Jonathan Cvack is an independent filmmaker with his first feature film Road to the Well currently in release. We recently had the opportunity to ask him about the film and filmmaking in general.
TMI: Hello Mr. Cvack. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. You have a film currently in release called Road to the Well. Tell us about the project.
Jonathan Cvack: I’ve been working on this thing with a bunch of amazing people for nearly five years, having set out to make a film when I was 25 years old. I actually remember writing our business plan the night Obama got reelected which makes me realize how quickly four year goes by, as it honestly feels like just yesterday I went up to Tim Davis (our DP) and said I think we should make a movie. It reminded me of that scene from The Town, with me bursting into the room, except instead of wanting to go hurt some people I said we should make a movie. It was a ridiculous idea, as we didn’t know anyone with any money, or anyone who could get us money, and for a couple of kids making hardly any money in Los Angeles a few years out of college, it seemed impossible to raise a hundred grand.
So while the film is about three best friends who are reunited after a seemingly random murder, journeying up to the Northern Sierras in order to bury the body, meeting a bunch of strange folk along the way, it’s also the byproduct of an incredibly long and personal journey. I honestly can’t believe we made it to the finish line, out there for the world to see, as every step of the journey seemed insurmountable. The project is very much a movie about friends made by friends, not just for those who were initially involved, but all those who came along throughout every step of the journey, who I’m sure I’ll remain close to for the rest of my life.
Of course, those are more positive aspects, as the films imagines a much darker world in which none of that actually matters. I’ve always been very fortunate to have some close friends in my life and it was a terrifying thought to imagine a world without them. Road to the Well explores that world. So it’s a story more about why than who.
Tell us about casting. You’ve got a great bunch of actors in the film.
In order to prepare for directing I enrolled in an acting class at The Actor’s Circle, taught by the brilliant and hilarious Marcie Smolin. She soon learned that I was about to launch a Kickstarter for RttW (Road to the Well), asked to read the script, and handed it off to her friend and casting director Billy DaMota, who’s partnered with Dea Vise. They liked the script, and decided to work with us to try and lock down a solid cast, which they delivered above and beyond my wildest expectations.
I had casted some digital projects and student stuff, but this was the first time I was working with professional casting directors, and it was such an incredible process. They brought such a wide ranging and diverse roster of talent to the table, and it was us three looking for our team; putting a bunch of headshots down on the table and seeing who would be best with who. The process became one of my favorite parts of the entire journey, as it wasn’t just seeing words come to life, but completely exceeding my expectations of the story’s potential. The entire cast had such colorful and rich personalities that really helped make the material pop. It’s so great seeing so many of them going on to bigger things, and feeling fortunate that I got my time to create with them for a little while.
The lone drifter in this genre is a classic film trope that gives filmmakers an open canvas of sorts in crafting a character. With Jack, I get the sense that he’s more metaphorical than actual. My theory is he’s the darkness inside Frank embodied by Jack in the story. Without spoiling too much, could you shed some light on these diverse characters?
The pairing of Jack and Frank was very much inspired by Swingers, Sideways, The Last Detail, Black Sheep, any Lemmon/Mathau film, and other buddy movies. I actually just watched Mikey and Nicky a few days go and really wish I had seen it before RttW.
At the time I was writing this, Tim and I were roommates. We moved out here from the Chicago suburbs, having known each other since junior high, even swearing a blood oath in high school that we would come out to LA and make movies. We became close friends with this other guy named Nick Mathews, whose parents owned a cottage up at Donner Lake, where he invited us for a trip. It was an absolutely gorgeous place, and we all started talking about how cool it’d be to shoot a film up there. The wheels started turning and I began imagining three friends who were heading up to this lone cabin with this dark secret. Having been friends with Tim for so long and having gone through so much with him, I began wondering how far I would go for a friend. In this case, if your friend convinces you to do something wrong or face potentially terrifying consequences. I put myself in Frank’s place and began to slowly create a situation where I might very well do what he does; how with the right combination I could become vulnerable to another person’s exploits of whom I otherwise trust.
Nonetheless, the murder is really just a MacGuffin developed to explore and observe their relationship, and how they each progress as individuals – Frank becoming more assertive, while Jack struggles to control a complex situation. I’m not sure I could definitively say Jack is a representation of the darkness inside Frank, or that he’s someone that got corrupted by a particular event, which broke his ability to know right from wrong. Perhaps a mixture of both.
A lot can be learned about the story if viewers are careful while watching the opening moments, which seem only like a bit of character introduction. You overplay this with music that purposefully nearly drowns out the dialogue and I sense this was a ploy to keep us off track. In fact, you encourage viewers to turn up the sound while watching the film. Tell us about this and why sound is important to the experience.
One of my favorite chapters of the entire journey was the post-sound process, where we got to design a score that complimented the story and then design an environment for that music to operate within. I always knew I wanted a very powerful score, both to help create that cinematic experience and aid the story, which Conor Jones did an absolutely fantastic job of writing.
I wanted the opening song by Barn Owl to hook the audience right in, planting a bunch of simple, memorable little questions that would slowly be answered throughout the film. I’m a voracious reader and all the great novels contain incredible opening sentences or paragraphs, and film follows in the same manner, with its opening shot (or sequence) serving to pull you right in. I just watched Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade for the first time in about a decade, and that opening scene is one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen in an action film. The mission for RttW was to try and create a gripping intro that would set the tone, shocking the viewer awake, with the music rumbling their seat.
Speaking of action, Road to the Well film is conversationally-driven, with what seems like a conscious effort to avoid action-thriller movie standards. For example, a pivotal moment with Ruby’s death is a fade to black that in other films would be an extended, perhaps gratuitous scene of violence that you omit completely. It’s an interesting choice given modern film trends use of graphic imagery. Was this a creative decision from the start?
