E.B. Hughes is the writer and director of the independent features PACING THE CAGE (2014) and TURNABOUT (2016), two character-based crime dramas in the spirit of 70s filmmaking. I spoke to E.B. about the upcoming TURNABOUT, an intense, authentic piece of work that sees him developing his skills as a filmmaker and honing the themes of his work.
When did you first get the idea for TURNABOUT?
I always wanted to do a film shot in real time, where the story takes place over the course of one night. In the film, the character of Perry (Waylon Payne) rescues his best friend from high school, Billy (George Katt). He hasn’t seen him in 15 years, and their lives have changed dramatically.
How would you describe the film?
It's a dark, twisted character study, about a guy, a loner, who is alienated, and on the outskirts of society. It tells the story of how he reconnects with an old friend who is more successful than he is, a married man, a family man, and the strange events that occur in the course of one night that will change their lives forever.
What books or films did you have on your mind?
Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Lots of Robert Altman films, like THE PLAYER (1992), or THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), and definitely some Cassavetes influences. Films with long takes, shot in real time. SCARECROW (1973) or THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), directed by my friend Jerry Schatzberg. Very real, and gritty where it almost feels documentary style. I tried my best to make it as believable as possible, and I think that comes through in the performances and in the editing.
I wrote the script in about 2007, and did some test footage in 2008 or 2009, to try and raise financing. The cast and crew were different, - everything was completely overhauled with the new production. In 2010 I got George Katt (ALIENATED, HOUSE OF BODIES, VALLEY OF ANGELS) attached. George is a very talented New York based actor. He loved the script, and from there we tried several avenues to get the film made. It wasn’t until Summer of 2011 when financing was secured, and we started production in very late 2011, early 2012.
How different a production was TURNABOUT to PACING THE CAGE?
Budget wise and schedule wise, it was very, very different. PACING THE CAGE was shot over a 3 year period, and I self financed it for roughly $20, 000. TURNABOUT was shot more traditionally, over the course of 18 days for just under $100, 000. We actually came under schedule by three days. This one was easy to shoot, tough to finish. PACING THE CAGE was tough to shoot, easier to finish. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s probably the best way to describe it.
How did you cast the film?
George Katt, who plays the role of Billy, was the first to come onboard. I went through several other actors for the role of Perry, before settling on Waylon Payne (Jerry Lee Lewis in WALK THE LINE; he also starred in Monte Hellman's ROAD TO NOWHERE). I held auditions for the female roles in New York. Judy Jerome plays Perry’s wife. Rosebud Baker was a newcomer to film when she was cast for the role of Sherri, and Sayra Player starred in PACING THE CAGE. I was so blown away by her performance in that film that I cast her immediately for TURNABOUT. As for Peter Greene (THE USUAL SUSPECTS), I wanted to get a known actor for the part of Leo, and I was lucky enough to get Peter to come in for one night of work.
Did you feel more comfortable working with actors as this was your second film?
Well, it was easier in the sense that we had a structured schedule to shoot it in a certain time frame, and I was more prepared. I also had a very talented assistant director - Neal Dhand - who handled much of the scheduling, and worked with a pretty close-knit crew, so that helped. Chase Bowman was the director of photography, and he and I sat down and did a shot list for nearly the first 30-40 pages. We would discuss colors, styles, how it should look, and the lighting, all those things. We had a number of tracking shots, and Chase did some handheld stuff which was pretty cool. The actors were all fantastic, and I pretty much had a hands off approach, unless I felt like they were veering off course - which for the most part wasn’t the case. They were all very invested in the film, and there was lots of passion from even the people in the small roles. It’s a very special film in many ways.
I would say it had less actually, considering PACING THE CAGE had roughly 10 speaking roles, most of which were SAG. However, the good thing with TURNABOUT was that it was shot in 3 weeks, so everybody knew we were on a tight schedule, and everyone just came in and did their job.
What were some of your favorite moments on the shoot?
There were several, but one really sticks out. I think it was the 2nd or 3rd night of the shoot, and it was a scene between Waylon and George talking outside, standing next to the car. I was watching them do the scenes over and over again, and then later that night I watched the dailies with Neal (the AD) and Chase Bowman (the cinematographer), and I just said to myself –''Man, these guys are really, really good''. I think we all knew we were onto something special. I remember talking with Neal on many occasions, and we were just so impressed with how good and natural the performances were. It’s a real good feeling. You kind of pinch yourself, but you also think to yourself, ''They're so good on Day 2, I just hope it keeps up!'' And it did.
Were there any particularly stressful moments?
The night with Peter Greene was pretty intense. I can recall rehearsing with him and George, and things got heated several times. Peter’s a passionate guy, and so am I and so is George, so a little screaming never hurt anyone. At the end of the day, though he was great! We got off to a little bit of a rocky start, I would say we didn’t see eye to eye on certain things, but once we ran through the scenes several times, he was fantastic. I would definitely work with him again. Also, the scene in the boat, with Waylon and George. Initially, we had another boat for the crew to follow their boat. It was incredibly cold that day (we shot it in December) and the tide was rough, so we would tie their boat to the crew boat, but it just didn’t work out - it kept drifting. So we had to scrap that idea and improvise.
