Indie Filmmaker of the Day: Jeffrey Grellman, director of ‘Mermaid Down’
Take a trip under the sea with Jeffrey Grellman’s Mermaid Down. Jeffrey Grellman was raised in Belgium and that’s where his passion for filmmaking began. Grellman and his family moved to San Francisco when he was just eight years old.
After studying literature, film, and violin, Jeffrey was selected for the prestigious Artistically Gifted and Talented Education program. He then studied special effects and creature development with Michael Wick (Arachnophobia).
Grellman is currently promoting his latest film, Mermaid Down. This mermaid gets captured, her tail amputated, and she is sent to a mental institution because no one believes she’s a mermaid. Sounds like what would’ve happened if Eric from The Little Mermaid was having a bad day.
Previously, Grellman was the director and writer of Whiskey Blue: a writer defeats his writer’s block when an unfolding mystery and an adventure of supernatural discovery collides in his own life and gives way to a better book . . . his own autobiography.
As its director and also an actor, Grellman was also a part of the film X Factor: an everyman courier struggles to impress his dream girl on their first date, but must face a series of challenges from a group of deadly thugs who mistake him for someone else, making for a wild and adventurous night out for the couple.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Before I could get my hands on my Dad’s old super-8 camera, I started drawing storyboards as a kid to illustrate camera angles. Eventually, I had a video camera and started shooting short films every day after school. That lasted for years. With a few exceptions toward the end of my teen years, most of the work was really bad, of course. At the age of 21 I was empowered with a small amount of funding from an investor.
It wasn’t enough to make a traditional movie, but I gave it my all and filmed a feature. From there, I did everything from directing industrial videos to making sizzle reels for scripts I was writing.
I got caught in the proverbial hamster wheel with that stuff – trying to get films off the ground with those short pieces but not really getting anywhere because producers were usually reluctant to get behind an untested filmmaker with some untraditional story ideas.
It seemed like everyone was responding to my writing and directing but were afraid to take a chance on me. That’s what led to my decision to start entering my scripts into competition, because I needed to get some legitimacy.
Who are your current influences?
I’m still inspired by the masters: Scorsese, Fellini, Godard, Allen, Lee, Kubrick, Chaplin, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Burton, Ford, Lean, Tarantino, Lumet, the Coen Bros., etc.
But Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 was inspiring to me in the 90s and has recently come back with a vengeance because I’ve been incrementally sharing my favorite films with my wife and I just showed her that one. I just love that film. It still holds up. It’s so pure and beautiful.
I’m also influenced by the brilliance of Ricky Gervais and Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Kevin Smith and what he’s doing with distribution – finding another way, outside the box.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
Fleabag (original, sophisticated and funny)
Barry (because it’s an HBO masterclass)
Black Mirror (our modern Twilight Zone)
Rick and Morty (if you haven’t already)
Baskets (the first and second seasons)
Cat or dog?
Dog. I grew up with an Old English Sheepdog and my current puppy, Wendell Chesterfield Buttons, is a weird, little maltipoo. I think he thinks I’m a milk farmer because he wakes me up every morning at around 4:30am. We go on a long nature hike every day and just about everywhere else together -– even to the grocery store. Naturally, he’s my best friend.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
The hour-long PBS documentary that aired in 1981, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was my first exposure to behind-the-scenes and it still holds up as one of the best because it doesn’t glamorize or romanticize making movies. It shows you the grit – the real personalities and the life experience that making movies can offer.
How was working on Mermaid Down? What did you learn from the experience?
Working on Mermaid Down was extremely difficult, but always fun. We didn’t have any real prep time in pre-production so everything was a scramble to get things ready for the shoot because I was not only directing it, but I was producing it as well. That meant building, preparing, making phone calls, and reshaping/redesigning my shots all night so I’d be ready to shoot in the morning.
I averaged 2-3 hours of sleep a night, which should have made me a wreck, but when I’m directing, for some reason, I just wake up and am totally present. I just love directing so much.
I learned so much about producing a film through to distribution, as well. Worth its weight in gold because now I can reverse engineer a production for wide distribution and access funding with a producer’s mind for it – despite being intrinsically a writer/director. It’s empowering to finally have the mystery of producing illuminated.
