Behind the Scenes of Award-Winning Short “In the Tradition of My Family”
Interview with Director Todd Davis
Interview conducted by Taryn Bensky
In Todd Davis’ award-winning short film, In the Tradition of My Family, a tradition of violence that goes back generations is threatened when one father hesitates to indoctrinate his son into the insanity. The gothic family saga is directed by Todd Davis, who was a 41-year-old film production graduate student at Boston University. The movie was shot on Super 16mm film by cinematographer Austin de Besche, and edited by Emmy award-winner (Desperate Housewives) and two-time ACE Eddie award-winner (Sex and the City) Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E.
In the Tradition of My Family was the official selection of over 35 film festivals over the past year, including the New York Film Festival, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films.
Todd Davis discusses the behind-the-scenes of his graduate thesis film, as well as his experience working with an experienced crew and cast.
What attracted you to adapting Phil LaMarche’s story, “In the Tradition of My Family”?
Todd Davis: Phil is my brother-in-law. He had submitted the story to a few literary journals for publication, and it was accepted into one called, “Ninth Letter” out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was intrigued because there were obviously other people out there who thought it was good. He was polishing it up over Christmas 2004 and let me read it. I was in search of a story to shoot for my graduate thesis. I had written something myself but wasn’t that excited about it. I loved the language of the story, and the idea seemed very original, so I asked Phil if I could use it and he agreed. It was a very fortunate turn of events. The story won him many accolades, and the film did well in the festival circuit. He just published his first novel, “American Youth” (Random House), and it has been nominated for a Quill Award in the General Fiction category. We are now talking about writing a feature comedy script together.
Did your relationship with your father influence the making of this movie?
Todd Davis: Not consciously. There’s an element of the story where the son wants to be like his father, which for me, becoming a filmmaker whose father is a photographer may have applied. But Phil’s story felt very specific to these characters and I tried to honor that. I think we all have the instinct to please our parents, to make them proud of us, so in that regard it’s universal and it’s personal to me. Which probably helps the story.
What elements affected your decisions in regards to where you would shoot your film?
Todd Davis: The story typically dominates most of the location decisions. I had shot all my other school projects either in my own house or at school. I was looking forward to shooting at new locations. But the script called for a house and a shed, and I have a house and a shed, so the location scouting element was done!
It was a great advantage shooting at my house; we didn’t have to tear down every day, and I had full control of the environment – including air conditioning in June, very important! The downside was my wife and I lived on a movie set for about four months. All the furniture was replaced, all the walls were painted, every room in the house was a set, equipment storage, or a place for the cast and crew to eat and rest. My production designer Jenny McCracken practically lived with us for a few weeks.
Did you use storyboards?
Todd Davis: I did use storyboards to a certain extent. It helped me organize the shots in my mind but we didn’t really use them during the shoot. We shot both rehearsals on video, and I edited them to the script. This worked out really well. I had a much better idea of what the finished film would look like and got a lot of great camera angles from the rehearsals. Plus, every morning before we shot, the DP, Austin de Besche, and I would watch the rehearsal footage and discuss what we liked and what we wanted to change for the actual shoot.
What was your working relationship like with the make-up effects, costume, and production design team?
Todd Davis: Since there are gunshot wounds and scars in the film, I knew that they had to be believable or the film wouldn’t work, so the make-up effects person was our first hire. Although, as it turned out, the guy pulled out a few days before the shoot, and I had to scramble to find someone else! Luckily, Jeremy Oneail [Makeup Effects] was available, and his work was terrific. I would draw what I thought the wound or scar should look like and he implemented them. That worked great.
Jenny [Production Designer] was also an early hire, and I probably spent the most time with her, discussing what the set and costumes should look like. In my inexperience, I asked her to handle costumes as well, and she convinced me that we needed a separate person [Rosa Colón, Costume Designer] since we had such a big cast. One of the people [Marleen Bos] who interviewed for production design worked as the art director and doubled up on props, which worked out well. In general, I wanted the crew to bring their own creativity to the set; I would give them an idea of what I wanted and then tried to stay out of their way.
