On August 6, Dark Sky Films will toss you the keys to one of their most intriguing 2021 models with the theatrical and digital release of “Night Drive.” Packing plenty of storytelling horsepower under the hood and fully equipped with a wickedly dark sense of humor to sweeten the deal, this unique rideshare thriller comes from the creative force behind the 2017’s chilling cabin-in-the-woods thriller “Dead Night.”
“Night Drive” centers around Russell, expertly played by seasoned genre film veteran AJ Bowen (“You’re Next,” “The Signal”), who is a driver in Los Angeles reeling from a series of bad decisions. While his life seems caught in a downward spiral, a business proposition from an alluring but enigmatic passenger named Charlotte, brought to life by the spellbinding Sophie Dalah (“Unbroken,” “Dead Night”), proves too good to turn down. A simple ride turns deadly, catapulting Russell into an even darker place, but Charlotte may be the key to the second chance he thought he’d never have… if he can make it through the night. With surprises at every turn, directors Meghan Leon and Bradford Baruh deliver an unforgettably captivating ride-along with a seemingly normal man and the most abnormal passenger. Simply put, “Night Drive” is an unexpected thrill ride that isn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal.
One of the most captivating elements of “Night Drive” is the creative team who poured their blood, sweat and tears into the project, which shines through in every frame of the gorgeously shot film. Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently sat down with co-director Meghan Leon and the legendary AJ Bowen to discuss the team’s creative bonds. Along the way they offer unique insight into their craft and uncover the challenges of bringing “Night Drive” from script to screen.
I want to provide a backstory on you both. How did you get involved with the arts early on in life and what made you pursue your passion professionally?
Meghan Leon: My dad was a creative director in advertising. When I was a kid, I would get to go on commercial shoots with him and I really enjoyed being on set. I loved “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and it was a film that really resonated with me. I got the bug early on which led to me doing a little bit of writing and drama in school. I gravitated toward writing. I ended up going to film school and moved out here right afterwards and got into post-production, which is how I ended up meeting Brad [Baruh] and we got into making this movie together! He and I had already worked on “Dead Night,” which is his movie before, and I was the editor on that. We had a good working relationship and decided that it would be cool to do a project together. He had already worked with AJ [Bowen], so we figured it would be good to come up with a vehicle for him and that’s sort of the conception of the film.
AJ Bowen: I grew up a military brat. I was born in 1977, so I’m really old now. I don’t know how it happened so fast! [laughs] Growing up, we used to walk to the movie theater down the street from our apartment, which was just outside of Atlanta. I was always fascinated but the reason I mentioned that other stuff was because it just never seemed like a thing that I’d actually be able to do. I wanted to be an astronaut, which was an even tougher thing to try to do; one you actually have to have skills to do! [laughs] I remember being at home with the chickenpox and watching The Challenger launch. Obviously, it didn’t go well. At that point, I decided that I didn’t want to be an astronaut anymore. A few months later, a movie called “Space Camp” came out. It’s about these kids going to Space Camp and ending up in space. It sounds silly but it was the first time that it occurred to me that there was this world where you could tell stories and pretend to do things. That was eye-opening at that age. I realized I could put on a space suit and get inside a space shuttle but it’s not going to blow up on me.
I was very fascinated with cinema from a very early age. I got a little bit older, and my buddies and I started to do our own thing. One of them got a camera and we started making videos. I ended up at the University of Georgia after high school. There was a group of people there, we sorta found each other, and we began making short films together. We would go off and do our own things and then eventually got back together to make a feature film for no money. This was about 16 years ago. We were all already doing things in other places. I had made a couple movies and so had everyone else. We got together and said, “Can we make a movie for $50,000 in 10 days?” We did and we sent it to Sundance, I guess because we were naive, and it got in! Everything sort of started happening from there — meeting other filmmakers and finding other people with this DIY, high-concept, micro-budget mindset. It’s one where everyone wears a lot of hats.