We shot mostly around where I live, near Ocean City, New Jersey – a small shore resort town. We shot in nearby towns, and also right outside of Philadelphia, mostly at night, only several day shoots.
How happy were you with the better technology you had on this film?
Very pleased. The Red Epic camera was great. You certainly get real clean images. It also had a nice monitor, which was something I didn't have on PACING THE CAGE. We did a lot of car shots, which are difficult, so we had car mounts and I think that stuff turned out great! Also, I had the chance to work again with Dave Rainey, who had done the sound on my second short film, Harsh Light, years ago. He also did the sound mix in post-production, and I think he did a great job. My editor was incredible - Kary H. Sarrey, from Brooklyn. I wanted an outsider, somebody who had no knowledge of the film, someone I had never worked with before. So, I put out an ad, and was blessed to come across her. She just got it, and that’s what you want from an editor. She has a very good eye, and we had so much to choose from as far as coverage, so we were good in that department.
I think I've definitely matured. I have more patience working with the actors. I kind of just let them run with it, and if they needed input, I would chime in, or we would just discuss the characters, how they felt, or how they would act. But for the most part, they were so good, I didn’t need to direct much. I’m not a fan of 'over-directing'. You need to trust these people to do their job. It’s the same with editing. You can’t be looking over their shoulder all the time. They are professionals, let them do their job. If its wrong, correct it. If not, well, that’s what its all about. I just wish I could do this all the time. It reminds me of how much I love the craft and working with talented people. When the chemistry is good, there’s just nothing like it. I wish they could all be like this.
Overall, how happy are you with the film?
It’s pretty much exactly as I wrote it - or better. I think it reached all expectations, no doubt. I wrote it with limited locations, small cast and crew, so its exactly how I wished it would be.
What attracts you to crime stories?
There’s something about the bad egg, the outsider, the Ne’er-d0-well, the outcast that draws me to those characters. People with flaws. Because lets face it, life is like that, and full of people like that, and they’re much more interesting. I can’t imagine doing a comedy. I would never rule it out. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some funny moments in TURNABOUT, but for the most part it’s a dark drama, a character study.
I really liked BLUE RUIN (2013). I liked NIGHTCRAWLER (2014) - not sure if that’s really a crime film though. Mostly I go back to films I like from the past, like THE HIT (1984), NIGHT MOVES (1975), STRAIGHT TIME (1977), Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF, or MONA LISA (1986). Also Rafelson’s THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) or John Flynn's ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Movies like that.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Immerse yourself in film. Read, watch, write, keep a journal. Storytelling is key. Without a good script, you’re screwed. A lot of films just look flashy, all style no substance. I still think it comes down to a great story. Then of course - networking. Working with cast and crew you trust, people you want to work with again. More importantly, don’t be afraid to screw up. It’s okay - it’s going to happen- whether you like it or not. Nothing is as we expect. There will be many struggles, lots of tough times. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. Filmmaking is tough. It’s not all about making the film, it’s about preparing to make the film, making the film, and then what to do after the film is shot. It’s a very long process. I think many young filmmaker’s just don’t get that. They don’t realize how involved it is. Especially nowadays as the DVD market is all but gone, and everything is streaming. The industry has changed. It’s not about just getting a cool camera, and shooting something. You really need to dig deep. There’s money involved, and you need to hire the right people. Sure, anybody can get lucky, but its rare. Also, you need some names in your film. I see this over and over again. Someone shoots a film, you don’t recognize anyone in the film, the film goes nowhere. This is because its a business, and it has to be marketable. Lots of young filmmakers don’t get that. I also see a lot of these indie guys putting out one film after another- and for what? I would rather make one great film every 5 years or so, then a bunch of forgettable films. That’s just not me. I care too much, and I respect the process.
Well, like I stated above, there's some good, but there's lots of bad. At least no-one is giving up, and that's key. I've been very fortunate to come in contact with many contemporaries, and we're all trying to do the same thing - so that's encouraging. I still think for the most part, the writing isn't what it used to be. There are so many films that lack that certain element. They're good in one area - but weak in many others. For example, it may be shot well, but the acting sucks. Or the acting may be great, but the writing stinks, and so on and so forth.
What would you like to do for your next project?
I have a few in mind, but I’m going to scale it back a little. Less characters, minimal locations, small crew. Gritty, lots of handheld. I want to try different things, and I really want to smack the viewer in the face this time. So, I’m putting something together as we speak. These things take time though.
When and where can we see TURNABOUT?
I recently signed a one year deal with Glass House Distribution, so they are taking the trailer to Cannes next month and hopefully packaging a deal. I imagine in the future, it'll be on Hulu, I-Tunes, perhaps Netflix.
I spoke to E.B. by email in April 2016 and would like to thank him for his time.
The trailer to TURNABOUT.
My 2012 interview with E.B.
My review of PACING THE CAGE.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.