Let’s be honest… love is hell and horror. Whether it is undead intimacy that we witness in Nekromantik (1987). A father’s love of his daughter in Big Bad Wolves (2013) or ass to mouth in monochrome with The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence (2011). The isolation and compatibility of American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock (2015) or the tragic ends surrounding family hate and star crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet (1968), love has fucked up many a person with euphoric and psychotic effects as any addiction.
In Filmmaker Jeff Frumess’s first feature Romeo’s Distress, we enter a world of happenstance in the dark corners of love. Whether a father’s love for his daughter, a boyfriend’s rage focused, an older man finding no great power than love or a lonely soul going down the deadly path of Capre Diem… Frumess’s film is enchanting, wicked and dark. Enjoying his success with a festival run, awards, learning lessons and his next projects, he sat down with Jay Kay of the BTU to talk inspiration, casting, perception of a villain, the details of filmmaking and more!
BTU: Thank you Jeff for taking the time to talk about Romeo’s Distress. This film is as bare bones an indie film project as you will find. The sets are minimal, cast is a variety of unknowns, there are few FX very low budget and a small crew. What effect and/or benefit does this have on a project like this? Did these restrictions of resources, budget and personnel, force you to be more creative and widen your perspective on filmmaking?
Jeff Frumess: Thank you Jay for taking the time to watch! I think the greatest benefit at this level of production is that essentially the filmmaking becomes as close to this quote as possible:
“Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” – Jean Cocteau
And we are getting closer and closer to this reality. The truth is, if you have an idea and you have the Juevos or Juevas then everything will fall into place. Write an interesting script, find people on Facebook/Craigslist and rally them behind your cause. It’s like Game of Thrones, you need bannermen to fight the war. And Filmmaking on any level is in fact a war.
Ultimately, with restrictions, comes necessity and necessity is the mother of invention! Or in this case, the mother of creativity. So many times, vision is interrupted by reality, by life, by obstacles, by the mischievous Filmmaking God – Murphy and his Law… If I have money, if I have resources I will never change my thought process. I will happily work “inside the box” – There is no need to change my “Tunnel Vision”. If I lack money, if I lack resources, then suddenly I may try and think “outside of the box”. Outside of the vision.
The only resource that is ample at this level, and EQUALLY valuable: Time. And usually without funding/obligations, there is plenty of it. Use it to your advantage.
This is my religion: The Golden Triangle of Production/Productivity:
BTU: I think back to great love stories and experiences that have shaped my perception over the years. With that being asked, where did the idea for this film come from and are there any particular personal experiences (good or bad) that triggered this tale?
JF: Oh yes. Many times, in my adolescence, I’ve felt experienced, and identified with the tragic notion of unrequited “Love” or Infatuation. In a way, it is deeply tied to the human condition and many of us have dealt with it on one level or another. It is a subject I could endlessly explore in my storytelling.
The initial kernel of the idea came from what originally was to be the ending (which has since changed a bit) but still gives away the plot that remains. Due to Murphy’s Law, it took us in more of a Romeo and Juliet direction which in turn made the title, Romeo’s Distress work on a more symbolic level. That was definitely using creativity to think outside of constraint that was put in our path 2/3rds into the shooting. Originally It was a lot more tied into the movie Nekromantik. Everyone (except me) seems to be glad we didn’t stay the course!
BTU: You handle just about every hat on this production. As you look back now, did being so immersed in all three stages of the film benefit or hurt this film?
JF: Being involved in all three stages was immensely important because at the end of the day, the scale of this production was tiny and no one was going to care as much about its completion as me.
Bringing a film to life can be very much like being a parent. The idea starts as your baby and there is nothing you want more then to be there as it grows up. You hope that it goes to college and becomes a successful movie, falls in love, meets someone, and has sequels – haha.
However, having a creative partner you can trust can be immensely valuable for bouncing things off of so that you don’t go off the rails.
BTU: Is Romeo’s Distress more about love or obsession or a balance of both? The idea of “Horror Happening” plays huge into this I would think?
JF: Absolutely huge. Romeo is about the different horrors of Love: the unhealthy, unsavory varieties it comes in, the ugliness of its potential for possession and obsession. The terrifying fear of loss, especially when it was never yours in the first place.
What happens to a star-crossed lover who travels to the other end of the sky only to find it dark? I think the last scene/ending pretty much says it all. Carpe Diem: Seize your destiny, make your own reality. Much like this level of Filmmaking!
BTU: How did you come across the cast and crew for this film? Is Uncle Elmo the truly pivotal character of the story?
