Recently, I got a chance to interview a young up-and-coming director, Dan Glaser. Glaser wrote, directed and produced a cool little indie crime thriller recently entitled Pinching Penny. Pinching Penny very much has a Guy Ritchie vibe with a nice mix of Tarantino and Coen Brothers.
Here, Glaser talks about his recent film and the challenges of becoming a new director and making your first feature film. We also discuss his influences and other things. Read below for the full interview.
JL: What made you want to become a filmmaker and how did you get involved with that?
Dan Glaser: Well, as a kid I would always run around with my friends and we'd play out scenarios with our toys and film it using my parents' beat-up, like, 80's camcorder. And I was always a bit of cinephile, even from a really early age. But for how I actually got into filmmaking, it was sort of a roundabout trip. When I was younger, I started out as an actor and I must have done that for about six or seven years. After my first (and what turned out to be my last) year of college, I wanted to make the jump from theatre to film acting. So I took myself out of school and set out writing and directing a few short projects to try to gather footage for my performance reel before heading out to L.A. What came from that was the realization that what I was really interested in was the making of films, rather than the actual performance aspect. I really appreciate having that experience, of course, but I'm happy to have ended up in production.
JL: Obviously Guy Ritchie has had some influence on your work, what other filmmakers have been the biggest influences for you?
DG: Yeah, Guy Ritchie films definitely had a significant impact on 'Penny,' along with the work of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Since then, however, I'd have to say that Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher have also become hugely influential to me as a director. I also have a large respect for the films of Edgar Wright, Chan-wook Park, Wes Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn.
JL: With Pinching Penny being your feature film debut, what type of differences and challenges did you find in making a feature film as opposed to a short?
DG: I think the largest difference I encountered was how many characters and locations you end up dealing with in a feature-length project. In a short, you can oftentimes set it in one location and have only a small number of characters. Before 'Penny,' I hadn't ever dealt with such a large cast and so one of the biggest challenges for me was figuring out the best way to cover a scene involving so many characters at once. It really forced me to pay closer attention to the composition, in order to get the most out of each shot while not leaving anyone behind.
JL: For this project, you did a lot. You were producer, director, writer among various other things. How did it affect you playing so many roles? Any challenges in carrying so much responsibility?
DG: Oh absolutely. Loads of challenges. I mean, it was an extremely beneficial learning experience and I'm glad to have done it. I think it gave me a larger understanding of the inner workings of filmmaking as a whole and a respect for all of the those positions that I don't know that I'd have otherwise. I wouldn't recommend it though, unless it's a necessity to get the film made. I think it's just too much responsibility for one person to handle if they don't have to. Most directors who started off independently will tell you there's no way to get your first feature made without wearing most if not all of those hats yourself. But filmmaking is very much a collaborative art, and I'm really looking forward to delegating more on the next feature. It'll benefit the film to have more people putting in their creativity. I'll be allowed to allot more of my focus on directing and all of our collective ideas will push us to tell the best possible story that we can, in the most interesting and efficient way that we can.
JL: Sounds like a definite learning experience. Any words of advice for aspiring filmmakers looking to make their first feature film?
DG: Mainly that the most important thing you can have is dedication. Tons of money, the best equipment, huge crews, etc.--all of that is obviously preferable, but none of it is as pivotal as showing up every day and rolling the camera. If you keep pushing yourself each day to keeping filming and filming, then eventually you'll have nothing left to film. The project will be 'in the can.' The same can be said of writing, editing, or any stage of the filmmaking process, really. As long as you have the guts to start and the drive to show up and film every day, you'll find that these things have a way of pulling themselves together. Of course, assembling a killer script, cast and crew is also a huge proponent in getting it done well, but none of that matters without the dedication to back it up.
JL: Speaking of things pulling themselves together and budgets, from what I understand, this was a very low budget film but the movie seemed very well crafted and the cinematography was very nice. How did you make such a stylish film with such a low budget?
DG: We were very lucky to work with a cinematographer who already had all of his own equipment. We shot on a prosumer HD camera--a Panasonic HVX200--but we used a 35mm adapter so we were able to utilize film lenses. Shooting digitally was wonderful for us, as we not only saved money by not having to purchase film stock, but we were also allowed an additional freedom to shoot as many takes as we needed. You of course have additional trials and challenges that come along with shooting digital, but I was a huge fan of it and really recommend it--especially for a low budget shoot like this.
JL: Moving to the movie itself, where did the idea for Pinching Penny come from? What made you go for oniomania in the movie?
