Director's Chair: Derrick Borte — <I>American Dreamer</I>
Issue: September/October 2019

Director's Chair: Derrick Borte — American Dreamer

Writer/director Derrick Borte began his career as a painter. After receiving his Bachelors of Fine Arts from Old Dominion University, he earned a Masters of Arts in Film and Media Studies at Parsons/The New School in New York, and joined the production staff at Sony Music Studios, where his fine arts background evolved with his growing interest in film and video. 

In 2010, he wrote, produced, and directed the dark comedy The Joneses, which starred Demi Moore and David Duchovny. The film garnered a gala presentation at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and was also an official selection at the Deauville Festival of American Film, Dallas International Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, Sedona Film Festival, and Zurich Film Festival. The film was released theatrically by Roadside Attractions, and a Chinese version of the film is currently in production. 

Other recent film work includes the drama London Town, which he directed. The film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, Rome Film Festival and LA Film Festival in 2016, and was released theatrically by IFC Films.

His latest film, American Dreamer, which he co-wrote and directed, is a taut, character-driven thriller that focuses on the invisible, marginalized outliers of modern society and deals with timely issues of white privilege, mental illness, race relations and social hierarchy. 

It stars comedian Jim Gaffigan as Cam, a former computer programmer, now a down-on-his-luck ride share driver. After suffering an emotional breakdown, and the subsequent loss of his job and family, he is a shell of the successful man he once was, and makes extra cash chauffeuring Mazz, a low-level drug dealer, around the city. Mazz (played by Robbie Jones of Bosch and Tyler Perry's Temptation), is a cold blooded man of the streets who shows little respect for Cam during their frequent rides together. 

As Cam’s situation deteriorates into a serious financial bind he decides to kidnap Mazz’s child in hopes of collecting a ransom from the cash-carrying dealer, and the tension begins to boil over. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Borte talks about making the movie and his love of post. 

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“One that reflected what was going on around me at the time, that hopefully is very real and authentic and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a personal story set against a backdrop that includes some level of social commentary. Growing up in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, this world and backdrop is one I’ve known my whole life, and it’s one where poverty and money exist side by side, along with complex race relations and social hierarchies.”

You co-wrote this. What themes did you want to explore?

“It all began with various conversations I had with my writing partner, Daniel Forte, about Uber and Lyft drivers who all had stories of their own, and how they ended up becoming drivers for a living. We’d both heard so many stories from them, and how they’d become invisible compared to their former selves through a fall from whatever position they used to have. And that was the genesis for Cam, who feels he’s invisible and not heard, and that he’s a non-entity in the lives of his ex-wife and child, and that his family doesn’t seem to take him very seriously anymore. He’s basically disenfranchised. So there was all that, and then the social commentary about race and the growing gap between the poor and the rich.”

Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan might seem like an unlikely choice to play Cam’s ‘white rage,’ but he really digs deep. What did he and Robbie Jones bring to their roles?

“For starters, we knew we needed to cast someone that, despite the horrible decision-making that Cam displays, and the results of those being as off-putting as they are, would still be sympathetic to a degree, and that people would still root for him in some way, and still empathize with him in some way. And Jim had that ability, kind of like Bill Macy in Fargo. He’s a similar character to Cam, and Jim can keep people on his side, and that was crucial. As for Robbie, when I first saw his audition I just assumed the casting director had done some street-casting as it felt so real and scary, and he seemed just perfect for the role. And then I met with him, and of course he wasn’t anything like the character at all, and he had so much insight into Mazz, and he plays him with so much intelligence, and he’s so scary that no one in their right mind would think to cross him like Cam does. And Robbie pulls it off so brilliantly that at the start, you just think of him as the bad guy, but by the end he’s done a complete 180, and you really feel for this guy who’s lost everything, and his humanity comes through in such a powerful way, and together they do an incredible job.”

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?