I met Brad through our mutual friend Don Coscarelli, and we talked about doing a movie together and we did. While we were up there shooting “Dead Night,” we got hit with several blizzards and it was technically demanding to make a movie in the turning of season up there. I found people who were similar to my background in terms. Meghan for example, she’s always been a writer and I’ve always been a writer. Meghan’s an editor. With the sort of people that I have always ended up working with for the most part, they all do several different things and then it becomes about – what is the thing we are going to do for this one, together? More times than not, for me, it’s ended up where I’m in front of the camera. Meghan, Brad, and I are really compatible in that regard. Meghan doesn’t come at it as I’m just a writer. I don’t come at it as I’m just an actor. Brad doesn’t come at it as I’m just a director. We’re all discussing shots, how things will cut together, can we move this dialogue or can we add some stuff here. That’s how it all ended up happening.
Seeing you work as a creative team is inspiring. What are the keys to successful collaboration?
Meghan Leon: Obviously, being flexible but also being able to stick to your guns when it comes to the things that are important to you is very important. With “Night Drive,” because it was pretty scrappy, flexibility was key. Luckily, AJ and Sophie [Dalah] were both cool with rolling with days where Brad was operating camera, the Zune recorder was in the cup holder, and it was a pretty intimate kind of setup. Nobody had an ego about it! There were a lot of situations on the shoot where we had whacky weather, stinky goats or flat tires. Everyone banded together and we all felt like we were on the same team. There was no ego or conflict to deal with on the shoot.
AJ Bowen: When you make a movie with a smaller budget, smaller setting or a smaller group of people making it, you don’t want it to be done and then have to have an asterisk at the end of it. You don’t want it to be like, “Oh, this is a great movie … for the budget.” You’re trying to get an unqualified, solid piece of storytelling. The ambition is, when you have a movie that is complete, it wouldn’t be substantially different if more money had been thrown at it. A big part of making a movie like this is that there are a lot of people that think they like making movies because there are a lot of components involved with it. A lot of people like watching them and a lot of people like talking about them but you have to really enjoy the process of the actual production. That can be pretty challenging when you are doing something like shooting in a car. As a little example, when it comes to the compatibility of this, I’ve spent a lot of years doing the exact thing that Meghan described in several movies. The first time I drove while the camera was rolling and there was a light shining in my face was on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City on a Saturday night at 10 PM. That’s pretty sketchy! [laughs] Trying to figure out how to drive in traffic and do all that was a challenge. However, after you do that a few times, it becomes another tool in your tool belt. With this film, everyone knew how to accomplish the separate components we needed for this film. It helps when you are actually friends because you get to continue the conversation. When you understand and really know people, you might think, “OK, maybe I will deliver this criticism slightly differently towards this person.” It’s important to be able to talk around each other’s egos because everybody’s going to have a rough moment at some point in time. It comes down to understanding, trust, enjoyment of each other’s company and compassion for each other. Those are the things that, no matter how much money you throw at something, you can’t get.
As a producer, writer and especially as an actor, I’ve always said that I’d rather work with an actor who might not be as dynamic but had a really wonderful energy with the crew. Obviously, I’m not speaking to our experience with this film. You want to work with people who show up and are really happy to be making a movie and are interested in working and collaborating. I’ve been lucky in that regard. Meghan and I met while working on “Dead Night,” it was called “Apple Cart” at the time. It was a real blessing to have Meghan out there while we were shooting the thing. We all found each other there and they already knew how to communicate with each other. Brad and I got along really well and then Meghan and I also got along really well. It all just made a lot of sense. It’s a huge gift for someone with Meghan’s writing ability to be able to say, “Here’s what we’ve got, now let’s go write the thing!” I remember hearing, “Let’s make a movie,” and two weeks later I got the script. Meghan had the ability to say, “We have a car, we have these two actors, we have these other elements to work with.” She managed to get all of that structure in there so that it’s a really interesting piece of storytelling and she wrote to the advantages that all of us would be able to bring to it.
What were the biggest challenges of bringing this film from script to screen?
AJ Bowen: My ego. My attitude problem! [laughs]
Meghan Leon: Yeah, AJ was the number one challenge! Absolutely! [laughs] Like I said, we knew that we wanted to do something with AJ and Sophie. They had worked together before and they had a great rapport and we all really liked working with each other. I had already been kicking around the idea of a rideshare situation because I don’t drive. Obviously, for the past year, I haven’t gone anywhere because of coronavirus but prior to that I would take Lyft or Uber everywhere. In doing that, you have conversations with the drivers and daydream about different scenarios. When Brad suggested doing something with Sophie and AJ, I thought that a contained thing would be in the car. We started breaking the story down into a sort of after hours, one terrible thing goes wrong after another. As we were working on it, we began focusing on what was in the box that Sophie’ character carries with her. Brad made a suggestion and it put a pretty cool spin on things, so that was the beginning of the twist in the film. We tried to keep it as contained as possible. We knew we wouldn’t be able to have a ton of locations, so we had the bar, hardware store, the bar, and the weird ranch with the goats, along with a lot of stuff on the streets. Thankfully, AJ and Sophie really dug the script and we progressed from there.
