Courtney Daniels Talks Single-Location Shoots on Episode 2 of the Forward Filmmaker Podcast
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker Podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews Courtney Daniels, the writer-director behind the films What Other Couples Do and Bedroom Story, and the web series This Fucking Town. Her work takes a unique, deeply personal look at love, relationships, and the hijinks and perils of being in the film industry. Below is an edited transcript of Max and Courtney’s conversation.
Max: Courtney, how are you today?
Courtney: I’m good. Thank you Max.
Max: Your movies really depict what it feels like to be in LA, in the Hollywood scene, as well as the dynamics between men and women. For the people that don’t know your work, how would you describe your style of storytelling?
Courtney: I’m very into men and women’s relationships and dynamics. I make dialogue-heavy movies about how men and women interact. I’m also very interested in the struggle of trying to make it in Los Angeles and just being a creative person in general, so that’s always a backdrop in everything I’ve done.
Max: It’s clear that you really take from your own life, and that you’re passionate about movie making. Where did your film journey start?
Courtney: My husband Jimmy and I were in Houston in our twenties working in advertising. We didn’t want to stay. We never were passionate about that really. We knew we wanted to head to LA and try to write screenplays, but it takes a while to do that when you don’t know anyone. We didn’t grow up knowing screenwriters. It takes a while just to figure out that somebody wrote the movies that you’re seeing, We saw Helen Childress, who wrote Reality Bites, speak at the Houston Film Festival. We got super jazzed, and she was telling people how to write screenplays and what books to get. We got to a point where we couldn’t stay in Houston any longer, and we had to move here.
Max: “Inspired by Reality Bites” might be my favorite sound clip of how someone got inspired.
Courtney: Helen Childress is from Houston, so related to her. It seemed more doable like, “OK, if she did it, maybe I can do it.”
Max: So traversing the movie scene without knowing anybody, what kind of life hacks did you try to implement to really get your movies out there?
Courtney: For years I wrote screenplay after screenplay. I was constantly writing and rewriting scripts. I was trying to give them to people I worked with, or someone who knew somebody in development, or who worked at a studio or whatever. And nothing was happening. Every once in a while, you’d get lucky and somebody would actually read your script and would give you thoughtful criticism of it. But a lot of times it hurt. They’d tear it up and tell you it sucks in so many words. It’s a hard process to become a good writer. Your first script is rarely any good, but you learn. The weird thing about being an LA is, this town makes you more and more angry. You have this growing s***list of people who you want to prove yourself to. Well, I should just speak for myself. It happened to me that way. You just become more and more determined to become good at writing. And meanwhile, you’re watching movies because you’re obsessed with movies, and you just want to become good. That’s what helps you stay in it. Because otherwise you look back and you’re like, “Why did I spend eight to ten years just writing script after script, getting nowhere?”
Max: How do you look back on those scripts and that learning process?
Courtney: I’m grateful now that I made it through all those years. There were a lot of tears. Often you just break down. You’re like, “What am I doing? Where am I going? Am I ever going to get anywhere?” It’s hard. Some people, things happen for them quickly and that’s wonderful. That just wasn’t my experience.
Max: I feel like it’s given you a tougher skin. You’ve learned so many different things. I’m blown away that, with What Other Couples Do, you used so few locations - just a large house for the most part. And then in Bedroom Story, you used one location, your own bedroom, the entire time. How’d that come about?
Courtney: I always wanted to direct, but I finally got so fed up with knocking Hollywood’s door and not being let in that I was like, “You know what? Fuck it, I’m going to go straight to what I want.” Which is to make my own movies anyway. That took forever to realize that because I was trying to sell a screenplay for a few hundred thousand dollars, which it’s like planning on winning the lottery. It’s not a good idea. The odds are really against you. But you see it happens to people every week, and you read about it in the trades, so it could happen. Anyways, I finally let go of that dream and embraced this other dream — to make movies myself, with the help of my husband and some friends. And in order to do that, you pretty quickly realize that you need to make it real simple. So if you have one location, fantastic. If you have just a handful of locations, great. Obviously I’m not the first person to shoot a movie in one location — it’s been done a billion times by people because it’s just more doable. You get one location, for free hopefully, and you just shoot the whole thing there. So of course you have to write a script that allows for that. I had never done that. It was so funny because I had a ton of screenplays, but nothing that lent itself to a low budget shoot. So finally I just sat down and wrote a script that could be shot low budget in mostly one location and that was What Other Couples Do.
