Rachel Samuels’ third feature, “Dark Streets,” is a film noir set against a 1930s story of booze, blues and jazz. Based on the play by Glenn Stewart, “Streets” follows nightclub owner Chaz Davenport (Gabriel Mann), whose life becomes complicated when he find a note sent by his recently deceased father to a female acquaintance. The film won a special jury prize at the 2008 CineVegas International Film Festival. Samuel Goldwyn is releasing the film theatrically this Friday, December 12.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I started out as a visual artist, doing painting, sculpture, and installations. At some point I started incorporating film and video into my art – and boom, that was it. I fell totally in love. Filmmaking is the perfect combination of all the other visual art forms – as well as writing and acting and so much more. I moved to L.A. and my first job in the industry was developing scripts for producer Roger Corman, who’s been a mentor to so many of the best American directors, from Coppola to Demme to Sayles.
That was my film school – we made about 20 films in 2 years, and then Roger produced the first two films I wrote and directed. This was all kind of the antidote to my visual arts background – it was intense boot camp training in classic Hollywood storytelling, and in working very, very efficiently. But what’s great about starting out with Roger is that every schedule and budget you get down the road seems luxurious. Like in the case of ‘Dark Streets’ – shooting a period musical in 28 days on an indie budget sounded just wonderful to me, although many were skeptical it could be done.
I saw ‘Dark Streets’ as an opportunity to get back to my roots as a visual artist, and to work on that side of my skill set as a director. By its nature of being a film where music was the driving force, ‘Dark Streets’ was a bit more abstract and less driven by narrative. There’s nothing like a musical to give you free reign to create a fantastical visual world! This was what drew me to the project.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Filmmaking is so complex, since it combines so many different art forms – the learning curve just goes on and on, and I want to keep exploring all of it. With each film under your belt you expand and refine your skill set. ‘Dark Streets’ felt like a real step forward for me in utilizing my visual skills, and I hope to keep building on this in my next project. Every director does tend to come from a particular specialty – some come from the theater world, some are writers, some are actors. With my visual background, I do have a special passion for exploring that side of the craft.
Please discuss how the idea for “Dark Streets” came about.
‘Dark Streets’ began as a musical play called ‘The City Club,’ written by our producer Glenn Stewart. It focused very much on these wonderful, rich blues songs, which were woven together with brief dialogue scenes. These same original songs remain central to the film (in addition to new songs written later), but the characters and storyline were expanded for the film version. Our screenwriter Wallace King was affected by events in the U.S. at the time. The Enron scandal and the blackouts in California were the inspiration for new elements added to the storyline, and the ongoing mistrust of those in power helped contribute to the sense of paranoia.
But the music remained central to the film, and this greatly affected the way I approached it. We’re lucky to have some of the greatest living blues artists singing original songs for the film, including Etta James, Natalie Cole, Aaron Neville, Dr. John and Solomon Burke; as well as BB King playing on the score. Their performances are fantastic, and the music helps tell the story and deepens the emotional experience.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
‘Dark Streets’ explores a particular mood and atmosphere: the surreal dream state of film noir. The blues music that permeates the film shares that fatalistic mood, while at the same time providing its own fresh angle on it. My goal was to explore the classic noir themes of disorientation and moral ambiguity, but without the classic visual austerity; instead, to see noir inhabit a visually lush, sensual world filled with music and dance.
During prep, I made a series of collages as the “look bible” for the film, that included paintings by Gustav Klimt, art deco architecture and design detailing, and stills from Busby Berkeley, classic noir films, and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis.’ These different images meshed together visually for me, with a richness of detail and a maximalist aesthetic that I think ‘Dark Streets’ succeeded in achieving. We didn’t go with a realistic, historical 1930’s period look but rather created a retro 30’s fantasy world that is more of a dream-state version – one which includes guys with mohawks and other anachronistic touches.
To enhance the idea of film noir as bad dream, the film was photographed entirely using swing and shift lenses, which has never before been done on a full-length feature. The focal plane of the camera lens can be tilted and moved, to create a gradient of focus, and image distortions. This technique is especially difficult to use when the camera is moving, as it does continuously in ‘Dark Streets’. The dreamy, surreal photography which resulted contributed tremendously to the film’s look and mood.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or finding and securing distribution?
One of the challenges we faced in development was simply the question of how we could pull this off on our budget. Luckily my previous film ‘The Suicide Club’ was also a period piece, with an even smaller budget – so I’d learnt a lot of lessons. The main lesson was, it’s all about location, location, location. On our budget, we couldn’t build any sets — all we could do is find these great gems of locations, then transform them with period furniture and props. Even while we were in development, I spent many months scouting to find the perfect locations, and they’re extremely important to the look of the film. ‘Dark Streets’ was shot entirely in downtown Los Angeles, utilizing the city’s beautiful art deco architecture – much of which is deeply hidden away. Finding it was like a treasure hunt.
How did the financing for the film come together?
The film was financed by a film fund based in Bahrain and Germany, called Sherazade. Our producers Glenn Stewart and Claus Clausen started the fund, and ‘Dark Streets’ was the first film they produced with it. They’ve gone on to fund a number of other independent films.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I’ve been thinking about how I’d love to do a science fiction project. ‘Dark Streets’ whetted my appetite for creating a unique visual world, and science fiction can provide the ultimate opportunity for that. I’d also be very excited to do another music or dance driven film. I have a number of ideas and scripts in development; we’ll see what gets traction. I can’t wait to bring the visual skills I honed on this film to a new project with a great story and characters, and try to take it all to the next level.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
My first film, which I directed for Corman, was an action-thriller that included a boat chase, a helicopter chase, car chases and gun battles – which I filmed in 18 days, never having made a film before. On ‘Dark Streets,’ we had to film multiple elaborate dance sequences (each of which would have taken weeks in a big Hollywood production) on a single day. Which meant that to save time, I was setting up three complex moving cameras simultaneously – one on a crane, one on a dolly, and one hand-held. It was exhilarating each day to figure out how to achieve these really ambitious goals but to do it at warp speed. And I guess that’s how I’d define “independent film,” and that’s been consistent since I started – ambitious goals at warp speed.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
It’s so exciting the technology that’s now available, which just wasn’t around when I was first starting out. An aspiring filmmaker today can set herself up with a little HD camera and an editing system for a few thousand dollars, and go make a film. It’s fabulous. My general advice would be: Go do it! Don’t bother with film school, don’t wait for anyone to give you permission. The only real way to learn filmmaking is by doing it – and these days that’s gotten much, much more feasible. There’s no excuse. Be brave.