Filmmaker interview by: Darren Tilby
Apartment 1BR had its UK premiere at Manchester's Grimmfest Film Festival in October 2019. And now, after an extended festival run and eight agonising months of waiting, Apartment 1BR has been released here in the UK.
In honour of its successful release, I talked to Director David Marmor and lead actress Nicole Brydon Bloom about their film.
Here's what David had to say:
Apartment 1BR had its UK premiere at the Grimmfest Film Festival in October of last year, which is where I and many others first encountered it. Just how important are these genre film festivals to independently produced movies like yours? What has this done for your film in particular?
David: Genre festivals have been absolutely crucial to our movie. We were lucky enough to have our world premiere at Fantasia Fest in Montreal, which opened so many doors for us with other festivals, and is where we first met our eventual distributor, Dark Sky.
Then as we travelled the world on the circuit, having the imprimatur of festivals like Grimmfest and Gérardmer in France was the key to getting picked up in many of the international markets. Just as importantly, I found genre festival audiences to be the warmest and most enthusiastic I've ever encountered. It was such a privilege to show the movie to these passionate fans and interact with them in person. In fact, Grimmfest was the first time (and who knows, maybe the last) I've ever had people line up to have me sign anything!
How does working with a smaller budget dictate your work as a director, and how did you personally find it? Did you enjoy it?
David: I guess I'm a bit like a fish being asked, "What's water like?" I've never had anything but smaller budgets, so this is just how I know how to make movies. But of course, the budget is the framework that shapes every decision you make, starting with the schedule. We had to shoot very, very fast on this movie, and that is difficult, but I actually have come to appreciate it in that it keeps the energy up and in the best circumstances creates a real sense of camaraderie among the cast and crew.
One of the things I love about directing, and especially at this budget level, is this puzzle aspect–finding ways to translate the grand vision in your head into cold reality with all the limitations and unexpected disasters you encounter. It's a constant process of adaptation and of losing things you thought you could not lose. When I'm at my best I remember that as painful as that process is, it can actually be very useful in that it constantly forces you to reassess exactly what is the untouchable centre of the movie, and what you can lose or change without damaging that.
What issues did you encounter during the making of 1BR and how did you get around them?
David: How long can this article be? We ran into just about every disaster I've ever heard of a production encountering, and we very nearly didn't even make it out of pre-production.
To begin with, in the weeks before production was supposed to start, there were massive wildfires in Los Angeles that threatened our production office, so we had to quickly shut it down and move to our producer's house. The fires were also around our apartment location, so we weren't sure we'd be allowed to shoot there.
Then, about four days before our start date, we lost three of our lead actors in one day, which nearly sank the whole production. Luckily we were able to push back our start, quickly recast those roles, and get into production only a couple of days behind.
During production, we had the usual daily small disasters and delays, but the most dramatic was about six days in, when one of our equipment trucks was stolen in the middle of the night. We had this amazing, intrepid parking PA who had been watching the trucks overnight, and he saw the theft happen and followed the truck while calling the police. He followed this truck all the way across L.A. until the police finally swooped in and stopped it. We only had to delay the next day's start by an hour, and I didn't even find out about it until the wrap party.
That's good producing!
In my review of 1BR, I praised the film for grounding its antagonists in real-world influences. Could you tell us more about that? e.g. Where did the idea come from, and what sort of research did you do?
David: The initial seed of the idea came from my own feelings of alienation and isolation when I first moved to L.A. and lived in a building very much like the one in the movie. Around the same time I got very interested in cults, which have a long history in L.A. Then once I started on the script I researched that world more methodically, reading everything I could find on the topic, and I happened on a few groups that became the basis for the community in 1BR. The main inspiration was an organization called Synanon that started in the late 1950s as a drug rehab when such things didn't really exist. They had this very noble aim of helping people nobody else would help, but then it slowly got twisted into something very repressive and violent. I found that life cycle to be quite common among the cults I researched, and it became the model for the history and methods of the community in the movie.
