Interview with director Nick Cotrufo

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

In 2014 I had written this short novel called Blue Eyes. When I got a few physical copies I had my friends read through it and each one of them said the same thing: good story, reads more like a movie. In 2016 I had a friend read it who said he wanted to try and shoot it as a low budget short. We started filming a few months later and I had no idea what I was doing and I loved every second of it. The story came to life and suddenly I had found an outlet to tell the world my stories.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

Absolutely not. It takes longer without an education, but it doesn’t make it impossible. When I first started working on shorts I had no idea how to light a scene, focus a camera, or how to operate a boom. Each short I’ve done I’ve learned something new and it’s been a great hands on learning experience.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Definitely harder to get started. You have this idea and in your mind it’s incredible. Now you need to find places to film, you need to cast your film, and most importantly you need to fund it. Once you have all of your pieces where they need to be, the rest of filming is a blast. There’s turbulent times when filming no matter what, but the project is at least off the ground. Fever Queen was one of the most difficult films I had started. It needed money and it needed a set to fit our vision perfectly. The mountain that will topple your progress is rejection, so I instead got used to it that way it would not slow me down.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

Keep calm under high pressure. I am a relatively anxious person. When things are not going right, you need to remember to stay calm and not stress everyone out. Don’t bring the team to your level. Before shooting Fever Queen I had gotten my hands on David Lynch’s book ‘Room to Dream’ and he discussed the ways he treated actors on set. He had patience and understanding with his cast. If there was a problem on set, he would pull his actors to the side and navigate them through a scene. So when we start filming I told the crew that I was going to method direct as David Lynch for the entirety of this production. I learned a lot of calming techniques and how to interact with each cast member individually.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

When we first began casting we had another person playing the lead part. She was perfect for what we wanted to do, but a week before shooting she called to say she could not be a part of the production anymore. We were scrambling to find a replacement and luckily our friend, Haley Grosvenor, volunteered. Haley was originally just going to be taking production stills, but as soon as we put her in front of a camera, the Fever Queen character came to life. From there we needed funding for an original score. We set up a gofundme asking for a thousand dollars to pay for music and send it to some more pricey festivals. In my experience, sending your film into free festivals just means more rejection. We did not make our goal but we came close enough.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

When we wrote the original script for Fever Queen the short actually took place inside of a motel. There’s this rundown motel about half an hour away from my house and it has this aura about it that’s a little spooky, but like it’s also frozen in time. I wanted to film in there. We went to the motel to rent it out for a weekend. They quoted us at about fifty dollars. Then they later asked how many people were gonna be in the room and I told them twelve. They did not seem pleased. They quoted me at eighty dollars. Again, not a problem. Finally, they emailed us again and demanded we pay fifty dollars per person. Suddenly my entire budget was going to a rundown motel. I almost cancelled production right there. My friend called me later that day and offered to let us use his house. His home had a sort of decrepit pain to it. Like ghosts were constantly watching you; it was perfect. It did mean we had to do a total rewrite of the script, but we rewrote it in a weekend and started shooting soon after.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

Roommates, tinder dates, old and new friends. Our team is small, but we’re friends. We’re constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and holding each other accountable to writing as much as we can. My roommate, Nick Blackburn, and I have been writing together for a few years and it’s never a dull moment. My director of photography, Celestial Jackson, went on a date with my friend and we ended up becoming really good friends. I’ve always cast my friends for my shorts. They always volunteer and I have yet to have had a bad experience with them. We are a tight knit friend group and our chemistry is incredible.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

The major audiences want movies that entertain in a very simple way. This is not a bad thing per se, but it does mean that writing can get a little lazy. I don’t know if filmmakers should really worry because they know what they want to make. They have their vision to put forth.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

On our first movie, film festivals played the role of soul crushing heartbreak. Our first short was submitted into one hundred and fifty festivals. It made it into one. The rejection emails came in daily and it was brutal. To be fair, the short was not good and looking back on it I am amazed it made official selection anywhere. Festivals give the filmmakers a chance to showcase their art on a grand scale. They are excellent marketing tools and self confidence boosters. For us, just making official selection is a big deal. We take every selection as a victory and it encourages us to not give up on this dream.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Originality is crucial. Originality is a gamble. Originality is filmmaking. Filmmaking gives you the opportunity to tell a story with the visuals you want and explain every detail that you feel is necessary. There is nothing wrong with classic/safe cinema, but filmmaking has no purpose without originality.