This year’s AFI FEST presented by Audi featured the taut thriller THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR, showcasing the incredible work of four AFI alumni: producers Rick Rosenthal (Class of 1973) and Ryan Scaringe (Class of 2017), cinematographer Julian Estrada (Class of 2014) and line producer Narineh Hacopian (Class of 2011). The film follows Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), two 12-year-old best friends who are kidnapped and forced to endure a cat-and-mouse game of survival to escape the house where they are held captive.
AFI spoke with the filmmakers about working with first-time feature directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell, working with their fellow AFI alumni, what it means to support up and coming artists and the arts in this moment in time, as well some directing advice from Rosenthal.
AFI: How did it feel to be back at AFI FEST with your new film THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR?
Ryan: It was a little mind-blowing. I am very proud of everyone’s hard work that led the film to screen at AFI FEST.
Rick: I have a long history with AFI FEST. It was great to be back with a film that was so well-received. But – like everyone else during the pandemic – I miss the in-person camaraderie and chance to connect with other filmmakers and re-connect with other AFI alums.
Narineh: It’s always gratifying to have films at the festival; it’s like coming home. Of course, it was sad not to be able to watch them with an audience this year, but AFI did an amazing job of transition to an online fest, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
Julian: AFI FEST was one of the things I loved the most about living in LA, and even when I moved away, if I was available, I would fly back just to sit in three or four films a day and hang out with other filmmakers and alumni.
AFI: THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR is written and directed by newcomers David Charbonier and Justin Powell. How did the project first come together?
Rick: Ryan Lewis, who is a producer I worked with on FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, told us that he had just read a script that he thought we would really like, and he had seen the shorts that the filmmakers had made and felt the project would be a really good fit. I read the script right away. It was truly a page turner. Then I looked at the shorts that David and Justin had made, and I thought both were really strong in setting up atmosphere and tension and paying off scares.
The next step was meeting with David and Justin, which we looked forward to, with a bit of trepidation, because we had heard from another company whom they had met with that they were difficult and hostile to changes to their script. Armed with that intel, I think we pushed them pretty hard in that meeting, but we found them to be incredibly gracious and open and eager to discuss changes, so I had a feeling that the other producers they had met with were not on the same page. I felt very much that everything we were talking about was how to make their movie better, and it felt like we all wanted to make the same movie.
During the period we were putting together the financing, we got an offer from a company who said they would finance the movie completely if we would change the 12-year-old boys to 18-year-old girls and make it more about “girls in jeopardy.” While the opportunity to get financing was something we were obviously looking for, Whitewater Films had no interest in making that film. In fact, what distinguished THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR from so many other thriller/horror films was that underneath the tension and the suspense was a heartfelt, underlying theme about friendship. We all felt that the theme – how far would you go to save your best friend’s life? – was what separated and elevated this film from so many others in the genre.
AFI: Were there any other thrillers that inspired you as you were prepping and in production? And do you have a favorite movie in the thriller genre?
Julian: We certainly watched many thrillers in pre-production, but I think one which always came to mind was DON’T BREATHE. We loved how it subverts the home-invasion subgenre, and the use of colors and extravagant night interiors lighting was very inspiring.
Rick: We all really responded to [DON’T BREATHE] in terms of cinematography and color. It was also a touchstone because the film predominantly takes place in a single location. We also talked a lot about kinetics and movement and pace. Once Bobby breaks out of the trunk of the car, the tension should just keep building and never let up – except for a moment or two of silence or hiding – which could also be filled with incredible tension – but at a different kind of pace. For example, when Bobby is stuck hiding under the bed while the kidnapper sits on the bed. I think that sequence is particularly riveting because Bobby is trapped and has no place to go. And the slightest movement or noise will give him away. A lot of tension, but no movement, and a strong contrast to most of the other sequences in the film.
Ryan: Another one of the reference films was Denis Villeneuve’s film PRISONERS.