How does your Euro/American upbringing influence your filmmaking?
I think it just made me feel comfortable with being an outsider – and comfortable with the odds stacked against me. Coming to the States when I was eight years old was a fairly severe culture shock. American kids immediately told me I was different. So I had to figure out who I was pretty fast and be secure with it. I think that has made me feel confident in my artistic choices. I like going with my gut and going against the grain.
I played the violin and loved classical music as a teenager but only felt comfortable with the goths, stoners, punks, and weirdos. That felt like home. A horror film about a mermaid ripped from the ocean before her tail is hacked off with an axe felt honest . . . and I didn’t let studio executives or production companies talk me out of it – no matter how hard they tried to convince me to do something more safe, more vanilla.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker before I was ten years old so any “career” before I found film was just about saving money to make short films or working somewhere where my film studies would benefit.
I worked at a mom & pop video store called CinemArt where the owner let me take home a stack of films every night. That was my studies. I took notes on everything – even if I didn’t like the film. Then I worked as a doorman at the Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco for a couple years. I made a decent living doing that and was able to save up quite a bit of money for my filmmaking.
That job also gave me so much in terms of relationships. I’d meet ambassadors from other countries and get into in-depth conversations with them. I became familiar with all the transients and hustlers on the street. And I met my first and life-long investor while working at that hotel, a man who continues to invest in my filmmaking to this day.
I was also working as a voice artist for radio advertising and video games at that time, which was really just about making as much money as I could so I could just go and make movies.
Where did the concept come from for Mermaid Down?
I was eating sushi at a little place I use to frequent in Koreatown in Los Angeles. I was all by myself and lost in thought. I looked down at my plate and noticed the seaweed wrap around the sushi looked like a mermaid’s tail because the end piece had broken open and was spread out like a fin . . . but the sushi roll was all cut up.
The roll looked like a cut-up mermaid’s tail, and that was a visual that felt interesting because mermaids are from our childhood and they’re from mythology. To chop off one’s tail would instantly connect the audience to a protagonist that no adult should really connect with. I liked that. I like building the bridge to the audience within the concept itself.
When I told my girlfriend, Kelly, who was studying to get her doctorate in psychology at the time, she responded to it with glee. She just thought it had the psychological underpinnings of a good story – so we hashed out the rest of the basic points right then and there. The mermaid would be thrown into a mental home where no one believes her story and befriend a troubled ghost, who was a former patient.
What music inspires you to create?
Everything from Tchaikovsky and Dvorak to obscure French pop. I love it when something catches me off guard and fills me up so much that I tear up while writing. Even if it’s bubblegum and contemporary, doesn’t matter what it is – as long as when it gets in, it turns into fuel.
When I design my shots – the lens, composition, blocking, movement and angle – I listen to film scores. The big stuff from the late 70s and 80s, of course, because that was my childhood, but also scores that just resonate with me like the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin or The Piano soundtrack by Michael Nyman and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada soundtrack by Marco Beltrami.
Talk us through your creative process.
It always stems from a visual concept that comes to me. Then if I can’t shake the image, I obsess. My stories tend to come from contrast. Contrast that hasn’t been done but somehow comes together in a way that’s compelling, like a mermaid in a mental home.
I tend to outline my story for a couple weeks before writing – a very rough outline that will adhere to the narrative I want to tell. Then, when I actually start writing, I start from the beginning and just go . . . as long as I keep making discoveries about the characters and story as I write, I’m comfortable.
The things I don’t know keep me intrigued because I don’t know who the characters really are or what the story really is until I write. Like freeform but with an underlying structure and tone in place. The moment the script is complete, I’m editing the script and designing my shot list in my head, which I’ll keep doing for months at a time, all the way up to filming.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Think outside the box. We need filmmakers to bring originality back to movies in a world of sequels and remakes. Even if your idea isn’t commercial or makes everyone you know rolls their eyes, just push to be true to yourself and what you want to see. It’s important that you trust yourself and don’t play it safe.
