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Filmmaker Joshua Caldwell has been working in the industry for nearly twenty years as a writer, producer and director. His latest film, Negative, is now in release, a film that I found a bit frustrating despite some good moments. Mr. Caldwell, graciously accepted my opinion with enthusiasm and after an exchange on Twitter, I offered him a chance to defend and discuss his movie with me. Here’s what he had to say.
JOSHUA: I’m a director, writer, and producer. My debut feature film LAYOVER (http://www.layoverfilm.com) was made for $6000 and had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. In 2015, I directed the first season of Hulu’s SOUTH BEACH and the Paramount Pictures feature film BE SOMEBODY. And in 2017 my new film, NEGATIVE, premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival and was just released on Digital HD and OnDemand.
Negative follows Natalie (Katia Winter), a former British spy who flees Los Angeles for Phoenix after a deal with a cartel goes wrong. She’s joined by Hollis (Simon Quarterman), a street photographer who has put his life at risk by taking Natalie’s photo at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
We never could have made an overt action film with the budget we had. To do so would have resulted in a really, really terrible film because you really need resources and money to do action right. So, from the beginning, I knew this was never going to be a Bourne movie. In a Bourne movie, the trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix would have taken three seconds and they would have continued on from there. What I was interested in was: what happens to these two people during those 8 hours (or in the case of our film, 20)? What do they talk about? How does that relationship change when you’ve spend that amount of time with someone? I wanted to make a slow burn noir thriller with some action, not an action film. The idea was: what does a French New Wave version of this film look like?
I feel like too many movies today are following too strict of a formula – and with nothing to lose I wanted to make something different. Something that felt messy and imperfect and random. Because life is like that. Life isn’t an overt action film and its not a relationship story, it’s a mix of each (and many other things). I was far more interested in what happens when you take these two characters that are similar but very different from one another and throw them into a car for two days than I was in satisfying a plot. Maybe that was a mistake, I don’t know. We tried to serve both by building the film the way we did. Making Natalie a spy and on the run from people who want to kill her, we knew that having scenes of action (shootouts, fight scenes) would make sense and fit in the story. But not having the budget to satisfy action scene after action scene, we had to put the focus on what happens relationship wise between these two characters. But it’s obvious a challenge because I don’t think this film is distinctly one or the other, so both elements need to feel real and organic.
Part of what excited me about the story was the role reversal. I love telling stories about female protagonists that aren’t wives, girlfriends or mothers. Katia’s character, in most people’s films, would have been a man. But I was far more interested in seeing that character from a female perspective. She’s a lonely figure with a job that, honestly, kind of sucks. She’s not Bond and I wouldn’t say her life is exciting. In our film, she’s eating shitty diner food, staying in crappy motels, continually chased by people who want to kill her, and all this time, stuck with this whiny guy who doesn’t appreciate the level of danger they’re in or the steps she’s taken to save his life. And I think it’s telling, from a character point of view, that she never once considers leaving him behind, even at the beginning in his apartment. She knows that if the assassins come up to this apartment and he’s there, they will kill him. It doesn’t matter what he says or what he does, he will die. So, under this façade of badassery, she has a conscience and its Hollis that brings it out of her.
Working with Katia was a dream. Frankly, working with everyone in this movie was a dream, Simon, Sebastian and all our supporting cast. I mean, Luke Hemsworth came out and did a barely there cameo for the fun of it. In production, people were really supporting the film. Katia had to go a bit further though in her prep. We had her out in the desert working with former Special Forces guys, teaching her the skillsets she would have if she were a spy (clearing rooms, handling weapons, etc). We had an excellent firearms instructor named Ben Smith and he got Katia out on a live fire range with real weapons. She was learning to draw and fire, conceal and carry, everything she would know how to do. Then, I’d have her practicing how to draw a weapon so it became second nature. She had to work on her fight rehearsal with Sebastian. She was all in, as was Simon, since they’re in 90% of the film. Katia is incredibly talented and it was excited to see her in a role she had never played before.
To be honest, I wish I had more of it. The struggle with the films I’ve made is that they’re smaller budget without huge releases. So, you’re not getting a flood of critique back. The critique you get is usually on IMDb or whatever and its like “This film sucks” or “Enjoyed it.” I wish more people gave the film thoughtful criticism. Spent time with it, consider it more than quick viewing to get a review out there. At the same time, while you may not find it to be worth watching, someone else might. But they might be stopped by your review. And that sucks as well. There are plenty of movies out there that critics hated that I love. And I love it for all the reasons critics hated it. I’m so bored now by all these movies that are basically the exact same story, with the same structure, the same turning points and it’s really just a new set of characters and locations. So, I really crave something different, something unique, so I try to make films that reflect that because at the budgets I’m working at, why not take a chance?