Narineh: And I’m sure audiences will recognize references to THE SHINING. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to thrillers myself – sometimes the suspense is too much, and I end up watching with my hands over my face! But a couple of my favorites are ALIEN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Rick: As for favorite movie in the thriller genre – that’s a tough one, because, while there are a lot of unbelievably good thrillers, including SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PRISONERS, BURIED, SE7EN, GONE GIRL and NIGHTCRAWLER, there are very few really good horror/thrillers which blend genres. And I think that’s part of what makes THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR so special.
AFI: For such an intense film where your two leads are terrorized throughout, how did you know these actors were the right ones to go through the gauntlet?
Ryan: Having excited individuals on all sides of the camera who loved the material immediately created a safe environment for both Ezra and Lonnie, despite the intensity of the material.
Narineh: Lonnie and Ezra are amazing talents and wonderful young men. They understood the subject matter and wanted to do it justice. Lonnie expressed how important this role was for him — to show other kids that they can be resourceful and brave in the scariest of situations. The crew was respectful and sensitive of the cast and the subject matter, and the parents were always on set as well. We took our lead from our actors, and made sure to give them the space they needed to do the emotional work that anchors the story.
Rick: You never know. You go on instinct. I like to sit and talk with actors and get a little bit of a sense of them as people and how they are when they’re not acting. And that helps shape your instinct – because you want to try to get a sense of what they’re made of. And do you connect? And how do you relate and communicate? And then you factor in their auditions – and if possible, the chemistry between actors. So, I think chemistry reads are really import for a film like THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR.
I also like to ask questions about how the actors responded to the material and what they liked about the script or what bothered them. When we talked with Lonnie, he told us about a real-life incident that happened to him when he was around seven or eight which involved two men trying to abduct him and how he managed to get away. So, there was no doubt that he really related to the script!
AFI: Rick, as director of HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, what advice did you have for the first-time feature directors in terms of making a thriller?
Rick: In many ways, I was fortunate to have inherited a style from HALLOWEEN that we wanted to continue with in HALLOWEEN II. One of its distinctive visual elements was showing certain scenes from Michael Myers subjective point of view. That signature moving POV remained the backbone of the visual style of my first feature, but at the same time, because the visual style was so well established, it let me explore around the edges both my personal sense of humor and my personal sense of imagery. Some of the comic relief, framing and the color palette differed from the first film, but not so much that it didn’t feel like a continuation – which was the goal.
Coming onboard the sequel, I was specifically interested in exploring the contrast between light and dark which would create a lot of space – negative space – for Michael Myers to perhaps be looming in, but not necessarily seen at first. So, for example, in the scene where Janet the candy striper nurse discovers Dr. Mixter in his office with a syringe in his eye and the audience discovers that Michael Myers is standing right behind her, the audience’s reaction is one of the strongest in the entire film. And that effect was achieved by blocking off all the light right behind the actress, placing Michael Myers in that dark, negative space and then oh-so-slowing dialing up a light on the floor that was focused only on him. And the effect was chilling and very satisfying – because it had come from an idea I had had early on, reading the script and then figuring out how I could achieve and execute it.
For first time filmmakers, I recommend working with an “image grid,” a series of key images you want in your film and then figure out what you will need to do to create those images. Think about point of view. Whose point of view are you telling the story from? What character? And once you make that choice, what is the visual language you need to deploy to make sure the audience understands that POV? Prep hard. One of my favorite First Assistant Directors was fond of saying, “Plan the work, then work the plan.” Sounds simple, right? But I’ve been on an awful lot of sets where it was clear that the director didn’t have a plan.
And speaking of plans, make a shot-list. Work with the DP on the shot-list. Talk with the AD about the shot-list. Do a timeline. Working with your DP and AD, figure out the best estimates for how long each scene will take to shoot. If you have four scenes on the schedule for the next day and one scene will take two hours and the next scene with take four hours and the scene after that will take five hours and the last scene will three hours, guess what? You’re looking at shooting 14 hours. But you don’t have 14 hours. So, you have work to do – to simplify, rewrite, condense or combine. But don’t go into any day without having done a timeline or having a sense of how long each scene will take to shoot.
