An Interview with Jason Tostevin – By Kirsten Walsh

“’Til Death” is a funny, smart script that pulls off an interesting idea, and it came from Co-Writer/ Director Jason Tostevin and Co-Writer Randall Greenland. The film came out in 2013 and started a successful festival run that is still going! Winning awards such as “Best Zombie Picture” (Bare Bones Film Festival) and multiple “audience choice” awards is just the beginning for this gem, directed by Jason Tostevin. Tostevin, who has been involved with the Ohio film scene for years, has been teaming up with Randall Greenland as of late and have been busting out the short films to eager audiences. Jason currently has two short films in post production that will be coming out this year, so he took a moment away from that to share some of his secrets with RC.

* * *

KW: Where did the idea for “‘Til Death” come from?

JT: A couple years ago in the early fall we were planning to give a contest a go, but time was running out to get a script together. We spent several days racking our brains to come up with an idea for an October movie – something right for Halloween. We’d played with some good concepts, including a twist on Bloody Mary, but nothing was clicking, so the four of us did what good filmmakers do when they aren’t making progress: we quit and went to the bar across the street.

Once we settled in, we got talking about marriage, and how easy it is to get expectations crosswise in a relationship, even when you’re really trying. We started making fun of ourselves for not catching up with the women in our lives. Eventually, someone joked that right then, somewhere in the world, there was a group just like ours talking about killing rather than facing up to their shortcomings. After that, the beats of our story came like lightning strikes – the idiot husbands, the return of the wives, and of course that ending.

KW: Most of the films that you have worked on with Randall Greenland have a sense of comedic horror. Do you guys set out to write for that or is that just how you two are naturally?

JT: Well, there were so many people involved and essential to the movie beyond Randall and me. It wouldn’t have happened without the entire team. But speaking specifically about the two of us, comedy wasn’t the first choice for either of us. Randall’s an award-winning screenwriter who made his bones with these really smart thrillers, and I’m an English-language nerd and a horror guy. Considering it now, it is pretty weird that we weren’t really thinking about comedy though, because Randall’s so damn witty – I never stop laughing when he’s around.

I think as it turns out, we were both avoiding comedy because we’re so committed to story, and we wanted to do it right. We didn’t just want to write punchlines. That’s a trap that’s easy to fall into. I think we’ve all seen shorts where being funny is kind of a defense mechanism – a way of cutting away when character or story gets tough. Doing a real comedy is very tough … maybe the hardest kind of movie to make.

That was all until we started on ‘Til Death. From the get-go, we knew it was a comedy with some horror elements. The premise really caught us up, so we dove in. And everyone involved had a blast and is really happy with the result.

KW: Jason, you have been known as a huge supporter and promoter of indie film in Columbus. Can you talk about how you got started and what sparked your passion for film?

JT: I am in love with filmmaking. But I don’t have the story a lot of my filmmaker friends do, where they got a VHS camera when they were eight and started making movies with their green plastic army guys. I wish I’d known it since childhood like they did, but I started late. I was a writer my whole life, in writing groups – all that. But I got sick of not really producing. In 2009 I saw an advertisement for the 48 Hour Film Project and decided to jump in feet first. I asked a friend who owns a video production company to help, and another friend to direct, and I was set to write.

When we got on set, I got my first and most valuable filmmaking lesson: things don’t go according to plan. The guy who was supposed to direct quit partway through the production. I stepped in, fell immediately in love with process and haven’t looked back.

KW: With “’Til Death”, you used all practical makeup/ effects. Is that something you set out to do on purpose?

JT: Yes, practicals were always our plan. There were two main reasons. First, we knew we had the opportunity for some over-the-top humor that just wouldn’t work with CG. But second and more importantly, I knew Shane Howard and what a talented makeup FX artist he was, and when he agreed to come aboard, I wanted to give him the latitude to showcase what he can do. And he just blew us away.

When you see Marie revealed for the first time, with that burn makeup and practical smoke pluming out of her hair, it still amazes me. You know how Shane did that smoke? He tried all kinds of things – built a whole apparatus. But in the end, he snaked a tube up into her hair, and just laid just out of frame, puffing cigar smoke through it. He spent that whole shoot day green from that smoke. I need to make that up to him.

KW: What has the response been at festivals for “’Til Death”? Do you have a lot of angry women chasing you down after watching the film?

JT: The response has been overwhelming. I think we just hoped some people would watch it, and laugh at some of the right spots. We’ve been so humbled by the reaction – lots of laughs and kind words. Honestly, it’s so hard to get people to watch a short that any time it happens, any time the stars align and someone is sitting in front of a screen watching a short we made, I’m grateful as hell to that person. And if they don’t like it? That’s real! That’s their response, and I’m responsible to it. We all are. Because the audience rules above all. It’s their movie, not ours. It’s not a movie until someone watches it.

Thankfully I think the humor comes through and protects me from people getting too angry with me! I think they can see that the women in the movie are light years ahead of the men. The women are actually trying to move everyone forward, and the guys are too selfish to see it … they’re trying to stall it out and stay stuck in their past. The movie is about how we see other people when we’re self-centered. The women are actually the protagonists, and these idiot husbands have to go through the worst nightmare of everyone’s life to realize it. In the worlds our team creates, the women are usually already at the finish line, while the men are struggling to get to the start. They haven’t realized even the simple stuff the women see. The story is always about them coming around to the practical, the unselfish space the women have already discovered.

I want to say something explicitly here, on the topic: how women are portrayed in art and media is something we should all be paying attention to. I’ve had a few very involved, passionate conversations with women about ‘Til Death and about movies in general. And they’re right – we need more women making movies, more stories that feature women in leading roles, more Bechdel-ready movies. I’m committed to it.

