Writer/director Tze Chun is a man on the rise in the entertainment industry. His story kicked off his film, “Children of Invention,” debuting at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and going on to be one of the most-awarded and best-reviewed films of the year. It won 17 film festival awards, including 8 Grand Jury or Best Narrative Feature prizes. His hard work over the past several years as a writer and director has laid the groundwork for what is sure to be a stellar career in film. His lastest film, ‘Cold Comes The Night,’ is no less impressive. The film tells the story of a struggling motel owner (Eve) and her daughter (Parker) who are taken hostage by a nearly blind career criminal (Cranston) to be his eyes as he attempts to retrieve his parcel of cash from a crooked cop (Marshall-Green). Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Tze Chun to discuss his love of filmmaking, the process of bring ‘Cold Comes The Night’ from script to screen and what the future holds for this young director in the rise.
I wanted to go back to your early years and give our readers a bit of background on you. What intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and eventually lead you to pursuing it as a career?
I think like a lot of people, I grew up loving movies. I started out as a visual artist and I wanted to be a comic book artist growing up. Eventually, I figured out if you turn a camera on and hit record, it is a whole lot easier than drawing one hundred pages to tell your story in a comic book! [laughs] In high school, I made a bunch of movies with my friends and after that I was hooked! I spent every day after school going to Barnes & Noble to read all of their film books and learning about film history. That is really how it all got started!
What would you cite as one of your biggest influences as an artist?
I think the movie that first influenced me was ‘The Graduate.’ One of my English teachers, when we were freshmen, showed us the movie from beginning to end on VHS. He would pause it to point out things like art direction, editing and all of these things I had never even thought about before in terms of the craft of movie making. That was one of the biggest influences on me; just being about to look at movies in that light.
Is there something you took from your work as a visual artist which has translated into your work as a filmmaker?
I was a portrait painter for a number of years after college. I think one of the things I have found, as a painter, was that one of the things I liked painting the most were people’s faces. When you are a portrait painter you have to capture a single moment that encapsulates a person in their entirety. There is something about that. If you look at my movies, a lot of them feature a lot of close-ups of our main characters. I like to think there is almost a portraiture quality to my first film, “Children of Invention,” and now with “Cold Comes The Night.”
I was able to check out your film last night. It is a great story and it is filmed with great performances. For those how aren’t familiar with your latest feature, what can you tell us about ‘Cold Comes The Night” and how the film came about?
‘Cold Comes The Night’ is a crime thriller that stars Bryan Cranston, Alice Eve and Logan Marshall Green. It is about a nearly blind career criminal, played by Bryan Cranston, who was trying to smuggle something over the U.S./Canada border. He is separated from his package and in order to retrieve the package from a crooked cop, he talks a single mother, played by Alice Eve, hostage to be his eyes as he retrieves it. It is kind of a throwback thriller, a bag of money thrilling similar to early Coen Brothers films, “No Country For Old Men,” “Blood Simple” or “A Simple Plan.” Ultimately, if you like those films, you will like this movie. I was a co-writer on the project. Our executive producer Scott Halle put me and two other writers together and we started brainstorming ideas. We talked about the movies we loved and we kept returning to these crime drams like “Blood Simple” or “A Simple Plan,” that are kind of character studies masqueraded as genre movies. That is really what we wanted to make with this film.
You mentioned working with other writers on the film. What can you tell us about the process?
I have co-written a lot in the past and I think it can be helpful. It shortens the amount of time it takes to write a script and it is always nice to have more than one opinion, otherwise, you are just arguing with yourself. Oz Perkins and Nick Simons, who were my co-writers, where actual in LA and I was living in New York. We all of the writing remotely, through Google Voice. Then we would take notes on a single Google doc and pass the draft back and forth.
What were you thoughts on tackling this film stylistically when you were fleshing it out in the early stages?
My first feature, “Children of Invention,” is very naturalistic and very realistic. I wanted to make sure in making this movie that even though it is a thriller and a genre film that it would still have a naturalistic quality to it. When I talked to my cinematographer and art director, we wanted to make sure it never lost its link with reality and that it didn’t turn into a genre exercise. That is why; in terms of lighting and actual feel of the movie is very naturalistic look.
Did you find the script evolving at all when you began filming?
I think there is always tweaking that happens on set. Bryan, Alice and Logan were very involved. We gave them the script a couple of months before we started shooting. With a movie like this, you might not even know what the location you are going to be shooting in is going to be until a week or two before shooting there. The staging changes things and there are certain situations where locations might be better or worse than you expected, so you always have to change things up.
You hit a home run when it came to casting for this film. What did these very talented actors bring to these characters that you might not have been expecting?