“The big one on this was the tight schedule, and the fact that we shot for 16 nights, which is always hard, and had limited resources.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was hard because of all the nights, but shoots are always hard. The great thing about this was that I got to shoot it at home in Virginia with a crew I’ve worked with often before, so we have a shorthand, and we got to make the film we wanted to make. We had no one to answer to but ourselves, and the limits we had with the schedules and budget were really offset by the total freedom we had. It felt like making a film with your friends.”

Your regular DP Eric Hurt shot it. Talk about how you collaborated on the look.

“We’ve worked a lot together over the years on commercials and have a great relationship, and we talked a lot about the look and trying to capture that specific nighttime look of the sodium vapor street lights where we were shooting. They really fascinated me, and we went for that hyper-realistic look as most of it takes place over just one night, so it was trying to find the colors, the blues, and the right palette. And then you’re spending a lot of time in the car, and there’s that intimacy, but you also need movement or it would have lost something if we’d just settled for generic car coverage. So we came up with ways to get a lot of different coverage inside and outside the car — some practical, in the real world, some on stage with rear projection — and then cut it all together to keep the energy and focus up.”

Where did you post?

“On the last few films I’ve brought my editor to Virginia Beach where I live and set up editing there, and finish my cut there. That works far better than being in LA away from my family, and it’s more productive too. And after that we did the rest of the post in LA at Sugar Studios — all the sound, color and so on. Jijo Reed was their executive in charge of post who oversaw all the various departments, and it’s great to have them all under one roof. So I could go from a color session to a sound session to working on the VFX.” 

Do you like the post process?

“I love it. I love all parts of filmmaking, and of course post is where you rewrite the film and find out what works and what doesn’t. I love that whole puzzle of, you know what you have, you know what your objective is, so how do you make it all work? It’s a second chance to work on stuff you maybe didn’t get right in the shoot, and to focus on nuances in a performance.”

Talk about editing with Soojin Chung. How did that work?

“I’d worked with her before on some smaller jobs, and we’d send her dailies to New York where she lives, and she began her assembly while we shot. Then she relocated to Virginia and we spent the next few months cutting together.” 

What were the big editing challenges?

“With a car movie like this, you always have the challenges of dealing with all the connective tissue. How do you get a car from A to B while there’s a scene going on inside? That’s always tricky. As it takes place over one night, there’s no wardrobe changes, so that lets you cheat a bit, as you can take a shot — say of Jim driving — from another scene if you need to. But it’s a challenge to keep the flow of that. What I love about working with Soojin is that she’s very opinionated and has a great story sense. She doesn’t agree with me sometimes, and I definitely like an editor with a strong opinion as they’re going to be far more objective about the material than I am — especially if I’ve written it too.”

Sugar Studios did all the VFX. How many were there?

“About 150 shots, but we didn’t create any big VFX stuff. It was more about fixing stuff, like changing a license plate on the car, to darkening things to block out some gear, clean up, and fixing any other problems in a shot. That’s the great thing about post and VFX.” 

Talk about the importance of sound and music. 

“Sound design is huge for any film, but it’s especially crucial in this sort of movie. Typically I’ll give some notes and let the team do their work, but I’m not so hands-on till later on with the mix. But with the music I’m very hands-on and very opinionated. This is the second film I’ve done with composer Bryan Senti, and he really came up with the whole tone that helps so much in carrying all the tension, and which is such an integral part of the thriller. The film just wouldn’t have the power it does without his score.”

Where did you do the DI?

“We also did that at Sugar, working with colorist Bruce Bolden. The DP was on another job so I’d shoot him stills and clips from our sessions every day and he’d give notes, and we came up with the right look that way. Bruce would work on the broad strokes first, then I’d go through it reel to reel, shot by shot, with him and tweak as needed.” 

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“Yes, and I feel it speaks to who I am as a filmmaker, more than any other film I’ve made. I had the freedom to do what I wanted.”
What’s next?

“I’m in New Orleans shooting my next feature film, a thriller called Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe, and it’s nearly 110 degrees, and while we have a lot more resources than we had on Dreamer, it’s tougher in some ways.”