What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film?
A few years ago I read that seventy percent of the U.S. intelligence budget is spent on independent contractors. Immediately a world began to form in my head that was far from the James Bond and Jason Bourne spy worlds we’re used to seeing on film. There was an intimate world there. One full of deception and confusion. One that played on emotional strengths and weaknesses rather than physical. Once Alex’s character came to me I was off and running.
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
It’s absolutely necessary to relate to your characters on the most intimate of levels. If you’re not putting a bit of yourself into the film you’re not sharing enough with the audience. Alex and I shared a strong, naive, belief in the system. Alex wants to do the right thing and he believes that if he does what he’s told and dots the I’s and crosses the T’s the world will welcome him with open arms. Then he learns the hard way that the world doesn’t quite work that way. Finding your own way of taking action independent from those around you is important in any coming of age story. I think this learning is where Alex and I most closely relate.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
Simplify. Simplify. Through each draft and then continuing in production and post the story moved closer and closer to the main character. The more complications and dialog we stripped away the more the audience could sit with him and experience the story as he did. We found that that was the way to the heart of this film. It’s all about the character of Alex and his experience of the events around him.
What influenced the visual style of your film?
I wanted the film to feel foreign and familiar at the same time. I used the classic story structure to give the film a Western feel and was then able to take the visuals in less familiar directions. The choice to shoot in Belgrade was probably the largest influence on the visual style. The entire crew was local so the production design and photography decisions all fed into the local aesthetic of the film.
Erol Zubcevic, the DP, and I studied the photography of classic moody French crime films like Army of Shadows and Le Samurai. These films make a great use of black and aren’t afraid to hold a frame and leave you with a bit of confusion.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during writing and production?
I think the most courageous decisions was one of the first we made. In hindsight choosing to make a film with a first time director and a first time producer in a foreign country halfway around the world might have been a little crazy. But the reality was the production went surprisingly smoothly. We found an incredible team in Belgrade. Quite quickly they became almost like a family. I’ve had that experience on independent film sets in the US but was surprised and overjoyed to find it in a completely foreign country.
Were there any risks that you faced during writing/production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
In the original script the third act all took place in the snow. We chose our locations for snow. We scheduled for the middle of February, even when the 1st AD told us it would be too cold to work, just to make sure we would have snow. And then there was no snow. The entire winter there less than an inch. During production every morning I would go to the window hoping for snow and the ground would be dry. Then I would sit down and write out the snow from the day’s scenes and we go shoot what you see in the film.
In the end it was probably better for the film both from a production and story standpoint. I changed whole sequences to adjust to the weather and it forced me to focus more on the characters than on the visuals. I think that gave us a better story. So I’m thankful that we had no snow, even if I still think about how cool it would have looked.
What risks does your story take?
Newcomer takes risks in how it’s told. It’s a familiar genre but I wanted to put the audience right with the main character. I wanted them to experience the story as he experiences the story. We only know as much as he does at any given time. This was risky because it forced us to really trust the audience. We couldn’t have scenes that explained every plot point. We just dropped the viewer into the story and hoped they would begin to figure out what was happening. This put particular pressure on the structure and editing of the film. Exactly how long do we need to hold a shot? What communicates and what doesn’t? Placing important information on screen for one second and then trusting that the audience will remember it in half an hour is risky but very fulfilling when it pays off.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screen writing or film producing?
The best advice I ever received was to just do it. Just write. Just shoot. Just make films. It’s the only way to learn. I spent a lot of time trying to please other people and make something they would like. That road is a dead end. Make something you think is great, or has the possibility of being great, and then inspire the people around you to make it even better. Just keep making and making mistakes. It’s the only way to learn the craft.