Another thing I, and many others, praised, was the slow build-up; the simmering pot atmosphere. There have been a few films recently to do this within a similar context (e.g. Hereditary and Midsommar). Was there a piece of work (film or otherwise) that inspired you to shoot 1BR like this, and what movie do you feel is the pinnacle of this?
David: It's funny, I don't think the shape of the movie was consciously inspired by any particular piece of work. It just felt to me like the natural way to tell this particular story. I do remember thinking a lot about Rosemary's Baby when I was writing, but more in the context of how much more compressed 1BR would be, basically trying to pack the entire storyline of Rosemary's Baby into the opening.
That said, looking back I do think the pace and shape of 1BR were influenced, unconsciously or semiconsciously, by many movies, probably mainly Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and Michael Haneke's Caché.
There are of course many other movies that do a brilliant job at this kind of build, including both Hereditary and Midsommar. I think my favourite, for its simplicity, purity, and ability to be both a great horror movie and something more, is probably Get Out.
Thinking about the recent hits we've just mentioned, do you think there's a risk of these kinds of films (slow-burners) going stale, as say found-footage movies have?
David: I actually don't think so. I think to the degree found-footage movies have gone stale, it's because that format can feel a bit artificial and is quite limiting in what you can do narratively. (I also often feel like at some point these poor terrified characters should just throw the camera down and run.) Of course, there are some absolutely brilliant found-footage movies, and I have no doubt another one will come along at some point with a fresh angle and revitalize the genre.
The "slow burn," on the other hand, seems to me to be a pretty classic narrative form to immerse the audience in a character's point of view and build to a powerful catharsis. I'd argue that it goes way back too--I think this is basically the form of Macbeth.
In my case, I wanted the audience to experience how it feels to Sarah to descend into this world, and this narrative shape felt right for creating that subjective experience. The risk, of course, is that you bore the audience, but I hope that as long as the characters and the story are interesting enough, there will always be room for movies that don't kick into high gear immediately.
Looking back, is there anything you'd change? Or wish had happened differently?
David: Oh yes, of course! I made so many, many mistakes, and we had so many heartbreaking moments where we just couldn't get something we had planned for months. But that's the nature of filmmaking and part of the process for me is letting go of the platonic ideal of the movie that's in my head, and engaging with the real, imperfect thing we've actually created. This is basically what post-production is, and during that process, I try to let go of any regrets and just make the best movie I can from what we have.
What's next for you?
David: I'm in the process of working on my next movie with the same producers, Alok Mishra, Shane Vorster, and Sam Sandweiss. It's a dream project of mine, a science-fiction thriller I've been working on for a long time. It's much bigger than 1BR, and I never thought I'd get to actually make it, so I'm beyond thrilled.
We were planning to shoot this year, but of course, that won't be possible now. It's actually been nice to have some extra time to keep working on the script during the pandemic, but I do hope production can start up again in one form or another next year.
Here's what Nicole had to say:
In 1BR you play the lead role, a character named Sarah. Could you please tell us a little bit about who Sarah is and what your thoughts were on the character after first reading her part? What did you like about her?
Nicole: I loved David’s script when I first read it. I think as wild as the story gets, there are aspects to all of the characters, particularly Sarah, that are incredibly relatable. Sarah is a woman who is moving to a new city. She has big dreams and goals but feels a bit stuck, a bit weighed down. She’s grappling with the loss of her mother and searching for a family. I think it’s human nature to want personal connections with people that feel fulfilling. So while most of us won’t find ourselves in the same place Sarah does (hopefully!), I think her desire for a community is very relatable. Despite being relatively introverted and quiet, there is a strength in Sarah that I was particularly drawn to. David created a character in this story that was very exciting to delve into.
Were you able to develop/change aspects of the character or dialogue if you felt it was needed, and did you?
Nicole: David and I had a few discussions about who we wanted Sarah to be. Of course, most of the information I needed was on the page or up to me to kind of fill in. But we discussed her values, her passions, her fears. I stuck pretty closely to the dialogue in the script. But there was always room for exploration. Despite a short shooting schedule, David and our producers were generous to give me ample time to try different things.