And one other piece of advice: I like to go through a script and mark each scene an A-scene, a B-scene or a C-scene. What does that mean? A-scenes are scenes that are complicated, sometimes with a large number of performers or involve big action pieces or requires complex blocking or carefully nuanced performances or powerful imagery. These scenes generally require extra time so neither the director nor the actors feel rushed. B-scenes are important, too, but they are generally not as complicated, and generally don’t combine as many of the elements as A-scenes do. C-scenes are often transitional scenes, establishing scenes, two-character walk-and-talks, etc. They are scenes that spending an extra hour or two on shooting them will not materially improve them. And if you end up spending excessive time on C-scenes, that’s the time you will be giving up that you will want to have spent on A-scenes and to a somewhat lesser extent on B-scenes. I find it a very good way to organize time and expectation – and for a first-time filmmaker that organization is critically important because it will free up more time to work on the key creative elements.
AFI: Was there a shorthand to working with each other since you all trained at AFI?
Rick: When I meet someone who has gone to AFI, I know that they have gone through a truly rigorous training. Because we share the AFI experience, immediately there is a shorthand and a language in common.
Ryan: I had previously interned with Rick at Whitewater and I definitely had a shorthand with him.
Rick: When Ryan read THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR, he asked us if he could come aboard as a producer if he put some of the financing together. It’s very rare to have an intern who helps finance a film, but Ryan was invaluable and a great addition to the producing team.
I loved working with Julian. We just hit it off. I think he’s very talented. He’s very knowledgeable, but also very intuitive about lighting and technically savvy. He’s got a lot of grace under fire, a good sense of humor and he thinks filmmaking should be serious, but fun. My attitude exactly!
Narineh: More than just a shorthand, there’s trust and confidence. Having gone through the AFI curriculum and production process, we know what each of us is capable of, we have confidence in each others’ skills and we know that we are working with a filmmaker who understands collaboration.
Rick: Narineh is hard-working, pretty unflappable, a serious problem-solver. We kept her busy on THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR, and she never faltered. If you have a cadre of AFI filmmakers at the heart of your film, as we have had on a number of our films, going all the way back to MEAN CREEK, then you have a really strong core on which to build an even stronger team. And many of the relationships developed through the shared experience of a film endure for a long time and continue to be a part of that core team.
AFI: What particular skills and/or knowledge did you take away from your time at the AFI Conservatory that you use the most?
Ryan: How to collaborate with each team member.
Julian: Everything I use on set is based on knowledge from my teachers and classes at the Conservatory, from pre-production meetings, to the artistic vision, to how I breathe when I hold the camera.
Rick: I came away from AFI with a certain amount of self-awareness about what I did know: a fair amount about the technical side of filmmaking, like blocking, staging, coverage and the axis and, to some degree, working with actors; a fair amount about story and structure; a decent amount about editing and working with a cinematographer and production designer. And a strong respect for hard work and long hours.
But I also came away from AFI with a certain amount of self-awareness about what I didn’t know: not enough about acting – how to talk to actors or how to work with actors; not enough about the inner workings of the business side of Hollywood, working with agents and lawyers, pitching stories, working with executives.
And then – and perhaps most important – I also came away from AFI with very little self-awareness of what I didn’t know I didn’t know: an entire range of interpersonal dynamics that helped form working relationships, which turned out to be – in my opinion – almost as important as talent. And I still feel that this is an important area that continues to be neglected in the industry: behavior on the set and off the set, how to be part of a team, how to lead. It’s not really taught or in any film school curriculum that I know of but still so needed.
Narineh: Of all the things I learned at AFI that I carry with me, the biggest is the process of collaboration. It’s at the core of any successful project, and it’s what we talked about all the time at the Conservatory. That, and the ability to remember to step back and keep sight of the bigger picture — we’re making a movie and we’re telling a story together. Sure, we have to figure out where that light goes, what color we paint the wall, and what lens to use — but it’s all in service of the story we all want to tell.
