How They Did It: The Makers of XOXO Shot a Guerilla Proof of Concept at a Giant Music Festival

Like many directors, I shot a proof of concept in order to get our movie XOXO made.

But ours needed to be shot at a music festival with 60,000 people, no backstage credentials, three actors, a giant Steadicam and one impossible shot from behind the CDJs on the main stage.

Before we get into the details, let me tell you why.

I went to my first rave when I was 14. It was in an abandoned warehouse in San Bernardino, with deafening loud music, smoke so thick you could barely breathe and ravers of all different shapes and sizes. The flashing lights, repetitive rhythms and bodies all moving in unison created this collective energy that I had never felt before, and still remember.

I got obsessed with raves and drugs (for better or worse), but eventually stopped drugs, started DJing and making electronic music, started making music videos for my music, and ultimately found directing. A circuitous path, but all sparked by inspiration I found through my rave and festival experience.

In 2012, when “EDM” became a buzzword, I came up with an idea for a film: Dazed and Confused set at a rave. I knew the only way to do it was at a real festival in order to capture that magic. The logistics of shooting a movie in a chaotic environment never occurred to me; doing so was just a necessity.

A still from XOXO

A still from the proof of concept shot for XOXO

A year later I wrote a story that Dylan Meyer turned into a screenplay. Our agents at WME loved it and wanted to fast-track it. They connected us with legendary DJ Pete Tong, who signed on as a producer and music supervisor. We sent the script out and did a couple pitches. Everybody loved it! But nobody wanted to make it.

I knew the movie relied on capturing that festival experience, so I had to shoot a teaser in order to get us financing. My years of editing and posting all our own low-budget music videos gave me the confidence to tackle this on a shoestring. I cut an animatic using found images and my own voiceover:

Through a friend, I managed to get General Access passes to a festival under the guise of us shooting “stills” to help pitch our movie. I figured that, with a festival that big, our tiny crew could just fly under the radar.

My producer Joe Russell and I put up $1,500 and got a Red Dragon, Kowa anamorphic lenses, a wireless monitor, a 21-year-old Steadicam operator named Jarrett Morgan, a DP I’d never worked with named Daniel Herman, and three actors I’d never auditioned (including Sarah Hyland, whom I’d met the day before at a coffee shop). We were off into the festival.

When we arrived to the festival, we unluckily rolled our two production carts and a Steadicam right past the festival manager. She went ballistic! She cornered my producer, Joe Russell, and said that this was way too much equipment for stills and that we needed to get off the property. Joe has this producer’s ability to calm any situation by being completely and painstakingly honest. He admitted our fault and begged for forgiveness. By the end of their conversation she agreed that as long as we didn’t interrupt the event, stayed in our limited access area, and never saw her again, we were cool.

entering festival grounds in the proof of concept

Actors Graham Phillips and Brett DelBuono entering festival grounds in the proof of concept

Shooting in the General Admission area was no problem. For the most part, ravers wanted to be in our movie. But we needed to capture the money shot of our lead actor, Graham Phillips, DJing on the main stage in front of a massive crowd. Luckily, Pete Tong was playing at the festival and gave us time during his set to get our shot.

The plan was to stand in the wings, and wait for Pete to signal us at the peak of his set. Graham and the Steadicam op would walk out onto stage and do the shot as choreographed.

We just had to figure out how to get backstage. Our passes limited us to the Photography/Press area, and the backstage and main stage areas were off-limits. Instead of coming up with an elaborate plan, we just barged the gate acting like we were too busy to scan our bracelets. All of us holding this giant wireless monitor—we looked like we belonged backstage!

We got past the first layer of security and were walking to the stage to meet Pete when—bam! The festival manager, standing like a gatekeeper at the foot of the stairs that led to the stage. This time my producer Joe was not there to help. He was lost in the festival, looking for Sarah Hyland.

I walked to the festival manager, tail between my legs, complimented her hat and pleaded. I had no logical argument as to why she should let us shoot on her stage. We had already broken so many rules, were already on her shit list… and she was right: The 60,000 ravers there hadn’t paid to see us shoot a movie during Pete’s set. The only thing I had was emotional appeal. I told her about my first rave, how much this movie meant to me and how important this one shot was to fulfilling the dream of making this movie about the scene that we grew up in.

She agreed. But she only gave us three minutes. Anything over that, and security would pull us off.

Off we went to get the shot of a lifetime. The festival manager even watched it on my monitor with me. She told me how amazing the footage looked. It was awesome.

crowdsurfing in the proof of concept for XOXO

Actor Graham Phillips crowdsurfing in the proof of concept for XOXO

We got Graham off the stage in under three minutes. Just as we walked down the steps, high from the adrenaline of playing to that crowd, Sarah walked up with Joe and we had to immediately run off to shoot her storyline.

That night, we got amazing footage of Graham crowdsurfing, Graham and Sarah kissing silhouetted by the flashing lights of the massive stage, and actor Brett DelBuono absorbing the pure bliss and energy of 60,000 of his closest friends partying with him.

After we got our last shot, the crew started camera wrap and I went into the crowd with the actors to dance. For the first time all night I was able to step back and take it all in… the crowd, the lights, the scope. And there it was, that same feeling I felt when I was 14. I saw all the confused kids just like me, who struggled with loneliness, identity, relationship angst or overbearing parents. And, like me, at that moment they just wanted to get out of their heads and feel a part of something bigger. I knew I had to make XOXO.

I went home, cut the teaser, did the VFX, and a month later Netflix saw it and sent us a deal memo for $1.2 million.

The two lessons I learned that night are:

1. It is always better to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission.

2. Always follow your passion. You have to truly believe in what you’re trying to capture, because when something goes wrong—and it always does—you have to have the emotional conviction to drive you through a problem that may not have a logical solution.

Sarah Hyland

Sarah Hyland in the proof of concept for XOXO

The tagline for the movie is “Jump and the universe will catch you.” It’s something I felt at that first rave when I was 14, but it definitely came into being the night we shot the teaser. MM

Tech Box

Camera: Red Dragon

Lenses: Kowa Anamorphics

Lighting: All natural lighting

Color Grading: Da Vinci Resolve by Nathan Pena

XOXO opened in theaters and on Netflix on August 26, 2016, courtesy of Netflix.