Friday, January 15, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH GREG TRAVIS (PART 2 OF 2)

Greg Travis has had a wide and varied career. Starting off with an interest in magic, he then became a successful stand-up comedian. After that he decided to forge a career as an actor, appearing in such high profile films as SHOWGIRLS (1995), STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), LOST HIGHWAY (1997), POODLE SPRINGS (1998), MAN ON THE MOON (1999), HALLOWEEN II (2009) and WATCHMEN (2009). Greg also developed his directing skills, working on various short films and videos, and writing and directing the films DARK SEDUCTION (filmed in 1984, released 2015), NIGHTCREEP (2003) and MIDLIFE (2015). In part two of our interview, we talk about those latter films.

Part one can be read here.

You are preparing to finally release the first film you directed, DARK SEDUCTION. I believe it has been a long road to get the film finished and released? 
I shot it in the summer of 1984, but it took a long time to get finished because of legal and post-production problems. It's a detective vampire film that we shot on black and white film. It's legendary amongst my circle because I spent about four years making it, and ten years trying to finish it. It was like an Orson Welles nightmare, you know. It's my OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. The negative got lost, and then certain elements got lost. I got all that back but then I had to deal with sound issues, which have now been fixed. 

What was it about the project that would never let you give up on it? 
I guess the fact that I knew I could find the correct cut of the film and make it work. It took me a long time to find the right cut but once I did I knew the film would work and find an audience. 

What was the inspiration for the film? 
In the early 80's with video stores everywhere, the re-discovery of 40's film noir films lead me to wanting to do something in that genre. The female vampire element was a way to infuse sexy but tough women into the mix. I've always loved really tough women in film.

 How did you come to collaborate with Steve Bishart, who cowrote and coproduced the picture? 
I had met Steve when we worked together on a video I made. He was looking to make this film and I was looking to direct one, so we agreed to make it together. He had a short script and we cowrote the full script from that. 

How did you cast and finance it? 
The cast was a mix of actors we found in casting sessions and people I knew from the comedy world and friends. Steve and I both put some of our own money into it and we had a few investors along the way as well. 

There are many different tones and genre elements in DARK SEDUCTION. Were you concerned about melding them together succesfully?

I didn't know if it would all work together. That was the experiment. I tried to keep humor with the detective and keep the vampires more serious but I do cross that line and break those rules sometimes too. To me the film is a feverish dream that changes moods and feelings constantly. I think its one that people can watch over and over and find new and fun things about it each time. 

How was working with your sister, the actress Stacey Travis? 
It was pretty good. We had already done a few short films and videos together. She's a really great actress so I am always happy to work with her. 

What was the impetus for NIGHT CREEP (2003)?
 I woke up one night and thought someone was in my bedroom. The notion that someone in your bedroom at night, might be the scariest thing imaginable. That was the basic idea, and I changed it to a psychological horror movie about a girl who moves into an apartment and believes her landlord is coming into her room at night. I sold the foreign rights, but I never sold the domestic rights. We shot it for 13 days in March of 2002, and it was very low budget. We were competing against a lot of bigger films. 

Was it influenced by your time filming SHOWGIRLS (1995)? 
I guess the three strippers in FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965) were more of an influence, and in horror films strippers are always good cause they have no problem undressing. 

How much of an influence was David Lynch? 
A little bit but I did not want to copy any of his style or look, so I tried to create a new look for the film. It was shot on the top end Sony just before HD digital came out in 2003. 

Where do you think the interest in writing strong roles for women comes from? 
I like strong women who are also feminine, smart and sexy. I don’t know where it came from but that’s what I like to see.

For the role of Cindy, were you thinking of a Madonna type personality? 
Yes I guess so. I lived with a Madonna look alike before I made this film so maybe that was what I had in mind. 

What did you learn from the experience of making the film? 
With NIGHT CREEP I mixed a few different tones and put in some humor and sexiness that didn’t have anything to do with the horror theme but made it a much more entertaining film. It wasn’t as scary as I wanted it to be and I learned a lot about how to make the fear factor work and what it takes to make a film really scary. I might do another horror film next. 

What inspired MIDLIFE? 
A few years before, I had gotten to the point in my comedy and acting career where it was becoming more difficult to get the jobs. I had already peaked, and I was on the back end of my career. I was wondering how much longer I could do what I was doing, and still be competitive in the world out there. It felt like I had a lot of baggage. Ex-wives, ex-girlfriends. I had been talking with friends with kids and other baggage about all the stuff they had to go through at that stage of their lives. I put all that stuff together. I gave myself a salesperson character because I have a big personality and it seemed like a good fit. My mom and dad had been sales people. 

Did you always want the balance of comedy and drama that you ended up with? 
I started off to make a serious film. There's a lot of humour in it. Its weird. Some audiences that I have screened it for laugh all the way through it and others just sit there totally dry and maybe laugh once or twice. I don't quite understand it. Usually I am more on the comedic side. Coming from my stand up background, I usually want to have people laughing all the time, but I definitely want to make movies that are not one thing or the other. They're everything, you know. They're fun, they're dramatic. They have a little bit more life feel to them. I think it's boxing a film in to say 'This is a comedy. This is a drama.' But then again it helps to sell a film if you have a genre to sell it as. I think the film has a nice balance between somewhat of a commercial film and an art film. 

