BRWC spoke to Matthew Tibbenham, director of Surviving Confession.
Why filmmaking, Matthew?
Matthew Tibbenham: Because I have no real skills! But seriously, I’m a creative person, but for the life of me, I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt. What else is a creative person like myself supposed to do apart from be a film director? I imagine all these things in my head, but sadly, other than writing, I can’t bring these visions to life. That’s what’s great about directing and working with such talented people who have real skills. Whether it’s the storyboard artist sketching shots, the production designer creating sets, or the composer writing beautiful melodies, it’s an amazing art form that brings hundreds of talented people together to create something wholly unique. As Aaron Sorkin wrote so eloquently in Steve Jobs, “I play the orchestra.”
You started in various positions, working on major studio films like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil. What did you learn working on those productions that you’d later apply to your own films?
Matthew Tibbenham: Yeah, it was great working with Scott Derrickson, Ethan Hawke, and C. Robert Cargill on Sinister and with Scott on Deliver Us From Evil. I think all film directors need to have a good understanding of every aspect of filmmaking and that’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my career. On Sinister, I was able to do everything from watch over the shoulder of the director as I brought him coffee and asked him about the shots to editing some of the Super8 movies in the film and finally doing the second unit directing. For anyone who wants to be a director, if you can, I would definitely recommend being a Director’s Assistant. You’re next to the director almost the whole shoot and most directors want to talk about their work so they’ll be open to any questions you have. And if you’re lucky, they’ll let you do more than just get them lunch or their dry cleaning.
Also, in between Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, it was great reading all the scripts that came in for Scott. After reading hundreds of scripts, you quickly understand what makes a good story and how to fix major problems most scripts have. You might not be able to write as well as most of the screenwriters out there, but soon you’ll understand what kind of films you’re drawn to and what sets a bad script apart from a good one, or even a great one.
In addition to story and filmmaking in general, I’d also say editing is one of the most important things an upcoming director can learn. A lot of directing is about pacing and making sure everything flows well. If you edit other peoples projects or even you own, it helps add to the internal rhythm you have for judging movies and figuring out what’s right for a scene or moment. Nathan Dodge did an amazing job editing our film, but even after he was done, I went through the film meticulously and re-edited some scenes that just needed that extra special touch.
Looking at your CV, you’d assume you gravitate towards horror – but your directorial debut suggests otherwise. Tell us why this particular movie?
Matthew Tibbenham: I’d love to do a horror film one day, and I have a few planned, but it’s really hard to find a horror script (let alone any script) that doesn’t feel like it’s been done a hundred times before. Plus there’s the budget aspect. There’s a lot of great low budget horror movies, but the horror movies I like are more Guillermo del Toro level and I knew I couldn’t do that for my first feature.
When our screenwriter Nathan Shane Miller sent me Surviving Confession, I couldn’t put it down and I knew it would be something we could make together because of it’s one primary location. Also, the story really hit me. I relate to almost everything the characters are going through and it made me question my own life and decisions. I love those kinds of movies. Father Morris doubts about whether what he’s doing actually makes a difference or if he’s just spinning his wheels and I feel like that practically every day. While Father Morris’s doubts are shown through the lens of the priesthood, I think it speaks to anyone, no matter their profession or religion.
Was it an easy movie to get up? Can you talk about the process involved in getting this film ready?
Matthew Tibbenham: Shane actually wrote it because he and I have been trying to get other scripts made for years. I originally met Shane through Scott Derrickson when Shane sent Scott a horror script he had been working on. As assistants do in Hollywood, I had to read almost every script that was sent to Scott and write coverage for it. Most of the scripts are horrible and those are the ones coming from agents and managers. When I read Shane’s horror script about a WWII Japanese POW camp, I couldn’t put it down. For the almost two years I worked for Scott, his script was easily one of the top scripts I had read. I looked Shane up and couldn’t believe he didn’t have a manager or agent. So after talking to Scott and creating a sizzle reel for Shane’s script, I approached Shane and the producer he was working with and told them I wanted to direct the film. Sadly, we still haven’t been able to get that script made since it requires a $10-20 million budget, but I started working with Shane on other scripts and we started to pitch to different places.I have a ton of projects I’m working and trying to get made. And a few of them are even horror! I’d love to direct that WWII Japanese POW horror script Shane originally sent Scott Derrickson and we tried to get made for a few years. Maybe now someone will give us a proper budget for it!
