Against the odds

David Marmor on how neither fire not disappearing actors could stop him making 1BR

by Jennie Kermode

Nicole Brydon Bloom in Apartment 1BR
Nicole Brydon Bloom in Apartment 1BR

It’s one of those small, perfectly formed offbeat stories that we don’t see much of it genre cinema anymore, and it came from small beginnings. Few people had heard a whisper about David Marmor’s 1BR before it opened at Fantasia in 2019, but it soon became one of the most talked-about titles of the festival. It follows Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), a young woman looking for her first apartment in Los Angeles, who stumbles upon a community that has very particular ideas about how she should live her life. On the eve of it getting a UK online release (as Apartment 1BR), I asked director David Marmor if he had ever anticipated the excited reactions it has received.

“No,” he says, laughing happily. “I was thrilled just to have it get into any film festivals, honestly. it was a really difficult production and we were a very small movie. We didn’t have much money and we had some real disasters befall us before we even got to roll cameras. Preproduction was probably one of the most difficult times in my professional life, just trying to survive that. So to get through that and production and actually a difficult and long post-production as well – you know, I was just happy to have a finished movie! And then we were just thrilled when Fantasia accepted us for our world première. That really opened a lot of doors. Other festivals came to take us more seriously. That’s actually where we first met with Dark Sky, who became our distributor in the US.”

Trouble sleeping
Trouble sleeping

It was his first feature length film as director, after several shorts. That must have been a particularly difficult stage at which to deal with so many problems.

“Yes! I at some point wondered ‘Is this how a feature always is? Is this what it’s like?’ But then one of our producers who had more experience said no, he’d never seen this many disasters.”

I ask if he can give any examples of those.

“Well,” he says, “a week or so before we were supposed to start shooting there were these massive wildfires across LA and they shut down the production office and they threatened the apartment building where we were shooting, and so we weren’t sure we were going to be able to shoot at all. And then a few days before we were supposed to start shooting, we lost, for different reasons, three of our main cast members. We were four days from shooting and we had no lead characters. It was a complete panic. We really thought the whole thing might just fall apart at that point.”

We are interrupted briefly by Toshi, a large ginger cat who is keen to be part of the interview. When he has been persuaded to step aside, I ask how Nicole Brydon Bloom ended up being cast, because she’s such an impressive lead that she really makes that last minute loss of a star seem fortuitous.

“That was really lucky, honestly,” says David as he lifts Toshi down off the table. “She’s based in New York and she sent us an audition on tape. I was blown away by it and she was really at the top of my list from the beginning, but we didn’t end up casting her initially. There was a high profile actress who has her own TV show and was interested in the movie and wanted to do it and the producers basically decided, you know, we have to cast this person. It would raise the profile of the production a huge amount. I couldn’t argue with that. We were such a tiny production that to have someone with any kind of name recognition would have really been a coup, but I had some reservations – not about her as an actor, she’s a very god actor, but she did not feel as much like the character to me. I knew that she had the skill that she probably could pull it off but it would take time and it would take a lot of work on our part in make-up and in hair and so forth, and we didn’t have that kind of time. We had a 15 day shoot.

Getting to know the neighbours
Getting to know the neighbours

“So I was nervous about it but we went forward with it... and then four days before we were due to start shooting, she just abruptly dropped out. We’re still not sure why, but this is one of the dangers that you face when you cast somebody who is more powerful than the production. You’re at their mercy and she just decided she didn’t want to do it, and then that created a cascade and we lost another actor who had come along with her, and then independently we lost the woman who was supposed to play Miss Stanhope. So then it was just like this mad recasting. They kept trying to get somebody else high profile in that lead role. Finally I begged them. I said ‘Please can we just cast Nicole?’ They agreed that her audition was phenomenal. We were down to the wire so they went out to her and – thankfully – she said yes on a moment’s notice.

“I think we cast her on a Thursday and she flew out on Friday. I met up with her at a coffee shop to chat and then we got about three hours to rehearse on Saturday, to walk through the script, just me and her, and then one day off and then we started on Monday. It was really nerve-racking because as god as an audition can be, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to work wit a person in real life, and that’s where I feel like we just hit the jackpot with her. She’s a lovely person, there was no ego, she was all about the role, she was all about the work, she’s really smart and she got it, so I didn’t have to do a lot of work to explain the script. We shot all out of order and she’s so smart that she could track it. And she’s an uncannily skilled actor, especially for somebody as young as she is.” He explains that some of her most intense scenes were captured in just two or three takes. “I’m not sure we would have finished the movie if we didn’t have her in that role.”

Nicole’s intelligence comes across in the character and, together with the tightly written script, it makes this one of those rare films where audience members can’t easily reason ahead and identify better ways of dealing with the situation than the protagonist can.

Developing the script took years, David says. “I wrote the original draft many years ago. The apartment complex was roughly based on a complex that I lived in when I first moved to LA, and the seed of the idea for the movie came from my experience of being somewhat like Sara and feeling very lost and isolated. So I wrote a version of it back then. It was one of the first features I ever wrote. And then I put it aside – I was an inexperienced writer, I didn’t know what to do with it, and I moved on. Many years and many scripts later I signed with my managers, Alexander and Gerry Murray, who are also producers on the movie. I signed with them based on a different script and they said ‘Can you send us something else? What else do you have?’”

1BR poster
1BR poster

Not having much else that he felt enthusiastic about, David decided to dig out the script for 1BR, update it and send it in. “To my surprise they really responded to it. They said ‘We think we can produce this and you can direct it.’ That was music to my ears.”

At that stage the story took a much more traditional horror route, he explains, and it didn’t reflect who he was anymore, so it needed a lot of work. Gaining confidence as a writer over the intervening years had made him more inclined to break with convention and try to do things differently. He decided to reel back some of the horror elements to focus on the indoctrination process and Sarah’s descent into the community.

“It was really important to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie about her physically trying to escape. it wasn’t going to be, like, can she get the key or can she defeat this security system or whatever. It was important to me to create a perfect cage that would feel completely inescapable, so that you wouldn’t be sitting there thinking ‘But wait, what if she does this...’ because that wasn’t what it was about. She had to mentally escape. So that was the rationale behind it, to create that kind of trap for her.

I remark that something that struck me about the film was the similarity between Sarah’s situation and that faced by many people living with domestic abuse, who struggle to find a way out mentally.

“Absolutely. In the research I did on cults that was something they had in common with abusive relationships. There is, I think, often a genuine love at the heart of what cults are about r trying to be about, but it becomes perverted for various reasons over time until you end up with something that is very much like an abusive relationship in which the abuser still believes that they are acting out of love but they are in fact acting out of violence, out of repression. What I thought was interesting in conceiving this community was the idea that the abusers are also the abused... They’re all victims of this kind of system. The diabolical nature of the system is that it forces them to inflict this on each other.”

Coming up: David Marmor on finding the right location for the story and striking the right tone.

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