For me, it’s a struggle just to get someone to not only take the time to watch one of my films but then write a thoughtful critique about it because it means even if they hated it, they cared enough to take the time to think about it. It doesn’t change what I would do on my end, but it would tell me that people are taking my work seriously.
I have great respect for anyone willing to watch a film and critique, I really do. I don’t take issue with any of your opinions of the film. As I’ve said before, I don’t control that. And I understand that you’re also not able to really sit with a movie (whether you wanted to or not) or deep dive or give it great consideration. You probably watch it once, write your review based on notes and move on to the next film you’re trying to review. I get that.
Look, I obviously don’t agree with your assessment of the film and I think its better than you make it out to be. I really do. But I’m the filmmaker, of course I feel that way. And I don’t think its fair to the process of criticism to engage in a defensive back and forth. It calls into question your freedom to dislike something as a critic and my freedom to make whatever I want as a filmmaker. And that’s what great about movies, people are free to love or hate them as much as they want. Not every film needs to universally loved in order to have been a success. And frankly, I’d rather have people loving and/hating the film than be in the middle. Rick Ruben said that “the best art divides the audience.” And I think that’s true.
You wrote that you found the film “frustrating.” That is great. Do you know why? Because it means in some way you were engaging with it. You were active in your viewing even if it was negative (no pun intended) and I love that.
A few years ago, I directed a series for Hulu and the response was a big, collective “meh.” It was completely ignored, by critics and by audiences and it was if it never happened. That was the worst feeling as a filmmaker – to be ignored.
So, when I reached out to you on Twitter to thank you for taking the time to watch and review the film (despite your final assessment) I meant it. This is a little movie we went off and made in the desert. It has no major studio backing, no massive marketing push. So, I feel honored someone was willing to take the time to give it a chance and then write about it. So, thank you.
I don’t know if changes anything for you but we made this film, all in, on a budget of $100,000. Knowing that, we tried to be really smart with how we spent it. Instead of the traditional model of “let’s have a whole crew and trucks and trailers and then shoot for 10 days in one location with two actors” I really wanted to expand the scope of what I was doing on a budget. So, we shot with a really small crew (sometimes only two people but mostly it was three), we scaled up for certain scenes (the fight scene, the shootout) when we had to, limited the amount of equipment we had and more. The result was that we were able to shoot for 38 days. And on those days, I was never rushed and never felt like I didn’t have time. We were able to do a lot of takes, really let the performances place, make sure we got the coverage we wanted, and we were also able to shoot in a lot of different locations. Knowing the traditional limitations of our budget we sough to remove those limitations to deliver a film that felt bigger than what we had.
Most of the time, audiences aren’t going to know any of this, so they’re judging the film based solely on what it is, which is completely fair. But that also makes it really, really hard because you’re competing against movies with way more money, time and resources. So, it’s challenging. We tried to focus on story and performance and then make the bits of action we had as solid as possible.
I accept that my films (and everyone elses) are almost always going to judged solely on the execution itself, as they should be. Sometimes it’ll work for people and sometimes it won’t. It works for me. I love this film and I’m proud of the work we did on it.
I have no control over what people think of my work. Obviously, I hope they like it. And beyond that, I hope they engage with it. But that isn’t up to me. What is up to me is the work that I do, trying to make it the best it can be, and how I engage with people personally.
Because I make some of these films for super small budgets, there’s an element of education in what I do. When I was starting out, I wished I had Twitter to engage with directors and writers about they’re craft. Because of that, I try to be open about my process (by posting articles to sites like NoFilmSchool.com and MovieMaker Magazine) and being available to fans or younger film students via social media. I’ve been fortunate in that the haters have stayed away – everyone that follows me and tweets to me are really supportive.
Right now, I’m writing. I’ve got two feature films I’m taking out at the moment, I’m currently adapting a graphic novel for Adaptive Studios and I have a couple digital series in development. Nothing greenlit yet but I’m eager an anxious to get back out there shooting.
I think my favorite moment in Negative is after the confrontation with Graham and Candance when Natalie confronts Hollis. She throws him on the bed, gets right in his face and says:
“If you really don’t want to live, that’s your problem. But the second you jeopardize my life, it becomes mine. And I have enough fucking problems, do you understand?”
Up till now, Natalie has been pretty calm and cool, even during the altercation with Graham. But suddenly that facade cracks a little bit and we realize how stressed and vulnerable Natalie really is. Its not a massive moment, we don’t dwell on it and she doesn’t bare her soul. Its subtle and quick, as soon as she gets back into bed, its passed. But it was there and you’ve given a glimpse into something deeper about her.
Appreciate the opportunity to talk about Negative with you. Filmmakers don’t often get to engage with their critics in a meaningful way.