The director discusses his hilariously peculiar bank-robbing debut as it heads for DVD
Commercial director Monty Miranda makes his feature-length debut with Skills Like This, which hits DVD on November 17th, 2009. This exhilarating and humorous heist adventure follows aspiring writer Max (Spencer Berger) as he ditches his chosen profession to become a career criminal. Pulling his friends Dave (Gabriel Tigerman) and Tommy (Brian D. Phelan) along for the ride, the wild-haired Robin Hood-wannabe soon finds that a lot of emotional baggage comes with being an armed robber. When he falls hard for a bank teller (Kerry Knuppe) involved in his first heist, his life takes a startling turn for the better. We recently caught up with Miranda to chat about this terrific new film, and its home video release. Here's what Monty had to say:
Being quirky for quirky's sake is sometimes a huge misstep a lot of aspiring comedy directors seem to take. But your film is coming from a genuine place. And it has a lot of real heart. How did you manage to ease some of the more subversive elements into your film while sidestepping the obviousness of its oddness?
Monty Miranda: I have been a filmmaker ever since I got out of film school. It's all I've ever done, being a director. I've always been fascinated by certain characters in real life. To use your phrase: "Being quirky for quirky's sake." I don't really look at it that way. I watch the people I interact with. The people that I've known throughout my life. They are compelling to me. The Tommy character in Skills is a hybrid of some people I grew up with. The people that are well meaning in life, yet have no unspoken thoughts. That was something I could relate to very much. Skills does delve into some sophomoric humor at times. Real life does that as well. That is what we were trying to capture and use to tell our story.
And it's quite well done. The bloody nose, for instance, could be looked at as a weird, unnecessary, almost annoying character trait, especially when we first see Tom in the Mexican restaurant? But as we get to know this character, and the fact that the altitude is affecting him, it becomes a naturalistic extension of his outward personality. It's not just some goofy sight gag that you are pulling in.
Monty Miranda: The film is obviously a fantasy. But there are a lot of naturalistic elements to it. I tried to give it a realistic take. There is a lot of detail that went into the film, and hopefully on repeat viewings, you will see this. I know that some people have noticed it. There are moments that get past you on that first initial viewing. The nosebleed is one of those things. We just go into the whole part about Max being a horrible writer, and he is experiencing this initial sense of entitlement. Most of the people I grew up with aren't doing what they wanted to do. They aren't following their dreams. That is the reality in trying to fulfill your ambitions. That is one of the themes that compelled me to tell this story. I think it's grounded in reality. While there are certainly fantasy elements to it.
Spencer Berger and Gabriel Tigerman, who play Max and Dave in the film, wrote the screenplay. Were these guys friends of yours? How did it come about that you would direct them in this film?
Monty Miranda: I had been talking to Donna Dewey and Paul Aaron, these two producers that knew my commercial work really well. They knew that my goal was to take on the challenge of making a feature length movie. That had always been my mission and goal when I went to film school. Spencer had been one of Paul Aaron's clients at the time. Paul was a manager. Through Paul, they sent me one of the early drafts of Skills. I immediately felt the heart. And it made me laugh out loud. That was a first in reading a screenplay. Sometimes you will read something, and its funny. But with this, I literally laughed out loud. I met with them within a week of reading that first draft. I lived in Denver at the time. I flew out to meet Spencer, Gabe, and Brian. Spencer and I hit it off immediately. We all did. We had a table read. It interested me that Skills had this genuine heart and that it was very funny. It also lacked that "cheesy" factor, which I think a lot of films get pulled down with when it comes to heart. This felt very earnest to me. That said, when we sat down for that initial table read, we realized that it needed more story. We wanted to amp it up. Give it some arc, and give the characters more arc. We wanted to expound upon the storytelling. Spencer and I then went to work rewriting it. We worked on it for another year after I read that initial draft. In that year, certain things were created anew. Like the booted car. The robbing of the bank. That scene was a struggle, because we didn't want to alienate the viewer early on. We really struggled with the fact that Max was swinging this gun around at people right from the get go. We felt the character might do something that outlandish, because he was in a desperate situation. But we didn't think he would truly endanger people. Having Max hold the gun to his own head was something that came about while Spencer and I were rewriting it. I say "rewriting" it. Spencer wrote it. He was in Los Angeles, and we would spend three hours a night on the phone, discussing certain ways to go with the story. He would write it, and then rewrite it from there.
