Earlier this month I had the gracious opportunity to interview director Dan Bush – best known for 2007’s The Signal and 2014’s The Reconstruction of William Zero. Bush’s most recent work – The Vault – is a unique blend between the heist and supernatural thriller genres; set for a September 8th release. Starring James Franco & Francesca Eastwood, The Vault’s theatrical release is a space to watch.
Dan, going from a largely independent film maker, ‘The Vault’ seems to be moving you towards larger ‘blockbuster’ style features. Is this kind of filmmaking & releases a goal of yours to reach? Or would you prefer to stay at an independent level.
I just love making movies, I’ll make a blockbuster if someone wants to give me a budget anywhere in the world. However, I do believe that limitations make us better filmmakers. With all the things you have to consider when making a bigger movie: the unions, the actors who need more stuff, and so on; there’s something to be said about making a movie with your own crew, your own buddies, and fantastic actors who are just as good as anyone else in Hollywood. After we released The Signal we got much bigger budgets attached to several of our films but we just ran into development hell. I guess because around 2008 a lot of sales stopped, and really The Signal was one of the last films to really sell at Sundance. When you’re in this “development hell”, you’ll go ahead and justify any attachments to budgets. My philosophy is to go ahead and just continue making movies instead of waiting for your budgets and actors, improve your craft and make true movies. My writer and I, we tend to just write stuff whenever we’re held up – just keep making the movie by any means necessary; and it seems the minute we do commit to projects, oddly enough the Universe seems to respond by sending a budget from Hollywood. I think if you want to get a project started then go ahead and make smaller projects. I’ll always be making micro-budget movies and short films because they seem more linear, and a better way to use the arts of filmmaking. These small-budget, ‘indie’ movies are very important to the industry.
So in your previous films you seem to have worked a lot with Jacob Gentry & David Brucknell. Does their lack of involvement in this feature’s production signify your own routes in styling, and can we expect any big changes compared to your other projects?
Gentry, Brucknell, & I worked together for many years when we were younger and in all these different film troops. We were making films by any means necessary in this punk rock sort of way and through that we decided to produce The Signal. We never really intended to produce loads of films together and we all brought our own thoughts & styles to our projects. That was years ago, and yeah, I guess this is my own thing. A lot of people look at The Signal as a precursor to lots of vignette films like VHS; but I’ve been aspiring to make films since I was 15, and have done a tonne of my own short films since we made The Signal.
I’ve also noticed a lot of your previous work has involved composer Ben Lovett; though thanked in your accreditation, you chose lesser known Shaun Drew for The Vault’s music; what drew you to Drew, and how has his work influenced the production?
Interesting question. We were in talks with Ben and working with him for years over the idea for The Vault – at the time known as The Trust. He was by all means going to be our composer but in final post it just didn’t work out that well. Ben is still a dear friend, almost family, and we’re working together on my next project right now – he is my go-to composer. But when it didn’t work out for this particular feature, Shaun just came out of nowhere to fill the gap. I was stunned & thrilled by what he could do in such little time; I loved working with Shaun and he was just incredible. I was with him on the first mix of the movie, and we were able to really watch the movie come together and just pop. It was the first time the hairs on the backs of our necks really stood up and I remember thinking “oh this is actually fucking working”. Shaun was able to help me realise the vision I had for The Vault with extreme talent, skill & efficiency.
So some of your previous works, noticeably FightFuckPray have been done with the influences from John Cassavetes and Dogme 95 as driving forces for the production. What, if any, are the key influences you had for The Vault? Be they production styles, genre, or other features.
Yeah, so The Vault was originally an idea the writer and I came up with. We were watching this documentary on Warner Bros in the early 80s, around the time they released The Shining & Dog Day Afternoon. We just thought, well horror meets heist hasn’t been done. There’s lots where, horror meets crime like Se7en; but not heist specifically. I also think that the idea of a hostage is one of the most terrifying ideas in film and real-life – the perfect interception between horror and heist. But we made FightFuckPray many years ago around the time of the digital revolution in the industry, and we thought yeah we might not be able to light it or make it this technically produced marvel; but we can work on story & character, and create a movie that’s potentially more engaging than any other blockbuster at the time. It was made out of necessity, we used what we had, lacking the resources a director would preferably want when making a movie. I’m a huge fan of movies like The Thing & Alien, these old movies which work under limitation, with little props and the Dogme 95 styling seems to work brilliantly. I wasn’t originally a ‘horror guy’, but after The Signal, I wanted to make a hyper-violent feature without these high-budget props; because films which lack them and use classic prop and style work much better. With The Vault, I wanted to keep the same influences but push for a higher production value, I wanted steady cameras instead of just always gong handheld like I usually do – for example. I think the outcome of this is okay, it might not have been the best choice, but I think it works well. Really, when it comes to style the movie took on its own life, it was its own; I just tried to parent it.
