13 Days in Freezing Detroit: The Making of Cash Only

If we were smart, we would have attempted to make Cash Only in a few locations with a limited cast.

Instead we had dozens of locations, all of which had to be fully dressed—including a half dozen apartments, a smoke filled Albanian social club, a marijuana grow room, a bloody dog fighting warehouse, court rooms, bars and restaurants.

We had bloody stabbings, brutal beatings and dead prostitutes. Night driving scenes, running through dark alleys, pitbulls in a rage, a burning apartment, dozens of actors, extras and child actors. Prosthetics for an on-screen throat stabbing of a maniacal sociopath who is threatening to rape the main character’s 8-year-old daughter in front of his dead corpse if he doesn’t submit. And we made the film a SAG and DGA production that took advantage of the Michigan tax credit.

No, we didn’t end up with a cinematic masterpiece, but we were fortunate enough to win film festivals, find distribution, play in theaters and attract funding for our future projects. I say “we” as one of the greatest benefits of making the film was my collaboration with Nickola Shreli, Ele Bardha, Christos Moisides, Matt Diezel, Julian DeMarre and James Curd, all true artists who killed themselves to help bring the film to life.

Nickola Shreli as Elvis and Ava Simony as Lena in Cash Only

Nickola Shreli as Elvis and Ava Simony as Lena in Cash Only

Detroit, Here I Come

Nickola Shreli, a stranger at the time, sends me an email complimenting my last film, Street Thief, and asking if I’d read his script. We meet and make friends. We rewrite the script, and I agree to direct with Nickola playing the lead. I say, “I don’t care if it’s $10,000 or $10 million—you find a competent producer that says you can make the film with the budget you have, and I’ll come to Detroit and we’ll make a movie.” Thinking the process would take it’s time and we would get proper financing and hopefully start shooting the following spring. Boy, was I fuckin’ wrong!

Nickola calls me around Christmas and says he and his newfound partner figured out a way to make the film—his partner being Ele Bardha, Detroit’s craziest movie stuntman and, also, a savvy businessman with aspirations to produce. Nickola and Ele agreed to put up their own money (life savings, I might add) to make the movie happen. That was great. The not-so-great part is we would only have two weeks to do it and we would have to shoot in late January. Think 20-below wind chill with lots of exterior night shooting. But I’m from Chicago so I didn’t give a fuck about the weather. Detroit, here I come.

We had a little over a week of pre-production scheduled. Through the writing process Nickola and I discussed the kind of film we hoped to make, and even though the initial plan was based on a larger budget, we tried to maintain the vision. We concentrated on the most important elements that, if all else failed, would ensure we had a film worth watching. It would not be a perfect cinematic achievement, but would be something we were proud to put our name on.

All Handheld-Doc Style

Often, this is what kills the chances of most low-budget films. It’s not a monetary thing, and it’s not about fancy equipment; it’s about deliberately creating a look for your film during principal photography. No color correction or DI will ever make a badly lit film look good.

Cinematography was one of our biggest expenses and would play the biggest role in determining the aesthetic of our film.  I initially hoped to shoot on Super 16 as the cost was comparable to shooting on the Alexa, but there were many low-light situations that we would not have the time to light, so shooting film was one of the early sacrifices.

Shooting an exterior scene in downtown Detroit. Photograph by Sir Fawn

Shooting an exterior scene in downtown Detroit. Photograph by Sir Fawn

It’s futile to reference bigger-budget films for their cinematography and find that their looks are impossible to achieve without the proper tools. You can’t do a Technocrane shot without at least having a crane. I didn’t have a dolly, let alone a crane, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have time to lay track when I needed to shoot 10 pages a day.

We approached some of the scenes in a vérité style (the Maysles brothers’ film Salesman is a must watch for fans of free-flow handheld camera work, as are the Dardenne brothers’ films). DP Christos Moisides and his 1st AC, Henry Joy, worked their asses off, all handheld-doc style. We ended up getting the coverage we needed with very limited, one- and two-take shooting.

Dressing Nearly Every Single Interior Location

Nickola and Ele were confident they could find suitable locations to shoot in that would need minimal set dressing. After a few days of touring the available locations, it became very clear we would never be able to capture an interesting visual aesthetic with what was available.

The warehouse in the climax, before being dressed. Photograph by Tom Meredith

The warehouse set featured in the climax, before being dressed. Photograph by Tom Meredith

With principal photography days away, we decided we would have to dress nearly every single interior location. We found an apartment building with three vacant apartments and an empty basement that could be used for the marijuana grow room. Sandhya Huchingson, the art director, and her crew came in and painted, furnished and dressed with an impossible budget, raiding nearby thrift stores and bringing items from their own homes to add finishing touches. We were sometimes hours behind the art department and would enter units with paint still yet to dry. Ultimately it worked out.

One thing that helped were lookbooks I created and shared with department heads. These were extensive collections of images pulled from many sources. We had very little money to spend on props and furnishings, but the images I offered gave a clear picture of the overall feel and helped put the items we could access to use.

The largest set piece in the film was a dog fighting warehouse the main character is dragged to in the final act. We found a vacant manufacturing plant that was once a part of the bustling auto industry. It was a huge build compared to some of the more ordinary garage spaces we could have used, but we felt it was worth the challenge. Outside temps were below zero; huge propane heaters running full blast were never able to get the temperature above 50 degrees during shooting. What complicated the situation was the main character, Elvis, would be practically naked after being tortured and disrobed by our villain, Dino.

Getting the neck stabbing shot ready -- Director Malik Bader, DP Christos Moisides and SFX Dan Phillips with actors Paskoski and Shreli. Photograph by Tom Meredith

Director Malik Bader, DP Christos Moisides and SFX makeup department head Dan Phillips prepare for a neck-stabbing shot with actors Paskoski and Shreli. Photograph by Tom Meredith

We Knew This was Our Man

Which brings me to performances. Nickola wrote the script with the intention of playing Elvis, the film’s main character, and he delivered a nuanced performance that imbued contrasting sympathy and contempt for the despicable actions of the character he embodied. Prior to day one of shooting, I had no fuckin’ clue what to expect, but it didn’t take long to see he was the perfect Elvis. The film firmly rested on his shoulders.

I love working with actors. For me it’s one of the most gratifying parts of filmmaking. I also love working with non-actors and I think the key there is casting people to play a close iteration of who they are in the real world. We took a huge risk with casting many of the supporting roles with non-actors, some of whom worked and others did not. We improvised on set, changed lines and cut a few characters to make it work—and in some ways improved the film. I think every adverse situation we faced ended up making the film better by forcing our hand.

A week from principal photography and we still did not have the film’s villain cast. Nickola was frantically reaching out to actors we thought could play the role, when he got an audition from an actor friend recorded on a cell phone. We watched the grainy video and just from the voice we knew this was our man. We were so unbelievably fortunate to have Stivi Paskoski play the role of Dino. He created a character that went beyond the written word of the script, and utterly mesmerized. Had we settled for someone who didn’t work as well, our film could have been a disaster! You have to know when to hold out and when to pull the trigger.

Shkreli and in Cash Only

Paskoski and Shreli in Cash Only

I think the lesson I learned on Cash Only is: Don’t set goals you can easily achieve, or wait until you have the budget you need. Make what you can with what you have, and do it in a fresh exciting way. We set out to make the best film we could with the tools we were afforded. We didn’t play it safe and it ended up working out. MM

Cash Only opens in theaters and on VOD May 13, 2016, courtesy of FilmBuff.

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