Did you feel that the story stemmed from Spencer and Gabe's own frustrations with trying to get their writing off the ground?
Monty Miranda: Slightly. Spencer likes to tell the story about how the script came to be. Spencer and Gabe had gone to Vasser together. They were literally crashing out at Gabe's parents' house. Spencer wasn't doing a whole lot. Gabe and his father sort of challenged Spencer. They said, "Well, you're not doing anything. You're pretty funny and talented. Why don't you try to write something?" That's exactly what he did. The script came out of that time period, when Spencer was sleeping on an air mattress with a hole in it. He took a stab at writing, and that's what birthed the original draft.
What's interesting is, watching the DVD, you have this trailer on there that is editing from test footage. It is like a short film of the movie, with completely different scenes from what we see in the finished film.
Monty Miranda: The "Fund-Raising" trailer. That was like a weird parallel universe for us when we went back and unearthed that for the DVD. It was odd to experience that. Basically what happened was, when we were working on the screenplay, it was suggested that we do a screen test with the actors. I got nervous. I thought the screen test would be for me, because I had never directed a feature length film before. Though, I'd been a director my whole career. I decided that this screen test needed to look like it was lifted from the movie. I steamrolled that into shooting a trailer. At first it was just a scene. Then I thought, "Why don't we make something that we can actually use to raise money. Maybe someone will get excited about it." And that is exactly what happened. Some happy accidents occurred from making that trailer. That scene where they are making their getaway, and the car doesn't start? That actually happened while we were shooting this trailer. We just went with it. I loved the convention that it played with. There is always this scene where the key is in the ignition. There is this nervous tension, because they are trying to get away. And the car always starts. We loved the fact that the getaway car is not actually the getaway car. And that it fails to ever be the getaway car. We rewrote that from the experience of shooting this fund raising trailer. When we had the trailer completed, we went with the draft that everyone was happy with, and packaged them together. Donna Dewey and Brian raised the money in about a month just from that.
I noticed in one of your first scenes, you have a goose. Geese are notoriously mean, yet you decided to work with one anyway. What sort of on-set trouble did that little guy cause you?
Monty Miranda: (Laughs) The goose was pretty well behaved, actually. We were trying to compile a cast of animal characters. And you know how that usually goes. But I think the goat was much more misbehaved then that goose. The goat was pretty stubborn.
Did you do any real trial runs as far as robbing a bank goes? How logistically did you approach that first heist? It certainly seems like you could pull off everything seen in this movie if you had the gumption.
Monty Miranda: Absolutely. It is outlandish that a guy walks in and does what he does. He robs a bank. Spencer and I were doing exactly what you said. We researched it. At the exact same time we were making the film, these Norwegian snow bums in Vail, Colorado, who were in their twenties, had started working at a ski resort. And they were robbing their own bank. They got away with it for a short time. In Skills, Max gets away with it for three days, essentially. It was very plausible. These Norwegian guys would rob their own bank, and then they would go back to work at the ski resort. It is very possible. I recently saw a film called Stander. It's a pretty interesting film about bank robbing. It's based on a South African bank robber who was a police captain. I just saw this the night before last. That's why it's coming right off the top of my head. It's pretty amazing. Especially when your researching the types of criminal activities people can get away with and do. From an aesthetic standpoint, we shot all of our crime scenes on film. The rest of the movie was shot on HD. We wanted to give those crime scenes a visceral approach. I wanted it to be a subtle difference while giving it a certain amount of kinetic energy. We wanted it to be unconscious to the viewer. We didn't really want them to feel it. Whenever Max is committing a crime in the movie, we did shoot those moments on actual film.