JF: Uncle Elmo (Dave Street) is the lynchpin. He is so pivotal in fact, that when I (unfortunately and much to my own personal protest) tried to cut the scene all together, I realized I couldn’t. Elmo’s encouragement is what pushes Romeo’s Distress out of a character study and into the action. Elmo’s character was based on Dave Street, and when the role became uncastable, I asked Dave if he’d do it. He is a brilliant performer and once acted as the manager for the Misfits in 1979! Grandma, is in fact my 88- year old grandmother! Her body is Dave Street in drag. She loves me so much that she let me feed her baby food.
Jeff Solomon (Dale) and Kimberley Peterson (Jane) came from Craigslist and Facebook. Adam Stordy (Bobby) came via Jeff Solomon. I am so grateful for his magnum performance. Jeff is nothing short of talented, courteous, professional, and easy to work with.
Anthony Malchar (James) and I went to community college together about 10 years ago and took Acting I, II,III together. He ended up as a brilliant last-minute replacement for the actor that was cast from Craigslist. Thank the Gods too, as he carries the film!
Stevie Grosset (Flower Shop Clerk) worked with me at P.F. Changs, I saw such potential in him that I changed the character from a woman to a man. It was his first time acting outside of a high school play.
Charese Scott-Cooper (Sam) also worked with me in P.F. Changs. I had cast her in a short for the ABCs of Death 2 contest and just knew I had to put her in something else. She didn’t have to audition I just gave her the role because I knew she would be brilliant and really believed in her.
BTU: In the storytelling for Romeo’s Distress, we see a variety of perceptions to what love is and represents. Can you talk about the connections for the characters and how you were able to portray love through their eyes?
JF: For the character of James it was about finding a childlike innocence in the projection of his desire. For Dale, it was channeling anger, fueled by his love of his daughter, and then using “fatherly” love into manipulating Bobby and Sam for his own nefarious purposes. And what do they ALL have in common? They love Jane.
Just about every character in Romeo is either motivated by one of the many varieties of love or has some sort of commentary about love. The commentators speak with reason, understanding, and depth.
Those motivated by love act selfishly or malevolently even if their intentions are noble in theory, they are blinded to the moral implications of their actions because of love.
BTU: Can you talk about creating sexuality that is appropriate instead of gratuitous?
JF: The sexuality is really rooted in James’ arrested development. This is a guy who has never experienced a blowjob, so it is hard for him to plug himself into his own fantasy, it ends up fractured and dissociative.
I really wanted to create scenes that were provocative and graphic without gratuitous nudity, in hopes of elevating it to a more nuanced level. You can always push a scene or the material when there is artistic merit behind it.
BTU: Is James more dangerous than a victim? Have you ever thought about or would you consider James the villain of this film?
JF: I’ll put it to you this way: I think James is as much of a villain as Dale is as much a hero. We live in a world of grey where villains can be victims and heroes are capable of horrible, fucked up things.
I love archetypes but I am much more drawn to people that inhabit them. They are all susceptible to the human condition and all of its trappings and failings. I try to convey this in all of my writing when possible.
BTU: How did you come across your locations for the film? Can you speak about James’s room and what it represented to his psyche?
JF: I pretty much wrote scenes around locations I knew I could shoot in. When you don’t live in a place that requires permits to shoot all the time or you use a DSLR which can be really low key – it becomes easy to find locations. In this way, I shot on the Metro North, Grand Central station, and the MTA subway with no issue.
Dale’s Office, the Flower shop, and Woodbine’s NYU office are all the exact same room. I had secured other locations by when they didn’t seem like they would work out, I’d just go to work and turn the living room in my apartment into whatever we needed.
The cemetery location was actually 5 different ones. The Old Dutch Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow was the only one where we sorta got kicked out a little. When James wades through the cemetery at the end, we snuck into this cemetery at 2 in the morning and shot as much as we could. It was risky, scary, fun, and intense all at the same time.
If you can add a ton of locations to your Micro-budget film, it will make it look bigger.
I think James’ room (also my apt) is an accurate reflection of his mind and the things he thinks about the most. Originally the Jane collage was supposed to be a single photo, but that morphed into this idea of this shrine to his love that he uh, you know, looks at every night. It is the closest thing he has to a romantic relationship. The Melon was originally a pillow. It was a great way to fold his favorite hobby (taking photos) into the set dress. Before we began production, I met with Kim (Jane) and we must have taken 200 photos of her in various locations and outfits!