What brought you to work with Austin de Besche, your DP, and Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E., your editor? What was your working relationship with them like?
Todd Davis: Austin was my cinematography professor at Boston University. It was like a semester-long interview process! He is a much beloved figure in the local film community, which was a great help because as soon as I said that Austin was the DP, everyone I talked to was thrilled to work on the film. He brought much goodwill and was the calm in the storm during shooting. He worked barefoot, which I think says a lot about his style and demeanor.
Michael is one of my best friends from high school. We worked on our yearbook together, and long before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, I crewed on a film of his while he was an undergraduate at New York University. I went to visit him on the set of the TV show “Ed.” I watched some scenes being shot, played with the editing software, and came back wanting to go to film school. He was gracious enough to write a recommendation for me, and went above and beyond the call of friendship when he agreed to edit my film.
How did you cast for the film?
Todd Davis: I was very focused on acting. I’d seen too many student films that had potential that were hurt by the performances. I decided to use a local casting agent in Boston and look for experienced actors. It saved me time sorting through headshots and organizing casting calls. It was a very positive experience, one that I would recommend to other students if possible, if only to get a higher quality of actor.
Were the actors a mix of stage and screen actors?
Todd Davis: There’s not a great deal of film work in the Boston area, although that is changing since the new tax laws have been enacted, so most of the cast had more stage experience. I had a relatively large cast, about half adults, half children. Most of the adults were SAG actors, none of the kids were.
Could you tell us what it was like working with your cast?
Todd Davis: It was my favorite part of the process. They were all very excited to be a part of the project and worked hard to give me what I wanted. We had two rehearsals prior to shooting where we worked out most of the issues and motivations, so when we got to the set we were able to hit the ground running. I also got great suggestions about the characters from the actors, many of which I used in the film.
What scene was your most favorite to direct?
Todd Davis: The film is book-ended; the first scene is the beginning of the last scene, the confrontation between Billy as a grown-up and his father. It was a tense, very emotional scene, and I really enjoyed focusing on the performances of just two actors and all the unspoken history between the characters. It also happened to be the last scene we shot, so the whole crew was working really well together but were a bit drained by the long week of shooting. Watching the scene on the monitor, and feeling the vibe in the room, I knew it was working the way I had intended it. That was really satisfying from a directorial point of view. Many thanks to the crew for working some overtime on that last day to get what we needed.
What scene was the most challenging to direct?
Todd Davis: There is one outdoor scene in the film. My wife [and executive producer] Patty and I always joked with each other about how you can’t mess up a crane shot or a helicopter shot when we see Hollywood films. So this was our only opportunity to do a crane shot. She called our local tree and landscape service, and they rented us a crane and operator for half price, so we had a crane! The shot took longer to set up than I had hoped. We had to rake the lawn to get rid of the tire tracks in the grass, and hook up the monitor to the camera in the bucket. Then the crane was too shaky on the first few takes, but the operator used the larger of the boom arms to smooth it out. I love the shots, but we didn’t have time to get all the other shots inside the shed that I would have liked to get.
That was the most technically challenging scene. The most difficult to direct was when all the children were on set, and we had to coordinate all their moves. I had a 2nd AD and a production assistant work with the children while I was working with the adults.
How long did it take to shoot, edit, and complete In the Tradition of My Family?
Todd Davis: Good question. Are films ever really complete? We shot in 6 days [June 3-8, 2005], with one day off. I used that day to shoot some cutaway stuff with the 1st AC. Editing took most of the summer. Michael and I each did a rough cut independently and then compared them, which was an interesting exercise for both of us. I got to learn how a professional editor makes his choices. For Michael, this was the first time someone else edited the same footage he did, so he liked seeing another point of view. Of course, his version was much better than mine. The few changes I made were decisions that, had I been with him, he would have better understood what I was going for.