Max: Do you feel like that’s the technique you’re going to do from now on? You’re going to create your script based on how you’re going to shoot it?
Courtney: That’s what I’m doing so far. With Bedroom Story, it was the same thing. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go even smaller. I’m going to have just one location, and we’re going to stay in that one room the entire time.” With What Other Couples Do, we’re all over the house. We’re in every room and outside by the pool. You break up the monotony by switching locations within this big property. With this movie, I was like, “I’m going to try to write a story that’s compelling and will hold the viewers’ interest— I find it a fun challenge to just going to shoot it at our house this time, and in our bedroom.
Max: Were there unexpected issues with that?
Courtney: The thing about shooting at someone else’s house is that, if someone else allows you to shoot for free at their house or office or whatever, a lot of times they end up regretting it. Because it’s a mess. They’re busy doing their jobs and not noticing whether it’s scuffing the floors or nicking the walls. Some things get broken in the process, so you spend a lot of time apologizing during the shoot, and after. It’s hard. We wanted to just have it be on us —it’s our problem if we scuff up our house and mess up the paint and whatever. We wanted to do it in our house this time. So the good thing is that you’re not having to apologize constantly. The bad news is that it’s like you’re throwing a party at your house that’s not ending, sometimes for weeks. So it’s exhausting, and your house is a mess. You’ve got gear everywhere, people’s stuff everywhere. It’s just weird. It’s not super luxurious. It’s not like you can go home at night and forget all about the shoot. You can’t anyway on a shoestring budget movie production. You just basically live, sleep, eat it for weeks. I’ve read that the Coen brothers just go home at the end of the day, go out to eat with their spouses or whatever, and it sounds so heavenly that they can just leave it all on set. They have department heads taking care of everything. I look forward to that.
Max: Will we ever see the big budget, huge set Courtney Daniel’s picture?
Courtney: If I were to be hired, then yeah, I guess so. As long as we’re financing it ourselves, no. It’ll be very small budget, because in the indie film landscape it really doesn’t pay to spend a ton of money. You have no idea if you’re going to get the money back. It’d be interesting to hear what projections are for a small indie film that has stars in it. I would be interested to know what they typically gross, but if you have a cast that’s without a star, you don’t know how much money you’re going to make.
Max: I’d say you just go smaller every time. Do a prison cell next time, do a doll house, keep getting smaller and smaller.
Courtney: I thought about it. Don’t think I haven’t. Believe me— I’m sitting here going, “Could I shoot it in the bathroom? Could I shoot a movie in a closet?” It’d be fun.
Max: I’d love to see a bathroom movie.
Courtney: You have to set up some conflict, right?
Max: Yeah. The single sink for the couple. When you don’t have a his and hers sink. I think that’s the start of the conflict, and then it slowly builds. So would you recommend this technique for new director starting out?
Courtney: Yes, absolutely. In fact, my second favorite thing to do besides making stuff is to bug and bully other people to make stuff. I highly encourage any aspiring filmmaker, or experienced filmmaker, to do it this way. Do it cheaply, with very few locations, and don’t wait. I know so many people wait years to make their first film because they keep thinking they have to raise a million dollars, or they have to find financing. That’s just not true. If you really want to, you can make a movie starting tomorrow with your phone. I know this because I went over to one of my actors’ apartments, and we just shot little videos of him screwing around, just talking to the camera in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in his bedroom and stuff. This was before I bought a camera. I was trying to see, could I do this? Do I think I could operate a camera? I just wanted to try shooting some decent looking footage of him. It was fun. What you need is a good story. That’s what you need. Everyone says they have a money problem. It’s not true. They have a script problem. What you need is a good script.
Max: So What Other Couples Do, when did you have that script ready?