Did you shoot in a real bank?
Monty Miranda: Yes we did.
Did you ever consider using your film as a guise to rob an actual bank? Do you think that would be plausible?
Monty Miranda: (Laughs) You know what? I think it depends on how big your footprint is as a film crew. On Skills, we had a pretty good size crew. So, no. You go anywhere with a camera, and you've got cops all over you. They're asking, "Where is your shooting permit." I think that would be a pretty big hurtle. Plus, banks get pretty nervous with cameras. They jump at you fairly quickly. But, hey, if you walk in like you own the place, and you belong there, it certainly becomes a little bit more believable. It does seem like its something you could get away with. That's funny. That is were Max's hair came from. We needed an extemporary disguise that he didn't have to think a whole lot about. It needed to be something that made him look like a whole other character. While Spencer and I were working on the script, his hair was getting a little outgrown. That's where I came up with the idea. I said, "Spencer, let's not cut your hair for a year." You put a knit cap on him, and he looks like a normal person.
That wasn't a big deal to him at the end then? When he has to shave off his Afro?
Monty Miranda: He hated that hair. You have to realize, the guy is walking around and he is instantly the center of attention while he is growing his hair out. He was very happy to get rid of it.
Max, Dave, and Tom have very different takes on the act of bank robbing. Did you see these characters as one Id struggling with itself and its actions?
Monty Miranda: I don't think we built that in entirely. Obviously we knew that these three characters were all on somewhat different paths, yet they were all being led to the same path. They took different approaches to it. That is an interesting take on it. One of the things we focused on was the fact that our most straight-laced character, Dave, winds up in jail at the end of the film. And Tommy, the one that is destroying Max verbally in the beginning of the film, ends up falling in love with Max's character. That is a very interesting perspective on that. I could easily see that being the case.
In the apartment we see that Dave's DVD collection contains Wild Things, Gladiator, Good Fellas, The Simpsons, and Mork and Mindy. Were these all films and TV shows that inspired this particular work?
Monty Miranda: What we discussed was, "What would Dave have on his movie shelf?" Because we were a Colorado film, we thought it was an inside Mork & Mindy joke, because that was based in Boulder. We thought that was funny. Those were all films we thought Dave would appreciate and have in his library. There are films in there that I like, but it was designed to be more about Dave and his girlfriend, and what they might have sitting on their DVD shelf.
It's a wild mix. And I can see elements of each of those films when I watch Skills Like This.
Monty Miranda: Yes. Skills certainly has its dark moments, as well as its lighthearted warm elements, too. Maybe there is a little bit of that. We were a little Indie film, and I tried to license a couple of my favorite films to put in Dave's apartment. When you are under the gun, and you don't have the phone numbers needed to get permission, it becomes kind of difficult. We discussed that. We pursued a movie or two, and we couldn't get in touch with the right people in time to get those in there. I don't know about the second time you watched the film, but inside the Senior Burrito restaurant, there is a mural in the background. That was the genre version of the movie Skills Like This in comic book form. The characters take on a more heightened reality. That was always part of the plan. And I was happy with it. But once you get in there, you realize that you can't reveal too much. You don't want to make it to be distracting. You want to make it pretty subtle. And keep it in soft focus in the background for the most part.
Tell me about Gloria? Was this bike specially made for the film? Or did you have to borrow it?
Monty Miranda: We actually had Gloria created specifically for the movie. In the first draft, Gloria was just a reference. Tommy was complaining that someone had broken the mirrors. Or stolen them. Gloria wasn't originally a character in the film. I am a great lover of Mexican food. I definitely have my Mexican food haunts in Colorado. My friend's bar happened to have this low-rider Mexican bicycle hanging over the bar. That's where that idea came from. While Spencer and I were rewriting, I said, "Tommy would have that bike. That is a total Tommy bike." So we took it up a notch. We had a bike shop in the area design it. Gloria proved to be a big erector set. It would constantly fall a part. And the chain kept falling apart. It was really difficult to ride. I think I mention on the DVD that Gonzalo, who ends up with the bike at the end of the film, actually owns Gloria now. His real name is Danny Taff. He was also our location scout. He ended up with Gloria in the film as well as in real life. She is a trick to ride.