What do you think you brought to the role that helped to make Sarah the superb character she is and did you take inspiration from anything/anyone for your interpretation of her?
Nicole: Thank you, well I tried to bring both vulnerability and a steely resolve to the character. She’s been emotionally tossed around before finding this community - her mom’s illness and her dad’s affair - it all took a toll. I think David mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale at one point to me. I hadn’t yet seen the show when we started filming but I was familiar with Elizabeth Moss’ work. I admire her. I think she’s brilliant. And in some ways, there are a few similarities between Sarah’s story and Moss’ character in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Did you encounter any difficulties in playing Sarah? E.g. were you able to connect with the character easily? Were there any scenes, in particular, you found difficult? If so, how did you overcome these issues?
Nicole: I loved playing Sarah. There were challenges at times - she’s a bit more reserved than I am naturally. Finding the balance between her stillness, her warmth and her desire for a loving community was interesting to navigate. There were definitely some brutal scenes, particularly those filmed in that one-bedroom apartment as she’s being indoctrinated into the society. The conditioning was tough. Fortunately, the cast and crew were incredibly supportive. I felt safe going to those emotional places and David wasn’t afraid to push me when I needed to go further into Sarah’s emotional and physical pain.
I think the writing and the situation were enough to get me where I needed to be. I didn’t go into any scene thinking, “Alright, well now I need to cry.” It was more like “Alright, here’s everything that has happened to Sarah so far, and how would someone in her position manage this? What is the physical and psychological toll that kind of experience takes on a person? It was honestly a really cool thing to explore, despite the weight of her situation. My co-star, Giles Matthey, was particularly helpful throughout the process. He basically told me to give it my all. This was my first lead in a film, a relatively daunting task. But he said David could always reign me back in if he needed to, but that I shouldn’t be afraid to take risks.
That was incredibly helpful.
Without giving too much away (if possible) what was your favourite scene in the film to shoot and why?
Nicole: I don’t want to give anything away...hmm. We filmed one of the final scenes (me in the green turtleneck running around the apartment complex) on the second day of shooting. It was a little wild because in film and television you most likely aren’t shooting things in order. So I had to go through Sarah’s entire journey in my head to be able to get to where I needed to be for the scene. But it was fun. I like the scenes where Sarah attempts to take control of her life.
From a behind-the-scenes take, the lie detector scenes ended up being really fun to shoot. Giles, who plays Brian, and Taylor Nichols, who plays Jerry, and I had such an awesome rapport. They made some of the most intense scenes a blast to shoot because we were such good friends. So I never felt stressed or intimidated. I just remember that day of filming being really fun. You have fun behind the camera and then once you’re in rehearsal mode it’s a great feeling because you know you’re working with talented actors who are passionate about creating art.
If you could go back and do it a second time, would you change anything about the character or your performance? If so, what?
Nicole: In general, I did learn a lot about myself as an actor during this process. It’s difficult, I think, for any actor to watch themselves perform because of course, you’re always going to feel, “Oh I wonder if I could’ve done that differently,” or, “Hmm if I had only realized [fill in the blank] at that moment it would have been better.” Overall, I’m really happy with how the film turned out. David did an excellent job directing all of us, I was so impressed with the cast and crew. It was wonderful to see it all come together. From the cinematography, to the lighting, to the editing - very cool. If anything, moving forward I have a clearer understanding of what works on camera and what doesn’t translate. I grew up on the stage and live theatre is such a different medium. You’re performing for an audience of 1,000 instead of a camera that’s five inches away from your face. So things need to be a lot smaller, far more intimate. I don’t know that I’d go back and change anything about my performance as Sarah. I ended up really loving her and loving the process.
What’s next for you?
Nicole: Things are a bit up in the air at the moment. Unfortunately, with everything going on in the world right now, our industry has halted. I do think it’s awesome that so many people have turned to art during this time though. Whether it’s television shows, books, movies, virtual tours of art museums, our work is proving as valuable as ever. It’s a gift to be a storyteller and I can’t wait to continue pursuing my passion. I have a few auditions coming up so we’ll see what comes next.