Courtney: I think we shot it in 2011, so I probably was writing it in 2009 or 2010.
Max: That’s a long process.
Courtney: This is what makes it long: You’re scared and so you’re putting it off. You’re procrastinating. Meanwhile, you keep embellishing the script. You go back to the script, work on it again, put it through another rewrite. You’re showing it to everybody, and they’re giving you their thoughts like, “Oh, I was confused about this couple.” Or, “I think you ought to give them more conflict.” People are telling you different stuff. That’s something also I urge people to do – to take criticism. Don’t give your script to someone who you know is passive aggressive or hostile or threatened by you – it’s like handing them a bat and asking them to hit you with it. But give it to people you trust, who are kind, who care about you, who want to see you make something great, whose taste you trust and take that criticism. You don’t have to do anything with it, but listen and see if you can’t make your script better. It took me a long time not to dig my nails into my hand as I listened to criticism. But some of the best things come out of that. Right before we shot What Other Couples Do, a TV writer friend told me that she thought that the one couple who doesn’t play the closet game should play because there wasn’t enough conflict for them. And I disagreed. I thought in any group of friends, there’d be one couple who’s was like, “No, we’re not going to do this.” So I was sticking to my guns about that, but I took the bigger note, which was that there wasn’t enough conflict for them, and I wrote a whole Matt Damon scene last minute, because I needed to show the stress on them of not playing the game.
Max: Her having an imaginary crush on Matt Damon and them arguing insanely about it was probably the most stressed I felt during the entire movie.
Courtney: Oh, really? I’m glad. Okay good.
Max: Because they seem like the perfect couple. They seemed like they were above it all. And then you see the cracks in the wall, and I find that so fascinating. In all of your movies, it feels like you take from your life and these real relationships and interactions. How do you put that out there and just show everyone “this is my life” without feeling insecure about exposing all the idiosyncrasies of you?
Courtney: You can feel like throwing up if you focus on that. If you really think about it, it is stressful. It is stressful revealing yourself. I don’t know another way to work, though. Because the first 10 scripts I wrote, when I was trying to sell a spec script, were not so personal, actually. I didn’t start writing personal stories until I started writing stuff I was going to shoot.
Max: Interesting. I had no idea. It just seems like your bag is all these real relationships. Did you ever write fantasy stuff or fiction too?
Courtney: No. I wrote romantic comedies and adult dramas, and I tried my hand at a few different things, but it was mostly in the romantic comedy genre. Although the first several scripts I wrote were not nearly as personal at all. Because they were more high concept, big premise, because I was trying to write a studio film.
Max: I know your husband’s in the industry. Do you bounce stuff off him? Does he have a role in how you create?
Courtney: Yeah. I always recommend to people that they marry a writer, because I think it’s great. We’re constantly discussing the scripts we’re working on and what problems we have that we’re trying to solve. It’s great to be able to talk to someone about it.
Max: Is he on set all the time?
Courtney: Yeah. He’s on set. He co-produces everything I do, so he’s working as hard as I am. It’s just an all-hands-on-deck type thing. All during post-production, I’m dealing with different problems and questions and stuff, and he and I are figuring things out together – how to deal with music rights and color correction and editing and all the different things that come up. Should we cut this scene? Should we keep it? Should we shorten it? All those questions – we’re just constantly discussing and figuring out together.
Max: It’s nice to have a sounding board. You said you’re talking about color composition, you’re talking about music, you’re talking about editing. When you started out, you didn’t know any of those things. You learned how to edit, how to light, all of that. How?
Courtney: I haven’t finished a film yet that I shot. I had a DP on What Other Couples Do, and I had a DP on Bedroom Story. This Fucking Town, the pilot I shot with my DP Dean Gunderson, and then I made episodes two, three, and four on my own. It was a financial decision. If you can’t keep paying people, then you’re trespassing on people’s goodwill to ask them to keep working for free or cheap or whatever. So if I wanted to get it made with no budget, I had to do it myself. That was the motivation for getting a camera, learning how to operate it, getting lights. I’m by no means great at lighting, but I have learned how to do the minimum to make the actors visible on camera. I had to do all those things so that I could afford to keep making episodes.
