Split the screen with ‘Last Call’ director Gavin Michael Booth
Gavin Michael Booth is here to share his vision. The filmmaker cut his teeth on short films and video work for acts like D-12, Third Eye Blind, and Vanessa Carlton, but he recently made the jump to feature length narratives with the daring drama Last Call.
In addition to directing Last Call, Booth shared writing and producing duties with the film’s star, Daved Wilkens. The film showcases both sides of a wrong number call that has the potential to save a person’s life. Booth shows both sides of the phone call with split screen, and the actions of both main characters unfold in single, unbroken takes.
Film Daily had the pleasure of talking with Gavin Michael Booth about his career, his directorial debut, and his experimental approach to suspense. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your history in directing. How did you start your journey?
I was the geeky kid in high school who wanted to move to Hollywood and make movies. Always had a love for movies growing up. I was writing short stories in elementary school.
I started making VHS movies with a camcorder I bought with my paper route money. Filming with my neighbors and younger brother. My high school had a fairly elaborate communications program and editing system. That’s where I really cut my teeth.
After that I thought about film school but couldn’t afford it. I started my own company doing wedding videos, local TV commercials and started growing from there. Inspired by the likes of Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez I took the path of getting together 25K and making a movie. It’s that simple right? I made an indie feature!
All I needed to do was put it in Sundance and get Miramax to buy it. Easy. Except, I didn’t win Sundance. I didn’t get into Sundance. I barely survived making the film. A film no one should watch as a matter of fact. My path has been more about learning by failing and putting in my ten thousand hours.
I grew up in Canada right across the river from Detroit, Michigan. I started sneaking into concerts with a fake Canadian media pass. That led to meeting Third Eye Blind and working with them, still to this day actually. That adventure took me out to Los Angeles for the first time and opened more doors, much faster than bumbling in the dark had been providing for me.
You’ve done music video work for huge acts like D-12, Third Eye Blind, and Vanessa Carlton. What did you learn from these shoots that you were able to apply to your narrative films?
D-12 was simple videography – behind the scenes in studio and concert material. I did that for a handful of artists. I was largely working as a one man run-and-gun crew which has become invaluable training for projects now that I shoot as well as direct. It teaches you to think on your toes when you’ve only got one go at getting it right.
Vanessa Carlton was being part of a team crafting a documentary about the making of her sophomore album. That taught me how to look at building a story through non-fiction. Every album, the process of creating an album has a story to it.
With Third Eye Blind and the whole pile of music videos I’ve directed – that has been amazing to learn visual storytelling. The majority of my music videos are story driven, often not even including footage of the artists. When you don’t have dialogue, when you only have a very short time frame to tell your story in, you learn what works and what doesn’t very quickly.
In terms of behind the camera, music videos are constantly lowering their budgets year to year as the industry continues to change and you are asked to do more for less and with less resources sometimes.
I look at that as a proving ground to figure out how to make quality content with tight restraints. All of those techniques, tricks and cost savings are applied to my narrative work. Also it never hurts to have incredible musicians to call on when it is time for your films’ soundtracks!
You have also done short film and television work. Do you find that the role of a director changes depending on the medium?
There are differences in scheduling and technical approach as budgets, timeframes and size of crew vary amongst mediums but the director is still there to guide the story. To help amply the characters and emotional arcs. That’s my job – let the audience see and feel what the characters are going through.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I actually mentor more than I’ve worked with mentors for myself. I’ve definitely sought advice and guidance from all sorts of people in the industry along the way for specific items. I probably should seek mentorship! A lot comes down to my curiosity for other filmmakers’ journeys.
I’m always excited and inspired when I talk to people in the entertainment industry and hear how they build their paths. I always walk away with some great nuggets of wisdom to apply to my own career.
As for finding them, I think it is as simple as asking for that first date – you just have to work up the courage and ask. I do find most people aren’t too far removed from their humble beginnings and are willing to help people seeking advice.
The best wisdom I was ever given is, “Don’t ask for a handout, ask for a hand up.” If you are genuine, hardworking and ready to listen, there is a mentor out there willing to take interest in guiding your career.
Your new film, Last Call, details both sides of a phone conversation in real time. What was the inspiration behind the premise?
I’ve been long obsessed with real-time filmmaking. Russian Ark and Timecode blew my mind when I saw them. I had the opportunity to direct the world’s first live movie project for Blumhouse that was in real-time and did another twenty minute short film in a single-take as well as a handful of music videos in the style.