BTU: I am a fan of the heartfelt dialogue in this film. At times, it’s simple and heartfelt. At other times, it’s sharp and other times it is macabre. How much did the dialogue transfer from the pages to the performance?
JF: Thank you man, that is a high compliment considering all the movies you watch. The dialogue in the movie is pretty much what was written on the page. Little things get tweaked here and there. Sometimes actors need to tweak lines because they find them to not be truthful to the characters they are bringing to life. It is very important to take this into consideration. I try to be as flexible about it as possible.
I think as long as the information or context or feeling is the same, then it doesn’t matter if the dialogue changes around. Especially if it allows the actor to be more confident in delivering their performance.
BTU: What kind of camera did you shoot on and did it truly affect the production? How much work was lighting?
JF: Romeo was shot with the Canon 70D and a Sigma 30mm Lens. And we pretty much used that setup for 99% of the shoot.
It is so easy to get caught up in the gear fetish. I know I did. At the end of the day, as long as you’re in 1080p / 24 FPS, shutter speed at 1/50 and ISO is as close as possible to 100, your picture will be fine. Don’t let cameras keep you from shooting.
When people ask me what camera they should shoot with, my answer is, “Make sure you have good sound” or “Rent a really nice lens”. Nick Bohun was mainly in charge of lighting, Michael Fels too. The movie was easier to light because we shot in camera Monochrome and did not have to worry about color temperature.
Our main concern with lighting was to use it as much as possible to create atmosphere, it was never a time consuming endeavor. Sometimes the lighting was set up in a way that we could change our setup without moving the lights. This optimal if you have a lot of camera setups in one location.
BTU: The film is shot in a contrast of color versus black and white. In the dream sequences, we have bright and popping colors while for the reality we have a sullen lack of color. What was the thinking behind this and the symbolism? Did any of your influences show this kind of range when it came to color scheme?
JF: Over the years I have fallen deeply in love with B/W movies, especially ones with no budget. There is something about B/W that has the power to transport the viewer into another world. My FAVORITE example of this is movies like Night of the Living Dead, The American Astronaut, and Eraserhead.
Sometimes I will even turn the desaturation all the way up on my TV to experience films I have seen many times in B/W. I suggest starting with Fright Night.
B/W creates this extra layer, this extra prism to view a movie through. It makes everything epic and legendary. And most importantly, it smooths over some of the rough edges visible from lack of budget.
To create in B/W is an artform in its own, but it can be easier to light if you know nothing about color temperature.
For Romeo, it is used as a storytelling tool. It creates contrast between the points of view for the real world and for the dream world, which James seems to be straddling. It gives the viewer visual information without having to tell them. It is amazing how vibrant a scene can look in plain old saturated color when everything else is B/W. The contrast between the two can heighten the senses after dulling them. Symbolically, in Romeo, I think the B/W coveys the message of morality in its characters. Nothing is Black or White, right or wrong, but a world of grey.
BTU: Is the florist shop visit, the lynch pin scene for the film? How important was it to have a tense sequence like the basement to offset the love story?
JF: I think the Floral shop keeper is the closest thing to a neutral voice of moral reason in James life. James wants to possess beauty. First with his camera, and then in person. He doesn’t understand that love, like a flower, won’t grow and flourish if you try and possess it by plucking it. It will whither and die. Clearly the flower is Jane, and clearly the owner of the garden is her father Dale who “spent so much time and energy growing it.”
When James sees another flower like the one in his dream, he takes it as a sign from the fates. Elmo takes it further by imbuing James with “Carpe Diem” to create his own destiny. Grandma embraces the “Carpe Diem”, having known what it is to lose a husband that she cannot wait to be reunited with.
The basement sequence was SUPER important, although it goes on far too long. The basement doesn’t offset the Love story, it IS the love story – but from Dale’s twisted perspective as father for his daughter!
Dale’s house and its rooms are sort of a metaphor for his mind/psyche. As we go deeper into the house, Dale peels off another layer of his onion. The basement is his most uninhibited place where he is a capable of rationalizing anything and doing anything as opposed to Umbrella office Dale who cares about selling you health insurance.
BTU: What went into the sound design and edit?
JF: It is said that a movie is written 3 times and that is very true. First in the screenplay, then in production, and finally in post. And that couldn’t be truer for Romeo. In certain places, the script is a COMPLETELY different movie from the story I found in the edit. This is mostly prevalent in the third act, which had to be completely revised/rewritten at the last moment. This change is what turned this film from Nekromantik to Romeo and Juliet. Probably for the better, although I wish I could find out some way some day. Maybe I will remake it? Haha.
