recorded on the wing of an in-flight DC-10, but again, I learned a lot of lessons. Many many lessons.
4) Your new film "Death Before Discomfort" how did that come about?
Just like The Winter of My Discontent, Death Before Discomfort was a reaction to its predecessor. I had found that making these character study movies about boys and girls is really what I’ve always wanted to do, and I feel like I have a lot of stories to tell in that genre, so I set out to make another one. Now we’re in pre-production for another one, titled The (Other)One.
5) "Death Before Discomfort' deals with life from a comedic view, what is the message your trying to get across to the audience?
The movie spends its first 2 acts dealing with life in a comedic way, sure. The characters Ben (Jesse Lawrence), Kevin (Jeff Raiano) and Katie (Rebecca Vavala) spend that time interacting like we all do; telling dick jokes to pass the time through a mundane work day, or being awkward on dates, but as the plot moves forward things get kind of heavy. I mean, not Sophie’s Choice heavy, but in the context of Ben’s universe, things begin to change for sure. That’s what the message of the movie really is…he said, straitening the collar of his black turtle neck, shielding his eyes from the harsh sunlight of the uninspired world…I have a bit of a self-deprecating tick that fires off a lot when I’m talking about my movies. I’ll try not to do that again.
Having said that, it’s true, the change thing. We come into the story and meet this stunted guy (Ben) who’s living a prolonged state of adolescence. He’s a short order cook at a little diner and that’s his self-proclaimed “groove.” It’s not that he doesn’t like his job, or being a single guy in his 30s, he’s just tricked himself into being okay with it. He’s afraid to try because he’s afraid to fail, which is all good until we find out that the diner is being foreclosed on. So the movie is about that change and the idea that it (change) happens, in many cases with-out your input or permission. That plane is going to land, rubber side down on tits up. You’ve got to deal with it.
At first it was more of a technical Band-Aid. 40 pages of the movie takes place in a diner which is basically made of a giant plate glass window. Our DP (and director of his own flick, The Last Frankenstein) Dave Weaver and I had a hard time balancing the color temperature of the sun from the outside world, the practicals in the restaurant and the lights in our little kit. When we factored in the shoots we had in the diner at night with no sunlight and matching it all, it was a lot to juggle on the $600 budget. Black and white eliminated that whole problem.
The other reason was that our little punk rock, DIY potty-mouthed movie couldn’t be anything but black and white. It just fit the feel of the movie so much better and really stripped away everything but performance, which I am so proud of. I was definitely not punching my weight with the cast we had. At first, I tried to color correct and fix the couple of rough spots, but in the end I couldn’t get away from the B&W. It was supposed to be that way, I guess. I just didn’t know it until post.
7) Your both the Writer and Director of "Death Before Discomfort" do you find any conflict with yourself as a writer and director with how the film comes together, or does it make for an easier transition?
I write to shoot, and as a result, my screenplays don’t look the way their “supposed” to look. I bake in a lot of direction in my scene description as kind of a short-cut, sort of like a note that I’m writing for myself for the future me on set. I know what I want on the day, but it helps me re-center amidst the chaos and help keep the tone consistent throughout the shoot. Like a lot of us, I edit it all as well and I think it’s the same type of thing. When I’m writing I know what the cut is going to look like, so I just look at the script and the shot-list as a vehicle to get to the cut.
7) Making independent films on a micro budget can be very challenging, what are some the problems you came across with working on micro budget?
I love making micro budget films, it’s the thing that I’m most passionate about. I love the idea that art and commerce don’t necessarily need to be intertwined, and that we can all tell our stories now without taking out a loan . However, having said that, there are some pretty significant challenges in making micro-budget narrative features.
The biggest challenge, and the thing that I think every problem comes back to, is time. It’s all about time. On Death Before Discomfort the biggest problem was that our male and female leads as well as our DP had completely opposite schedules. Becky was working a bartender job so she was unavailable Thursday, Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday nights, Jesse was working a night shift with some random days off that changed weekly and Dave had maybe Tuesdays off. It was insane to try to get them all together at the same time, which proved to be tricky because, you know, the leads and DP…They all had to make sacrifices to get this project completed. Jesse powered through a lot of sleepless days for this one. Working with a budget that allows you to pay your people and makes it easier to ask for them to use a sick day “just one more time while we get our coverage.”