KW: Can you describe your working partnership with Randall Greenland? You have done a handful of projects together, and it seems like you guys have found a successful groove.

JT: If you’re lucky, every once in a while you find someone you respect and like, and that person is a genuine complement to you and how you think, and you are to them. And when you work together, you both get better. That’s Randall and me. And I’m lucky as hell to have gotten to know and work with him.

Randall was a superbly talented writer when we met, and he’s only gotten better. We’ve learned together. We have strengths in different areas, and a relationship where we can really challenge the material and have it always feel like we’re just trying to make it better. It’s not personal. It’s about the project. We strive to sit in the audience’s seat, not our own.

And we know we can trust one another. He doesn’t tell me something works that doesn’t, just to spare my ego. And vice versa. We care about each other, and we want each other to succeed by making the movie succeed. That’s the formula for good work, because neither of us is blowing smoke. We know what we’re out to do: a gripping, primal story, characters you connect with and an emotional journey. And we don’t let each other off the hook. Because neither will the audience!

KW: What filmmakers do you look towards for inspiration and influence?

JT: I love the horror masters, especially Hooper, Romero, Craven. I have profound respect for John Carpenter. He’s self-made and could be the most arrogant SOB ever with that oeuvre, but he’s soft-spoken, considerate – a class act.

I love Alex Aja. Chan Wook Park’s stories and cinematography. Tarantino’s dialogue. But my indie hero is Jason Trost. He’s doing it the way we all dream, scrounging up the money, writing like mad, and making brilliant stuff like The FP and All Superheroes Must Die on pennies. He’s indefatigable and constantly optimistic.

KW: What are your thoughts on the film festival circuit? Many filmmakers feel that its just a money pit with no feedback. You’ve had some major successes at film festivals, including showing your first film at Cannes, so what is your take on it?

I’m a believer in the fest circuit. I think it’s a crucial part of the indie film ecology, where everyone has a role to play – filmmakers, fest organizers and audience members – and when they all work together, the most magical thing happens: audiences see our movies and have a great time.

As far as the return for filmmakers, I can only tell you how I’ve approached it. I was methodical about researching submissions for ‘Til Death, because I wanted to be respectful to the fests. I sent it to places that have played similar content and where the feel of the short was in line with the fest’s brand and its audience. I think that helped us have a pretty high acceptance rate.

Then I committed to traveling with the short as much as I could. I knew audiences and festival directors appreciated that, which makes it important. But I also had four goals of my own: go to school on how to market a film, learn how film festivals really work, be inspired by the best shorts to aim even higher, and meet other filmmakers to learn from and support them.

Festivals give you the chance to get a real world master’s degree in all those things. And if you’re indie, you need them all. The greatest gift any filmmaker can get is to see her or his movie on a big screen in front of an audience that doesn’t know the person who made the movie. Their reaction is the only feedback that matters and the fuel for getting better. Seeing others’ movies makes you realize you can do better. Meeting other filmmakers helps you learn how. And meeting fest directors and understanding their needs and objectives helps you get back there again next time.

There’s no distribution for shorts, right? Well, it took a full year of pounding the pavement, good audience reactions, meeting other people … but we signed a distro deal for ‘Til Death. Without the fest circuit, I’d still be waiting for someone to click play on Vimeo.

KW: What is up next for you and your production team?

JT: Randall’s written a script I’m very excited about. It’s a bottle episode: two very different men, both with secrets they’re about to reveal, in a story that happens entirely in one car ride. And at the end, someone is going to die. The working title is A Way Out, and it’s got a couple whiplash-inducing twists I think people will really dig. We’re pouring over that now, refining and bringing the characters to life and planning visuals. I fully expect that will be our next project, and that we’ll shoot it in late summer.

I also have a couple stories that I’m itching to tell soon. One is called Midnight Screening, about an awkward filmmaker who is desperate to get people to his film festival screening, where he’s planning a terrifying surprise. The other is an outrageous coming-of-age horror-comedy short about a teen sleepover, a pedophile dad and a girl’s first night as a werewolf – it’s called That Time of The Month.

And somewhere in there, we need to get this first feature out of the way …

KW: What inspiring words would you give to the future of indie filmmakers?

JT: Indie will grow into a system that rivals the Hollywood model for audience eyeballs. I am sure of it. It won’t compete on budget; it will compete on intimacy and storytelling and regional support. But I believe people will be seeing local product in their local theaters before long.

To filmmakers, I say: where you live doesn’t define you or decide your success. Neither does what you’ve made before. You don’t have to know everything, because just about everyone is smarter and better at something than you are – you just need to find them and ask them nicely if they’ll help you make a movie. Then learn from them.

You don’t have to get it right the first time, or any time. You only need to try, to be honest about what didn’t work, and get better every outing. You aren’t competing with the other filmmakers you know. You’re competing only with the filmmaker you were yesterday.

The audience rules. Not the newest camera. Not even story (though I was convinced it was story for a long time.) It’s not a movie until an audience watches it. Movie making is, to me, the direct descendant of campfire stories, which are in turn the direct descendant of cave paintings. They’re people trying to get other people to feel something through a story – a thrill, fear, sadness, joie de vivre. It’s evoking that feeling that’s your goal, and as long as you keep your eyes on that horizon at every step, you’ll make something you’re proud of.

* * *

Keep in the know by liking the “’Til Death” Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/tildeathshort
And by liking Jason’s Production Company Page for HandsOff Productions: https://www.facebook.com/HandsOffProductions