Directors Powell Robinson and Patrick Robert Young chatted to Giles Alderson on the podcast this week. They discussed film school, their first movie Bastard, and Threshold – their latest film, shot on two iPhones with a crew of 3 people.
Powell said that people often ask him whether he went to film school as a director, or whether he focused on other aspects of film-making, and he always replies: “When you get to film school, everyone’s going to be a director. And so I thought it would better suit me upon graduating to take up something else as well. So I focused on cinematography, because I knew that out of 300 kids, not all of them were going to end up directing.
And so I told everyone I’m just gonna shoot and just gonna shoot and just gonna shoot. And then I left college and two months later, Patrick and I directed Bastard.”
Between Bastard and Threshold, Powell and Patrick both had to work. Powell “went back to shooting because I didn’t want a job that wasn’t related to film and I knew cinematography was something I was moderately good at.”
He shot music videos and commercials to learn new things. But he was always wary of being pigeon-holed as a music video director. “Patrick and I directed two music videos in seven years, on purpose, because the second you do more, you become a music video director.”
Patrick, on the other hand, spent less time on set and more time writing. “I needed energy and time to work on my own writing, which meant, for me, holding down more ‘normal jobs’. Our film Bastard premiered at a movie theatre at Universal Studios. And within six months I was working there. A day job around movies, but also have time to work on my writing.”
Patrick said that they made Bastard and Threshold with zero expectations of making any money. “We’re not doing it for that, they’re down payments on our talent and our career.”
“We know everything we make now will make us better directors for when we have the opportunity to use money and we won’t waste that opportunity.”
Patrick and Powell started off as dorm mates, in their freshman year of college. While waiting for classes to start, they made some “just for fun” projects. During that time Powell shared a story that he had thought of when he was in high school, but wasn’t sure how to write it and asked Patrick for his help. “It was about a pair of traveling serial killers who had a game of trading off killing people. That became the basis for Hannah and West, the leads in Bastard.”
They were still in school when they managed to secure some funding to get their film made and had a full crew signed on and everything was ready to go. But two weeks before the shoot was due to happen, the people who were providing the funding decided to make their own film instead, leaving them $140K short.
Because they were “fresh out of school, not everyone was working at super high commercial rates yet. And we all needed a first feature, and everyone was still excited about it, so we cut the budget in half and just did it somehow”.
Working Together, as Directors
“Instinct comes back a lot for Threshold. The actors constantly described it to us on set because of the shooting conditions. They didn’t really get to think about characters as it was just purely acting on instinct. I think they said that every other day while we were shooting.”
Because Patrick and Powell had known each other for four years before they started working together, they had realised that they were very in sync in terms of style and taste.
A lot of people assume that because Powell is a DP and Patrick is a writer, that Powell handles the camera work and Patrick handles the characters, but they say that when they’re on set, they’re equally invested in both aspects of filmmaking.
“We knew that two voices would confuse the actors in terms of direction and two voices to every department head would confuse them, in terms of notes, as well. And so we always divvy up who’s going to talk to who, on a need-to-do basis,” says Powell.
Patrick and Powell would each be responsible for one of the actors, in order to give them clear direction at all times. Patrick reiterated that “it wasn’t about us worrying that we’d be giving them different notes. It’s just we didn’t want to confuse them with styles.”
It also meant that they could split up the scenes, without needing extra crew or units.
“Sometimes we were doing a driving scene, but one of us needed to be building with the PD team at the next spot. We just trust each other enough that if we had to split up the scene would come out the same way as if only one of us was there.”
They said that co-directing works for them because they’re “still in the phase where we understand that we can make better movies together than we would alone. It also means that if one of us got tired (they had some very long shoot days) or needed to just step away for 15 minutes, the set wasn’t rudderless.”
While working on their other projects, they had always toyed with the idea of making “something cheap that could push ourselves, but it never came to fruition.”
Patrick had been paid to write a couple of Lifetime movies and asked Powell whether he was interested in making a movie. They both knew that they wanted to make something on the road, with friends. “And so I had a short story idea that I had in high school for this drug called physical marriage that was a black market drug that people used.
And this couple, one of them accidentally used it with somebody else and it was a bad dose and she got connected to this person and they had to go find him. I never ended up writing it, but I always had it as a logline, in my pocket of ideas.”
It was a 20-page outline with no dialogue, and they decided to shoot it raw, and in an improvised style. They decided that they needed two cameras, which meant (with their crew of 3) that Patrick would need to operate one of the cameras.
Powell says “Patrick has many strengths. Patrick does not work as a DP. And so framing and composition are all really good. It’s just the technical like he hasn’t pulled focus.”
Because of that, and after watching Unsane by Steven Soderbergh, Powell suggested shooting on iPhone, using apps to grade the footage, DGI, and some lenses. They also used a zoom recorder with only two channels and a boom mic.
Their Words of Advice for any Aspiring Indie Filmmakers?
“We loaded a lot against ourselves. A lot of travel, no money, no space, no script, no crew, two iPhones. And we barely pulled it off. And that’s after all five of us worked constantly and professionally on movies (bigger or smaller) over the past five years. So, if you’re starting off and trying to do something like this, do it, but know what you can do and how you can do it.
Make sure that you’ve got a really great story that you can fall back on and load up your talented friends. Don’t push yourself too far but just far enough. Know your limits so you can just exceed the threshold if you will.”
You can find the podcast with Powell and Patrick, here.