On the technical side of things, learn about the distribution process. Take Stacey Parks’s course. She was a sales agent and offers an affordable site where you can learn about distribution and how to shoot for it.
And if you can access any producers at all, don’t just pitch to them, milk them for information. Have four or five questions planned that will help you learn about producing – usually they are happy to share, and it will empower you as a filmmaker because eventually you will have the confidence to produce your own film, not just direct it.
Lastly, if you’re going to make a horror film (because that’s a genre that can get distribution even if there are no stars) then try and shoot for a 90- to 95-minute running time.
I made a 2 hour 15 minute movie that was standing on the shoulders of my award-winning screenplay. I thought it was impervious to studio cuts because the awards were prestigious. I was wrong. That humbled me significantly, and removing 40 minutes from my story was a long, painful process that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I geek out for old school practical FX. Miniatures, silicone monsters, pyrotechnics, animatronics – even candy glass makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but the thing that makes me geek out more than anything else is camera movement and composition of frame.
I watch movies with the sound off all the time just to see the camera work tell the story. I love that. It’s my favorite part of directing and so rarely applied to modern, big-budget filmmaking. In the old days, directors had their shots planned out in advance because the setup was so laborious.
The shots would glide from composition one to composition two to composition three without cutting once – and when they did cut, it meant something. Designing my shots keeps me up all night but I’m smiling up into the dark ceiling like a kid who wants to be an astronaut, staring up at the stars.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
Directing a movie is always going to be a bit of wearing all the hats anyways because you’re guiding every department toward your vision and making the ultimate decisions, so being hands-on just feels like an extension of the job.
I am, however, really looking forward to collaborating more with professional crew and actors, but I’ll always be hands-on. I love every aspect of filmmaking and love the technicians and artists involved in that process. I love the collaboration.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Chaplin’s Modern Times. It never gets old and I never grow tired of seeing it. It’s just so funny and so beautiful. A perfect film, I think. It’s calming to watch and deceptively simple. The character of the Tramp in that movie feels like the way I feel inside.
What’s your next project?
The next one is based on an unusual concept that won’t let me go. Tonally, it’s realistic – and pretty different from Mermaid Down (which is stylized like a dark cartoon).
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I found mentors in FX people, writers, producers and sometimes just a person following the unbeaten path because they were compelled by some sort of intrinsic instinct. It’s always good to seek the advice of those older than you, and it’s not really hard to find if you’re putting yourself out there.
I think being open to people is important so that if there’s something to impart, you will absorb it. Try not to think of yourself as being the next game-changing genius who only needs to be discovered. Every artist thinks of themselves that way but resist the urge. That’s just fear of rejection disguising itself as artistic confidence.
Instead, put yourself out there with your work – fail and fail again so you can learn. By putting yourself out there you will naturally attract and come into contact with people who can help you.
What has been your biggest failure?
My first feature was like a student film but wasn’t associated with any school. It was a labor of love, titled Whiskey Blue, and it is, without a doubt, my biggest failure because I shot it on mini-DV when mini-DV films were selling at Sundance. But when I finished post-production (a process that took years because I did it all myself), no distributors were accepting mini-DV films because the trend had turned to HD.
Every independent film had to be HD or they wouldn’t look at your movie. That failure not only humbled me tremendously, but it taught me everything I couldn’t learn from film books, sneaking into film schools, or watching behind the scenes documentaries. It was the best filmmaking education I could have received.
It taught me how to make a movie and where my weaknesses as a filmmaker lie. It strengthened my resolve to make a movie designed with distribution in mind. And it humiliated me, because it never saw the light of day. It still haunts me.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I just want to bring an emotional experience to the viewer in a new and fresh way. Trite but true. I want the audience to be smiling and to feel like they’re in good hands.
If it’s Mermaid Down, then I want them to be smiling at the absurdity, the carnival-like twists and turns, and to be incrementally picking up on the emotional narrative the experience is built upon. This film is tongue-in-cheek, playful and dark with subtextual themes and an emotional spine. The story should seem strange at first glance . . . then resonate.
What has been your biggest success?
