Director/Writer Christopher Pinero spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about elements of his life making it to ‘A Dark Place’ and finishing the film in 12 days.
This interview contains spoilers for the film A Dark Place.
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: You wrote and directed A Dark Place. I was looking at your Instagram earlier and I didn’t realize you dated the leading lady [Jazlyn Yoder]. So, is this a scenario that’s run through your mind before when you were writing the script? I mean, outside of the murder suicide, of course! (laughs)
Christopher Pinero: (laughs) Yeah, yeah I have to say sometimes when she asks me to pick up after myself when I leave my clothes on the floor! (laughs)
I was wondering about the ending with Shawn [Jay Eftimoski] when he’s sitting in a suit and about to go to jail for three years. Did he admit to being an accomplice or was it that the police found the drugs at the house?
He didn’t admit it. It was a combination of both because he was the one that found the bag and he had his hands all over the hammer and the bag. He wanted to basically absolve his friend Cameron [Christopher Donnellon] of any wrongdoing because Cameron didn’t want anything to do with it from the beginning. So it’s a combination of Shawn admitting to being an accomplice and also the drugs being found.
I like the way you shot the movie, where the plot played itself out kind of in reverse. It seemed inspired by Memento. Was that one of the films that had an impact on you as a Director?
Oh yeah, absolutely! It’s definitely one of them. I love Christopher Nolan and I love how he did Batman Begins where he cuts back and forth past the present. I’m also a huge fan of Manchester by the Sea and I like how they revealed certain pieces of information as the story went along.
When you were writing the script, were you always going to end with the suicide for Alex?
No, actually no, it went through many stages. There were so many different iterations. It was really hard for me to figure out a satisfying ending for all the characters involved. I wanted everyone to get what they deserve for better or for worse.
I sent the script to one of my friends who’s a professional script consultant. I said to him like, ‘Man, I can’t really crack this ending,’ and he read it a few times and was like, ‘Hey, this whole time he’s been on this self-destructive downward spiral. And what what happens when you’ve gone too far? You have to keep going.’ And that’s how his suicide came about.
I thought you really locked into something at the beginning of the movie when Alex went to job interviews and they were just so demoralizing. I thought that really set the whole namesake of the movie. Was that something you went through yourself ever or maybe your friends? That kind of empty feeling job interview.
Yes… Yes. It’s something that I went through when I first came back to L.A. cause I came to L.A. in ’08 for the first time and I had a job for a while. Then I left to go work back east again and when I came back for whatever reason I filled out out at least 60 applications and I didn’t get any interviews. Like none. That was just something that I went through and I was like ‘Man, what if this just another thing that this character’s going through?’ But the stakes are even higher for this character.
I knew Keith [Mike Miller] was gonna perish in the film because he’d been built up as such an arrogant, cocky character. What was the inspiration for him? I’m sure Mike Miller had a lot of playing him.
Oh yeah, and it’s funny because he’s a completely different person in real life. He’s so warm and so courteous, he’s like the complete opposite. Well, we were actually working on the character when I casted him. He said he used to work in Wall Street in New York and knew that whole scene. He knows this character! He’s seen this guy before in real life.
The film is based on different people that I’ve met over the years. I used to work at this hotel for a long time, I was a bartender there. You just get a feel for these types of guys. I wanted somebody that was completely opposite than what we had seen from Alex or the other characters.
Did you picture the whole universe when you did the original short film? Did the short film’s success bring on an investment to make it a full feature?
Definitely not the universe. I didn’t know that it would be expanded to something like this. It took me years actually after I wrote a draft. I needed more experience as a filmmaker and as a writer to really get it to where it needed to be. What you see, only happened within the last year of working on up to shooting the film.
I felt you did a nice job with practicing restraint with the plot. Particularly, with Jasmine [Veronica Diaz Carranza] and Cameron. I noticed A Dark Place ended with bittersweet music going into the credit roll despite a fairly ‘happy’ ending for Cameron. What inspired this choice?
I wanted it to tonally match because I’m big on tone. You know, I didn’t want it to just be overly happy or overly sad. I wanted it to be somewhere in the middle. I feel this movie is like marriage. It’s like shades of grey, it’s not black or white. It operates in that middle area and that’s how I try to keep it throughout the whole thing. You mentioned restraint and one of my biggest inspirations is Jaws.
The idea of not seeing the shark for so long. He’s like holding it back. You see like a little bit, you know little snippets of something. You know it’s a shark but the fact that he’s held it back for almost an hour was one of my biggest inspirations. That’s why in this movie the murder happens exactly an hour in.
I’m curious about the phone that Theresa used. It wasn’t a typical smartphone because you wanted it to be a throwaway burner phone, right?
Yeah, it was like a burner phone because where I grew up back east, I knew a lot of people who sold weed like drug dealers and stuff. When I saw somebody with one of those phones, I immediately thought they were shady. I just knew that if people in the audience saw Alex reach in a bag and it was like this little burner phone… Then immediately you don’t even have to say anything. It’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s shady. She’s up to no good.’
Would you ever revisit the characters? I thought there was a lot you can still write for Shawn.
Yeah, I mean Jay [Eftimoski], he’s amazing. Jay worked on the original short film, and he was the only cast member to make it to the feature. I had a whole backstory scene set up with them that wound up on the cutting room floor. It gave more insight but I think we all figured that it didn’t really need to be there, it just slowed down the first act of the movie. But the idea was that they were all foster kids and they met each other in the foster system and that’s how they became friends.
Is that going to be a bonus scene on the Blu-ray for A Dark Place?
No, because I immediately knew once we shot that scene that we weren’t going to use it. And I didn’t even waste time cutting it together.
What’s it like as a director shooting a scene and then having to get rid of it? Is it hard to let go?
No, it’s not really hard for me because I don’t get too attached to anything. Obviously, there’s things the movie needs that need to be there. But then there’s things that I’m like well, ‘If it doesn’t work, get rid of it! If it makes this like a longer story than it has to be for no reason, then let’s get rid of it. That scene just didn’t add enough to it.
As a Director, do you think a scene can be creatively worked on until it does work or time and money simply doesn’t make it feasible?
Mainly the time, we shot A Dark Place in twelve days and the money came from our family and friends. We had twelve days to shoot the film, and if we didn’t get it done within that allotted time, than that’s it. Like that day that we were shooting that scene we were so behind. It just came to a point where I was like, ‘Let’s move on.’ I didn’t have the time to really craft the scene. As you know, making a film you need X amount of time to shoot scenes.
Do you have to get permits to film scenes in certain outside areas?
Yes, like that little pond lake area where Alex commit suicide, it looks bigger in the cut that you see in the movie because I had visual effects enhance that. It’s kind of a smaller pond, it’s not that big but we had visual effects add some stuff in there.
They made it look like a bigger space but that whole area is part of this movie ranch. It’s outside of Santa Clarita and that’s where we shot the burial and restaurant scenes. We maximized that location as much as we could. We shot all the driving stuff right there.
Did you use green screens then or do you just mean general CG enhancement of the area?
Oh no, not green screen. It was just CG like for instance we added some clouds in the background because when we shot that day it was just blue sky. I thought that giving it some texture, some clouds, some trees, would make a pond look like a lake.
A Dark Place was named Best Thriller at the Manhattan Film Festival (2018), won Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor at the Hoboken International Film Festival (2018) and was the recipient of an Award of Excellence from the Accolade Global Film Competition (2018).
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