Two of my favorite movies are Jaws and Sideways, each which influenced the story in certain aspects. In terms of Jaws, it was Steven Spielberg’s ability to show rather than tell, as most great horror films do – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blair Witch Project, and Evil Dead. I just revisited Halloween and each time I grow more surprised by how mild the violence is, and yet if you watch it with anyone who’s seeing it for the first time, they think it’s incredibly graphic. It speaks volumes to John Carpenter’s skill.
So I took lesson and didn’t show the violence because I knew the imagination would do a far greater job of filling in the blanks than I ever could. My mission was to make sure that there were enough details so that people could piece things together a bit more specifically.
Regarding the dialogue, when done well, conversation can make up for other limitations. The West Wing is just people walking around the White House, but Aaron Sorkin’s so good at dialogue that a mixture of the movement and what’s being discussed help push the story forward. Unfortunately, due to time and money and my own limitations, we couldn’t always rely on this method.
I really liked the character of Dale, the former military chaplain played by the great Marshall R. Teague, a man with some secrets of his own who corners Jack and Frank but in unexpected ways. Arguably, the film’s most gripping moments come during a simmering bit of dialogue between these men that I found reminiscent of the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Without divulging its impactful conclusion, could you tell us a little about how this came about?
I’ve heard this a bunch of a times and I’m actually flattered, as I’ve only seen the film once before writing RttW, so while it might have played a subconscious role, it wasn’t directly pulled. On the other hand, Reservoir Dogs is my absolute favorite Tarantino movie, and I think if anything else, it was his ability to – like Sorkin – move the story forward through dialogue that I find so entertaining and inspiring. Its opening scene remains both one of the greatest intros and greatest dialogue sequences of all time. I think every budding filmmaker who watches it gets that bug to try and replicate what it accomplishes. However, there’s only one Tarantino, and combining violent figures with popular culture is something hardly anyone else can replicate. So it was more about finding the mechanics that made it work so well, and drawing inspiration from that.
In terms of the military, I truly appreciate its tradition and sincerely respect those who offer their lives for this country. I think too many people get caught up in the politics to understand that, at it’s core, a life in the military is an exceptionally selfless gesture. So I began wondering about a character that might have felt as though he’s lost that honor.
During the time I started writing this, the Iraq War had been winding down and so I imagined a man who had returned home, with his wife gone. Up there in Donner Lake, it can get pretty lonely in the off season, especially once it starts snowing. This seemed like a great combination for a character who could finally match Jack’s intelligence and insight, spinning the situation around and finally putting Jack on the defensive.
As an independent filmmaker, what are some challenges you faced in producing your first full-feature film, but also what are some advantages in do so as well?
It took 2.5 years to find the money to finish this film, and unless you come from more a resourceful background, it really forces you to become a businessman during the financing stage. When it’s your first film and you have hardly anything else to show (comparably speaking), it puts you in a position where you must sell yourself to others. And while the financing was the most grueling chapter of the entire process, it does train you to accept that there are solutions to every problem. Every single chapter was wrought with difficulty, often with me seriously believing the project would never see the light of day, let alone find distribution. Dealing with such a difficult process made me all the more prepared. Producing trains you to look past the many rejections, and come up with alternative solutions. By this point, I have no problem getting fifty No’s to a single Yes, and I think that’s an important skill to develop as a filmmaker.
If you’re the writer, directing a film is a defensive position, where you’re constantly battling against obstacles that stand in the way of what you imagined. Having produced the movie as well, I quickly learned, long before we ever entered production, that there will be many problems, and the most important thing to remember is that there is always a solution – doesn’t mean it’s the best solution, but you can’t hesitate, as the moment you get overwhelmed by the fear of failure, you’re going to make bad decisions.
What’s next for you? Do you have any up-coming projects that we can expect soon?
I just finished what I hope will be the next project, which I can’t mention just yet, but is a type of chamber drama, ensemble thriller. I had been working on it all year, hoping to have it done before our film was released. So I’m about to try and start the journey all over again. It’s got me very excited. I also write regularly about old and new films at my website YellowBarrel.org.
Our site often devotes a lot of writing to moments in movies that considers their importance and influence in cinema. You’ve mentioned a few already, but what are some movie moments, or movies in general, that have helped shape your path?
As mentioned, Reservoir Dogs, Jaws, and Sideways, but I’d also put The Thin Red Line on the list. I finally got to see the film in theaters and it was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, up there with There Will Be Blood. While in post-sound, our designers at Icemen Audio recommended we check out It Follows in theaters. That was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. I think it will forever change horror films, acting as the launch pad to a new movement, as Halloween did for slashers, Blair Witch for found footage, or Saw for torture porn; ushering in this era of art house horror films. Seeing that while we were mixing our film, with it’s brilliant design and score, was something that will forever change my approach to story.
In terms of a moment, to this day my favorite scene of all time is the U.S.S. Indianapolis scene from Jaws. I’m not sure what it is that makes someone connect with a great scene, but even as a kid, I remember anticipating this moment, nearly holding my breath as Quint tells the story. By this point in the film the relationship between Quint, Brody, and Hooper evolved into friendship. There was something about being privy to this intimate conversation, while they’re out in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night, with a shark hunting them down that created the perfect balance between mood and material. So maybe that’s what inspired the three friends in our film, as we get to witness their intimate conversations, with this dark obstacle hanging large in the background. I’m embarrassed to say I never thought of it until now. I’ll have to sit on that. Hopefully I can get back to you after we make the next one.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions. Best of luck with Road to the Well and your future as a filmmaker.
Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.