Danny Madden grew up in the Southeast, making movies with friends and family under the moniker “Ornana.” He was chosen as one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012, after (Notes on) Biology won the short animation prize at the SXSW Film Festival. He has directed 10 Vimeo staff picks and now lives in Los Angeles with his brother Will, who is awesome. His new film, Beast Beast, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is in select theaters on April 16 and on demand May 4 through Vanishing Angle.
It’s like when you come back from a road trip and find yourself describing it to people — Ah, the destinations were lovely, here are some pictures — then the more you think and talk about it, the more those in-between moments arise. You realize that changing a flat tire in the dark was much more thrilling than Niagara Falls, or whatever. Oh, and that interaction with the gas station clerk was hilarious! Those unique, unplanned moments are what actually made the trip worth taking. You overcame obstacles, and it was exhilarating.
The same applies when you’re making a film.
I recently had my first experience directing a feature. It’s called Beast Beast, and it’s the story of three young people in a Southern town navigating first love, petty crime, and gun violence. Some longtime friends/collaborators and I went back to my hometown in Georgia and filmed this movie on the cheap, applying all the classic low-budget shortcuts: shooting at Mom and Dad’s house, using neighbors as extras, etc. So, here comes a smattering of instances which, in my mind, are highlights from the whole experience.
The time we filmed our co-producer getting punched in the face in the foreground as an executive producer charged up from the background dressed as a police officer.
You get to do this when you’ve got producers who are also actors (in this case, Eli Raskin and Jim Cummings, respectively). Between setups, Eli would peel himself off the floor and do the rounds with a clipboard, making sure all the extras had signed their paperwork.
That lunch break where our sound mixer, Chris Manza — also a trained opera singer — stayed in the auditorium where we were filming and belted out long, beautiful, resonant songs. Slowly the actors and crew trickled back in. We stood there mesmerized, listening. Wildly applauding at his finale.
The moment in pre-production when our make-up and hair maestro, Lauren Wilde, in her trademark unperturbed demeanor, took on the added duties of a third department. With our tiny budget and low overhead we’d decided to forgo not only an A.D. and scripty, but also a wardrobe department, naïvely underestimating how massive an organizational and creative feat costuming all these characters would be. Some panic set in as we stared at the array of clothes set out by our lead actors. This will be a fucking mess. Lauren shrugged, in her casual way. Then saved us with, “I’ll take care of it. I have a spreadsheet going for hair and make-up already, and I like the idea of having a full approach to how they’ll look in each scene.”
The long conversation before the fated “kiss scene.” Our two young leads, Shirley Chen and Jose Angeles, were paralyzed with anxiety. Jose was terrified this might count as cheating on his girlfriend back home; Shirley wasn’t certain she could convey the kind of affection her character had for his. We began filming the moments that take place before the kiss, and in one of the takes Shirley just sprang it on Jose. It was a surprise to all of us, and the result was so raw and genuinely coy, we didn’t do another take. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film.
The time in pre-production when our three lead actors sat down with production designer Charlie Textor. They asked questions and took notes as Charlie showed them design mood boards — colors and textures associated with their characters, what their rooms would look like, their backpacks, etc. We called it “art department air support,” helping the actors bring these roles to life. That meeting brought all kinds of new clarity and excitement to everyone.
Catching the camera team with a mysterious-looking bottle, tossing back shots from the plastic cap. The fuck is this? They laughed and passed the cap to me. It burned, but in a good way. Kristian Zuniga, the D.P., makes homemade hot sauce and they were sampling the new batch. At lunch, I saw that bottle on the table.
When Mom stepped out her front door to find a van parked on the lawn. Gaffer Brian Stansfield had placed it there to get the extra height for a light punching through a second-story window. Mom shrugged, Guess this is what we signed up for.
Producer Ben Wiessner was carrying this movie on his shoulders, getting maybe five or six hours of sleep a night. For a few nights, he surrendered his inflatable mattress (in a large closet upstairs!) to our friend Jenna Johnson, who was visiting to play a cameo role. Ben had a camping mat laid out on the ground floor. A couple hours into sleeping, he sprang up, feeling something crawling in his beard. Something thick. He flicked his fingers through the beard, catapulting the thing across the room. He heard it thump against the far wall. His heart beating, he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep anytime soon, so he just got up and started the day’s work. The next day, we were all repeating the story and laughing about it: “What was it a brown recluse?” “Definitely. At 5 a.m., everything is a brown recluse.”
Ben turned from the stove, where he was preparing breakfast for everyone: “All I know is, never trust a ground spider.”
All images by Danny Madden.