When you directed the film, what things you learned from the directors you have worked with came useful? 
Working on big films is a much slower process. It takes a longer time to get the shots lined up and lit. There are a lot of elements involved. I learned a lot about directing actors from those directors and a lot about the basics of big budget studio cinema, what it entails and what it takes. The only way to really learn how to make a movie is to make one. It's hard to look at a building and understand architecture. You've got to start out with a short, make a few more and get an idea of what the process is all about. I've made about 20 or 25 short films and videos over the years, as well as the two or three features. It's given me a good round education about what it means to make a decent film. It's a lot of luck. I still don't know a lot about how to design shots that are built around sets or to tell an art director how to construct a soundstage because I have never had to do that. I shoot at locations and work with what I have. There's a lot of technology now where you design your shot after you shoot it. I'm not sure how all that stuff works either. 

Was the film influenced by John Cassavetes at all? 
Big time, yeah. I did try to give MIDLIFE a little bit of that feel and a little bit of that style. That humanist slice of life kind of feel was what I was going for. 

How much of the film was improvised? 
It's hard to say. I had it loosely scripted with a detailed outline, but I didn't always give the lines to the actors. In certain scenes I wanted to see what they would come up with. I didn't give anyone a script before we started because I didn't want anybody to have any preconceptions about what we were doing. When I auditioned people, I just interviewed them. I didn't have them look at a script. I just wanted to get a sense of who they were and what their personality was. On set I would set up the situation and what they needed to do. We would improvise it and play with it a little bit and see what would come of it. And then if I wanted to change something or add a line from the script, then I would. It's all about the situation and as long as that is clear-cut, you don't need to have the exact written line coming out of the actor's mouth. As long as you're in the right area, it'll work. At least that's my feeling. There were certain plot points and certain information that had to come across, but the other stuff was looser and we just improvised. All the stuff in the loft scene where we are drunk and we are partying comes off better because it was improvised. 

Why did you decide to shoot the film digitally? 
I love the look of film and I tried to get as much of a 'film' look as I could, but shooting on film would've just been too expensive. Film is soft and warm and fuzzy, whereas digital is a much cleaner, crisper, sharper image. You just can't get the same feeling. Film has a solid image whereas digital feels like a transparent image, like you could just stick your hand right through it. A lot of these new digital films look really great but I still don't feel like I am on solid ground. I don't get sucked into the movie as much when it's on digital. 

I thought you were very brave to take it so much to the edge and shoot the club scene so darkly. 
With the digital cameras, you can get away with it. You can level it off so it is still broadcastable. 

Where did you find the wonderful actors? 
Some of them, like Vicky who played my ex-wife, just came from casting sessions in LA. Billy Wirth was the friend of the Robert Mangiardi, who played Mr Bellini in the New York sequence. He's been in a lot of films and is quite well known. Some were friends or people I had met before. I had met Amanda Sorvino doing a couple of films back east with her dad Paul Sorvino. She was not really an actress. She had done a bit of acting when she was younger. I saw her cry at a table once and she was just amazing. I remembered it and talked her into doing the movie. The day we shot her stuff I was afraid she wouldn't show up because she didn't really want to do it. She did a great job. She came up with that whole song on the piano by herself the day we shot it. 

I was very impressed by Lelani Sarelle (BASIC INSTINCT)'s performance. 
Me too. Lelani has this warmth about her, and a lot of heart. 

Were you concerned that audiences might reject a film about a middle aged person? 
There aren't a lot of films out there about middle aged people, although BLUE JASMINE (2013) is in the same sort of genre: people having a midlife crisis, and having to start all over again. Apart from Woody Allen, there aren't a lot of films out there that appeal to that baby boomer generation. Most films nowadays have leads in their twenties, but the more life you live, the more character you develop as a person and the more interesting you're going to be on film. A lot of these young leads are good looking but what do they give us or have to say or show us? 

I liked how your character is so real and so flawed. 
He's not that bad of a guy. He's not out to screw anyone over. He's just trying to get through his life. He has some anger issues, left over from his drinking. He's trying to figure it all out, and this is his last downfall that he has to go through in order to get to that realisation. That was part of my own story too. About six years ago I quit drinking and everything, and it really was a leap forward in my evolution as a person. I got into some bad habits having all those nights on the road. 

It's rare for an adult film to end on an optimistic note. Most modern filmmakers see it as braver to end on a downbeat note. 
It was a hard call to end it on that note, but I do like some sort of a wrap up at the end of a movie. I like for things to be revealed and to come full circle, like most novels. 

The ending was unpredictable too. 
If you look back at the film, there are some clues along the way as to how the story will end. It was always intended to end the way it did. I hope it works! 

How did you decide on the music score? 
I was going for a LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) feel because it's one of my favourite movies. It's not as down and dirty, but it has its roots in that Gato Barbieri score. I actually used it as a temp score. When I first saw that film it moved me more than any other film I had seen up to that point. 

Finishing MIDLIFE, was it therapeutic in your own life in any way? 
Well, making it took my mind off being middle aged. I did come to terms more with being middle aged after doing the movie. I got depressed after I screened the movie because I thought ''Now what do I do?'', but I started developing ideas for new projects. 

Your films as a director are all stories set in LA. What fascinates you about the city? 
It's got every possible setting one could hope for plus when its you own backyard, you might as well take advantage of it. It's a cold, every man for himself sort of town. It’s a fly by night crowd of stranger’s kind of place. Even friends fade away without giving notice. 

I spoke to Greg by phone on 21st January 2014, and corresponded by email during January 2015. I would like to thank him for his time.  

MIDLIFE can be seen on Indiereign,  I-Tunes, Amazon, and from the film's site

All photographs are the property of Greg Travis and cannot be reproduced without his permission.

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.