411mania Interview: Overtime Director Brian Cunningham
I often receive emails from young filmmakers wanting to promote their film and not to sound cynical, but I usually read it and then delete it. Unless something really catches my attention, they can get lost in the shuffle. That was not the case with Brian Cunningham, one of the directors of the new film Overtime, starring former WWE superstar Al Snow. He emailed me and told me how he made this film for under three thousand dollars. As a matter of fact, the film is now on Walmart shelves and can be bought on Amazon.com. His advice included five steps: Be the studio, define your movie and never stop rewriting, build a community, find a name actor, and find a good distribution partner. Recently, I caught up with the filmmaker to talk about his film Overtime, working with Al Snow, getting the film out there, and a whole lot more. Overtime can be purchased on Amazon.com or on Walmart shelves. Also, I will have an interview posted with Al Snow very soon, so keep your eyes open for that. There is also the audio of this interview included in a You Tube clip here.
TONY: I want to go backwards first. Who were the filmmakers and the films that inspired you in the first place to want to make movies of your own?
Brian Cunningham: Oh wow, that’s a big question. I remember growing up, just to give you an idea, every Friday, Saturday, and any other day I could do it, I tried to convince my mom to take me to a certain restaurant with a video store next store to it, so I could beg her to rent a movie afterwards. I’m pretty sure she caught on afterwards, but I watched hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of movies as a kid. I loved the Sci-Fi stuff. I was always a child of horror movies and would sneak and watch it when I wasn’t supposed to, watched all the Halloween’s, all the Nightmare on Elm Street’s. I loved Alien, all those movies. So I definitely had a big genre influence, but I also, as a teenager, was into Cameron Crowe movies, Almost Famous, and things like that, things that were in theaters that were kind of the heartier side of film I guess. It was this weird concoction of artistic independent feeling cinema and schlocky genre affair that all melded into what became my mushy brain.
TONY: When you sent me an email and on Dread Central, you talked about making this film for under three grand, $2,700 to be exact. Besides money, what was the most challenging part about putting this film together?
Brian Cunningham: For me, honestly, the biggest challenge was just saying yes and jumping into it, because I was working with a guy named Matt Niehoff, who is the co-director on Overtime, and he had been working on the script for Overtime. He came to me with the script and asked if I would shoot it. I said, ‘I’d love to shoot it for it for you. Can I give you some notes on the script?’ and that turned into about three months of rewriting and changing the whole plot and everything. When it came time to actually do it, it was Matt that gave me the nudge I needed because he was very much, ‘I’m going to make this movie. Are you in or are you out?’ At that point, I wasn’t one hundred percent confident we could pull it off on the budget we had, but it was like, ‘You know what? You only live once. Let’s jump into it. Let’s see what happens.’ Just having the guts to say I think we could pull this off, having the confidence in yourself to be able to do that, was really the biggest challenge. Once we got rolling into it, there wasn’t a chance to doubt ourselves. We were in and just doing everything we could to figure out how to make the movie work.
TONY: You also talked in the email about how it’s important when you’re doing something like this to have a name actor attached to the project. I thought it was so fascinating that you had Al Snow in this movie, because I used to watch a lot of wrestling before I was into movies and I always remembered Al Snow from ECW. Personally, before he was a part of your film, how familiar were you with his wrestling and what he could bring to the table?
Brian Cunningham: Matt was just like you. He had grown up watching wrestling and was a huge Al Snow fan, knew who he was. When we got the email asking, he emailed us to ask to audition, which was crazy, I remember Matt freaking out and ‘Oh my god, it’s Al Snow. We gotta get him into the studio to audition. We gotta pretend like we’re calm and like we’ve got our stuff together.’ For me, I was like, ‘I am pretty calm. Who’s this guy?’ I really had no idea who Al Snow was. I never watched wrestling. It’s funny because Matt was nervous about meeting him and excited for what he could bring. The second I heard that he was a wrestler on WWE, I knew what that meant for bringing people in. I just remember right before his audition, Matt and I looking at each other and going, ‘Well, if he’s decent, he’s probably got the role because he’s the only star we really have a shot at right now. He’s the only one crazy enough to do this on the budget we’ve got.’ So we basically crossed our fingers and we hoped he’s good. He came in and by far was the best person that auditioned for that character, hands down. We breathed a sigh of relief at that point.
