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BenDavid Grabinski On Sound, Scope, Carpenter And The ‘Cost Of Living’

Keep in mind that Cost Of Living is only a short. Seriously, it’s only about 9 minutes long. Maybe even less. But it packs a surprisingly cinematic wallop. While most shorts are content to live within the inherently meager means of the medium, Cost Of Living feels like a giant movie trapped inside a little box bursting at the seams. Writer/director BenDavid Grabinski is a fan of big movies, something that shows in every splatter soaked frame of his inaugural effort at the helm.

From a recent year end article, “Filmed in a tunnel system familiar to any fan of ‘They Live’, this short packs more character, humor, action and gore into its 8 minute running time than many of the features I had to sit through this year. Particularly inspired is the computerized voice of the automated security system – a device that simultaneously ups the tension and the laughs.

I recently sat down with BenDavid to chat about the project and we wound up covering a surprising bit of ground. He’s definitely in love with what he does, and he’s in love with the idea of people being able to do what they love as well. As he puts it, “I don’t shut the f*ck up if there’s something I’m really excited about.

Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and Bret Harrison (“Breaking In”, “Reaper”) star in the film in which, “Silas and Jerry work for an unusual corporation. One day things go wrong… Scary things.

Cost Of Living hits the web Tuesday, February 14th. In the meantime, hit the jump for the interview and some behind the scenes footage.

This doesn’t look like most shorts. It’s anamorphic, polished and feels like it could compete editorially with a lot of major releases.

In terms of visuals, I’m really obsessed with cinematography and anamorphic lenses. And, worst case scenario, if this is the only thing I ever direct I want to do the best I can with the things that are really important to me. Sound design, production design, art design, lighting, color timing, camera work, editorial. With my crew, the whole time I was in pre-production my analogy was, “there’s a giant asteroid headed towards earth and I have to put together the perfect crew or else we’re f*cked.”

Speaking of visuals, what were the references for this?

I made every single crew member, and there were 50 crew members so this means even down to they guy who got food, I made everyone watch Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October, because those are two of the best looking movies ever. I love that really controlled anamorphic camera work. I love the Bourne movies too, but that’s not really my aesthetic.

As a first time director who seems to be fairly meticulous about visuals, what was looking for a DP like?

I was rambling to Spencer Susser (director of Hesher) about cinematography and everything that was important to me. And he said, you have to meet my brother because my brother is obsessed with all the same things.’ And I sat down with Morgan and it was basically perfect. I mean, I couldn’t shoot on film. Almost every movie I love outside of Aliens or Jurassic Park is anamorphic. But I knew I had to shoot on the RED and I hated the look of almost every movie I’d seen shot on that. But I saw Hesher and loved how that looked and that was shot on the RED with anamorphic lenses. And that was him. He’s got so much energy. Before he sits down for a shot his attitude is, “alright, let’s party.” He’ll jump on a golf cart with a handheld camera and go 40 miles an hour down a tunnel chasing people.

50 people is a big crew for a short. How long was the shoot and how did you navigate that amount of people in that confined space?

We shot for two days, 14 hour days, and I had two units working simultaneously. The first unit Morgan shot, and the second unit Devin Doyle shot. We couldn’t use house power in the tunnel, so we had to rig 3 and a half miles of cable from a generator above down to set.

One of my producers, Shay Weiner, would literally be doing first AD work while producing and wafting smoke. She’s wafting smoke into frame during each shot, and then between the shots she’s being a first AD and producer. And my other producer, John Swartz, worked the whole 14 hour first day, then he had to stay up all night in a folding chair making sure homeless people didn’t steal the rigging and then he worked the whole second 14 hour day. Half of filmmaking is finding people who love movies and are doing it because they want to make awesome stuff. Not people who are doing things solely for a paycheck. You want to find people who are just as obsessive about stuff. You’re sitting there at 4AM arguing about whether or not you hear a certain element. I figure if you care that much the worst case scenario is that you entertain some people. I hope people watch the ending credits because there’s so many people who worked so hard on it. And also – there’s a tag after them.

How did you get hooked up with Shay and John?

I wanted to do something insane and completely ambitious and even though I knew how to do it, it didn’t detract from how stupidly ambitious it was. Shay came in with John and from the word ‘go’ were working 20 hour days for like 6 months on the short. They were just excited to make movies, they were so invaluable and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they ended up being two of the most successful people in Hollywood.

I noticed this has a pretty intricate, elaborate sound mix as well.

