EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Premiering at Sundance ’08 in the Spectrum program, Carlos Brooks‘ “Quid Pro Quo,” details the story of Isaac (Nick Stahl), a popular New York City public-radio reporter who also happens to be a paraplegic. His investigation of a particular story about a man who had requested his leg be amputated for no medical reason leads him to Flora (Vera Farmiga). While developing a relationship with her, Flora introduces Isaac to subculture of paraplegic “wannabes.” Sundance’s Nazgol Zand finds that “Quid Pro Quo” does not celebrate or sensationalize the subculture it portrays but instead explores the human psyche and allows the audience
to ask questions.”
“Quid Pro Quo”
Director: Carlos Brooks
Screenwriter: Carlos Brooks
Producers: Sarah Pillsbury, Midge Sanford
Cinematographer: Michael McDonough
Editors: Lauren Zuckerman, Charles Ireland
Principal Cast: Nick Stahl, Vera Farmiga, Kate Burton,
James Frain, Aimee Mullins, Pablo Schreiber
U.S.A., 2007, 82 min., color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself.
I grew up in Washington state, in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. I studied journalism at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, and later English and screenwriting at USC. My job experience is primarily as a screenwriter.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
My dad was a writer, my mother was a graphic artist. But I was initially interested in music – songwriting and performing – my heroes as a kid were singer/songwriters, and I find analogies to that process in being a writer/director. I’ve always written stories, but it was the physicality and vitality of filmmaking that hooked me as a teenager. If you are constrained by any kind of budget (even if it’s only the 20 minutes before the security guard arrives), directing a film is like writing while running for your life from a bear. Even the low points have a certain urgency. After doing it once, I knew I never wanted to be anything but a director. So I spent a lot of time studying and practicing how to write a good screenplay. The problem is every time I think I’ve figured it out now, I start a new one and none of the old rules apply.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I went to USC film school for four years. I started writing TV scripts for money while I was there, and sometimes I would get on sets. I did some acting in school, but I also hung out with actors on the sets where I wrote the script, and I got a feel for what they were going through. Most of what I know about running a set I learned from listening to production managers, old school guys. The kind who always had a role of 20s in their pockets for bribing uncooperative shop owners. I remember one South African UPM pulling me over as the entire set waited for the director and the first AD to debate a problem that should have been solved the night before. He said, “See what’s happening here? We’re doomed.”
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
I thought it would be interesting to follow a character who had been impaired somehow, but then give him a tool to overcome his limitation and see what happens. In return for this gift, I felt there should be a price to pay — that there should be some sort “quid pro quo” arrangement — and that it should entail his having to help the person who had impaired him in the first place. It didn’t occur to me until much later in my research that the concept of “helping” can mean something entirely different from one person to the next — it can even have an opposite meaning. That was interesting. For this script, it was re-examining that word “help” that opened up the story to me.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences or early inspiration with regard to the casting, technique and approach to the filmmaking.
I love contemporary filmmakers, but I just sit and enjoy their work. My influences are the same directors who influenced the last generation — John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Don Siegel — Sidney Lumet and Alan Pakula in particular inspired my approach to directing “Quid Pro Quo,” embracing a kind of formalism that I thought would serve the picture. I knew I had a very unconventional subject — thought it would be good to approach it conventionally, even mainstream. Some of my favorite films in the ’70s worked along these lines, but in reverse — they were, for their time, unconventional treatments of often very conventional little stories (“The French Connection” is a great example)… Along those lines I was also inspired by the old pulp magazines like Black Mask that were full of unconventional, weirder-the-better little stories that were told in a very accessible style.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
Going the “rugged verite” route always forgives a multitude of sins — but I wanted to have more control over the world I was creating. We wanted it to feel special. Working with production designer Roshelle Berliner, and DP Michael McDonough, we were able to squeeze an amazing amount of production value out of our budget, even though it meant fewer setups, no time to go back and fix any mistakes, and little room for error. When I got to post I realized that some of it worked within that framework, but some of it didn’t. It wasn’t until Lauren Zuckerman and I were able to find the voice of the movie in the editing room that we realized the initial vision was going to be realized after all, with some retooling to the structure of the original screenplay. All of us were perhaps too ambitious for our own good, but it worked.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
We have domestic distribution already, so my intention going to Sundance is to get a better sense of the other filmmakers and their work, share what what they went through at more or less the same time as I was going through it. I want to know I’m not alone!
What are some of your recent favorite films?
I was just blown away by “Into the Wild“. Also this year, “Michael Clayton“. The latest “Bourne” movie had perhaps some of the most astounding editing I’ve ever seen. And I can find absolutely no fault with the writer/director Tony Gilroy who wrote both those films. His work this year really inspired me
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Success as a filmmaker means you get your movie made, and you’re still standing when it’s finished. I want to continue working with artists of Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga‘s calibre, and to continue working with the core group of filmmakers that I was so fortunate to have found on my first film.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects.
I am just now finishing green screen tests on a project I wrote before “Quid Pro Quo.” I don’t want to say what it’s about just yet, but I’m partnered with a company called Engine Room in Los Angeles, run by Dan Schmit, who did the beautiful tulip photography and fx for “Quid Pro Quo.” On this one we’re using motion control in a way that’s never been done before, it’s a total departure in scale from “Quid Pro Quo,” but just as artful. I’m very excited about it.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.