From a technical standpoint, we did a few trial runs because we did rear projection. We did a few mock shoots to see how the rear projection would look, the best placement of it, how we could do the side angles, how we would be able to mount the camera and how we would shoot the plates to run behind them and everything like that. There was some trial and error with that stuff, but it ended up looking pretty convincing. Also, when you watch something like “Dazed and Confused,” if you pay attention to the car stuff, they are just on a black stage with one white light that goes over every so often. Unless you’re looking for that kind of stuff, it’s convincing. It’s not easy but you can do it in a way that isn’t super complicated. We didn’t have to get a picture car or anything like that.
One of the reasons I enjoyed “Night Drive” is because it isn’t easily categorized. There is a terrific blend of dark humor, horror, mystery, and drama. Was it difficult to find the right balance?
AJ Bowen: It’s funny, Meghan and I sort of share the same brain space creatively. Tonally, things that other people may think are really dark are things that Meghan and I both laugh at and find humorous. From the second that I read the script, I felt like my brain was a decoder for the tone! One of the interesting things about film goes back to what I said about making a film that stands on its own without an asterisk. If you do your job right, every movie is its own genre. Like you said, there are elements of all sorts of things. We are aware, based on our backgrounds and some of the stuff that occurs in this film, that it would be looked at potentially as a horror film. That wasn’t something we were trying to run from, but we also felt like it was pretty limiting and not how I would describe it. I wouldn’t describe it as a thriller. I also wouldn’t describe it as a comedy. It has elements of all those things and for me that is more human and it’s more natural to experience that through story. When the crazy stuff really happens, up until that point, there is less and less of a logical reason why Russell hasn’t bailed but you realize he can’t. The way Meghan structured it, it resolves the questions that lead to “Well, I would leave.” No, you wouldn’t because you wouldn’t be able to. For me, it was more about hitting the beats. I felt I understood the moments Meghan had created where things mattered.
Meghan was talking about being able to figure out rear projection technically and being able to figure out shooting side to side and mixing that in with practical effects. I have a background in improv, so that is really helpful. For example, we would be up in the desert outside of Santa Clarita and Palmdale. We are shooting on a real street that’s not locked down, a dark road in the middle of the night. Well, if out of nowhere a car comes down the other side of the highway with their brights on, it’s going to potentially ruin what we are doing in the moment. So, having the ability to improv your way around things that can create issues in us getting what we need while still staying within the moment is really essential. That’s something that is in all departments as well. I remember that Meghan and I both understood in our minds, without talking about it, that the film was mostly a dark comedy. It’s something along the lines, if we did our jobs right, of the sort of humor you would find in a Cohen Brothers movie. I think it was a few days into the shoot that Brad said something while Meghan and I were standing there. He was concerned. He was like, “Wait, is this funny?” He had no idea.
Meghan Leon: Yeah, he was like, “I would’ve brought different lenses if I knew this was more of a comedy! [laughs]
AJ Bowen: We were like, “My man, what did you think we were trying to shoot?” [laughs] His brain was so wrapped up in the visual element of it, which is this very slick, neo-noir, best of the early-to-mid ‘90s indie that’s got tremendous lighting and draped in really rich color. Getting that while you are inside a car or while you’re on the side of a mountain in a windstorm are some of the things that Brad had to deal with and Meghan and I didn’t. In essence, we were all describing the same thing but needed to be on the same page. “Yeah, that was the intent. We were trying to be funny. It wasn’t an accident!” [laughs]
The film poses the question about what you might do differently if given the chance. There’s value in real world experience, especially in an industry like yours. What lessons have you learned that continue to resonate with you?