I think there is always something the actors bring to the characters that you are not expecting. One of the best things about being a director is being able to be surprised every day, pleasantly. Bryan, Alice and Logan are at the top of their games. They are all very smart and very willing to push their performances to the very brink. Physically, this film was very demanding for them all, not just because it was a low-budget movie but because there are scenes that are incredibly intense. For me, when I write a script, you imagine things in your head but when you are actually looking at people going through it on-screen or in front of you while you are shooting, it becomes so much more of an intense experience. Bryan. Alice and Logan all have great instincts and definitely made decisions I would never have even imagined and that definitely made the movie better.
Was it difficult to find the right mix of people for this film or where the actors obvious choices for you?
I think they were all pretty obvious choices. Oz, Nick and I where all huge fans of ‘Breaking Bad.’ When we cast Bryan, I think he was half way through Season 3 of the show, so it hadn’t quite gained the momentum it ultimately had and it wasn’t yet mainstream. We had been following the show since the very beginning. We had talked about Bryan even as we were writing the script. Alice I found through our casting director, who had always been a huge fan of hers and he sent me a couple of clips from a movie called ‘Crossing Over’ where she has three scenes with Ray Liotta. She really holds her own against a pretty intimidating screen presence. I thought that was really interesting. She is a young actress who can be tough and is clearly able to push back against someone who is intimidating her. That is really what the role needed. I hadn’t realized when I watched those clips that I had seen her in “She’s Out of My League” but was almost unrecognizable because she was playing such a different character. I think that Alice really pushed herself to play against type. She is obviously very beautiful but I think she really wanted to push herself into a gritty and darker role.
What were some of the more difficult scenes to shoot for this film?
From a technical standpoint, any scene that was an exterior at night was very difficult because we just didn’t have a lot of lights. The scene where she is breaking into the impound lot is a great example. We bought a weather balloon off the internet and floated it above the impound lot and shot a giant light into it! It was guerrilla filmmaking! Even though the movie does have name actors our production budget was still very small. It definitely felt like at each location, we really had to jury-rig and MacGyver together what our lighting set-up was going to be. In terms of the other scenes, it’s funny because when you write a script the scenes you think will be difficult to shoot are never actually the ones that end up being difficult. I the one I thought was going to be the hardest was Chloe and Billy’s last scene where he is yelling at her and pointing the gun at her. It is a very intense scene but Alice and Logan were so prepared and really brought it! Ever take of that scene was fantastic! I remember when we moved on to the next location, I was like “I cannot believe how smooth that was!” It was really a joy to shoot that scene given that I thought it was going to be very, very difficult for everyone involved!
Now that you have been able to live with the film for a while and look back on the experience, what do you consider the biggest challenge you faced?
I think the biggest challenge was fitting a movie of this scale into a very small budget. This scale movie doesn’t get made that often anymore. I am learning there is a reason for that!
You have you hands in so many of the filmmaking process. Is there a particular part of the process that you prefer over another?
I feel very lucky that I really enjoy every aspect of filmmaking! From the brainstorming to the writing, whether it is by myself or collaborating, working with all my department heads or shooting the movie, I feel really lucky that I enjoy every part of the process. Every part of the process feels so different, so there is something different to enjoy about every aspect of it.
How do you feel you have evolved as a director since you first started out?
As a filmmaker, you always want to push yourself to move difficult, bigger movies. I started off very small. My short film that got into Sundance in 2007 had a budget of six hundred dollars and it was all non-actors. My first feature was under a two hundred thousand dollar budget with a lot of non-actors and child actors but no name actors. It was kind of an observational, naturalistic drama. With “Cold Comes The Night,” I really wanted to push myself and try to do things that were a little more cinematic, a little bit bigger and to try and work within a genre which I had never done before. It is always interesting as you go into a different stage of your career to have to push yourself and seeing what things you can learn. I definitely learned a lot making this movie because it was so much different than my previous films.
With that said, where are you looking to expand as a director in the future?
I have a couple of projects with my producer on “Children of Invention,” Mynette Louie. She has been my producing partner for six years now. One of the projects is a thriller set in New Orleans. I am going out for some open directing assignments as well. I am attached to another project which is also a crime thriller. I think it would be nice to do a couple more crime thrillers to yearly get a handle on it over the next couple of years!
It is really inspiring to see the work you have done so far. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young filmmakers looking to pursue a career in film in today’s climate?
I guess the best advice I can give is just to try and make as many movies as you can. Some of them will not be good but one or two of them will. From those experiences, discover what your strengths. Hopefully, you can use those experiences to take the next step and refine what you are creating.
Thanks for your time today, Tze! I look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the future! I wish you all the best!
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate it. Thank you so much!
“Cold Comes The Night” Hits theaters and On Demand on January 10th, 2014. Check out the official Facebook for the film at facebook.com/coldcomesthenight.