Behind the Scenes of Award-Winning Short, In The Tradition of My Family
Interview with Director Todd
By Taryn Bensky
Student Filmmakers Magazine
Davis’ award-winning short film, In The Tradition of My Family, a tradition of violence that goes back generations
is threatened when on father hesitates to indoctrinate his son into the insanity. The gothic family saga is directed by Todd
Davis, who was a 41-year-old film production graduate student at Boston University. The movie was shot on Super 16mm film
by cinematographer Austin de Besche, and edited by Emmy award-winner (Desperate Housewives) and two-time ACE Eddie
award-winner (Sex and the City) Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E.
In The Tradition of My Family was an official
selection of over 35 film festivals over the past year, including the New York Film Festival, the Santa Barbara International
Film Festival, and the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films.
Todd Davis discusses the behind-the-scenes
of his graduate thesis film, as well as his experience working with an experienced crew and cast.
you to adapting Phil LaMarche's story, “In The Tradition of My Family”?
Todd Davis: Phil is my brother-in-law.
He had submitted the story to a few literary journals for publication, and it was accepted into one called “Ninth Letter”
out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was intrigued because there were obviously other people out there
who thought it was good. He was polishing it up over Christmas 2004 and let me read it. I was in search of a story to shoot
for my graduate thesis; I had written something myself but I wasn’t that excited about it. I loved the language of the story
and the idea seemed very original so I asked if I could use it and he agreed to let me. It was a very fortunate turn of events,
the story won him many accolades and the film did well in on the festival circuit. He just published his first novel “American
Youth” (Random House) and it has been nominated for a Quill Award in the General Fiction category. We are now talking about
writing a feature comedy script together.
Did your relationship with your father influence the making of this
TD: Not consciously. There’s an element of the story where the son wants to be like his father, which
for me, becoming a filmmaker whose father is a photographer may have applied. But Phil’s story felt very specific to these
characters and I tried to honor that. I think we all have the instinct to please our parents, to make them proud of us, so
in that regard it’s universal and it’s personal to me. Which probably helps the story.
What elements affected
your decisions in regards to where you would shoot your film?
TD: The story typically dominates most of the
location decisions. I had shot all my other school projects either in my own house or at school. I was looking forward to
shooting at new locations. But the script called for a house and a shed, and I have a house and a shed, so the location scouting
element was done!
It was a great advantage shooting at my house; we didn’t have to tear down every day and I had
full control of the environment - including air conditioning in June, very important! The downside was my wife and I lived
on a movie set for about four months. All the furniture was replaced, all the walls were painted, every room in the house
was a set, equipment storage, or a place for the cast and crew to eat and rest. My production designer Jenny McCracken practically
lived with us for a few weeks.
Did you use storyboards?
TD: I did use storyboards to a certain extent.
It helped me organize the shots in my mind but we didn’t really use them during the shoot. We shot both rehearsals on video
and I edited them to the script. This worked out really well. I had a much better idea of what the finished film would look
like and got a lot of great camera angles from the rehearsals. Plus, every morning before we shot, the DP, Austin de Besche,
and I would watch the rehearsal footage and discuss what we liked and what we wanted to change for the actual shoot.
What was your working relationship like with the make-up effects, costume, and production design team?
Since there are gunshot wounds and scars in the film, I knew that they had to be believable or the film wouldn’t work, so
the make-up effects person was our first hire. Although, as it turned out, the guy pulled out a few days before the shoot
and I had to scramble to find someone else! Luckily Jeremy Oneail [Makeup Effects] was available and his work was terrific.
I would draw what I thought the wound or scar should look like and he implemented them. That worked great.
[Production Designer] was also an early hire, and I probably spent the most time with her, discussing what the set and costumes
should look like. In my inexperience I asked her to handle costumes as well, and she convinced me that we needed a separate
person [Rosa Colón, Costume Designer] since we had such a big cast. One of the people [Marleen Bos] who interviewed for production
design worked as the art director and doubled up on props, which worked out well. In general, I wanted the crew to bring
their own creativity to the set; I would give them an idea of what I wanted and then tried to stay out of their way.
