A Winning Script and a Miniscule Budget Produce a Remarkable Freshman Endeavor – By Laura McPhail

A couple of beats pass and the faint clinking of ice in a glass can be heard. There is a long exhale on the other end of the phone and one can picture a curl of smoke escaping from his lips as he tries to find adequate words.

“It’s been a bit of a…bipolar experience,” he says with a short laugh.

More ironic words could not have been chosen to describe Brandon E. Marshall’s experience on nurturing his first feature-length movie, Distances, from a rough script proposal to a polished, yet edgy finished product.

This movie deftly tells the tale of Graham Richards (played by newcomer Jordan Tanner) who, following the recent and sudden death of his father, drops out of graduate school and moves back to Austin to pursue his passion for music. Even though it seems as though things are getting back on track for Graham, including reclaiming his relationship with old flame Leah (played by the talented Shauna La), he slowly becomes haunted by breaks with reality that he refuses to acknowledge. During a confrontation, Graham realizes he has yet to come to terms with a painful suppressed memory about his family that will eventually rock him to the core and change his life forever.

Distances is full of psychological suspense—not in the way that so many movies today do it by playing mind games with the audience and using ambush tactics to get viewers to jump, but it is more about how much one man’s psyche takes before the tiny cracks collect and shatter him forever. It is a subtle, yet ambitious exorcism of personal demons and is a heroic freshman effort on Marshall’s behalf.

Over the last 18 months, Marshall has a forged a love/hate relationship with his movie. “Some people say you aren’t a filmmaker until you make a feature film. It’s definitely a self-deprecating process that can easily make you doubt every decision,” said Marshall.

Marshall is no novice to the movie-making business, but is new to creating feature films. He started out as a production assistant on the 2004 Zach Braff debut movie Garden State. Even though he says his experience working on Garden State “de-mystified the film-making process” for him, Marshall was hooked. While participating in the Austin Film Works workshop, Marshall submitted the script for Distances in the workshop’s script competition and it was eventually selected as a winner. The prize for winning was usage of the cameras and equipment that belonged to Austin Film Works creator Steve Mims to create a feature-length movie. Marshall then worked within a lower-than-low $5000 budget.

One look at the final credits of the movie is proof of the time and effort that he put into it. Marshall (who owns Out There Productions, LLC) wrote, directed, sound edited and produced Distances–he even played drums on the feature song from the movie and can be seen in a momentary Hitchcock-esque cameo as part of the bar band that backs the movie’s hero.

Originally shot in February 2010, Marshall has finally finished the grueling post-production phase—which he fondly describes as “a f—ing nightmare.” He juggled his editing schedule for the last year with a part-time bartending job and directing commercials in and around Austin. Add in the difficulties of creative differences with the original editor and subsequently having to learn new editing software on his own, and Marshall’s project (like so many indie projects before it) seemed like it would never be finished.

Diligence and belief in his project has seen Distances through to the end. Marshall attributes his stamina to his incredibly supportive cast, crew, family and friends. “I am beyond grateful to my cast and crew. I will remain indebted to them.”

Jordan Tanner, who played the troubled lead character, is wholly complimentary of Marshall as a director and producer.

“Working with Brandon was great. We became friends pretty quickly. It was like going from zero to 60 in about two seconds because a lot of the shooting was in such close quarters. We were shooting in this 34th floor loft that was packed with people and gear and it was pretty intimidating to me, but Brandon made it a lot easier. He was learning a lot too, but he knew what he wanted and was very organized. And you know, there are some moments in the movie that are pretty impressive considering the budget he had to work with,” said Tanner.

Artist and actress Shauna La, who plays Graham’s love interest Leah in Distances, agrees with Tanner. “Brandon was great. It was wonderful and amazing, but there were very long days, usually 12-14 hour days that were even longer for Brandon after we all left for the day. Everyone was great to work with. When everyone is so great, it really makes it worthwhile and very inspiring,” said La.

Tanner and La’s on-screen chemistry is note-worthy. Distances was La’s first feature film and was Tanner’s first acting experience altogether. When they share the screen, a special balance is achieved. Both actors say that they found it easy to relate to their characters, though there were some challenging moments for Tanner.

Tanner takes a sip of coffee and reflects. “Brandon wrote a lot of himself into the character of Graham,” said Tanner. “So he definitely had a certain idea about how some scenes should be played. But not having the same background and personal experiences as Brandon, it sometimes didn’t come across just the way he originally envisioned it and we had to meet in the middle. I would have probably acted differently from the way Graham handled the rekindled love between Leah and him. I just don’t really do that. Once it’s over, it’s over. Other than that, Graham is me in a lot of ways. In the end, I’m a musician and Graham is a musician and we both moved to Austin for the music scene, so it was also easy to relate to him on that level.”