Plus you’re juggling all of locations availabilities too. We had 40 extras show up for a scene that was going to take place in our bar set, but unbeknownst to us, the owners had some serious problem away from the bar happen during the day and didn’t have time to get in touch with us, leaving us locked out with a bunch of disappointed people. What can you do? You can’t be pissed at anyone because they’re all doing it for free in their spare time. You just have to roll with it and try not to take that shit home.
Another pain point is crewing up a no budget flick. My experience is that actors want to act. If you have a good script that they can sink their teeth into, I’ve found that most have been happy to do it for their reels.
Crew, on the other hand, is a different story. I don’t know a lot of boom-ops who are looking for reel material. The crew positions are skilled trades and most wouldn’t want to do their job for no money, and I don’t blame them. I did the sound-mix on DBD myself and spent a lot of time correcting issues that we had on the day (to varying degrees of success), so believe me when I say that I know they’re worth every penny, but having said that, I don’t live in a world where I can afford to pay a sound recordist or a DP anywhere near where they’re worth. I make punk-rock, DIY indie flicks and I have to spend every cent just trying to cover costs, feeding people and paying the odd police officer to look the other way (totally kidding). I don’t mean any disrespect to the artisans or their crafts, but I just can’t swing it up here in Upstate New York. I’m sorry. Feel free to stop the hate emails when I post a non-paying gig position on Craig’s List. Message received. I just try to combat the no-pay problem by hopefully writing a script that everyone is excited and proud to make. I try to give the actors a fun, safe place for them to create. I try to be as organized as possible to ensure that the crew has the shortest days we can have and I listen to their suggestions and opinions. I get flexible with scheduling. I make sure there is coffee. I just want everyone that is involved in the movie in any capacity to know how grateful and excited I am that they are, and I think that being genuinely grateful can go a long way.
8) What are some tips you can give to other filmmakers about working with a micro budget?
Ask ask ask! We’ve been able to make movies by just asking for permission. I am consistently amazed with what we’ve been able to do by just asking. Take DBD for example; Michael Grandy, owner of Michael’s Diner in Fultonville, NY gave us his place to shoot in. He’d close up at noon or 1 then lock us in until 9 or 10 when he’d come back to get ready to open again at 4 am. This went on for weeks over the course of our shoot.
Denene McLaughlin who owns the Cobleskill Diner let us shoot at her place for our 2nd diner location, or our Earth 2 diner if you will. She parked her RV in the parking lot to stay the just night in case we needed anything. She gave us all the coffee and pie we needed for sustenance. Another guy who shall remain nameless snuck us into his office building to shoot for a long day, on a Sunday, which happened to be his kid’s birthday. We shot in a convenience store in the middle of the day. The city of Schenectady shut down a major street for us to shoot a long nights walk and talk. All of these people did all of this for zero dollars (except the $10 processing fee from Schenectady). We just asked. And that’s just locations. All of our actors donated their time, calling in sick days or staying up all night to finish a scene just to have to go straight to work in the morning. Bettina Skye would make the trip up from downstate during a very snowy winter, again for nothing. Dave shot it and our sound recordist Chris Giglio worked for nothing. Our producer Shawn Barnes and AP Anthony Rocissano worked for nothing. I just asked. That’s what it’s all about.
My advice is to write about 15 to 20% outside of your means and then push to get the rest. Instead of making a gangster movie with a bunch of teenagers set in your parent’s finished basement bar, go ask a bar owner to shoot in their place! Go out there and meet people and tell them what you’re doing. Many will think it’s dumb and most will think you’re shooting a porno, but some of them will be truly interested in filmmaking and actually want to support you. I mean shit, if you need any help or gear or advice from a guy who’s done it a few times, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a hand. It drives me crazy to think about all the people out there with a good idea for a movie who think they need a big budget to make it happen. Bullshit! We live in this amazing time of cheap DSLRs and $300 laptops that can cut high res video and self-distribution and YouTube! There are no more excuses not to tell your story.