What brought you to work with Austin de Besche, your DP, and Michael Berenbaum, your editor? What was your working relationship
with them like?
TD: Austin was my cinematography professor at Boston University. It was like a semester-long
interview process! He is a much beloved figure in the local film community, which was a great help because as soon as I said
that Austin was the DP, everyone I talked to was thrilled to work on the film. He brought much goodwill and was the calm
in the storm during shooting. He worked barefoot, which I think says a lot about his style and demeanor.
is one of my best friends from high school. We worked on our yearbook together, and long before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker,
I crewed on a film of his while he was an undergraduate at New York University. I had always kept up with his career, and
when I was looking for a new job, I thought working at Avid would be fun. I went to visit him on the set of the TV show “Ed”,
which he cut on Avid. I watched some scenes being shot, played with the editing software, and came back wanting to go the
film school. He was gracious enough to write a recommendation for me, and went above and beyond the call of friendship when
he agreed to edit my film.
How did you cast for the film?
TD: I was very focused on acting. I’d
seen too many student films that had potential that were hurt by the performances. I decided to use a local casting agent
in Boston [Boston Casting] and look for experienced actors. It saved me time sorting through headshots and organizing casting
calls. It was a very positive experience, one that I would recommend to other students if possible, if only to get a higher
quality of actor.
Were the actors a mix of stage and screen actors?
TD: There’s not a great deal
of film work in the Boston area, although that is changing since the new tax laws have been enacted, so most of the cast had
more stage experience. I had a relatively large cast, about half adults, half children. Most of the adults were SAG actors,
none of the kids were.
Could you tell us what was it like working with your cast?
TD: It was my favorite
part of the process. They were all very excited to be a part of the project and worked hard to give me what I wanted. We
had two rehearsals prior to shooting where we worked out most of the issues and motivations, so when we got to the set we
were able to hit the ground running. I also got great suggestions about the characters from the actors, many of which I used
in the film.
What scene was your most favorite to direct?
TD: The film is book-ended;
the first scene is the beginning of the last scene, the confrontation between Billy as a grown-up and his father. It was
a tense, very emotional scene and I really enjoyed focusing on the performances of just two actors and all the unspoken history
between the characters. It also happened to be the last scene we shot, so the whole crew was working really well together
but were a bit drained by the long week of shooting. Watching the scene on the monitor, and feeling the vibe in the room,
I knew it was working the way I had intended it. That was really satisfying from a directorial point of view. Many thanks
to the crew for working some overtime on that last day to get what we needed.
What scene was the most
challenging to direct?
TD: There is one outdoor scene in the film. My wife [and executive producer]
Patty and I always joked with each other about how you can’t mess up a crane shot or a helicopter shot when we see Hollywood
films. So this was our only opportunity to do a crane shot. She called our local tree and landscape service and they rented
us a crane and operator for half price, so we had a crane! The shot took longer to set up than I had hoped. We had to rake
the lawn to get rid of the tire tracks in the grass, and hook up the monitor to the camera in the bucket. Then the crane
was too shaky on the first few takes, but the operator used the larger of the boom arms to smooth it out. I love the shots
but we didn’t have time to get all the other shots inside the shed that I would have liked to get.
was the most technically challenging scene. The most difficult to direct was when all the children were on set and we had
to coordinate all their moves. I had a 2nd AD [Ban Ali] and a production assistant [Erin Francis] work with the children
while I was working with the adults.
How long did it take to shoot, edit, and complete "In the Tradition
of My Family"?
TD: Good question. Are films ever really complete? We shot in 6 days [June 3-8,
2005], with one day off. I used that day to shoot some cutaway stuff with the 1st AC [Ben Liu]. Editing took most of the
summer, Michael and I each did a rough cut independently and then compared them, which was an interesting exercise for both
of us. I got to learn how a professional editor makes his choices. For Michael, this was the first time someone else edited
the same footage he did, so he liked seeing another point of view. Of course, his version was much better than mine, the
few changes I made were decisions that had I been with him he would have better understood what I was going for.
