An interview with Toby Tobias Writer Director of Blood Orange ( @bloodorangefilm )

Blood Orange, a tale of humanity, emotion, life and revenge. In one of the highlights of my film viewing year, Blood Orange is a delight to watch as the layers are peeled back in the feature film debut of writer/director Toby Tobias.

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I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Toby and ask him a few questions and as you can see from his answers. This guy loves to write and writes very well. Such a pleasure to talk with and I cant recommend Blood Orange enough if you are a fan of great movies that are well put together.

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What was one of your most memorable films you saw as a child?

One of the most memorable films I saw as a child…  I guess it’s controversial in some ways to say it, but it wasn’t in the cinema.  I just stumbled across it one night when I was around 14, maybe 15.  Late at night, probably BBC2 and it was “Midnight Cowboy”.  I didn’t know what it was – but I was watching Jon Voight play a male prostitute who comes to the big city to make his fortune and falls in with a semi-destitute cripple played by Dustin Hoffman and I was just drawn so deeply into this world… the ending had me in pieces.  And that sort of thing doesn’t really happen as much anymore because this was before we had a video recorder – the time when you watched what had been scheduled.  You didn’t schedule it yourself like we do now.  I didn’t know anything about the movie.  And if I had read the synopsis, at that age I might not have bothered:  A story of a failed male prostitute befriending a cripple and living in squalor until (plot spoiler) one of them dies!!  If you pitched that movie in the film business today, you’d get a blank stare and you’d be out the door.  But that film haunted me and I guess cursed me because I just got this thirst for really great, challenging stories that made me think, made me feel and stuck with me.  

I say it’s a curse because I grew up with an ambition to make movies that do the same: challenge, provoke and entertain at the same time.  Something to talk about and consider.  To argue about.  I fell in love with movies that say something.  So I say it is a curse because everything I written since then comes from this perspective before commercial considerations.  And it’s a lot easier to get your first film off the ground if you look around at what’s being made, see where the audience is, craft something that can be made cheaply and sold for the right price to a pre-existing audience that a distributor knows how to market to… If I was smart, I’d have started from that perspective and tried to smuggle in the stuff that really excites me.  But I was writing films without any consideration for the market, and it was just proving really hard to get one off the ground.  So it took a very long time!  

Is there one specific moment, perhaps in a meeting or a phone conversation when you realised. ‘Ive cracked it…..I have a project off the ground’

Over the years I have had to re-calibrate my reactions to such moments.  This business is full of them!  As passionate film-makers we are all predisposed to believe that when someone responds positively to a pitch, we so desperately want that response to mean something that we walk out of the meetings on a real high, dreaming of the possibilities of success.  And then you get the nearly always inevitable disappointment… I think one of the biggest blows was with a script that we had in development with the UK Film Council and Capitol films.  We had taken the script through half a dozen drafts, we were ready to get sign off on the final draft – and we had 2/3rds of the Production funding in place – when Capitol Films went into liquidation and then the UK Film Council was disbanded.  To top it all, the rights were then caught up with said companies and we had to wait three years before the options expired. That was a real hammer blow.

I guess the nearest thing to the moment you describe was when the last piece of money was promised on Blood Orange and I knew we were actually going to make the film:  We had Iggy Pop, Kacey, Ben… a great DP, all the favours in place… and I expected to put my head on the pillow and feel elated.  Instead a sense of overwhelming dread of the responsibility came over me.  It was up to me to actually deliver on my promise and make this film!  With a production schedule of less than 3 weeks.  With the money I had raised from close friends and family…   And with Iggy Pop.  Dread, awe, fear, excitement all wrapped up in an amazing bittersweet cocktail.  The real moment of joy was after the first day of shooting.  We had shot over 7 pages of script in a day.  They cast had been absolutely on the button and the crew were working like a well oiled machine and I knew we would be able to make this movie.  That was when a sense of relief flooded over me and I went to bed on cloud 9 realising I was actually directing a feature film…  With Iggy bloody Pop!!!

I’ve learned that until its actually happening, anything can happen…

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So you’d gone through the ‘im directing a film starring Iggy ‘Bloody’ Pop thoughts. Blood Orange is now finished, and has been seen by many. And will be seen by many more before the years out. . I mean recalling back to when companies folded, finances fell through. But now youve come out the other end and ‘Written and Directed by Toby Tobias’ is a real actual film credit.  How do you remain grounded?