Some other practical advice I have:
- Just remember to do your homework in pre-production. Schedule your shoot, make story boards and a shot list. It’s important from both an organizational and emotional stand-point to be able to check things off your list as your shoot goes on.
- Value your time and the time of the others on set. Everyone will presumably be working for free, or spec, or deferred payment, or footage for their reel, or whatever you need to tell yourself to sleep at night, so make sure that you respect the sacrifices that they are making on your behalf. Try your best to work efficiently during set ups and support your crew so that they can do the same. If you’re directing, you’ll want time to work with your actors between takes/setups, take that time but remember that you need to make your day. Working with no budget means that you’ve likely called favors to shoot that day, assume that you won’t be able to call in more.
- Keep morale up. Make sure that you let people know how much you appreciate them and how good of a job their doing (if both of those things are true). Cut while you shoot so that you can show the cast/crew. This will pump them up and motivate them to come back the next day.
- Surround yourself with people who inspire you. I know this sounds corny as hell, but you’ve always gotta’ punch up and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you will do nothing but improve your film. And listen to them and their ideas!
- Embrace your budget and its limitations and find creative work-arounds. Happy accidents are a very real part of filmmaking for me.
- Decide early what is important to you and focus on it.
- Accept that completing your movie is the prime directive. Don’t wait for a better (fill in the blank). If you’re put in the position of making your movie or waiting, always make it.
9) Can you tell us some of your experiences working on set?
Oh man, I’ve got so many!
We were shooting this, fight is the wrong word, let’s call it a “heated escalation” between the protagonist and antagonist in our main diner set. So we’ve got a bunch of extras, all of our principals, a crew of 4 or 5, lights everywhere, boom op, the whole thing, all crammed in this relatively small space. I call action and they start the scene. John Schmiederer, who plays our bad guy, is sitting in a booth and hurling insults at Jesse, who eventually snaps and charges out from behind the counter with his dishwasher posse in tow. As soon as these two guys get nose to nose the front door of the diner opens and there stands this mother/daughter who are just looking for some pancakes. Someone had forgotten to lock the door and they wandered into the middle of a rumble, some real dark obscenities going back and forth, Bettina in the middle of them, trying to break them up. I have the clip and you can hear Dave from behind the camera just going, “Jay… Jay…” to get my attention, and when I finally notice them I’m just like, “Sorry folks. We’re closed”. They just took it all in for a beat or two, then spun on their heels and left without saying a word. I imagine that every Thanksgiving they talk about that one time they busted up a porno set while looking to scratch up some breakfast.
We had a lot of near misses and quiet catastrophes during shooting, but somehow it all worked out. For me, it’s like pre-production is us setting up all these little dominoes and principal photography is watching them miraculously fall in order. Somehow it’s always worked out though and I’ve never not been surprised.
10) What is the plan for releasing the film?
I’m talking to a couple different streaming services for the online distribution, but I’m locking down the Blu-Ray as well. There’s something about owning a piece of hardware that I love, plus Shawn, Jesse and I recorded a commentary track and we’ve got a couple of fun extras that no-budge filmmakers might like to see. We’ve made the decision that 100% of the profits are going to roll into the next movie, which we’re looking to shoot in the winter/spring of 2017. Either way it goes, you can get all the info for the movie on our website, www.TrenchmouthProductions.com , or you can join our mailing list for info on screenings and availability.
Bonus Question: If you could remake any film, what would that be and why?
I’m at a point now where I feel like I’ve had enough remakes, you know? I know they’ve always existed, but it seems like somewhere in the early aughts it got out of control. Didn’t they reboot Spiderman like 3 months after that last Toby McGuire movie? I’m paying to see stuff that isn’t a reboot or a spiritual sequel at this point…unless it’s an erotic re-imagining. If you've got one of those then you’ve got my all my coin!