AJ Bowen: Being dependable, being kind and being who you really are is really important. With what we do, there is an unfair thing about it. By that I mean, you can know how to do things but there are certain elements when it comes to visual storytelling that there is no amount of intellectual knowledge that is going to help you execute. It’s sorta like a sport in that way. You have to be able to execute on a professional level, otherwise you’re not going to make more than one movie: even if it’s accidentally good. I used to say, before I was a parent, “The worst day on a movie set is better than the best day not on one.” You face so many issues on any given film set. With this one, we had so many third party issues from our production and all of them were weather. Trying to make a movie on the side of a hill when there is a windstorm and it’s 30º outside with 50 MPH gusts destroys so many of the other elements. You can’t put up lights and running sound is impossible. Really caring for the process of filmmaking and the people who you work with and staying positive are so important. You really have to enjoy being in the shit with this stuff. You really have to enjoy the process of trying something 9 times and being really close to getting the shot off. The hardware store scene is a great example. You enter the space and quickly figure out that it’s completely the opposite of cinematical. You have to figure out how to not make it flat and make it look dynamic. You have this long narrow walkway and it’s very hard to shoot coverage in a way that looks dynamic. That impacts, if you allow it, the execution of the tone which took us right back to the exact intent of what Meghan was writing. It just amplified it. Every sort of algorithmic problem on a low-budget movie is a puzzle to solve. Enjoying that part of it is really fundamental.
Meghan Leon: To quote “Grease” — “The rules are, there ain’t no rules.” [laughs] You have to be flexible because every day, every production and every problem is going to be different. You just have to be able to find the calmness to figure out a way to deal with it. You also have to be self-assured enough to realize that you can solve the problem, no matter what it is. We have enough people around us to put our heads together and come up with different solutions. Like AJ said, with the weather there were days we couldn’t shoot due to the winds being crazy. On those days, we’d do some insert shots or try to pick and choose other little things here or there. Flexibility and having blind, dumb faith that things will work out does get you kind of far and it can make a big difference!
I love the passion you and your team have for the projects you bring to life. The effort you put in at all stages comes through in the finished product. As creators, where are you headed in the future?
Meghan Leon: I’m hoping to do another film as soon as possible. It would be delightful to work with AJ and Brad again. Like I said, it’s great to get a core group together and collaborate because you have that shorthand and similar sensibilities. That really makes a big difference because it’s really hard to find good people. This past year or so has shown that you want to keep good people close to you. Hopefully, in the near future, our paths will cross again!
AJ Bowen: I welcome this global pandemic being in the rearview. I’ve always viewed what I do, which most people would perceive as in front of camera, as part of what I do and not as the only thing. I’ve always been a writer, director, and producer when those jobs call. It piggybacks what Meghan was saying, it’s like we are growing our own vibe and brand. In a perfect world, I would love it if Meghan, Brad, and I could do a movie a year and we build that thing. Sometimes one of us will direct. Sometimes one of us will write and act and we’ll bring other people in that have that same interest. I spent most of the pandemic becoming a default kindergarten and then 1st grade teacher against my will, out of necessity, where my family lives sort of up on the side of a mountain in the hills right outside of LA, so we kind of had a different experience in the pandemic because I could take my daughter out and go hiking on the trails. It’s that same kind of thing where I was sitting there thinking, “OK. We have this big, weird house. There’s coyotes out here every night.” As a creative person, you start chasing these ideas, they foment and then you start puzzling pieces together into a story. We are always doing that! I’m sure Meghan’s doing that. I’m always doing that. There will be an idea and it germinates. So, I wrote a script and I’m going to act in it because I’m the cheapest actor I know! [laughs] I want to direct it, so that I can have a sense of ownership over it. If it were to be a thing that we can all do together, then we’ll do it! Literally, Meghan and I were speaking yesterday, and I was like, “What scripts do you have?! What genre do you want?!” While we were talking, I sent her a script. I was like, “This is my ‘80s non-conflict family comedy.” We are constantly going back and forth about those sorts of things. An ability to monetize that enough to pay a mortgage at this age that I’m at is pretty much what my career ambition is!
I can’t thank you both enough for offering insight into your creative process. All the blood, sweat and tears end up on screen, so thank you for that. I look forward to seeing where the future chapters of your stories take you!
Meghan Leon: Thank you!
AJ Bowen: Thank you so much, man! I appreciate it.
Dark Sky Films will release ‘Night Drive’ theatrically and digitally on August 6th, 2021.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.