Max: So did you YouTube tutorial it? How’d you do it?
Courtney: Let me think about this. I definitely watched things on YouTube about camera stuff, like ISO, aperture, shutter speed, lighting – there’s all kinds of great videos of wonderful people who are kind enough to want to teach other people how to do stuff. So I just kept watching different people’s videos. But it was mostly trial and error. I always bug everyone to do that. It’s so empowering to know how to do things yourself. I literally made a list. I was like, “It’d be incredible if I could learn how to use the camera, it’d be incredible if I could learn how to light people.”
Max: So do you think that expertise manifested itself in a larger way when you were shooting in one room? As in, you understood that room and that lighting and that editing, so it came out – well, it looks like a multimillion-dollar movie, Bedroom Story.
Courtney: Oh, I’m so glad you think so. That’s largely thanks to my DP, Bianca Butti. She did a beautiful job. She made the actors look so great, and she made the room look beautiful. I don’t know how to light at that level. That’s its own craft, right? She’s gotten way over 10,000 hours doing that. Same with Dean Gunderson, the DP from What Other Couples Do. He shoots beautiful scenes and does great, cool angles.
Max: I feel like you’ve circumvented some of the stress by using the same actors in all three of these titles. Was that an intentional move, or did that happen by chance?
Courtney: We just became friends over the years and kept shooting stuff together, and they were game to keep being in stuff. And we have fun together, all of us. It’s fun to work with friends, and they’re really talented. Just because there’s so many actors here doesn’t mean there are so many really talented ones, you know what I mean? So when you find really talented people who elevate your work, you want to keep working with them.
Max: Michael Marc Friedman, who’s the star of Bedroom Story, reminds me of late nineties Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone in a rough and tumble movie, but he’s got a sensitive side. I was blown away by his performance.
Courtney: Oh, good. I’m so glad. He’s fantastic.
Max: It’s real testament to that acting group too because in What Other Couples Do versus Bedroom Story and This Fucking Town, everyone pairs off in different ways. Did you do that intentionally to see if chemistry was different between the actors?
Courtney: Sometimes it was who was available.
Max: Got it. So make your script bulletproof, and then anyone can go in it, really.
Courtney: Yeah. The tighter the script is, the more likely it is that whoever is saying the lines will come off well.
Max: Let’s talk about the difficulties. A genie can grant you one wish to improve your filmmaking life. What are you wishing for?
Courtney: It’s so boring, but bigger budgets. I want more money. Like I said, I don’t think it’s smart to spend millions on indie films. But it would be so nice to not have a painfully small budget. And boy, I would love to have tons of money for music. That would be just a dream.
Max: What would be your song you’d pay an ungodly amount for to have it in your movie?
Courtney: Oh man. I’m so into Blondie again lately. I would love to have the song Atomic. I would love to have Destination Unknown by Missing Persons – a go-go song.
Max: Oh yeah. Give me the Fast Times at Ridgemont High intro song, absolutely.
Courtney: Yeah. That’d be incredible. That’d be fun.
Max: Let’s say you get a time machine. You can go back in time and give yourself one piece of movie-making advice. Where are you going, and what are you saying?
Courtney: I know what I would do. I would go back to 1997, which is the year we moved here. And it’s when I started writing spec scripts, hoping to sell one to one of the studios. I would tell myself, “Let it go. Drop that idea and just write screenplays for yourself that you can shoot.” I would do that immediately. I would just blow off completely trying to make it in Hollywood. I’m so over it. I would just not even try to participate in the studio system, because it’s not built for the individual. It’s not great for individual people, in my opinion.
Max: A lot of the conflict in your movies is the stressors of dealing with Hollywood and being in that machine, and it feels real.
Courtney: Yeah. It makes you very unhappy, I think. For a lot of people, obviously there are people who succeed wildly, and I’m thrilled for them. I have no sour grapes. I’m just saying that for many people, it’s not a route to happiness.
Max: For a new generation of directors, is that the same advice you’d give – to circumvent Hollywood?