TONY: From watching previous interviews with Al Snow, it seems like he brought so much of his own personality to it in terms of being a smart ass and having fun. How much of Al Snow did he bring to the project and how did that help the character?
Brian Cunningham: He brought a lot to it. I’m not going to say Raph as the character is very different from Al. Raph is a lot more frustrated and lets his emotions get the best of him a lot more than Al does, so I’m not going to say they’re the same character at all. The way Raph was originally written was less fun, less playful, and Al really brought his sense of humor to it and made the character a lot funnier, which played really well with John Wells as Max as well. We went into shooting and the script got pretty much rewritten from page one as we were shooting because we’d see what Al and John were doing on set, on the shoot and we’d say, ‘You know what? I like that dynamic a lot better than what we have written. Let’s rewrite what we’re shooting tomorrow.’
It was a pretty organic process where they’d mess around and play with the characters, we’d rewrite scenes to incorporate what they were doing, and they’d take those scenes and run with them and tweak it a little bit and we’d rewrite the next scenes. By the end, when our distributor asked us for the shooting draft of the script, we sent them a version so that they could do subtitles and they looked at the script and said, ‘How did you get the movie that you have out of this script?’ (laughs) I mean, it was just so different, entire chunks and set pieces were added later, so it became a very different movie and Al’s a big part of that.
TONY: In terms of what you put into the film, how much of a profit have you seen so far?
Brian Cunningham: So far, we’re still waiting for first quarter numbers to come out to find out officially how much we’re going to make. Movie just came out in January, so, so far no checks have been cut, no money has exchanged hands. Knowing that we put so little, financially at least, into the movie and just seeing the early numbers come out, I think we’re going to do good. As I think I said earlier, we never thought about the idea that this movie would be a financial success. It was always just about trying to make something we could be proud of, something to put our creative energies into. From that standpoint, the way Matt and I look at it, the movie’s already a success.
TONY: I love going on your Facebook page and Al’s as well and seeing all of the fans holding up their Overtime DVD’s and it seem like the fans are so positive about this and so passionate. Of course, they’re the number one barometer. What has it been like for you to have put all this time and work into it and to see that the fans are so passionate and so positive about it?
Brian Cunningham: It’s amazing to go on Facebook and see that so many people have taken the time to go out and buy your movie and then taken the time to watch it and have enjoyed it and taken the time to put out the picture with the DVD to help promote it. That’s hugely humbling for us. Honestly, when I first saw that that was happening, I couldn’t say thank you to those people enough and it also got me excited, to be honest, about making another movie. Overtime, I don’t think is a very critic-friendly movie. It’s very much for fans of the genre, people looking for a good time. Connecting with those people is really why we do this and gets me excited for telling more stories that hopefully the same group will enjoy.
TONY: You’ve posted how you actually did this for the money and how you made this possible. Looking back on it, even though you have explained the steps, are you still even surprised that you guys were able to do what you did on the budget that you had?
Brian Cunningham: Absolutely. There were times when I still have Overtime dreams and I wake up and have to tell myself, ‘Oh yeah. We finished it. It’s done. You don’t have to worry about it every day and where the next fifty or a hundred bucks is going to come from to buy the KY Jelly to make the blood for the next shoot that’s coming up on Saturday.’ I’m really surprised we got it to the point we did. It’s kind of a double edged sword. I never thought we wouldn’t pull it off, but at the same time, it’s surprising that we did. I don’t know how else to put it. What’s really surprising is how incredibly proud I am of it and the quality that it ended up reaching.