I came close to shooting another film in real-time but that project fell apart and to this day hasn’t come back down off the shelf. Daved Wilkins, who stars, produced and wrote Last Call with me brought the idea to a coffee meet-up we had one day. He’d been an actor in one of the real-time music videos I had done and thought I might be interested in the concept. He has a friend who was just finishing her training as a suicide hotline volunteer worker.
That was the core concept originally – a man calling a suicide hotline. It didn’t work for a realistic premise because hotline workers have very specific protocols and time limits on calls before they send a police officer to do a wellness check on an individual. It was the mechanics of making an authentic story that didn’t make light of such an important job, which led us to the idea of the misdial and it being a complete stranger on the other side of the call.
Did the concept for shooting the film in single takes inform the writing or did it come into play after the script was completed?
It definitely informed the writing because we knew we wanted to shoot authentic, no cuts single-takes. So that means that there were two camera crews running simultaneously in two parts of the city to execute the entire film in one go.
Knowing that, we were in an early pre-production at the same time as we were in developing the right technical approach as the script was being written. We had to find locations that were the correct distance from one another for the length of the film. We had to write and adjust the writing as we locked in the practical locations we were going to you.
We had to adjust writing sometimes to make sure we had the technical capacity to pull off what we had in the script, which was our teeny-tiny budget.
Did the script ever change to accommodate camera set ups? Did you allow any room for improvisation during shooting?
The script was changing and evolving up until we finished the last day of rehearsal and were about to start shooting takes. We had a ten day rehearsal process and then only four days of principal photography, in which we were either getting this in one shot or it was going to be a disaster we walked away from without a movie.
There were blocking and minor script adjustments as we built the camera paths on each side. Sometimes as simple as “Oh, Beth can’t walk that way because the camera operator will be seen in a window reflection”. Sometimes it was to avoid camera shadow (trust me when I say we didn’t have the budget to get fancy and paint these things out during post-production).
We were able to film every rehearsal since rehearsals were also technical rehearsals for the camera and sound teams. That meant we could watch those dailies back each night when we were done. Daved and I came to the realization that there was a major element of the script that just didn’t work. It sounded great on the page but wasn’t working when you watched it back.
It was digging at more and more and the night of our final rehearsals we had to admit that it wasn’t going to cut it. With this film, since we had no ability to edit scenes and moments, we had to change it.
Daved and I worked on a sleepless night rewriting 30 pages (of a 54 page script). Our first day of actual production we were all working with some new blocking and for Daved and Sarah, a ton of new dialogue to memorize lighting fast.
As for improv, the script was very tight and a lot of the information had to come out exactly as written in order for the story to unfold as it does but we did have what we called the accordion factor. From take to take, it might take Daved longer to walk from the bar to the apartment so Sarah had to be prepared for that initial phone call to come in sooner or later.
She had to have actions and blocking that were flexible in that situation. In the take that IS the film there are a few huge blunders in what should have happened. It was occurring on Daved’s end, which I was camera-operating, so he brilliantly found a way to cover his mouth and talk to the crew so we could, on the fly, improv a solution without wrecking the take.
Daved and Sarah are wonderful improv actors and yes, through the film a line here or there is said to be more flowery than written or gestures are coming from a natural performance that changes take to take but for the most part, they are spot on to the script.
We all wished we had more time to rehearse and film and more money to make the project easier but looking back, I think it is all of those pressure cooker elements that makes the film what it is and helps it retain a much more raw feeling.
Directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma have famously used split screen in their works. Did you pull influence from other films during shooting?
Absolutely. I mentioned Timecode and Russian Ark as real-time films I loved. We took the idea of doing our music score recording live from Russian Ark, the real-time and split screen comes from Timecode. Hitchcock’s Rope. De Palma split screen I’m a huge fan of. I was influenced by some of the strangest sources, an example being Doug Liman’s Swingers.
Years ago I read about the making of the film and how most of it was shot with available light. That’s been a favorite shooting style of mine for years and served us well in Scott’s apartment where we didn’t have the luxury of being able to hide cables and film lights which shot 360 degrees in the space in real-time.
What was the rehearsal process like? How many times did you run through the film with the actors prior to shooting?
Our ten days started by splitting the days. We’d work on Scott’s side of the story first. Blocking out the entire choreography and camera path. Sarah would be in the bedroom on the phone so that it was easy to stop-start blocking and rehearsals.