Marshall agrees. “He (Graham) is a lot like me. You have to craft parts for the person playing it instead of forcing them into how you would play it, and that was a challenge for me at first. How Graham handles things and relates to people is like me. He sometimes inadvertently sounds misogynistic, perhaps bitter, which damages his relationships. That’s like me,” he says with a rueful laugh. “But Jordan made it his own, which I appreciate. He did a great job.”

“I wanted a musician—musicians are natural performers,” said Marshall, who is an accomplished drummer himself. Tanner, who originally hails from Roanoke, Va., moved to Austin in 2007 to make his mark on the music scene. “I just packed up a truck and gave it a chance. Austin is big enough and the people there are supportive enough to make a modest living at it,” said Tanner.

What Tanner fails to mention in this humble ode to Austin is that he is a truly talented singer and songwriter, so much so that one of his original songs, titled “Defender,” was featured in its entirety in Distances and is currently making its way around the internet via YouTube and Facebook. He has also successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to work on a new EP with critically-acclaimed producer Rick Beato. However, Tanner is happy that he branched out and started acting.

“Oh, it was a learning experience for sure,” he says while quietly laughing. “Brandon approached me at a gig I was playing. When it came time for Distances, I almost didn’t even go to the reading, but I figured why not? So we did the table reading, then had rehearsals at Brandon’s house. We practiced in the kitchen and on the lawn—we probably looked pretty silly to his neighbors. There are some old videos of all of this that hopefully will never see the light of day again,” Tanner quips.

Distances deals with some pretty heavy themes and each of the lead actors had different ways of preparing. “I had a few whiskey and iPod moments,” said Tanner. “The music helped me get my head in the right place and then I just tried to imagine how I would feel if my family and I were going through the same situation Graham was in.”

La, who is a former host for Adrenaline TV and studied acting at Columbia College in Chicago and the Actors Studio Workshop, had a different approach. “Brandon spoke with me about it (Distances) over the phone several times and then he emailed me the script. It actually took me a while to finally decide to do it because it was shot on location in Austin and I live in San Diego. When I decided to do it, I went to extra acting classes and spoke with an instructor about how to approach it. But some of it seemed to come naturally because I also date a musician and I am also an artist—Leah does both of those things. You have to be pretty somber to get into the mode that was required for most of the scenes. But everyone got along really well and we all supported each other throughout it.”

Though it seems that several close friendships were created on the set of Distances, perhaps one of the luckiest collaborations that came about as a result of the movie was that of Marshall and Director of Photography Aaron Bratcher. The two met at the Austin Film Works workshop; at that time, Bratcher was slated to work on a different film. “That movie kind of fell through and then Brandon approached me about being DP on Distances. It worked out well because we had similar views on the way it should look.”

“Aaron is a really awesome guy,” said Marshall. “He’s always really busy too, which should tell you how good he is.”

Bratcher is a self-taught director of photography from Dallas with a minor in film from SMU. “I’ve always loved movies and thought it was really cool to be able to create something that didn’t exist before. I bought my first camera in 2005 and just worked from there. I’m a big fan of hand-held work and I actually really like working with young and inexperienced actors,” said Bratcher. He went to Austin Film Works to learn more about using lighting to convey meaning. This knowledge has paid off and truly comes across in setting the mood in Distances.

“My favorite shot is where Graham freaks out and is alone on the street. It’s pretty gritty and there’s lots of camera movement. On the other hand, the scenes with Leah are more stable and give the viewer a sense of comfort, which is exactly what she gives Graham,” said Bratcher. “One of the biggest challenges was shooting inside the condo. It was a great space, but the bedroom had mirrors everywhere. Hiding the camera from the mirrors was definitely a challenge.”

Marshall, who graduated with a degree in communications from Mississippi State University in 2002, has delivered in Distances a polished and professional end product that speaks to his love of the craft of movie making.

“I never went to film school, but when I lived in New York City, I looked up the classes that the NYU film students were taking and then went to the book store and bought the books for those classes and read them. I went to the school of Books-A-Million,” jokes Marshall.

He then becomes serious. “I just want to make movies and music that evoke thought and feeling.”

Distances does just those things and it is incredible to see the final version knowing that it was made for only $5000. When asked about what he thinks the theme of the movie is, Marshall says, “Bad s–t happens to everyone, but you don’t have to let it cripple you. You have to be someone who says, ‘I can handle this.’” Marshall and his cast and crew have certainly handled this and created a movie that promises to entertain audiences that love well-crafted and thought-provoking movies.