AFI: As an established director and producer, can you talk about how you got your first break in the industry, and why is it important to take a chance on untested talent both onscreen & off?
Rick: Coincidentally, the way I got my first feature directing job was not dissimilar from the way David and Justin landed at Whitewater Films. When I came out of AFI as a director, I made a short film called MOONFACE, based on a short story by Jack London. The film was a black comedy, and it couldn’t have been a worse genre to use as a calling card. Although a lot of people responded to the visuals and the acting performances, the short created great consternation as to where I fit as a director. Was I a director of comedy or drama or what?
I was in limbo for a while as a director, but writing to make some money, and it wasn’t until I saw a scene from a one-act play in Milton Katselas’ acting class that I figured out where I fit on the directing spectrum. I was attending class, not to become an actor, but to become a better director and more comfortable talking with actors. The scene I saw was from a Gardner McKay play called THE TOYER about a single woman who goes to the movies alone and when the film is over, her car won’t start, and by the time she gets back to the movie theater, no one is there and the place is dark. But a guy closing up the theater offers to help her with her car and eventually he offers to follow her home to make sure she gets there safely. But the long and the short of it is he turns out to be a variation of the Hillside Strangler. I got the rights from Gardner to make a short and got a group of friends together and over two long weekends we shot the short.
And from there a series of coincidences and lucky breaks lead me, through John Carpenter’s agent who had seen my film and was starting to represent me, to a meeting with John and Debra Hill, who suddenly needed to find a director for HALLOWEEN II when their first choice dropped out of the film at the very last minute.
I honestly don’t remember very much about that first meeting– except that it didn’t feel as much like an audition as a confirmation that they could get along with the filmmaker who had made THE TOYER. As difficult as it had been to get that first feature directing gig, suddenly – boom! – I was directing my first feature – which is, of course, a great dichotomy in Hollywood – how hard it is and then how easy it suddenly seems.
Now, looking back and remembering what it was like being a first-time director, and also having now produced a number of first-time directors, I think it’s a very special time – that first film in a director’s life. And with so much at stake, first-time directors bring so much passion and energy and vision that is uniquely theirs that if you can, as a producer, mentor and guide them and harness all that energy and talent, the film that comes from that combination can be very special.
And that’s the very real upside to working with new filmmakers – that passion – and similarly working with new young actors as well – as I was lucky to do with Sean Penn, Esai Morales, Ally Sheedy, Alan Ruck and Clancy Brown in BAD BOYS, who were pretty much all unknowns at the time. And later we had a parallel experience working with Josh Peck, Rory Culkin, Trevor Morgan, Scott Mechlowicz, Ryan Kelley and Carly Schroeder in MEAN CREEK, which won a Spirit Award for an acting ensemble.
AFI: For each of you, what does supporting the arts mean to you in this uncertain time? How can we continue to champion filmmakers and arts nonprofits?
Rick: It’s such a loaded question, especially now when the soul of our country is clearly in such a deep crisis. Powerful art unleashes powerful emotions. Those emotions can be uplifting and healing or dark and divisive. A call to action, or a call to complacency. And new and emerging artists – with new voices – hopefully look at our world with new vision and new insight and ask “why?” Or maybe, “why not?” Sometimes we need the answers. But sometimes we just need the questions.
Julian: I think screens are necessary for indie film to live on, especially around the world and in the Latin American film industry, where most of the revenue still comes from theaters. I think it’s time to surf, write and develop projects, live frugally, and convince everyone around you to get vaccinated as soon as a safe one is available. And I am so eager to be sitting at a screen at the Chinese Theatres in November 2022, during a packed AFI FEST, crying my head off at some deep disturbing drama around COVID-19.
Ryan: The arts are a great way to spread the word about important topics that deserve to be told, and we must continue to support it.
Narineh: The arts are the means through which we see each other, relate to one another, and understand ourselves. It’s tough when so many in our industry are out of work, but we should be using this time to look for the voices we haven’t heard from and for the stories we haven’t seen — and use whatever privilege we have to lift them up.