Then for the second part of the day we’d move over to the college location which served as Beth’s side of the story. We’d repeat the process, only now Daved was hidden in an office somewhere on the phone. It was important to be that the characters never work together in the same room, to keep the genuine fact they are strangers on screen intact as much as possible.
Prior to us all arriving in Windsor, Ontario, Canada to start the project, I was already there, Sarah was in Montreal filming a movie and Daved was in Los Angeles. So we were forced by our own schedules to rehearse over the phone which served the story well.
Once we had comfort in doing each side of the story separately, around the fourth day of rehearsal, we split up into the two teams and started running through takes simultaneously. Then our gaffer, DP, myself as director and both the actors could watch back the takes as I mentioned earlier.
Every department was able to see what they needed to adjust or could improve for the next day. Really no different than doing it shot to shot on a traditional film – just a much longer, far more complex two camera shot you have to adjust and tweak until it is perfect.
What was the most difficult part about shooting the film in long single takes?
I would say confidence to be imperfect. It’s just not going to be perfect. You have to accept that is part of the aesthetic. You’re going to buzz the focus here and there. You’re going to have blocking adjustments on the fly. The camera’s gonna shake a little when it shouldn’t. By nature of what you are trying to do, especially in the micro-budget world, it won’t be perfect.
But that’s what is exciting about a long single take, that is what you wanted to do so you have to look at those unexpected nuances to the performance and camera variation as exciting and what is going to make your film stand out. Outside of that I think the most difficult thing is truly asking yourself “Am I doing this one-shot as a gimmick because I want to have this elaborate take or am I using the long shot as a tool to tell this story and it is the best tool to make this movie work?”
I believe Last Call wouldn’t be the same film if cut back and forth traditionally. I think there is a time and place for long shots but often you see it where it is about the gimmick and actually pulls you out of the story.
In actually executing that long take, I think the difficulty lies in making sure you can keep the crew and cast’s energy up. Like anything, as fatigue and repetition sets in, you risk losing the magic of it. You could end up with a technically brilliant execution but dulled performances or vice versa.
Would you consider using a similar split screen process on future projects?
Absolutely. I have something on a larger scale that Last Call in early writing/development. The right tools for the right project. Last Call taught me so much about how to work with split screen and it has definitely expanded ideas on how I could use it on future projects.
What is the biggest difference between directing a short versus a feature?
Exhaustion. Ha! With a short you are usually filming for far less days and you don’t have the same lack of sleep that a feature can bring day after day as the schedule moves along. In terms of storytelling, with a feature you have a longer period of time you are following the characters on their journey.
There is much more to consider and keep up with making sure that the story is working, that the characters are in the right headspace, the right part of the story as you film. Generally you are shooting scenes wildly out of order and all cast and crew and looking to the director to have a crystal clear vision on where the story is and needs to lead at any given time.
Last Call has won several film festival awards, including Best Director at the Satisfied Eye International Film Festival. Were you taken aback by the film’s glowing reception?
Definitely. It’s played at festivals all over the world, we were fortunate enough to attend many of those and have watched audiences openly weep after our movie. We’ve had profound interactions with audience members in the lobby after the film or during our Q&As. Seeing the film connect with audiences has been a wonderful experience.
I won’t soon forget a sold out Chinese Theatre screening with a standing ovation anytime soon. Then you have all of the awards on top of that, it is truly something special that we couldn’t have expected. No Film School stated we might be the greatest single-take film in history. What?! How am I supposed to process such a compliment.
We set out to make something we would be proud of but you can never know how the public will receive it. It’s been fantastic to have this many people praise the film and take a positive message from it.
What’s the one thing you want viewers to take away from Last Call?
I hope they appreciate the simple, yet subtle message that sometimes, just listening to another human can have a great impact on their life. We are all too busy with our own problems, our own careers, our own free time and family and friends that often it goes overlooked how impactful giving up just a tiny slice of ourselves to listen to those around us could provide.
I also really hope that our film can open conversation on mental health. It is 2021 and it is STILL a highly stigmatized topic to talk about openly for the most part. I didn’t set out to direct this film to be a beacon of mental health conversation but having seen the impact on audiences, had discussions with those that have seen it and heard their feedback on what the film could mean to people and also having been able to host screenings that benefited mental health organizations – now I hope that can continue. I hope it can be a piece of positivity in the world.
You have worked as a writer, producer, editor, actor, etc. What part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy most?
Writing. It is when you are most free. You can be telling any story you want without technical, budget or any other restrictions. I’ve always enjoyed the randomness of where ideas come from and how stories develop.