Courtney: A hundred percent. Don’t even come here. Don’t try to do anything with Hollywood. No, seriously. I mean it with every ounce of my being. In fact, I sat next to Cory Kelley, the screenwriter, at lunch once at a restaurant, and I eavesdropped on her. Because I said to myself, “God put me here for a reason. I’m supposed to listen to whatever she says to her lunch date.” It was this younger guy. I heard her say something to the effect of, if she could do it all over again, she would not have taken all these writing assignments that didn’t end up getting made into films. I didn’t catch every word, but it was to the effect of, “What did it get me? It got me money, but nothing else.” Because there’s a lot of scripts that get developed. These things drag on for years, and then the studio chickens out or whatever, and they don’t make the movie. It has happened to everyone, like David Mamet on down, right? I was like, “That’s what I was supposed to hear.” I felt like I was God’s way of telling me, “Honey, it’s okay that you’re just making movie yourself. You’re happier for that.” What I think is amazing is, if you put a movie on Amazon and if it has a poster, a logline, and a title that make people curious to want to click on it, you can end up getting seen by millions of people.
Max. It’s a wonderful brave new world we’re in. It’s content first.
Courtney: Yeah, it is. Of course, there’s no guarantee – you don’t know if what you made is going to get seen. So you want to do the best you can and try to make a compelling sounding storyline. That one sentence nutshell description of your movie, you want it to be compelling.
Max: Did you have expectations for when your titles got released?
Courtney: Yeah, you always do, right? You try not to because it’s certainly not a recipe for happiness. But you can’t help it with the what ifs. I try to train it out of myself but it’s really hard.
Max: As far as directors you admire, if you could be on one film set in movie history, you can be a DP, an assistant director – It doesn’t matter, whatever role besides the big chair – where are you going?
Courtney: Maybe Valley Girl.
Max: So Martha Coolidge is going to tell you what to do.
Courtney: I love that Martha Coolidge directed it. I think it was a three-week shoot. And it was a low budget. So I just think it’d be interesting to see how they handled it. Because to go to a big movie like Citizen Kane or something like that, that would be fascinating but less applicable to my life. I would want to see another small budget movie, how it’s done, how people do it.
Max: Your whole life philosophy is be confident with how you feel – to show people that it’s okay to be sometimes scared or anxious, that there’s power to that. I feel like that shines through in all your movies.
Courtney: Oh good. I’m glad you think so.
Max: Do you feel that? Do you tap into that? The “Here I am, this is me” kind of vibe in all your movies?
Courtney: It’s embarrassing to reveal yourself. It’s stressful. You feel exposed, vulnerable, embarrassed. Of course I take creative license with my life. I definitely pushed things to the Nth degree to make it a better story. You’re still putting yourself out there, just making something. You’re opening yourself up for criticism and judgment. People are judging you, and you cannot stop just strangers from around the world just hating on your film on Amazon. I just accept it, that people are going to trash my movies. It’s just better if you accept it and get on with your life. Don’t let it bother you.
Max: What’s on your plate right now? What’s next for Courtney Daniels?
Courtney: I want to finish This Fucking Town. So I’m going to shoot a final installment of it. And I’m going to shove all the episodes together to make a movie, because it all works together as a whole piece. I’m going to release that with Filmhub. I have two scripts I’m working on right now that I think are fun, that I’m excited about, but I’m only 20-something pages in. So I gotta hustle and finish those.
Max: If people want to follow you, where should they go?
Courtney: My website is courtneydanielsfilms.com. If you subscribe, you’ll get alerted when I release a new project or resource. And then every once in a while, I’ll write an email about something that I’ve learned that I want to pass on in case it’s of value to someone else. My whole message is, “Yes, you can do this.” Anyone who’s sitting out there thinking, “I can’t make a movie, I don’t know if I can do this,” – yes, you absolutely can. I believe in you. And I think you ought to start immediately.
Max: Thanks for listening. On the next episode, we’ll be talking with award-winning documentary filmmaker Torsten Hoffmann, whose films delve into the complex world of cryptocurrency.
To show your support for Courtney and tune into future Forward Filmmaker episodes, please subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple or wherever you listen. Your support goes a long way.