Night Owls: Hill Country Film Festival spotlight

A Chipotle in Beverly Hills wouldn’t seem like the ideal spot for crafting top notch independent comedy, but it sure seemed to work for the writing team of Charles Hood and Seth Goldsmith.

What ultimately came from those late night meals/writing sessions was “Night Owls,” which premiered at South by Southwest in March and won the Cinema Dulce (best of fest) award at last weekend’s Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg.

“It’s a crazy, amazing thing to hear people laughing at something you wrote at Chipotle,” Goldsmith said.

Shot all in one location at a house in Topanga, California, “Night Owls” follows Kevin (Adam Pally) and Madeline (Rosa Salazar) after a one-night stand goes horribly wrong.

While the romantic dramedy is filled with top television actors like Pally (“The Mindy Project”), Emmy-award winner Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “Veep”) and Peter Krause (“Parenthood”), the film is still authentically a small indie comedy, something that endeared “Night Owls” to the Hill Country Film Festival staff.

“As an independent film, shot in one location, with a small cast and a minimal production budget, ‘Night Owls’ is the type of movie that exemplifies the indie spirit of our Cinema Dulce award,” Chad Mathews, executive director of the festival, said. “It was an honor to have both Seth Goldsmith and Charles Hood in Fredericksburg for the screening.  We wish them much success.”

Crafting the story
“Night Owls” took two years to craft before Hood and Goldsmith finalized the script, a process that helped make both Kevin and Madeline dynamic and authentic characters.

It’s in this slow burn writing process that quality comedies are formed and “Night Owls” is certainly no exception.

“We knew we wanted to make something that was small enough that we could produce on our own,” Hood said. “The basic structure was there from the very first draft, but it was all about getting the characters to where they needed to be, to really get deeper with the characters with each draft.”

The writing process on “Night Owls” feels intimate and personal for Goldsmith and Hood, who grinded away with pitches for the next big studio comedy before opting to find their own voice and not what Hollywood perceived audiences would want.

“For years, we’d been writing spec scripts, trying to sell scripts like ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop,’ bigger studio comedy stuff that’s more high-concept,” Hood said. “We got to a point where it was just so frustrating (we said) ‘Let’s just write something that we can make on our own and what we really want to make.’”

Making things work
With only five cast members in the entire film, much of “Night Owls” is played as a two-hander between Kevin and Madeline, a move that only works with a pair of quality leads who have instant on-screen chemistry.

The film took off during the casting process, with Goldsmith suggesting Pally, best known at the time for his role on the now-cancelled “Happy Endings.”

“Things went really quickly once Adam got it. It started to become a movie pretty much immediately,” Goldsmith said. “He was a little less nerdy than the type we had in mind (for Kevin), so we were like so how does a guy who’s pretty charming, at least on television, how do we make believe that he’s nerdy and a little bit repressed. What if, when he was a kid, he was a nerdy, fat kid?”

Pally does an admirable job of playing a Tom Hanks-esque everyman in a relatable way.

“There was a smaller scale version of the movie that could have happened. We kind of got the best case scenario,” Hood said. “We were very lucky to get people to like the script enough to get Adam Pally and work from there.”

Ironically, it’s Salazar, the least known star in “Night Owls,” who gives the film’s most complete and dynamic performance. Her Madeline exudes complex and always shifting emotions with relative ease in a wholly believable manner.

“When I met with her after we saw the reels, I thought this girl could really be great,” Hood said. “I sat down with her and was like ‘Wow, she is this character.’ She’s amazing and brings so much to it.”

Salazar joins Ella Purnell of “WildLike” and Hannah Ward of “Sunny in the Dark” in giving the three best individual performances at this year’s Hill Country Film Festival.

While Ward took home the HCFF best actress award, Salazar is equally deserving. There’s just something captivating about her performance that compels viewers to keep their eyes on her at all times.

“We hadn’t heard of her when she was suggested to us,” Goldsmith said. “We watched her reel and were like ‘This girl’s great and I think she’s going to be a star in a week or something.’”

Benefits of one location
Trapping the two leads in a house for the entire 90 minutes, originally written out of necessity, offers more intimacy for Kevin and Madeline to develop their relationship and helps enhance the story in interesting ways.

“We thought ‘How can we keep this as small and as focused as possible,’” Goldsmith said. “Our original vision was going to shoot at a friend’s house and cast people we knew.”

“We like the mystery of not knowing these people and getting to know them, leaking little bits of information to an audience bit by bit,” Hood added.

The set, which doubled as housing for cast and crew, proved troublesome for the film’s production designer, Ayse Arf, who had to clean the house every day before filming could commence.

Most studio comedies now in theaters are incredibly broad, both in humor and in visual style, which makes “Night Owls” refreshing by contrast.

“Our cinematographer, Adrian Correia, is amazing and I wouldn’t want to work without him,” Hood said. “It’s all (shot) in one house and that can be very limiting, but we wanted to open it up and really move the camera around to do interesting stuff.”

The writing duo said the final draft of the script is nothing more than a shooting treatment with Correia, blocking out every frame of every shot.

As a result, there’s a clear sense of directorial style in “Night Owls” that’s not represented in studio comedies, especially in the visual continuity when the film moves from indoors to the backyard and then back inside.

“Through the whole movie, it was about for us playing with the contrast and being okay with having contrast,” Hood said. “A lot of comedies in particular light everything and we don’t like that look as much. I think comedy can work without that look.”

Hood and Goldsmith bonded over the work of Woody Allen as both a writer and filmmaker.

“Both writing and filmmaking. He’s underrated as a director,” Hood said. “People don’t talk about him as much directing wise, but a lot of the shots, when we were staging different scenes, was very Woody Allen-esque.”

The ‘Die Hard’ of comedy
While the film takes its premise from the 1960 Jack Lemmon feature, “The Apartment,” Hood found much of his directorial inspiration for “Night Owls” from an unexpected source, the 1988 action classic “Die Hard.”

“I think it’s interesting that Charles and Adrian ended up shooting it almost like an action movie in the ways it moves,” Goldsmith said. “One of Charles’ big heroes is John McTiernan, who directed ‘Die Hard’ and you can see that influence as much as you can see Woody Allen or Alexander Payne — not in the writing, but in the way they shot the movie.”

The geography of the film — a hallmark of McTiernan’s directorial philosophy — was so important to Hood that he refused to let editor Grant Surmi come to the set. Keeping him away helped ensure that casual viewers would be able to understand the home’s layout.

“When you watch ‘Die Hard,’ he explores every inch of that space and it seems limiting but in the end it isn’t,” Hood said. “‘Die Hard’ is the same way as ‘Night Owls.’ We’re in this one house and it’s about exploring every inch of that house and making it so the audience knows, when you turn that corner, you’re going to go up that staircase.”

Goldsmith joked that “Night Owls” was shot like an action movie as Hood’s audition piece for a blockbuster Hollywood film.

“Charles only directed this movie so he could get a job directing a Marvel movie,” he said. “Everybody gets a Marvel movie.”

Hood’s second directorial feature after 2007’s “Freezer Burn” should rightly boost the writer-director into larger prominence, but if “Night Owls” is the “Die Hard” of comedy, then Salazar is its Bruce Willis, hopefully parlaying a tremendous individual performance into stardom.

Goldsmith and Hood constantly refer to the film’s final product as a “best case scenario,” which benefits audiences more than anyone in this terrific indie comedy.

Check out more about “Night Owls” online at nightowlsmovie.com.

(Note: Film critic Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival.)

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