DG: Funnily enough, the oniomania notion grew out of my own experience with retail therapy. Well, a tiny aspect of it, at least. I noticed that whenever I felt a little low or wasn't having the best day, going out and buying something (normally a movie or something entertainment-related, in my case) would normally make me feel a bit better. Asking around, I found this was a pretty common occurrence, and furthermore one that went rather unaddressed. Additionally, whenever someone makes a 'big purchase'--something like a new computer, a car, etc.--then that shiny, new toy is the best thing you've ever bought and it is an immensely gratifying experience. But only for about a week. One week, give or take, and then you're off to something shinier and newer. Again, I found that this response was extremely common, although it of course occurred on different levels and varied from person to person. And as I mentioned before, although dependence on retail therapy is a pretty universal issue (especially here in America, where consumerism is one of the foundations that keeps the country flourishing), it isn't really a problem that gets addressed. Not everyone is as desperate in their dependence as Alex is in 'Penny,' but that doesn't mean it's not a widespread dilemma that mostly gets swept under the rug. So that notion was very interesting to me and we set out to place Alex's dilemma with retail therapy side-by-side with other substance abuse issues (primarily drug addiction) and hope the audience would make that comparison.
JL: So, sounds like some personal elements to the movie. What do you hope for your audience to take away from this movie?
DG: We were really banking on the fact that everyone does have a vice of their own, to some extent. Everyone has some inner flaw or issue that they like to push down and ignore. As I said before, we may not all be as wicked or as exaggerated in our guilty pleasures as the characters in 'Penny.' But we can find some sense of identification in the stylized and somewhat lampooning portrayal of them. In that regard, we tried to approach 'Penny' as a kind of farce, albeit a dark farce, and so we wanted to use those conventions--vain and neurotic characters, deliberate absurdity, escalating plot, sense of satire--but frame any of the more far-fetched scenarios and people against a more gritty, desperate realism--using the performances and issues presented in the film as a backdrop to ground it against. Additionally, a more traditional farce is wholly comedic, and is bereft of any poetic justice. However, we wanted to try and turn the conventions of farce on its head, presenting a situation which was farcical in nature, and starts thusly, but could then spiral downward as the characters go deeper and deeper into a world of crime to feed their obsessions. It was important to me that the ends didn't justify the means, because not everyone always gets away clean. So because of that notion, we saddled each character with their individual vice--for Alex, that vice is obviously greed. For Murphy, gluttony. For Teddi, lust. Even the side characters branch off into their separate vices of drugs, pride, power, fear, control, violence, etc. I'd even argue that Penny's vice is falling for the criminal, with the full knowledge that it could possibly end badly for her. So we certainly hope people take a look at their own personal addictions after watching the film and leave thinking of ways to decrease the things in their lives that weigh them down and would rather ignore.
JL: You mention the character Teddi. She was actually played by your sister, Ginny Glaser. What was that like working with your sister on the project?
DG: Ginny's always a lot of fun. We used to perform together on stage throughout high school, so it was a treat to work with her again. She's very professional on set. I was worried initially, as Teddi's the kind of character that can come off as flat or uninteresting, but Ginny really nailed the part. She's steely and cool, while still hanging onto that fiery inner spark that keeps people interested. The entire cast was a blast to work with, and Ginny was certainly no exception. We all had a really great time in the trenches together.
JL: You mentioned before that you used to act. You even made an appearance in one of your short films. Do you plan to get back into acting?
DG: Probably not. I have a small cameo in 'Penny,' but I don't really have any current plans to jump back into performing anytime soon. Like I said, I certainly loved doing it as a teenager, and I think acting is something that should be required of every director. The experience is very valuable as I feel it really frees up communication between the filmmaker and the cast on set, and so I'm really happy to have had it. So maybe I'll pop into a cameo here or there, but most likely I'll be staying behind camera.
JL: Maybe become the new Hitchcock in that regard. But, now that Pinching Penny is done and finally released, what's next for you?
DG: We're currently in development on our next feature-length crime thriller, entitled 'Safety.' It's about an aging ex-hitman who, in order to protect his daughter-in-law, is forced to examine what makes someone pick up a gun and where the bullets go. The idea is to highlight how uncoordinated real-life violence can be. You don't just pick up a gun and become James Bond. It's not as simple as that... it's messier. Hopefully there'll be more news on that to follow soon. In the meantime, if you want more information on 'Penny' or 'Safety', be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you, Dan, for taking time to do the interview. As for everyone else, if you're a fan of those stylish crime thrillers (especially stuff like Guy Ritchie's work) then I recommend at least checking this out. As for me, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out to see where this young writer/director's career goes and will definitely keep an eye out for Safety. I do like the sound of the more raw/realistic approach as opposed to the typical take of everybody seems to be a natural born sharpshooter in Hollywood.