I started submitting a fairly complete cut to film festivals in November 2005, even though the final sound mix wasn’t
finished. That took a long time since I was squeezing into [Sound Editor] John Weston’s schedule, who graciously donated
a ton of his time. We finished around March of 2006, and by that time the film had already been accepted into a number of
festivals and shown at a few.
A number of reviews have lauded your storytelling ability. What do you
think makes a story translate well to film?
TD: I think it’s important to take advantage of the
visual aspect of the medium of film. Even though I “cheated” with some voice-over to get in some backstory, I
shot the film with the idea that if I didn’t use the voice-over the film should still work, which I think it probably
would. I also think that story is king – if you’re not serving the story with a particular element of your film,
you probably don’t need it. I focused on efficiency – everything should either set something up or pay something
off that was previously set up. Even with this intention, I wound up cutting a scene and a half because they weren’t
supporting the primary theme of the story, the relationship between the father and son. And, as Mamet says, the ending must
be surprising and inevitable. You must have both or the story as a whole won’t be satisfying.
did you go about getting your film shown at the wide variety of film festivals?
TD: Getting into festivals
is a matter of research and luck. Find out what films a festival has programmed in the past, see if they like your kind of
film, and apply early. Having said that, I didn’t know any better and went about it using a shotgun approach, focusing
on the Academy Award-qualifying festivals first, which is crazy because the competition is tough from a quality and a numbers
perspective. I would recommend to most student filmmakers to start with local festivals, student festivals, shorts-only festivals,
and niche festivals. Apply to festivals that have a student film category. See if you get into some of those before you
spend money sending your film to Sundance and Tribeca. I also recommend reading the message boards at withoutabox.com, and
Kim Adelman’s book “The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films” before you even start to write
your script. It’s a great resource for what makes a successful festival film.
How involved were
you in the marketing of the film?
TD: For me, marketing started with festivals. The idea was to get
into as many as feasible, to get a lot of eyeballs on the film. This was always going to be a calling card film for me, and
festivals seemed to be the first step. Kim’s book also talks about web sites, postcards, getting press, etc. As soon
as I started getting some festival recognition, I worked more on those aspects, and when I got into Palm Springs and the New
York Film Festival, I decided to get a PR person [Ellen Gitelman] to help with press releases. I went to as many festivals
as I could, tried to meet people there, made myself available for interviews, maintained my web page and myspace site (now
a Facebook site), and in general tried to get my name and the film out there. I give away quite a few DVDs, and the film is also part
of a compilation DVD from Boston University.
How did your extensive higher education prepare you for
filmmaking and the filmmaking industry?
TD: My other two degrees are in engineering, so there seemed
to be very little connection between my prior experience and filmmaking. But what I found was my background really helped.
The technical part of filmmaking came very easy to me as you may imagine. I entered film school wanting to be an editor
- it felt a lot like what I had been doing in system test engineering; take a product that’s basically finished and
make it into something that people will buy. As an engineering manager, I was responsible for multi-million dollar projects
that I was able to bring in on time and within budget. The process of filmmaking felt familiar, and I was particularly good
at the organizational aspects, which helped me to produce the film. Having said all that, as soon as I started working with
actors, I knew I wanted to be a director. So that’s been my primary goal.
What advice do you have
to today's aspiring filmmakers?
TD: Learn how to write a good script. It all starts on the page –
you can’t make a good film from a bad script. This story sort of fell into my lap, but now that I think about it, writers
go through a similar process to short filmmakers – they submit to literary journals and hope to get published, like
we submit to festivals and hope to get programmed. There are lots of journals out there, if you’re having trouble with
story ideas, get a few and find good stories. I bet most new authors would be thrilled to have a film made from their work.
My screenwriting professor always asked “What’s it about?” It took me a long time to figure
out what he meant by that. My film is about a father shooting his son. But what it’s really about is how hard it is
for fathers and sons to connect with each other and show their emotions. Make sure your film is about something, and make
sure you understand what it’s really about.
Also, don’t shortchange any aspect of the process. Keep
an eye on everything that goes into your frame, everything should have a reason for being there. Use real actors, plan your
days, don’t leave anything to chance. And feed your crew! Fed crews are happy crews.