Double Happy is based on a real event that happened when I was a teenager. The consequences in the film are a lot more dire than they were in real life, but I think the real event was a ‘jumping off’ point for me to explore some of the things I felt were interesting about being a teenager in New Zealand in this particular time (1990).
On top of that, I guess I just wanted to make a film about something that really mattered, and not just treat the short film as a ‘stepping stone’ or pathway to feature film. I was actually thinking about the fact that I might never get another chance to direct anything, so what’s a story I really want to see explored in some detail on screen.
So, which role were you in real life?
I was probably Danielle in real life (played by Jamie Burns, the red-headed girl in the film), but in the film, the character of Rory is certainly an amalgam of me at different points in my life, probably mixed in with some other people I’ve met over the years.
What techniques and philosophies did you employ in making the film?
This was a tough film to make, because I really wanted it to feel like the story was unfolding on screen as it happened, with a sense of vérité, but not quite a documentary. So I felt it was important to have a ‘hands off’ approach, and try to figure out scenes as we were filming them on set. It wasn’t always successful on the day, because logistically, there were just so many different elements that really needed to be planned out meticulously. I just didn’t want to do anything that drew attention to itself, or distracted us from the story. I think everything I’d made up until this point has been quite ‘directed’, which was something I didn’t want to feel when watching this film.
It sounds like you had a few major plot points to hit but then had other moments where you let the story unfold naturally. How did you prepare the actors, cinematographer, and crew members for that?
There were a number of scenes which had improvised elements, but a lot of that work was done in rehearsals. We actually had a big window of about 5 weeks which we could rehearse with the four main teenagers. We obviously didn’t want to over-rehearse them, but I wanted them to grow to know each other a lot more and form natural relationships. So we opted just to hang out every weekend during that five weeks. We’d run rehearsals and make them do little exercises, but the main goal was just for them to form relationships before we shot the film.
One of the more ‘extreme’ tasks we had them do was drop them off in the neighborhood where the real events all happened. We basically just left them on their own and asked them wander around in character. We had them do little tasks for us, the funniest one to observe was asking them to all steal something from the corner stores. The owners were all in on it, and I’m sure the actors knew that it was all staged, but I think it really got them to strategize about how they would approach doing that. The funniest thing was that Riley (who plays Rory in the film) was so bad at it, he got caught by a member of public who wasn’t in on it!
And occasionally we just had ‘free runs’, where the cinematographer would turn the camera on, I’d give a little bit of direction, and we’d just follow them around for a while. Shooting on the RED certainly afforded us that luxury. Some of my favorite moments around the Polaroid camera came from those free runs.
Any important lessons you learned while making the film?
A lot of people will tell you that you’re being overly ambitious and you need to reign in some of your ideas. Looking at Double Happy on paper, with the budget we had, a lot of interested producers simply said it was too difficult. But I think if you have the right people around you, who really believe in what you’re doing you can achieve almost anything on film.
How do you feel about releasing films online?
I’m really intrigued about Double Happy being released online. I never ever considered anyone watching the film on a small screen. It was always designed with a cinema or DVD audience in mind, so I’m really curious about how the film works for an online audience. I’ve had some success with online material before, but a lot of that work (music videos and short clips) seemed ideally suited to online viewing. But I also think that online audiences are really surprising in terms of what they like and what they don’t. I have no idea what’s going to happen!
I also think the traditional festival route is changing really rapidly. Festivals really had a system for ensuring their audiences were the first and sometimes only audiences to see your film. But I don’t think that’s very efficient for the filmmaker who wants their film to be seen by the most people possible.
As you guys pointed out with The Thomas Beale Cipher, an online release offered a much bigger audience for your film and as a result was a much more successful way to get people to see it. A lot of film festivals are catching onto this, but this is still new territory, and I think the exciting part is when filmmakers really tailor their films for an online audience.
What are you up to now? Are there any future projects we should keep an eye out for?
I’m developing a couple of different feature films at this point, but still have my hand in music videos, commercials and short films. I really like these short formats because of the opportunity to experiment. I also love collaborating with artists in different mediums, because the challenge is to try and find a complimentary way to express what those artists do, on film.
I’m hoping to have a couple of new projects online soon. You can check out some of my other work on my website shahirdaud.com