So The Vault obviously is starring James Franco as one of your lead roles. Quite a contrast to the lesser known actors of your previous productions. What’s it been like working with Franco on set?
He was just awesome. He came in, and there were some really wonderful moments where he was professional, and extremely focused. There’s this one good story, where one time I went up to James and we had lots of scenes, and very little time. I wanted to block-shoot several scenes in one location in this stage-play style format. We had just that one day and I took the script, removed the directions and reduced it to just the dialogue. It was originally probably around 10 pages that I converted to this play format. I handed it to him, told him I wanted to block-shoot it all. I left it with him for what, five minutes? And when I came back he was just like “I got it”. He said he was ready. So we rolled on it and sure enough in those five minutes he had memorised every line, not only that but he had these specific choices for each movement and everything that happened in that scene. It was incredible. We didn’t have him for very long but he was awesome, and very gracious.
Would you say there’s a noticeable difference in working with larger stars like Franco and the up & coming actors like Francesca Eastwood?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, Franco has just grown up with this, he’s seasoned and he’s got this approach which is effective & efficient. Francesca is more of a loose cannon, very eager and extremely dedicated & committed. I think upcoming actors have some insecurity because y’know, it’s a big deal for them whereas Franco has already been there. But she was able to hold her own, and then some. There’s something that an experienced actor knows when to stop working; whereas new actors lack that. They give 200%, especially Fran, she was in that mode, that character’s mindset and never took a break from it. She just lived it and that was great to see, very impressive.
Are there any actors you’d specifically like to work with, and why?
I love working with new actors, as an acting coach as well, its great seeing them more vulnerable as new actors. I used to love the idea of crafting an actor into your character. But it makes a directors job easy seeing an actor work, and bring your character to life before you, allowing you to sit back and watch your scenes emerge. I mean, Anne Hathaway, is someone I’d love to work with, anyone of that calibre. But also a lot of upcoming actors I’ve got my eye on, and would love to see them work. Also, Dustin Hoffman, since childhood I loved him so that’d be great. I mean he was the man to me as a kid. Yeah, Carrie Fisher, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Simon were my three heroes.
What would you say audiences can expect from The Vault?
Uh, hell of a thrill ride, a roller coaster, some big fuckin’ twists and hopefully some really good dread & terror. Oh, and a lot of fun. We weren’t exactly celebrating the genre, trying not to be too differential, and it is somewhat stylised compared to my other work. They can expect a real mind bender.
One of The Vault’s uniquities is its unusual genre blend. What drove you to push this kind of innovation?
It was just an idea we had really, a ‘this would be fun’ kind of thing. We saw all these parallels in structure, tension building the works, y’know? I’ve seen genre benders before like Dusk ‘Till Dawn, I don’t know I just saw all the cards and eventually it’s going to be teenagers and some sci-fi thing. Teenagers & Robots its Terminator, teenagers & vampires its Twilight, teenagers & super-powers or whatever. I looked at the cards and thought we haven’t really seen this before, have we? I wondered what kind of images we could pull and we got the hostages, bags over heads, fire, that sort of thing. I talk of Se7en earlier because it’s great at blending crime & horror, something I wanted to mimic in a way. The horror behind hostage crises just feels haunted to me, it feels haunted and that’s something I wanted to explore. I do think that these genre blends are pushed explorations of humanity and this is that exploration on steroids I guess. I think it’s fun to work with.
Are there any other genres you’d like to experiment with, blend, or just have fun with?
Movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Graduate, they really resonate with me. They’re my favourite movies and I know that they’re dramas but that’s something I want to explore. I’m interested in doing some straight stories; but then there’s the space movies and some real darkness in my work. I love the possibilities between these heavy, honest dramas and then this really stylised stuff. So yeah, I’m pretty wide open. Each movie has its own challenges and logistics, and to be able to switch genre and styles is incredible, takes some real talent and I love to work like that. It even goes back to Shakespeare and his stylised bloodiness mixed with these heavy dramatic stories. It’s important to have these commentaries on the human condition they tell through characters with such hard stories. So that’s the goal, just to tell these hard stories.
Is there any knowledge or experience you have gained in the production of The Vault you’re going to be utilising in the future?
Oh yeah. I think I’ve aways been very accommodating coming from the indie world, where limitations make us more creative and so I’ve always been respectful of other concerns but its always worked out, because it’s felt like a family, a team effort. When it got to The Vault, I found there’s something to be respectful about just, well, being a hard-ass. I wish I’d done more of that, laying down the law of the production. Being too accommodating can be detrimental, so I’ll keep that in mind going forward.
What kind of productions can we look forward to from you in the future?
The Dark Red is what I’m working on right now and submitting to festivals, the story of a girl who claims her baby was taken by this telekinetic cult with April Belingsley, Rhoda Griffiths, and Kyle Bern. I’m really excited about that, it’s got some real classic tones to it, yeah, very exciting.
The Vault will arrive in UK cinemas September 8th.