Over the years of my eclectic career I have had some pretty amazing moments working with a lot of my heroes in the film and music business.  I was riding a pretty awesome wave some years ago when I was working on the technical side as crew – the video-coordinator on a run of amazing live concerts including Madonna, AC/DC, Peter Gabriel…   filming the biggest bands in the world back to back and joining their tours for a week or so.  There was one moment when I found a little oasis of calm, right in the middle of the Rolling Stones gig in Italy:  I was standing at the back of the central tower in the stadium listening to them play and watching the director call the shots with the monitors were working fine (that was my roll) and I just looked over at a crowd of 70,000 people and realised; here I was, head of my department, living that dream.  So I told myself “Remember this. Take it in.  Savour it.” I realised how bloody lucky I was, how special these moments are.  And these are private moments, because you have to act professional – like it’s all in a day’s work.  But really they are awesome, astounding moments to be cherished.

It’s a good thing to try and stay humble and to honour that good fortune by not taking it for granted – no one has a ‘right’ to success.

You’ve got me philosophising… And it kind of feels weird and presumptuous to consider “Blood Orange” a success.  It’s by no means a perfect film in my eyes.  All I see  right now are the flaws and the compromises.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m damned proud of what we achieved.  Each phase of the production and editing was full of mini elations and ‘wow’ moments as scenes came together, music cues were written, SFX (like Iggy’s cataracts) were applied.  But now, with some distance, I just think “it could have been better if I had…” and I contemplate how I could have done better…

All of which is a really rambling way of saying “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same”

Which reminds me that there’s always going to be someone who said it better, before you even thought of it!

Having seen Blood Orange, I, as a film fan would definitely say the film is a success for me. A highly engaging story, realised by great actors, very well directed and filmed in beautiful locations. Most definitely a success and Im glad I have seen it and have the film in my life. Talking of which. Who was the first person in your life to see the film, Outside of the crew. Someone outside your film world.

guess the first person outside of my film world to see it was my wife.  Does that count?  She is a very objective sounding board for me… she is pretty direct and honest.  I was mightily relieved that she liked the film even if it wasn’t ‘her kind of thing’. But I don’t think this is what you’re asking… Okay, I have it.  A couple of guys I got to know when making a commercial at the end of last year…  I was producing the commercial for the Ad Agency, they were the Production company, and we were on location together for a week.  And I’d just got the final master of the film finished so I invited them to watch it with me.  Afterwards, I remember Danny referring to that sense of dread when someone you like tells you they’ve made a film (short film, commercial, whatever) and you politely agree to watch it in the hope that you can find something/anything positive to say afterwards, so that it doesn’t upset your friendship… Well he was really relieved he didn’t have to hunt to find something good to say about the film – they both really enjoyed it and we just talked and talked about it  after. And since then they have become backers and partners in my next project.  So they certainly put their money where their mouth is!  

As far as total strangers are concerned, I had the fantastic good fortune to be chosen as the opening film to the Mallorca Film Festival where we screened the film to a packed house of over 800 people, in a beautiful Regency styled Opera House.  And I sat at the back and tried to tune in to how the audience were reacting and how engaged they were.  It was a real pleasure to see people lean into the screen and laugh (at the bits with humour) and gasp when they’re meant to be surprised.  The film was working for them and that was hugely enjoyable to experience.  

Somewhere in there is maybe the answer to your question I hope…

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There was indeed an answer. Always the writer and Im loving these answers. Whilst I mention writing, whats your process? Do you set yourself page targets (so many pages per day) or do you prefer a different approach?

My writing process… well, for Blood Orange and everything since, it has been just a matter of grabbing time when I can!   I suppose a consistent and key part of my process is to fall asleep contemplating a problem or situation or a scene etc.  I don’t try and solve it, I just ruminate on it and let it go into my unconscious.  I can’t say I have ever woken up after dreaming up a eureka solution – but I have had to get up out of bed and write down some hurried notes before I fall asleep and forget them…  Usually, by the next day I usually have some building blocks to start with.  I do try and do a little writing every day.

Some years ago, I was spending much more time writing on commission and then I would work to a structured day and get at least 6 hours of focused writing done every day, 5 days a week.  I would always start by re-writing or just tweaking yesterday’s work and that gets me into the flow.  I don’t expect to write a scene and then not come back to it – everything gets sharpened and polished and re-worked and knowing that I am going to come back to it and tidy it up tomorrow frees me up to be less judgemental on what comes out the first time around.  In essence, the first words on the page are for me to guide me through – just ‘blurting it out’ and then the next day I make it legible/presentable (if I still like it!).  I think it’s crucial not to judge what you are writing as you write it.  Let it come out unfiltered, and then see what you have to do to shape and mould it into something if it’s any good.  If I can finish a writing session with a new scene and feeling good about it, that that’s a win for the day.

