When I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I didn’t know I wanted to be a director. I thought I just wanted to produce. Like everyone else who moves to L.A. to pursue their dream, I figured that said dream would involve getting a job as a production assistant and going from there. I was fortunate enough to land just that job on the 2008 film Fragments. Working both in the office and on-set, I saw how a production worked. I was a part of it. And I knew I had made the right decision in pursuing a career in film.
For the next year, I worked as a production assistant on variety of films, then I transitioned to being a producer’s assistant for my mentor John J. Kelly.
In my two films as Kelly’s assistant—Warrior and Gentlemen Broncos—I learned from him how to make movies the right way, how a good producer controls the budget and doesn’t allow runaway costs to interfere with the director’s vision. Making a film is a collaborative effort, and if parties agree on what is possible given the budget and schedule, then the finished product will always be better than if no one listened to each other. It was during this time that I discovered I wanted to direct, write and produce.
I wrote my first feature, the contemporary mafia drama/thriller Suspicion, and approached financiers with an interest in independent film. Once financing was secure, I approached available colleagues, and we set out to make the movie.
The film stars Brad Blaisdell (The Negotiator, “CSI: NY”) as Darrell, a retired member of the mafia who is dying of lung cancer. Having no one he can talk to, he meets and befriends a college student, Alicia (Suzanne May, Gentlemen Broncos). The two form an unlikely friendship, but Darrell unknowingly puts Alicia’s life in jeopardy when they begin meeting in public.
Prior to shooting, my co-producer Alex McCullough and I sat down and discussed logistics. Because Suspicion was a SAG Ultra Low Budget film, and because the script is dialogue-driven with multiple locations, we’d have to shoot five pages a day while still keeping up with all the necessary location moves. We knew that timing was crucial; we couldn’t make any big mistakes, or else we’d get behind schedule and wouldn’t be able to complete the movie. It was critical that Alex and I be on the same page. Having worked together since 2007, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I told Alex I needed the best cinematographer we could afford, so we hired Danny Grunes (The Four-Faced Liar, After-School Special). What Danny brought to the table made Suspicion better.
We held open casting calls in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Ultimately, all our central actors—Brad Blaisdell, Suzanne May, Aidan Bristow and Carlos Larkin—came from Los Angeles. Supporting actors, with one exception, came from Phoenix.
With our cast and crew in place, we started pre-production. I sat down with my actors and discussed the story, but I made it clear that they were the characters. They had creative freedom to explore; if something didn’t work, we’d adjust. As a director, it’s important to realize that the people you hire—your actors, your cinematographer—know more about their jobs than you do. You need to stay open; ultimately, it is your film, and you will be the first one to hear feedback, positive or negative. But if you micromanage, your film will never be as good as it can be, because it means you’ve shut yourself off from passionate people who want nothing more than to see your film succeed.
We started production in late April using the RED camera and a prime lens package. Day one of 18 was relatively easy. We had three locations: The zoo, the lake and a doctor’s office, with the zoo and the lake shot MOS, or without sound. The majority of the scenes we shot on days two through 18 had dialogue on top of location moves, but I knew we’d be able to pull it off, because the cast and crew were just as passionate about Suspicion as I was. We all knew our roles, we had a solid shooting schedule and had planned ahead as much as possible.
However, problems did occur. About halfway through filming, one of our locations fell through, which meant that we needed to find a replacement, and fast. Luckily we were able to do so, but the fact that our tech scout of the new location was only hours before we were to shoot there gave me and Danny virtually no time to prep our shots. We sat down, looked at the previous shot design and made all the necessary changes. Instead of Tom (Aidan Bristow) and Professor Evans (Carlos Larkin) entering through the front door and finding the Degenerate Gambler, we would do a handheld tracking shot from the car to the backyard, then enter the house through the back door. It worked, we stayed on schedule, and I think the scene speaks for itself. It was a stressful day, but it could have been much worse if we hadn’t had everything else planned out.
Our final two days were spent on the campus of Arizona State University. Suspicion was the first film in over a decade that was allowed to film there. (Being an alumnus helped.) Shooting inside Hayden Library was especially challenging given the shot I wanted to get: A 360-degree Steadicam pan around the table where Alicia sits with her pre-law study group, timed so that the camera is on each actor as they speak. After a couple of rehearsals, we rolled camera and sound, and I couldn’t be happier with what we got.
Casey Couser, our editor and script supervisor, did post-production in Pasadena, California. I knew from when were filming that I wanted to give Casey near-total freedom in creating that first cut. After four weeks of presenting cuts and making adjustments, we finally had our film.
Suspicion screened for the first time at the 2011 Phoenix Film Festival, where it took second place for screenplays written in Arizona. A few months later it screened at the 2011 Big Bear Lake International Film Festival, where it took the Jury Prize for Best Feature Film. It has since been acquired for distribution by Osiris Entertainment and will have a limited theatrical release at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, Arizona from this Friday, March 2nd, thorough March 9th.