Five star filmmaking

Director Danny Buday talks exclusively about his new movie.

by Darren Amner

I’m always intrigued by any work that comes from a first time writer/director. The movie industry these days seems to enjoy regurgitating the same drivel week in week out, a remake here, a remake there. Not much seeps through that’s interesting or, more importantly, individual. Danny Buday is a newcomer to the film world, armed with a unique voice, barrels of enthusiasm and his own cinematic vision. He recently completed his first feature film starring Cam Gigandet of Twilight fame. I caught up with him to talk about his first short, making his first feature - Five Star Day - and the general process of filmmaking.

Darren Amner: Making any film involves countless hours of passion, labour and love. What can you tell me about making Dependency, the short you directed in 2005, which I believe is a story that’s very personal to you, set in the independent music scene?

Danny Buday: Making Dependency was definitely a challenge, especially given that since it was my thesis film at AFI, it had to be shot in six days. It was an amazing experience though. I come from a music background, so yes, the story was very intimate to me. I drew a lot from my time in the indie music scene to hopefully give the audience more of a backstage look at the pressures and expectations associated with up and coming musicians, not just the glamour of being up on stage. Ultimately, it’s a story of love, dealing with the past and moving past one’s own fears in order to find one's voice.

DA: How did things come together in the production process, and how do you perceive the finished project now, years later?

DB: Regarding production, the two biggest hurdles we faced with Dependency were finding a location that was big enough to seem like the band in the film was up and coming and on the rise (within our grad student budget) and finding 1200 extras for the big scene when the lead actor faces the crowd again for the first time after rehab. We ended up finding the Avalon in Hollywood and they were beyond great in believing in the project and the script (and working within our limited budget).

We also cut a lucky break when we noticed our shooting schedule lined up with a scheduled concert at the venue by a band from the UK called Badly Drawn Boy. I had actually met Damon [singer/songwriter of the band] a few years earlier in my travels through the music scene so I called up his manager and got back in touch with him. He was gracious enough to take a 15 minute break during his show a few weeks later and let us shoot our scene and crowd footage using his enthusiastic packed house of 1200 fans. Looking back on the experience and the film a few years later, I’m still proud of the finished product and grateful to the talented crew who went the extra mile to help us make our days and push through the demanding shooting schedule. In fact, quite a few of the principle crew members on Dependency also worked on Five Star Day.

DA: Five Star Day is due for release this year; how did you get on board to direct this project and what was it about the material that drew your attention to it?

DB: I wrote down the initial concept for Five Star Day in a notebook a few years back, simply that it could be interesting to explore the idea of a guy who sets out on a journey to disprove the theory of astrology. The story really ran from there. As I did research during the writing process I found myself wondering about why so many people believe in astrology. The subject matter of astrology alone lent itself to examining themes relating to one’s fate and destiny, two topics that I was interested in exploring through the story. When I gave the initial script to Mike Robertson [producer] and Joel Mendoza [producer/manager] I knew it was a project that I wanted to hold onto to direct.

DA: The film was shot on various locations throughout the US. What kind of challenges did you face shooting on location?

DB: The shooting schedule was definitely ambitious for an indie film, taking production from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Atlantic City. Shooting on location is like a travelling circus. You’re travelling from city to city with the cast, crew, and a ton of very bulky equipment. The sheer coordination required to pull off such organized chaos I credit to our line producer Aimee Flaherty and my first A.D. Richard Robinson, along with the tireless support of Joel Mendoza and Mike Robertson.

You have to be on your toes when you’re shooting on location because every day the schedule is changing and adjusting due to locations dropping out, delayed flights, weather issues, camera malfunctions, etc. You have to be prepared to improvise and adapt. With Five Star Day, those struggles really helped to bring together a cohesive camaraderie within the crew that grew as we travelled from city to city. The brutal weather in Chicago and New York, the L train scene in downtown Chicago, the rain in Atlantic City, I have so many fond memories of the struggles that actually brought the cast and crew together on this production. It was an amazing experience, especially being my first feature, and I feel extremely lucky to have had such an amazing cast and crew who not only trusted in me, but gave everything they could to the project.

DA: Did each of these locations present a chance to create a unique look?

DB: Absolutely, and that was the goal. Jason Oldak [the cinematographer] and myself spent months shot listing and establishing various looks for each of the cities along with the main storyline’s visual progression. Together we worked with Megan Hutchison [the production designer] to establish Jake’s visual journey. All of this was immensely helpful once we actually found ourselves in each of the cities, where our access and shooting schedule were extremely tight. Jason Oldak was also the cinematographer of Dependency, so we have a strong short-hand way of communicating, which was essential with our fast-paced shooting schedule. In fact, Jason, Megan Hutchison, Curtis Pierce (Editor) and I all went to AFI together.

DA: One thing I really liked about Dependency was the film's music. I see that your own band provided the tracks for the film – how important is it to you having a good musical score and what can we expect to hear on the Five Star Day soundtrack?