I started submitting a fairly complete cut to film festivals in November 2005, even though the final sound mix wasn’t finished. That took a long time since I was squeezing into [Sound Editor] John Weston’s schedule, who graciously donated a ton of his time. We finished around March of 2006, and by that time, the film had already been accepted into a number of festivals and shown at a few.
A number of reviews have lauded your storytelling ability. What do you think makes a story translate well to film?
Todd Davis: I think it’s important to take advantage of the visual aspect of the medium of film. Even though I “cheated” with some voice-over to get in some back story, I shot the film with the idea that if I didn’t use the voice-over the film should still work, which I think it probably would. I also think that story is king – if you’re not serving the story with a particular element of your film, you probably don’t need it. I focused on efficiency – everything should either set something up or pay something off that was previously set up. Even with this intention, I wound up cutting a scene and a half because they weren’t supporting the primary theme of the story, the relationship between the father and son. And, as Mamet says, the ending must be surprising and inevitable. You must have both or the story as a whole won’t be satisfying.
How did you go about getting your film shown at the wide variety of film festivals?
Todd Davis: Getting into festivals is a matter of research and luck. Find out what films a festival has programmed in the past, see if they like your kind of film, and apply early. Having said that, I didn’t know any better and went about it using a shotgun approach, focusing on the Academy Award-qualifying festivals first, which is crazy because the competition is tough from a quality and a numbers perspective. I would recommend to most student filmmakers to start with local festivals, student festivals, shorts-only festivals, and niche festivals. Apply to festivals that have a student film category. See if you get into some of those before you spend money sending your film to Sundance and Tribeca.
How involved were you in the marketing of the film?
Todd Davis: For me, marketing started with festivals. The idea was to get into as many as feasible, to get a lot of eyeballs on the film. This was always going to be a calling card film for me, and festivals seemed to be the first step. As soon as I started getting some festival recognition, I worked more on those aspects, and when I got into Palm Springs and the New York Film Festival, I decided to get a PR person to help with press releases. I went to as many festivals as I could, tried to meet people there, made myself available for interviews, maintained my websites, and in general, tried to get my name and the film out there. I give away quite a few DVDs, and the film is also part of a compilation DVD from Boston University.
How did your extensive higher education prepare you for filmmaking and the film industry?
Todd Davis: My other two degrees are in engineering, so there seemed to be very little connection between my prior experience and filmmaking. But what I found was my background really helped. The technical part of filmmaking came very easy to me as you may imagine. I entered film school wanting to be an editor – it felt a lot like what I had been doing in system test engineering: take a product that’s basically finished, and make it into something that people will buy. As an engineering manager, I was responsible for multi-million dollar projects that I was able to bring in on time and within budget. The process of filmmaking felt familiar, and I was particularly good at the organizational aspects, which helped me to produce the film. Having said all that, as soon as I started working with actors, I knew I wanted to be a director. So that’s been my primary goal.
What advice do you have to today’s aspiring filmmakers?
Todd Davis: Learn how to write a good script. It all starts on the page – you can’t make a good film from a bad script. This story sort of fell into my lap, but now that I think about it, writers go through a similar process to short filmmakers – they submit to literary journals and hope to get published, like we submit to festivals and hope to get programmed. There are lots of journals out there, if you’re having trouble with story ideas, get a few and find good stories. I bet most new authors would be thrilled to have a film made from their work.
My screenwriting professor always asked, “What’s it about?” It took me a long time to figure out what he meant by that. My film is about a father shooting his son. But what it’s really about is how hard it is for fathers and sons to connect with each other and show their emotions. Make sure your film is about something, and make sure you understand what it’s really about.
Also, don’t short-change any aspect of the process. Keep an eye on everything that goes into your frame, everything should have a reason for being there. Use real actors, plan your days, and don’t leave anything to chance. And feed your crew! Fed crews are happy crews.
Taryn Bensky is a writer from New Jersey. She studied Journalism & Media Studies and Art History at Rutgers University. She has previously written about film in the Inside Beat, Rutgers’ weekly entertainment newspaper in The Daily Targum.