After years of doing that though, still no one wanted to give us a reasonable budget for even his lower budget scripts so he sent me Surviving Confession and asked me if I wanted to produce it independently. Again, I thought it was so good, surely someone would give us a reasonable budget for the film so we can attach some named actors, but after a year of trying, no one would finance the film so we decided to self-finance the film through family and friends and make it totally independently.
Tell us about the inspiration for the script?
Matthew Tibbenham: You’d have to ask Shane his inspiration for writing the script, but for me, it appealed to my time growing up in Texas in a very religious home. I grew up going to church 2-3 times a week and loved it, but as I grew older, I started to have doubts and slowly moved away from Christianity.
While working for Scott Derrickson, he showed Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light at a retreat he was speaking at and it really hit me. It’s a bit slow and one of his lesser known films, but Bergman’s long takes and the character’s deep emotions made me fall in love with the film. Shane sent me Surviving Confession shortly after and I knew I had to direct it.
They don’t make movies like these anymore do they? And because of that, did you find it harder to get distribution?
Matthew Tibbenham: Not too many. And I get it, it’s a tough sale. It’s not quite a comedy, not quite a drama. It’s not faith based because it doesn’t beat people over with a Christian message, but it is about a priest so non-religious people might be turned off, even though it’s not a Christian movie. And without named actors, it was an uphill battle. But it’s an amazing movie and it’s sad that because it doesn’t fit into a small marketing box, it was really tough finding a distributor.
However, we did have one distributor that loved the film and was going to give it a ten city theatrical release along with Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming. We were all excited and thought our movie would get the release it deserved. But sadly, it’s one of those Hollywood stories where the little guy gets screwed over by Goliath. After being promised things for over a year, the company found a loophole in the contract and just stopped responding to emails and phone calls once our minimum guarantee was due.
Thankfully, producer Jo Rauen came in and helped cover the distribution costs and has been leading the charge with distribution. I sent him the movie after our original distribution deal fell through and he loved the movie. He’s an extremely hard working producer and we would’t have been able to get the film on iTunes, Amazon Video, or Google Play or reach half the audience we did without his help.
Where did you find your actors?
Matthew Tibbenham: We held open auditions for a few weeks in LA at various locations including CAZT and Film Independent offices. We saw hundreds of actors and once we narrowed it down to five or so for each role, we held call backs to pair different people together and see what kind of chemistry they had together.
Jessica Lynn Parsons was actually one of the last people who auditioned for Amber and she was recommended by our cinematographer, Mark Farney. Once we had her read with Clayton Nemrow, our male lead, we knew we had the perfect combination.
If one of them ends up a breakout star as a result of the movie, who do you predict it’ll be?
Matthew Tibbenham: From all the reviews that have come in, I’d definitely say Clayton Nemrow, who plays our lead, Father Morris. His performance channels a wonderfully sarcastic, intellectual priest, who is yet somehow still very likable and relatable. He’s always spot on in the role and he shows almost every facet of human emotion in the film. Hopefully, a director or casting director on a much bigger budget movie will cast him in their next project after seeing this film.
What are you working on next?
Matthew Tibbenham: I have a ton of projects I’m working and trying to get made. And a few of them are even horror! I’d love to direct that WWII Japanese POW horror script Shane originally sent Scott Derrickson and we tried to get made for a few years. Maybe now someone will give us a proper budget for it!
Also, our producer Jo Rauen and I are attached to do another movie together that’s a vampire thriller called Nightfall, written by Mike Meade. I’ve also got another movie set up with producer Magdalena Maria Herfurtner in the UK, written by Haydn Worley that’s more in line with Surviving Confession called Somewhere In-Between. And finally, I’m direct a British comedy TV pilot called Guides with Frances Keyton & Luke Ireland. So lots coming up and it just depends on funding which happens next!
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