You've collected an amazing cast of mostly unknowns. Did you find it hard to round out your ensemble? Or do you find that in this day and age, it's easy to find good actors?
Monty Miranda: Being in the business for as long as I have, you start looking for people. We did most of our casting out of Los Angeles and Denver. We did a little bit of New York casting. A little bit in New Mexico. Outside of our main leads, the entire cast came from Colorado. Colorado has a really great talent pool that I have been pulling from for years as a talent director. I knew that certain people fit the roles in this film very specifically, and I had a good idea who I wanted to play certain parts. The lawyers, for example. I had worked with them in the past., and I knew they would be perfect. Kerry Knuppe, who ended up playing Max's love interest Lucy, we cast out of Los Angeles. She was one of the first people I saw out in Denver prior to coming out to Los Angeles to do our casting. I just kept coming back to her, because she had such a naturalistic quality. I felt that she was beautiful, and charming, and also someone that I felt could fall for this semi-crazy bank-robbing bad guy. She was the right person. The rest of the casting? There were a couple of small roles that I struggled over. Dave's girlfriend was a tough one. Not because we didn't get the right girl. Just because there were so many strong actresses trying out for it. The rest of the actors? I knew early on that they would work well together, and bring something special to the movie.
What were the challenges of finding the right tone for the climax of the film? And were you happy with leaving Dave in jail there at the end?
Monty Miranda: We had many different endings. We played with it a lot. What sealed it for me was that the most buttoned-down, obsessed with the apology letter character, who plays by the rules the most, is the one that ends up in jail. I liked that commentary. That's what cemented it, and made it really great. I loved that Dave wound up in jail at the end. He is also the one that has the tattoo. He ends up being the bad boy at the end of the film. With the tone? We hoped that the viewer just wouldn't know where it was going. We just kept rewriting that ending. We felt that Max had to have a certain amount of redemption. At its heart, he basically finds a way to go on without achieving his dream of being a writer. We felt pretty strong about this. Through Lucy, he finds that having someone that loves you, and someone you can love back, is the best reason to live your life. Whether you are achieving your dreams or not. We felt that was a good note to leave the film on. Max, Dave, and Tommy have their own sorted love affair. But sometimes you are blinded by the things in life that maybe aren't as important as love. I don't want to sound cheesy. But that is a pretty big driving force in people's lives. And in what they strive for.
What's your next move?
Monty Miranda: Spencer and I are writing again. We are hoping to make another movie. I am developing a few TV shows. And I am still directing TV commercials. Making a film was the most exciting and hard thing I have ever done in my life. I can't wait until we start making the next one. Spencer and I are actively working together. And we are working on what will hopefully be our second movie together. It is probably going to be a spooky comedy.
Is he going to bring back the Afro? Or is he going to go with the shaved head?
Monty Miranda: I think the Afro is retired. The Afro really became an annoyance. He had a great spirit about it. But he was not fond of the Afro. Shooting a movie with a large Afro is not something you expect to be a hurdle. But you are shooting these over-the-shoulder shots, and the Afro is always too much in the shot. You have to schedule your seventeen-day shooting schedule around when the Afro is getting cut. There is no way you can hide that Afro under make-up. And Afro wigs always look bad. Even in a sixty million dollar movie. We are happily free of the Afro.
It really does become its own character in the film. It's even on the DVD box, right?
Monty Miranda: It is a pretty iconic image. It's a nice fit for the movie.
Skills Like This will rob your pocket blind when it hits DVD shelves this Tuesday, November 17th, 2009.