DB: Music is a huge component of my process as a filmmaker and I can’t wait to unveil the soundtrack and score for Five Star Day. Look for amazing tracks by Doves, Interpol, Guster and The Stooges as well as some amazing up and coming independent bands such as The Henry Clay People, Rademacher, Justin Clayton and The Sweet Hurt, just to name a few. The score (composed by Ryan Beveridge) features some stellar indie musicians as well and was recorded at the Compound in Echo Park and at Shangri-La Recording Studio in Malibu.

DA: Five Star Day is the story of one man who loses everything and must come to terms with what is most important in life. There have been lots of movies about self-discovery and love over the years - what makes Five Star Day stand out from all the rest?

DB: In Five Star Day, Jake (Cam Gigandet) is searching to find the three other people who were born the same exact time and place as him, (February 6th, 1982, Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Chicago). Although they are each strangers today in 2009, 27 years later, they each essentially entered the world from the same time and place. What’s interesting is to see where each of the four characters' (Jake, Sarah, Yvette and Wes) individual paths have taken them up until the point at which Jake re-enters their lives and how each of their interactions influences the overall journey as Jake seeks the answers to questions he doesn’t yet know to ask. Are we ready to accept the responsibility that we control our own destiny? And if so, can Jake take the next step?

DA: Cam Gigandet plays Jake Gibson, the film's main protagonist. He has everything going for him - a great job, beautiful girlfriend - and then an unforgiving twist of fate changes everything. How did you cast this role and what qualities were you looked for in the actor?

DB: When I first met with Shannon Makhanian [the casting director] with Joel Mendoza and Mike Robertson, Cam was at the top of her list. She had seen him in Never Back Down and after reading the script thought it’d be an interesting change for him to play a nice guy. I was really looking for an actor who could be vulnerable enough to dig into the subtext of the story and bring a heart to Jake’s journey. We got Cam the script while he was in the UK promoting Twilight, and had lunch with him as soon as he got back into town.

I was immediately struck by how genuine and sincere Cam was - almost shy. For being such an attractive, clearly leading man type actor, he was extremely humble and even rode his bike to our first lunch meeting (bicycle not motorcycle). When he pulled out his tattered and torn copy of the script for Five Star Day, beaten and looking like it had travelled through a war zone, complete with dog-eared pages and scribbled margins, I was impressed. We chatted over lunch, and by the time we left it was clear that Cam was our Jake. We had breakfast again the next day to talk more about the project, and that was it. We started rehearsals the following day.

DA: I think Five Star Day is the first lead role we have seen Cam Gigandet star in. What was it like working with him and how did you both approached the character of Jake?

DB: Cam is the real deal. The weathered script was my first insight into his work ethic. Regarding our approach to his character, we worked together nightly for weeks leading up to the shoot and literally broke down the script line for line, letter by letter, and talked about his motivations and dove into the subtext of Jake’s character. Cam was really trusting and worked unbelievably hard to carry this film. And he took risks, which is great. It was a pleasure to work with him and I’m really proud of his performance in the film. I’m excited to show everyone a completely different side of Cam Gigandet.

DA: You managed to put together a great cast, including Jena Malone and Will Yun Lee...

DB: Shannon Makhanian was immensely helpful in getting the script to some amazing actors and assembling a really great cast. I loved the idea of Jena for the role of Sarah, but knew that we were still a small indie film and that she was very selective with her projects. Needless to say I was ecstatic when she responded to the material and agreed to have coffee with me in LA to talk more about the project. She is a gracious actress and a rare talent. She had some amazingly insightful ideas about the character of Sarah and by the end of our meeting she was on board as well. It was exciting to see her play the role of a young single mother and she was an improvisational joy to work with on set, even when filming outdoors in sub-zero weather in downtown Chicago.

Jena and all the other actors, including Will Yun Lee, Brooklyn Sudano, Juillanna Guill, Max Hartman and Chris Johnson were all very giving and subtle. Again, I can’t wait for everyone to see this film, if only to see all the hard work all these amazing actors put into their craft.

DA: Writing is no easy task; it takes time, dedication and passion. How do you approach the writing process, what inspires you and how you go about getting the job done?

DB: When I’m writing a script, I pretty much just lock myself away and immerse myself in the story. I start with a structure board of 3x5 cards, map out a template, and then write. I emerge every few days with pages, but usually finish the initial draft in one long marathon session, taking breaks to eat, sleep a few hours, or bounce ideas off of close friends. That’s the only way I find myself able to push through the rough patches of writing a feature in order to make it to the final page, writing even when I don’t want to.

DA: What do you hope audiences take away with them after seeing Five Star Day?

DB: I hope they leave questioning how their own choices and decisions every day influence and affect their own destiny, their individual fate. I hope they take something away from the story, let the story influence them or affect them in some positive way.

DA: When will the movie be coming out? Are you still targeting Toronto for its world premiere?

DB: No, we’re hoping to premiere the film at the Sundance in January. After that, we’d love to see it find an audience and have a theatrical release in 2010.

If you would like to check out Danny Buday's early work, visit www.dannybuday.com where you can watch Dependency. Thanks to Danny and to Joel Mendoza for their help with this interview.

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