I like writing on my own, I’ve been loving collaborations on scripts more and more in recent years. It’s honestly like being a kid again where your imagination has no limits and you can play in whatever universe you want to.
What has been your biggest success?
In terms of sheer numbers I suppose it would be a music video I directed for SYML called “Where’s My Love”. That had some viral success and seems to impact viewers. In terms of personal success, I can truly say Last Call. There is so much disappointment and so many people in your ear constantly in this industry telling you to do things one way or the other and it is really hard to tune out.
You often compromise your vision or just through the nature of all of the challenges you come up against while creating a project, it doesn’t personally fulfill you the way you had hoped. Last Call is our weird little movie we couldn’t get funded in the traditional ways.
It’s an unconventional storytelling attempt we were told by most not to attempt and we should compromise the vision before we even started. And we didn’t. We stayed true to what we wanted to do. I know it is our indie movie.
I know it is next to impossible for indie films to truly shine but dammit it, we made what we wanted and everything it has brought us through artistic satisfaction along with critical praise and new opportunities – that’s the best success I could hope for and the film is only just beginning its voyage for the public to see it.
How about your biggest failure? What did you learn?
I have to pick just one?! Probably letting my ego get in the way in the past and how that led to the deterioration of what might have been fantastic working relationships with people. I think that’s the hardest lesson I’ve learned along the way – get out of your own way and realize when you are wrong, how to communicate better and be less brash with folks working so hard alongside you.
Filmmaking is nothing but collaboration. You have to be the team captain as the director but you can’t lead and not be a teammate at the same time, if that makes sense. I don’t watch sports so when I lean into what I think are great sports analogies, often I have it all wrong!
If I was to talk about project failure and pure industry failure, it was putting all my eggs in one basket with a controversial film I had in development. Picked up a few different times by producers and distributors but the nature of the project’s contents always had people shy away and eventually the project was cancelled. I was so sure this was my big ticket, “the one” that would change everything, that I sat comfortably waiting for that to go to the camera.
I wasn’t developing other projects and for that I lost literal years of potential film projects I could have been making. That was a hard one to swallow. Things fall apart all the time in this business and that’s just part of the journey. You have to be moving several pieces on the board constantly just to eventually see one of them come to fruition.
There is no time to rest on your laurels (get it, see what I did there?), awaiting the Film Gods and powers that be too anoint you and make you the next “it” creator. Just hustle. Keep creating. Make shorts, work on your film’s project, write everyday. All of it is building a cache of projects that might see the light of day a year, ten years, or more down the road.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I have a feature film titled Primary that’s mostly done shooting but was paused by the pandemic. There is some quick additional photography to do on that. Then I just had a green light for a feature, Bless His Little Heart. We start work on that very soon. I can’t reveal anything else about it at this point.
With short films, I have four of them out at festivals, premiering soon. Those are titled “Rent Do” (written by Jonathan Dubsky and Daniel Kay), “In These Parts” (written by Ryan Powers), “You Knew It Was Me” and “Artifice” written by the talented folks at Alright Alice Productions.
I’m also launching a podcast. Something I’ve been developing and wanting to do for some time and of course it took a pandemic for me to make the time. That’s called Here’s My Advice (Not That You’ll Take It).
It focuses on interviewing folks in the entertainment business and learning of all the great and bad advice they have received in their career journey and or possibly given out to others. I’m fascinated with people’s origin stories and all the different pitfalls this industry has set out for us.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Stop reading this and go make something. Don’t wait for a better budget, a bigger name cast, a better deal, a fancier camera. Go make it. Start now. Not later. Read scripts. Study movies. Get involved with your friends projects, even if it isn’t a crew position that you dream about. Get involved – you’ll grow your skills, you’ll grow your network, you’ll learn storytelling over and over again.
No one is playing in the NBA because they sat on their couch watching basketball on television and said “I want to do that someday.” You might fail massively your first few outings but you’ll learn so much about how not to fail the next time and the next time.
Finally, what is your favorite film of all time?
That old chestnut huh? Only One? ONE FILM?! I have to go with Run Lola Run. Usually it’s just in my top five but sitting here, really thinking about it, it’s the one film that I can watch over and over and punches me in the face every time. Incredible movie.
So original, even today, so many years later. I saw it and thought, “There are no rules, go make whatever you want.” The narrative structure, the mix of digital video, film and animation. The music. Her performance. Just on another level.