Much of the film’s finished structure was found in the edit overall. I suppose the hardest part of the editing was trimming it down from 110 minutes to 83 minutes. And really from 90ish minutes to 83 minutes. And truly it could be 75 minutes if I went back in again.
Nick Bohun brilliantly composed most of the music. I would send him a sound or some abstract idea I had about the feel I wanted for a scene and he would come back with these brilliant pieces that I would add to the sound design.
Some of the days were shot with no sound when Nick was not available or when we were rushed and just need to grab shots to make the day. At the time, it seemed like a good idea but it was a nightmare when I had a deadline before the first fest and I had to design and mix the whole film from my desktop.
There was no real time to record foley, so I signed up for a Audioblocks account – they were running a 50% off promotion and a year subscription SAVED MY ASS! For $49.99 I had a royalty free sound library with over 100,000 music and sound files to choose from. I was able to fill in or sweeten so many scenes with stock sounds. Not ideal, but a true bacon saver in a last ditch hail Mary to meet this deadline. (I am NOT affiliated with Audioblocks in anyway, I am just SUPER grateful for the service and wish to share it with my brethren).
I remembered from the post-production sound classes I took in college that dialogue needs to be mixed between (-12db and – 22db) and then mixed all of the other sound around the dialogue and it came out pretty good. It sounded great both times It was projected at festivals! So, if you are ever in a last minute pinch, these could be some solutions.
BTU: What was the most difficult stage of this film so far? What is the learning lesson on this film?
JF: Every stage from writing to marketing/distribution has its difficulties. The trick is to ultimately learn from them and try not to make the same mistakes the next time around.
A few lessons learned from making Romeo:
- Try to keep your production days as close together as possible (if budget allows it) because you are putting your continuity, moral, and finishing the film itself at risk!
- Find the right balance between uncompromising vision and compromising vision. Sometimes what you want isn’t going to work. You need to be flexible, you need to be able to change. Ask yourself this question: Would you rather have something shot instead of nothing shot, even if it is not exactly what you wanted? Romeo would not exist at all if I didn’t compromise when I did.
- This is an extension of the one above. Trust in the creative intuition of the moment, you will be amazed at what you and your crew can come up with.
- If you are doing everything yourself, you MUST prep and prep and prep. Don’t skimp on pre-production. DO rehearse with your actors. Try and block out your scenes as much as possible before your shooting day. You will save time. Take the shooting script to your day job. Use different colored highlighters to code the camera coverage you want to get.
- ALWAYS cherish your cast and crew. They are the real heroes, especially if they are not getting properly paid. Feed them WELL, give them gifts, thank them every day. Keep your cool if they are testing your limits. Ask them what their favorite snack is and ALWAYS make sure it is on set.
- GET GOOD SOUND. SOUND IS EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAN PICTURE (In some instances) I would say at a ratio of 75% to 25%. Record Foley on location after you finish the scene. It will PROVE INVALUABLE in the sound design.
- Find a way to utilize your abundant resources in the narrative, this will add greatly to the production value of your film. Same goes with locations. Use as many as you can as long as it does not affect budget or schedule. It will also add production value.
- YOU MUST NEVER GIVE UP. You ONLY fail when you give up.
BTU: How has the film festival run been for Romeo’s Distress? What has those experience brought to you as a professional?
JF: So far, we’ve been accepted to 3 excellent festivals. We’ve been nominated for things like best feature, director, screenplay, actor, and character actor. We won best screenplay for a feature at our world premiere at the Macabre Faire Film Festival. Just to be nominated was winning enough it is a validation of all the hard work. To actually win was the cherry on top.
Going to festivals has open up my world by meeting and networking with other like minded filmmakers and exchanging our philosophies and ideals.
Submitting to Festivals can be REALLY tough and intimidating. Those rejection letters can make you question your sanity and your work. It is important to remain gracious and not hold on to resentment if you don’t make it in. Instead focus on your work, focus on moving forward. Do not stay stagnant and morbid.
BTU: What is next for you and where can we find out more?
JF: Right now, I am figuring out the most effective distribution and marketing strategy for Romeo as I work on two new screenplays based around resources I have available: GOO GOO MUCK and Sex Crime. I also have another feature screenplay called HIT/RUN, but I don’t think I can make it with my current resources. My most pressing priority after Romeo is to dust off my hands and make something new!!
Thank you SO MUCH Jay Kay for ALL of your hard work, support, and attention! You are a true champion of all things Indie!