I hate writing treatments – they feel like straightjackets that stifle creativity.  I like to know how I am getting in to the story, where it’s heading etc.  But I think that it’s sometimes good not to know what happens next, because if I don’t know what happens next then I can be pretty confident the audience don’t know.  It keeps it fresh.

About 50% of my work has been collaborating with another writer – with my next projects (one I am producing for another director, and another I shall be directing) we have a method that divides the workload well.  My partner is a meticulous planner who breaks down scenes and beat points and concerns himself with the way scenes cut together and the key essence of what work the scene has to do from a storytelling perspective, which frees me up to lose myself in the nuances of the scenes and let them breath.  Co-writing is something I very much enjoy, as solo writing can be a lonely place and it’s great to have a partner who gives another perspective.  

With Blood Orange out there, being watched by not only film fans like myself, but also people who review films for a living. Do you read reviews? Avoid them? How does the whole feedback thing work for you

Well this’ll be a short answer.  It’s early days for me as far as reviews are concerned.  I’ve had you plus two other film critics review the film so far and I’m pleased to say that all three reviewers had positive things to say about the film and that was a huge relief.  This morning we had a review in from Australia as the film is released there next week and I held my breath as I started to read it – but it was good…  So I guess I’m a little anxious to tell the truth.  Obviously I hope everyone likes it, but one man’s meat is another man’s poison and I expect a few reviewers may be a little more critical.  I’d love to say it doesn’t matter to me, that the film is a success in its own right regardless of the critics.  But hey, I’m lucky enough to be in a position where people are going to review my movie!  That’s the main achievement.

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In between feeling anxious, writing, and of course writing these great answers to my questions. How do you relax? Are you a big movie watcher or more TV or a reader? How does Toby Tobias wind down?

You know, for the last few years I’ve tried to follow a pretty strict rule – weekends are for family.  Monday to Friday I juggle a hectic balance as a producer making TV Commercials, writing a new TV series in the evenings, trying to get the next feature off the ground and of course doing all I can to promote “Blood Orange”.  I hardly stop to catch a breath… But at weekends I do my damnedest to just be with my family and get some quality time in.  Of course, that means sitting down with my wife and catching up with the essential movies – or a must-see box set in the evening.  It also involves long walks through the countryside with my two dogs.  I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m a workaholic I suppose… I don’t relax at all during the week, I just work until I drop, sleep and start all over again.  If only weekends were longer! 

Yikes. And here I am taking up a lot of your time firing questions at you.. If you could ever do as we are doing here, Sending questions and answers back to anyone in the creative world. Who would it be?

This is actually quite a nice distraction and a form of relaxation, so consider it a useful thing 😉

It’s an interesting question and challenging because an answer doesn’t readily spring to mind.  I have read many many books on directors and writers and obviously the Truffaut/Hitchock letters are the basis for this.  The depth and detail of their understanding of the craft really made for some fascinating reading.  On the other hand, for a sensationalist perspective, I’d love to have had correspondence with Francis Ford Coppola during the making of Apocalypse now – that would have been spellbinding!  I’d also have loved to have chatted with Hal Ashby especially during the making of Harold and Maude…

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I need to revisit Harold and Maude,I think, I tried to watch that a couple of years ago and it just didnt sit with me right, very odd movie but its a classic so perhaps its time to give it another go. Heres a slightly tricky one for you. I recorded a podcast episode recently where I went through my all time top films. Not an easy task. Whilst a lot of mine werent in order, the top two were in fact Scarface (1983) by Brian DePalma, and 1978s Close Encounters of The Third Kind by Steven Spielberg. Putting you on the spot, what are two of your favourite films?

Easy.

Brazil – utter genius!  Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece.

Blue Velvet – the first time lynch took us into that surreal mindspace of his in a commercial way.  I love Eraserhead, but Blue Velvet was seriously groundbreaking and inspirational.

(can I throw in Badlands, too?  Just so I can have three other great movies all beginning with the letter ‘B’)

I could actually carry on this article for …well a lot longer but then we might need a book deal. However Im sure that this article can have a sequel  A final question about Blood Orange. What can or what should people expect from the film?

What should people expect…?  Hopefully to be surprised.  I mean, Iggy’s performance is earthy, genuine, threatening and utterly mesmeric.  It’s not the Iggy Pop you think you know (he’s acting!).  And hopefully surprised by the twists and turns in the movie, too.  They can also expect to be challenged and entertained… And if at the end they are left with something to think about – something to discuss and debate, then I will have completely succeeded in my aim.  The trouble is, I can only really discuss the film after people have seen it because nearly everything is a plot spoiler!

Thanks Stuart, it’s been fun!

Twitter: @BloodOrangeFilm

Facebook: /BloodOrangeMovie2015

 

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