TONY: How many times have you seen the film, would you say, and how many times have you seen it with an audience, and what has it been like seeing it with an audience?
Brian Cunningham: With an audience as far as an actual screening, I’ve really only seen the movie three times at this point. We showed it at Fright Night in 2011, Derby City Film Festival, we showed it at Fright Night again in 2012, because they asked us to come back. It’s always a huge pleasure to watch it with an audience and I remember the last time we watched it at Fright Night, it was funny, because the picture was locked and we just signed the deal with our distributor and couldn’t help but watch it with an audience. When people didn’t laugh at something that was supposed to be funny or was just a chuckle instead of a big laugh, it’s almost impossible to shut down that part of my brain that keeps wanting to tweak it. I keep saying, ‘We should have done this. What if we went and reshot this?’ It’s like, ‘Dude, the DVD’s on Wal-Mart shelves. You can’t go and reshoot right now.’ But I’m like, ‘Yeah, we could make that funnier.’ I love watching it with an audience, but it’s difficult, every time I watch it with an audience, I want to redo something or make it better.
TONY: I mentioned how you wrote the steps for how to do something like this. What is the one thing that, the one piece of advice you can give to a filmmaker who’s reading this interview who has read your story and they’re kind of on the fence about whether they should make a film or not? You told me earlier how you needed some push from your co-director to do this. What is the one piece of advice you would give to a filmmaker in order to do something similar to what you’ve done?
Brian Cunningham: I would say jump into it immediately, but be smart about how you jump into it. I think we’ve all, I mentioned in the article, I went and listened to Kevin Smith speak when I was seventeen years old and his advice was just be a filmmaker. Take the money you’d put into film school and go make a movie instead. At the time, that advice did make sense. Now, with so many movies coming out, I think filmmakers have to be a little smarter about how much they put into a single movie. I’ve known filmmakers who have remortgaged the house and spent all that money to hire a DP to make the best looking movie they can make and hire everybody that they can get together and buy some equipment or worse, rent some equipment and go make one movie and then they realize, ‘Oh wait. This is my first movie. I’ve never directed a movie before. It’s not very good.’ I have a lot of movies that are really terrible that have gotten me to this point. I say jump in, but keep the costs low.
I made a movie when I was nineteen years old completely by myself, did not really expect it to be good and it’s not. It never got released. It’s sitting on a shelf, there’s two copies in existence, but it’s a feature film and it’s two hours long. I did that really just to teach myself literally every job, from the boom operator to camera operator, the director, I even acted in it a little bit. I jumped in with very little risk and made a movie that’s not the greatest movie ever, but I learned so much in that. I think that’s another thing that young filmmakers can get confused about it. I’ve seen a lot of filmmakers who are like, ‘I want to be a writer/director,’ so they write a script and it might be a good script and they go into direct and they rely on friends and family to shoot it, edit it, to do effects, to do graphics, and I’m a big believer that you kind of have to really learn at least the basics about all those elements to be a successful filmmaker especially if you’re trying to pull it off on a low budget. So my advice is be cautious with it. Spend some time really learning everything that you can and then when you have your first product, don’t just jump out there and say this is the best movie ever made. Really, look at it critically, stay humble, and say, ‘What can I do on the next movie to make it better?’ That’s the only way you’re going to be able to get there.
TONY: What are you currently working on?
Brian Cunningham: I’m actually locked in an editing room right now trying to get a cut of Monsters Wanted done for a festival deadline that is a documentary about the haunted house industry that follows a guy named Rich Teachout who opened his own haunted house in 2011, so right after Overtime, I jumped into shooting this and we’re just now getting into the end of post. Really excited about that. Still has some horror elements, but again, it’s a documentary. I’m always trying to do something a little different from the last project. That’s the next immediate thing. Matt and I are throwing around a couple of ideas and I think March is when we’re really going to dive into finishing up a script for the next movie we’re going to make, which we’re hoping to shoot late in the summer of this year.