The crew behind Phantom Moth Productions defines productivity. In the past year and a half, what began as a theatrical one-off from founder Nicolas Alexander has blossomed into a local movie-making machine, churning out three separate films and screening them at venues throughout the Madison area.
Their 48 Hour Film “The Harbor” — which took home awards for Best Cinematography [in a tie with the excellent “Game Day”], Best Acting and Runner Up for Best Film — turned an indulgent sci-fi story about a disabled man (Alexander) with telekinetic powers into a sweet mini-drama, and without any sound whatsoever. I sat down with Nic, who also writes and directs, and his co-star Carlos Christian to talk about their prolific output and the virtues of “less is more” in cinema:
Your output is really broad and well-polished, especially for a production crew I had never heard of before this year. Where the heck did you guys come from?
Nic: I started Phantom Moth two years ago, back when it was just me. I had actually written a play called The Reason for Jim Season. I got some actors together, wrote out a script and held a one-night performance. It was a completely free thing. After that, I started writing films. I met my cinematographer, Evan Parquette, and we wrote out a script for a little cheap movie called Deprived, where a character went without sleep for 11 days.
How did you hook up with Carlos?
N: I had just started working at a tire center and that’s where I met Carlos, who was working on his music at the time. We exchanged each others’ work and both thought “There’s too much talent in this little tire shop. We’ve gotta do something.” So I wrote out the script for Keep Movin’ in like two days. We ended up shooting the final fight scene on a nice nine-story tall building in Milwaukee. A month later, we shot Runnin’. Both Keep Movin’ and Runnin’ are based on Carlos’ music but Runnin’ is more true to his life story. That was shot here at Memorial High School.
So now you’ve got two movies under your belt.
N: We really wanted to hold a premiere screening and add a third film, though. One night, we were all sitting around and came up with this idea for four bank robbers who were hiding out from the cops. This was more of a straightforward suspense thriller but with a great ending. That gave us our third film and allowed to us to start screening them.
Where? In Madison?
N: One was at Market Square and another at Sundance. We had a few other events at the Inferno Nightclub with all three. A few people came to that one but we didn’t have enough publicity. We tried getting on the news but nobody wanted to pick us up for a story.
Where does the 48 Hour Film Project come in?
N: Last year, Evan and I were part of a project but ended up asking to have our names taken off of it, and we both had this light bulb go off. “Why don’t we try our own thing this year?” We attached [co-star] Marie Sirena, Carlos and got a few others involved, but I’ll tell you the one we didn’t prep for was silent film.
Carlos: Talk about having your hands tied behind your back.
N: We chose one of the other stories I had come up with in case we drew sci-fi and that’s the one you see in “The Harbor.”
How has the experience changed for you working on your own 48 Hour this year?
N: A lot of it came down to the last second. We got our location six hours before we started shooting. A whole wing in that building, called “The Harbor,” wasn’t being used, and that’s where we got the idea for the name. We shot straight through from 6:00a til 10:00p at night and we were the second team to turn ours in.
C: 36 hours. No sleep.
Relatively speaking, you weren’t racing against the clock then?
C: Some of the horror stories we heard involved people sleeping, but Nic and Evan stayed up for like 40 hours. The rest of the cast got to go and do their own thing, but Nic and Evan were still awake doing what they had to do. They took it really seriously. In the first year of competing, you’ve got to come with it.
There’s absolutely no sound in “The Harbor.” Silent film usually implies no dialogue, but you guys took that almost too literally.
N: We decided to not have any sound effects which was actually a discrepancy with our sound guy. We broke it to him that we weren’t going to use any sound effects because we figured it would cheapen the film. How odd would it be to hear silence… silence… silence… and then a car screeching?
C: The fragments of sound would just mess it up.
How far into the weekend did you decide to go that route?
N: We were going through editing at about 1:00p in the afternoon, roughly five hours before deadline, and we watched it without the sound and thought it made the most sense. I think it turned out to be the correct decision.
C: It was gutsy. I believe it gave us a leg up. We just went out with the story, the cinematography and the acting. That’s what carries a movie.
It doesn’t play like you went into the project thinking you’d have sound. Part of what makes “The Harbor” work is you find a cinematic language in your visuals alone.
N: Carlos has the only lines of dialogue and half of them were required.
The film isn’t entirely in black and white. If you include the credits, there are two moments where you switch to color and provide a window into your character’s interiority.
N: I came up with bits of color in the middle of shooting. It was actually in the middle of the scene where I’m crying and thinking about Marie’s character, and I thought how sweet and gorgeous it would be to see what he was thinking. Just pop it in there out of nowhere with no real lead-in. He’s just dancing with her. It takes you out of the film but more into it at the same time.
You’re clearly the central focus in your film, Nic. How do you balance that with direction?
N: It’s a thin balance and preparation is key. You really have to forget what you’re doing but remember what you’re going to do. As a director, I have faith and complete trust in everyone I work with. Evan’s been absolutely vital to everything we shot, and others will pick up the slack when it’s needed. It’s been a real pleasure to give direction to actors and then go and act with those same people.
C: Nic’s able to visualize and verablize the way he wants a scene but we can still make something of that as actors on our own.
N: My favorite director is Clint Eastwood because he knows what he wants in a scene but he’s never overly confident that he knows how to get there. There’s a difference.
You mention preparation. Aside from the aesthetic decisions you made, what else wasn’t planned?
N: The scene in the film where Carlos is spraying me wasn’t. Evan and Carlos had this idea to do that scene towards the end of the night and we just threw it in. Otherwise, you would’ve just seen Carlos wheel me out and then take me back in. It’s preparation mixed with intuition and improvisation, but really, we’ve done that on all of our films.
What’s next for Phantom Moth Productions?
N: January 2013 until now has been the most stressful year and a half of my life, but it’s also been the most rewarding. Right now, I’m adapting Jim Season into a film and Marie and Carlos and Evan are all involved with that. We’re shooting it in a small town about 20 minutes outside of Madison. I know this is what I want to do the rest of my life. I don’t know that this is what I was born to do — I don’t know that there necessarily is such a thing — but I know this is what I want to do.
Other 2014 interviews with Madison 48 Hour filmmakers: