David Liban is an independent filmmaker and a film professor at CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media. He is the Chairperson for the Dept of Film & TV. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College. He’s been a Fulbright scholar and a prolific filmmaker of short-form films. His documentary, Mortal Lessons, won an Emmy in 2010 and over the years, his films have screened at numerous film festivals and television outlets.
First of all, huge thanks for reaching out to me and inviting me to preview your film A Feral World. I absolutely enjoyed the story and I’ll share more of my thoughts on that throughout our conversation.
This interview is part of an ongoing project I’ve been working on for some time, called Creating Awesome. Through interviews, with artists, writers, filmmakers, business people and others, I try to examine the underlying motivation and inspiration of creative people.
These questions are intended to explore your interests, experiences and background, and discover how people, places and events in your life, may have contributed to your creativity.
Early Life Experiences
Being that A Feral World is a coming-of-age story, I think it’s appropriate to learn a bit about your origin story, if you don’t mind.
How do you relate to the main character Sonny, in A Feral World?
I don’t know if I can relate so much to the character directly, but I have thought about what life would be like if society collapsed, and would I survive? And what about the children who lost their families. Would it be Lord of the Flies? Or would it be more like Newt from Aliens, surviving by instinct and fear. Also, Caleb Liban, who plays Sonny is my son, and I thought a lot about his survival if something should happen to me.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Little Neck, New York. That’s in Queens.
Please describe a favorite place from childhood and explain how it might have impacted your creativity?
Each year my family would travel to New Hampshire and spend time on an island on Lake Winnipesaukee called Sandy Island. It was operated by the YMCA but it was cool in that it was an island, maybe a mile or so in diameter. It had stark cabins and a single lightbulb on the ceiling, cots, bugs, and the bathroom was 100 yards away. I was able to explore the island with new friends and be completely without adult supervision. First kisses, swimming at night, walking around with flashlights and the smell of the forest. It was hardly post apocalyptic, but it was very different for me, coming from Queens, NY. How it impacted my creativity is hard to say, but it certainly marked my growth as I met friends from other places who saw things differently, listened to different types of music. BUT… now that I think of it… they had activities at night, and when I was about 10 or 11, there was this kid who was just a little bit older who showed the campers his animated film he made. It was a film about a boy who comes downstairs because Stevie Wonder’s Superstition is playing. All the furniture is rocking out to the music and objects on the table were moving in unison to the music. I was so impressed that this kid made this movie by himself, when I went home I got books on stop-motion animation from the library and used my parents super-8 camera to start making my own animated film. I had a paper route at the time and used the money to buy film and processing. Now… that you ask… I think that kid’s film sort of started it all. Then I saw Star Wars and the deal was done.
What era did you grow up?
What is your earliest memory?
Being in a stroller as my mother was pushing me. I can see my shoes looking down as we went over this broken concrete on the sidewalk where a root was pushing through. It was pretty much like a little ramp. Much later when I was riding a bike that became our ramp to jump over.
Who or what event contributed most to your passion for storytelling and filmmaking?
My parents were huge movie and theatre fans. I was fortunate in that they would frequently take me to see Broadway shows and lots of movies. I watched way too much TV as a kid and consumed media to the point my parents were worried about me. I saw a documentary on the making of Star Wars and I wanted to do that. I remember how they created the sound of the blasters by using a small mallet on a tension wire holding up a telephone pole. That totally blew me away and showed me some of the process that fascinated me. Also my older sister was really into science fiction books and Star Trek. I really looked up to her and wanted to see and read the things that interested her.
Have you had any jobs, that may have influenced your creativity?
I have done lots of jobs and they all have done just that. Right out of college I did a lot of wedding videography. That taught me the guerilla style of documentary shooting. You cannot get a second take, so I had to be prepared. Then I had my own business that did all sort sorts of industrial and education videos and that also helped me develop creative skills and client management skills. After that I went to graduate school at Brooklyn College where I got my MFA. That was an eye opening and fruitful experience and I had a great mentor there called Stuart MacClleland. He really took me under his wing and helped me a great deal. He had is own business, and he would occasionally hire me to shoot and edit. I learned a great deal from him in class but even more by working with him and watching him wheel and deal. THEN I began teaching production at the college level. If you’ve never taught, you would not know that the best way to truly learn something is to teach it. I started reading more about the process, reading more about filmmakers and their process, learning to collaborate with colleagues and students. As a professor, I’ve really had lots of time to study and think about the process and choose the types of projects I wanted to work on.
Interests and Influences
Your online bio mentions that “A Feral World” was inspired by The Road, Book of Eli, and Mad Max and pays homage to the post-apocalyptic genre. It also mentions you were inspired by Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood.
Please discuss other areas of interest and influences below:
Favorite music or band?
It changes over time, but I like a few… The Beatles, Counting Crows, REM, Nirvana, Bush and too many others to mention.
Favorite movie? Why?
I have 10 favorite movies and this list is always updating. So I don’t know if I can narrow it down to one. When I was younger I liked one sort of thing, but as time moved on I started to respond better to more character driven stories. But here’s my list.
My Top 10 List – Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Aliens, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Road Warrior, Flower, You Were Never Really Here, Se7en, The Big Lebowski, Inside Llewyn Davis
Ok, that’s eleven titles, and I have 10 or so more. But these are the movies that are either awe inspiring, captivating, exhilarating, masterful… but mostly… each one of these movies makes me feel something that lasts way beyond the viewing. They stay with me and inspire me.
Again, one title is hard to nail down, but the most influential books that I think about are Seed by Robert Zeigler, Replay by Ken Grimwood
Favorite book or movie character and how do you relate to that character?
I always sort of saw myself in the John Cusak character in Rob Reiner’s film, The Sure Thing. Sort of direct, witty, caring but hints of being obnoxious yet humorous.
Something happening to my kids.
World Building – A Creative Process
Your feature film, “A Feral World” is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story about a boy who learns to deal with the hardships and loss of a broken world.
I understand that the film Boyhood influenced your decision to shoot the film over four years, to show the aging of actors over the course of the film.
Well done man. Between your writing and Caleb’s acting skill, towards the beginning of the film, it was quite apparent that the lead character was just a kid. Vulnerable at times, scared even, but capable of doing the unthinkable to protect himself and others when the situation requires it. And by the end of the film, he and other characters had definitely evolved and matured.
Also, the cinematography throughout the movie is excellent. The visual FX are high quality and believable, and there are some legitimately funny scenes in the film.
Thank you (blushing…)
Please describe your mindset when researching for this project?
I had just read the book Seed (see above) and I loved that the protagonist was a boy in a post-apocalyptic world. Also, I am greatly inspired by Robert Rodriquez’s book, Rebel Without a Crew. His process for making El Mariachi stemmed from looking around and writing a script based on the resources he had available at that time. I’ve taken that to heart and embraced that. I looked around and saw that I had a willing kid, who showed acting prowess, a funny looking dog, and the list goes. Because I love the Post Apocalyptic genre I tried to imagine Caleb trying to live on his own and what that might look like, and I just started writing.
The set locations you chose are exceptionally well suited for a post-apocalyptic world. I especially like Jasper’s Bunker. How did you find those locations? Please describe that process if you can.
Good question. For me, locations were one of the most challenging aspects of pre-production. To add to the problem, we needed to find a place we could return to the over multiple years and it was a bit of a gamble. There was really no way to be sure the place wouldn’t be sold, demolished… whatever. With little money I started looking around. Every time I was in my car I was sort of scouting. I would see something off the highway… but the problem with that is that if it was close to a highway, the sound of the cars made it impossible to shoot there, and I didn’t really know if I’d have the resources to pay for ADR, so I kept looking. I had a student a few years back whose family owned this old/condemned sugar beet factory. He was generous enough to let me shoot there, which he was not thrilled with because a previous film crew set fire to the place accidentally, and did not really want to go through that again. But I met with him and showed him I was a professional and had a very clear plan of what I wanted to do. Also I offered to pay him for use of the space and he agreed to let us shoot there for two consecutive years (3 – 4 days each year) But mostly it was because he knew me from when he was a film student. That was a huge find and I am thankful for his approval to this day. As for the villain’s lair, that was a great find. I work at the University of Colorado Denver and on the campus is an historic building called The Tivoli. It was a brewery 100 year or so ago. The room we shot in was the place they stored the beer before they had refrigeration, hence the water pipes on the walls. It was easily accessible, and looked terrific. Because we were shooting in the summer when there were not a lot of students around, and because I was a faculty member working with students on the project, they agreed to let us use that space for two consecutive years as well. However, I had to periodically stay in touch and be sure to remind them of my plan. Any disruption would have meant a new re-write to explain another location. Not impossible, but not really what I wanted. Lots of searching, phone calls…. I had a test screening of parts 1 & 2 and asked the audience if they had any ideas. Many did. I followed up and one thing led to another… But I did not settle and really waited till the locations fit what I wanted.
What drew you to this type of story?
I love this sort of fiction. It stemmed from that and my resources, and the story was something that intrigued me. People like movies with kids (Stand by Me, Bad News Bears, Stranger Things…) It was where my head was at the time.
The main villain in the movie was creepy, manipulative and delusional. Excellent choice for bad guy characteristics. How did you convince the actor to pull off being such a despicable human being?
Haha, Tim is really the most kind and generous of all people. THE NICEST guy ever. Also a teacher and a terrific father, and the dude can act!! I knew him because I had hired him to teach some of our acting classes here at CU Denver. He came in for the audition and blew me away. His transformation was astonishing. He scared the shit out of me.… he’s a pro and knows how to inhabit a character. He understands and knows the craft of acting. He said to me that it’s fun to play the villain and he flips a switch… and he’s evil. I say “CUT” and he’s the lovely Timothy once again.
Are there any other genres you would like to work in?
Yes, after all the darkness and evil, I would like to do a comedy. I am working on a script now that is a dark comedy. In structure, it reminds me of Burn After Reading. BUT… I am also entertaining the idea of making A Feral World into a series… but that’s a GIANT unknown.
That would be really cool to see a web series with these locations and characters. I hope it does well in the film festival circuit.
Many artists and writers integrate pieces of their own life into their work, relying on personal experiences and connections to establish a sense of reality in their conceptual vision.
How much real life do you put into your artwork? Which character in A Feral World do you associate with most?
I would say a little of all the characters. I am the lost boy, I am the parent, and though I am a kind hearted soul, I could be a danger if someone was threatening my kids.
Professional vs Personal Projects
As writer, director and producer of a feature film like “A Feral World”, how difficult is it to manage those different roles throughout the project?
It is all encompassing, for sure! You have to be committed. You have to surround yourself with people you can rely on, like Production Designers, Sound team, Camera team, AD, Script Supervisor… But it does not feel difficult while doing it because it’s all manageable tasks. You just have to be methodical and give yourself lots of advance time to talk to people. Also, you cannot be shy. You have to ask people for stuff. Lots of stuff. The good news is that each of these roles happen mostly at different times. The producer “hat” stays on all the time, but the others are at specific points during the process. The thing I kept going on was that, if I did not do the work, it would not get done. And if it did not get done, all that work would be wasted, so in my mind I had no choice but to do it.
What are the responsibilities of an Independent Film Producer?
Everything? Final say on the script, finding locations, securing locations, auditions, casting, fundraising, publicity, crew gathering, rehearsals, permits, insurance, SAG paperwork, communication with everyone. Check and double check everything.
What does it take to become a producer?
An understanding of what the final picture will look like, and knowing what is needed to get there. You have to be assertive, yet respectful. If you have little money, still give gifts (buy a lot of Starbucks cards). Mostly… don’t be an asshole.
How do you transition from your role as a producer to writing the story, dialogue and then directing the film?
When I am writing the film, I am simply imagining what is going on and what is progressing the story forward. What is the “wow” moment I am getting out, and what would these characters do in any situation I put them in. The producer is only present during the writing phase in that he is saying things like, “no helicopters, that won’t happen. Guns? Really? Too cliche, what would be more simple and easier to accomplish. What is available… that sort of thing. As for directing, that starts out slow each day and then we pick up the pace and knock out shot after shot. While the camera crew is setting up I work with the actors, if need be, or I am consulting with camera, production design, and AD. Oh yeah… you need an AD to keep you on track. There’s way too many questions coming at you all at once, and you need some deflection. I am constantly asking her or him, what’s next. I create the shot list, and she/he helps organize the list in a sequence of setups that makes sense.
What helps you make that transition?
Honestly, I’ve never had the Hollywood experience and I didn’t have a choice. It was just what was needed to be done. “Call this guy… look at that location… revisit the script… Examine if this is good dialog… etc.
Does your personal work influence your professional work and vice versa?
For me it’s all related.
Which part of the creative process do you enjoy most? And why?
I like the editing process. The chaos of shooting is over and now I can sit and siphon through the material and finally create the film I’ve been imagining all this time. I also love the exhibition phase and hopefully getting the response you’re looking for from the audience. That is pretty gratifying.
What motivates you to continue creating art day after day, and what do you consider the greatest reward for your efforts?
The answer for this differs with each film. For another film I did about karate and mid-life crisis called Looking for Mr. Miyagi, I still get emails from people all over the world saying how the film inspired them to start doing karate. That is very rewarding. For A Feral World, I find it rewarding working with people I have chosen to work with and who are giving their time to the project. For the period of time where we’re making the film, we are a family. We all sort of imagine that the friendships will continue beyond the shoot, and they do to some extent but not at that intensity. I’ve seen relationships formed on set, I’ve seen arguments. Lots of tension, anxiety, laughter… but seeing all these artisans working together to create something special. As the Producer/Director I feel it’s my job to complete the project because of all these peoples commitment. They have chosen to work with me. It’s really an incredible thing.
What is your dream job?
Making a movie, and getting paid to do it. I would love to direct films full time.
What advice would you give anyone interested in starting a career in Independent filmmaking?
- Advice for Actors – Take classes. Learn from experts. Try to really listen to your fellow actors and react. Don’t act. Just be. If you’re acting instead of just being… the audience will see it.
- Advice for Directors – Be prepared. Know what your doing and be willing to adjust based on suggestions from actors and crew members. If you cast well, trust your actors. And don’t be an asshole.
- Advice for Producers – Make lists. Lots of them. Don’t be afraid to call and ask for things. Start thinking about distribution possibilities early on. What are your plans for the film?
- Advice for Writers – Keep writing. Re-writing. And share your scripts with people you respect. Again be open to suggestions.
The Future of Filmmaking
I’ve found that many of the creative people that I interview have exceedingly vivid imaginations, with a desire to impact the future. Do you consider yourself a futurist?
Not really. I think of myself as a technical storyteller. I imagine the future from books and movies I see, but I would not call myself a futurist.
A Feral World had a good amount of Visual FX and touched on the potential dangers of our current and future technologies, such as AI and Nanotech.
Indeed. I connected with a great visual fx house in Chennai India called Wild Visual Effects. I am so fortunate to have met Prakash Kumararajan through Nerdeo.com
Do you feel that writers / filmmakers have a responsibility to address religious / political / social issues in their stories? Or should they just tell good stories and let someone else worry about the problems in our society?
I think of a famous quote by Samuel Goldwyn. “If you got a message, send a telegram.”
Without getting political, of the many issues our society is faced with today, what do you consider to be the greatest threat to human life on Earth and Why?
The destruction of our earth. I think the facts are in and climate change is real. I have children and I worry about their future.
Do you think this could end the world as we know it, or will humanity pull back from the brink before it’s too late? What do you base your answer on?
I fear it could, but I think our youth are starting to realize the boneheads in charge now, need to move on. The younger generation will figure ways to improve the situation. All those shows where humanity abandons Earth seems unlikely to me. Maybe a nanotech will come along that will help clean the water and the air. Hopefully they will not mistake us for a virus or a toxin. (ahh. The answer to what happened to the world in my film…)
If you could create a character to deal with that issue, what would that character look like?
A Nanobot like this.
Do you feel that emerging technologies like Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence have effectively penetrated the Film Industry, specifically Independent Movies, in any notable ways? Or are we years from seeing significant changes in these areas?
Not so much. We utilize amazing cameras, lights and computers, but I don’t get VR. It’s interesting to me for 15 minutes, and I’m done. It’s not there yet.
Have you worked with or tried to integrate these technologies into your projects? Or do you plan to do so in the future?
No, I am more of a traditional storyteller. I may include these ideas in the story but I don’t know how I would use those tools yet.
How do you think these technologies will eventually impact filmmaking?
I think computers will write stories, create characters, all from some formula. That will be a sad day.
What other projects, if any, are you working on and when can we find out more about that?
I am writing a new film which I mentioned above. A dark comedy. It’s too soon to say when because I am now starting the phase of marketing A Feral World.
Connecting With Your Audience
Please talk about your methods of building your audience.
I reach out to popular bloggers (like Andrew) and see if he’d like to know more about my project. I try to find people who like #postapocalyptic fiction and ask them to sign up for more info on the release of the film. You can do that at www.feralworld.net I use mailchimp to gather emails. I also do some facebook advertising and instagram ads to reach people who like this sort of fiction. It never feels like enough and much of this is all self taught so there’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a bit scary because there’s so much content out there, getting people to care about your film is tricky. Audiences are spoiled. They expect the level of Avengers. However, I would argue that if you’re looking for an alternative to formulaic film, go to film festivals and rent films by the indie filmmakers.
Has it evolved over time, or do you have a formula that’s worked since the beginning?
Oh.. so much an evolution.
How do you use social media?
Instagram is something I use everyday to build my audience. There are 230K plus people who follow #postapocalypse – these are my people. I just need them all to know about the film. If 2% of the people watch the movie, I can make more movies! It’s hard because I am a one man band. But I like the process of figuring it out. I use twitter, but I am new to it, and really not a fan. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it.
Have you contributed to any other platforms as guest writer for websites, publications etc?
I am just now starting to reach out. I am willing and able. Maybe this will lead to such opportunities.
Do you actively engage with your audience and how? If so, when did you start this practice, and How has it helped you?
I post regularly to my http://facebook.com/feralmovie1 — Also I post to https://instagram.com/feral_filmmaker regularly. I follow lots of people who attend Wasteland Weekend because they too may be interested in my movie. Building an audience is a struggle, it’s a few a day. I wish I had a better way to reach larger numbers.
Do you collaborate with other filmmakers? If so, what are you looking for in collaborative Partners?
I do, I have colleagues at CU Denver who are crazy talented who also make films. I look for people who are as committed to the project as I am.
How can people find out more about you, and if they’re interested how can they connect with you?
You can connect with me on facebook or instagram. And if you go to www.feralworld.net you can sign up for info on the film’s release. I will never sell or share emails.