Career-wise, it was the critical response to the Mermaid Down screenplay and the wide distribution for the film despite its insanely low $85,000 budget. This exceeded my wildest dreams. It’s everywhere. All over the world.
I half expected Mermaid Down to be shown on some unknown VOD platform before disappearing entirely. It’s such an unusual little offbeat movie that I never assumed it would be widespread like this.
In life, however, my biggest success is marrying my wife, Kelly.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I would love to work in television. I have something I want to bring to HBO, but who knows.
I love the time given to build character, story, and the freedom to explore routes in television that a film’s running time doesn’t allow. Film has always been my first love, but lately television has become a wealth of inspiration, artistic originality, and dramatic quality.
What’s your five-year plan?
I want to have my next two films out there within five years. Hopefully, I can keep building toward autonomy, to some extent, so I can hire the people I want to hire and retain final cut.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Jim Hosking. He directed The Greasy Strangler and An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn. He’s really bringing something new and has the chops to accomplish comedic timing and original story work.
Gillian Robespierre. She directed Landline with Jenny Slate and John Turturro. She’s one of those filmmakers that just captures me. Her films feel raw and honest – like Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen when he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives and Hannah and Her Sisters.
Anna Biller. She wrote, directed (and did just about everything else including production design) a film called Viva that was so bold in its style and so sophisticated that I imagine a lot of people won’t get it – but she’s a master, and I have a lot of respect for her work as an original artist with a real voice.
Brett Haley. He directed The Hero and I’ll See You in My Dreams. I’m just a huge fan of his work. I’ll watch anything he ever does. He captures emotional truth unpretentiously . . . and paces his films elegantly. I love his work.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
I don’t have a one film anymore because it’s somewhere between several. Jaws, Buffalo 66, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, La Dolce Vita, Psycho, True Romance, Edward Scissorhands, Smoke, Dead Man Walking.
But Raiders of the Lost Ark was the one for most of my childhood. I learned more from that film than any other. What Spielberg does with the camera: the exquisite synchronicity of humor and art. The kinetic, visceral aspect that harkens back to Buster Keaton. The immersive, completely believable art direction, inspired by Casablanca, that took us back to that era without any visible seams in the fabrication.
Raiders just managed to balance the ultimate utility of movies, telling a good yarn that makes you feel good, while retaining historic verisimilitude throughout. It’s such a work of art.
Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
I wish I could say Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia), but maybe Carl W. Stalling, who wrote most of the Looney Tunes, would be more appropriate.
Do you draw on your music knowledge in your filmmaking career?
Heavily. Music is playing in my imagination when I write – when I direct. I even keep time with my hand between shots to retain the tempo I want for the sequence.
I remember for one shot in Mermaid Down when the girls are trapped in the sleeping quarter, and Dr. Beyer is pounding on the door, I started humming the anxiety-ridden music I was hearing in my mind. I think the cast looked at me strangely at first but by doing that, the few actors that weren’t reacting appropriately suddenly understood the mood of the shot and got into it in a way that articulating just wouldn’t.
I’m always changing my technique for directing based on what the moment calls for, even if it means doing something slightly odd.
Tell us about your experience working with Michael Wick.
I took classes from Mike Wick. I was a teenager but found this course he was teaching on building monsters out of foam, so I just went after it. He was the first real special FX guy I had ever met. It was a really big deal to me because he had been involved in so many big, Hollywood films I cherished.
I remember Mike had this van and when he opened it, the whole inside was filled with monsters and creatures he had built. To me, he was Fonzie. He was the coolest cat on Earth. I even signed up for his course again the following year and when he saw me again, he said, “I’m not teaching anything new – it’s the same course.”
But I didn’t care. I just wanted to be around him again so I could ask him questions about making movies and get more behind-the-scenes stories out of him. He was really nice about it because he could see how genuinely enthusiastic I was about making movies.
Where can our readers see Mermaid Down?
Mermaid Down is available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Comcast, Charter Spectrum, Cox, Vubiquity (with similar VOD platforms all over the world – and a theatrical release in some countries) and is now available for rent in Redbox, as well. It will be coming to DVD/BluRay in January at Walmart and Target before moving to television next year.