Sound was everything. When I was in pre-production I had so many conversations with my producers, I wrote 5 pages single-spaced about sound design. And it wasn’t flowery bullsh*t about symbolism or whatever. Sound is there to sell the illusion of the movie. You’re selling a world that doesn’t exist and you’re selling a world outside of the frame. If you create enough atmosphere and create a world that is consistent and real, and it’s best if the audience is never aware of this, but you can sell most things if you really work well in terms of sound design. I got this guy named Mark Binder who did the first two Paranormal Activity movies, because I wanted someone who could do something like that as well as take the same approach as a big summer action movie with the short. He does every episode of “Community” but he also does big movies. He did the train wreck scene in Super 8 and the mind meld scene in Star Trek. If you go back and watch that scene, the sound is crazy. We spent a month on the sound design for a 9 minute short. Which, on the one hand you could say is crazy. And on the other hand, you could say it’s crazy.

The characters in the piece have some funny moments, but it doesn’t detract from the action. What’s your take on mixing interesting character beats with action and horror?

One of the best things about Shaun Of The Dead is that it has real and interesting things to say about being in love, being in a relationship and being that age. But they do it in the context of a real genre movie. But it’s not ironic, because you’re involved with these characters. You like them. One of the most important things in this short was making you like these guys. Because if you like them, it doesn’t matter it they’re professional golfers, or working in a cubicle. If you really like them, where you go with them is almost irrelevant.

These tunnels were also used in They Live. Did you seek out the location because of the Carpenter film?

I thought I had this great location that no one had ever seen. But in post I watched They Live and found out the whole finale takes place in those tunnels. And I probably responded to them because I’d seen them in it.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the voice of this computer that seems to be taunting the heroes at times. Did she get involved before or after Bret and Brandon?

Mary’s husband Riley is a good friend of mine. I wrote the computer voice for her. It’s a ‘HAL’ type character that’s sort of mixed with the female villain from “Portal 2”. Without her, you can’t really have a lot of story economy. It would be hard to whittle the whole thing down to just 9 minutes. She was the first person I had. I had a location and a crew but no cast aside from her. Seven days out I didn’t have Bret or Brandon yet. Mary suggested Brandon, and it had never occurred to me in my wildest dreams I could get him. But I love Brandon and I thought he hadn’t been used in a way that exploited his full potential comedically. He’s really funny in Scott Pilgrim, but that’s not as the hero. I thought he would be really funny as a John Carpenter/Kurt Russell hero. The character in my head was always a cross between Snake Plissken and Jack Burton. She sent the script to Brandon, we went and talked for hours over sushi and he said “so when are we shooting?”

You mentioned The Hunt For Red October and Die Hard as visual templates, but this is also a horror piece. What are your influences in that regard?

“The movie that by far that had the biggest influence on me in terms of movies and how cool they could be was Aliens. I remember very specifically sitting in the basement of my grandparents house, and watching the scene where the sensor says that they’ve moved past the door and are inside the room, and then you realize they’re above the ceiling – I think that’s the exact moment I realized all I ever want to do was make movies. It completely blew my mind. The other two big inspirations are John Carpenter and Walter Hill. Big Trouble in Little China Escape From New York and Streets Of Fire are as good as movies get. If I could ever make moves as half as good as that I’d be extremely happy.

Aliens is one of those movies that earns its running time. Each beat builds on the one before it.

I think almost all modern action movies are way too long, but Aliens is not at all. Every single beat, of the theatrical cut at least, just makes it better and better. Modern movies for the most part just keep throwing in set piece after set piece after set piece to give you the most bang for your buck. There’s no sense of escalation. I think the first Alien is perfect, and probably more of an influence on me in terms of cinematography, lighting and smoke. But Aliens is just a perfect action movie. Every action movie should aspire to be nearly as good.

I remember reading a lot of the feedback out of Fantastic Fest, what was that like for you?

Fantastic Fest is the only place I wanted the short to show, and I was on my way to the New Beverly [theater in Los Angeles] with my fiance when I got the email that we’d got in. And I just literally turned around and went home because there was no way I could pay attention. And it ended up being one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, I watched a ton of movies and drank too much beer, but it’s just like hanging out with the best movie nerds for a week.

Random quote.

If you do something that excites you and turns you on, then it has a chance of being cool as hell. But you can’t predict what someone else is going to think is cool.

Here’s a brief behind the scenes teaser. We’ll bring you the full short (which will also be available here) on Tuesday, February 14th.



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