Interview by Byron Bixler
Casey Creveling is a senior Cinema & Photography major at Ithaca College whose thesis project is a fast-paced action-comedy called “Let’s Rob a Fucking House.” For the first installment of a new interview series by the Cinephile Delinquents (the official podcast of Filmic Magazine), Casey joined me to talk about his upcoming film, his frequent collaborations with classmate Jimmy Doyle, and his cinematic ambitions for the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Byron Bixler: Let’s start with the story of the film. What is it about?
Casey Creveling: It follows an intern at the local news station. His name is Pat and his boss is Amelia — she’s the anchor, she’s ambitious, she’s driven, and it turns out that her ex-boyfriend is blackmailing her, so she convinces Pat to go with her to rob his house. And if Pat pulls it off, he’ll get a promotion. Antics ensue, and it gets a little more complicated than they first thought.
For a cinema student, your thesis film is very much like your calling card going forward. It’s going to represent your directorial style and your ability. So, what is it about this particular story that drew you to it for this project?
I think what was very interesting for me and for my writer, Jimmy [Doyle] was: we were really drawn to this theme of ambition, which — we’re about to graduate college, we’re about to enter the workforce — it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with as well … how far are we willing to go to get what we want, to get the job we want, to achieve what we want? And what are we willing to sacrifice in the process? So, that’s a running theme. What is Pat willing to sacrifice for his job? What is Amelia willing to sacrifice for her job?
It sounds like you have a bit of yourself in the story — a bit of your own struggles or things you’re thinking about.
I think thematically, yeah, a lot of that stuff … we’re not news anchors or anything like that, but we’re suburbanites and the inspiration was that local news show where you see these people who are very polished and almost robotic sometimes when they’re on TV, and you can tell they’re aspiring to get out of the small market they’re in. We just found that a very interesting struggle.
You mentioned Jimmy [Doyle]. I know you’ve collaborated with him more than once before. Can you describe what that collaborative relationship has been like and how it worked on this film?
We work really great together. I think the joke is: Jimmy says he likes working with me because I just crush his hopes and dreams all the time. I’m willing to tell him when things aren’t working. We have this really good relationship where he can come to me with pages and I’m like, “That’s bad, that line isn’t funny, this joke doesn’t play, that doesn’t make sense.” So, our process is: we sit down, we hash out the story together and we figure out, “Okay, what are the characters? What are they doing? Why are they doing it?” And then he sits down and he does the nuts and bolts, and he puts the scenes together and he puts the dialogue there and he really helps make the characters come alive. And then he brings it to me, and I tell him how bad it is and then he rewrites it all over again. But I think … we’re normally very happy with where we get the scripts to. We’ve been working on the script for at least six months, so we make sure to really put the time in and go through all the revisions. We love getting notes, so I think that’s why we work great together. We love criticism. We love people telling us how we can improve the scripts.
Have you been working together since freshman year?
I think it really took off last year. … We knew each other freshman year, but I think around sophomore year and the turn to junior year is when we really started getting closer as creative collaborators.
Going back to the story of this [film] — it’s an action-comedy. Can you name a few action-comedies that you particularly admire? I know there have been a few that have come out in the last few years that have gotten some acclaim, but are there any action-comedies or directors that have influenced this story or how you’ve approached it?
I would say, director-wise, a lot of Edgar Wright’s work. I think you can definitely see an influence, especially with how we shot it. Our DP’s great, and as soon as we said, “Edgar Wright-esque” he was all over it. So, we had a lot of visual comedy where the camera is helping set up some of the jokes. We had some of those classic snap zooms and whip pans in there … I would also say Tarantino works his way in there. There is some Evil Dead influence as well, so not all purely action-comedy.
Is this a genre that you’re interested in working in more extensively going forward? Or is it just for this one project?
Definitely. … The last film Jimmy and I did was a drama and it was a good thing we did, and I think it turned out great, but it really proved to us, “Okay, where are our strengths here?” And a lot of the comedic relief scenes seemed to play a little stronger. So we decided, yeah, let’s go for the more comedic route. And that doesn’t mean that we need to abandon drama altogether, but when we looked at what our favorite films are and what resonates with us, a lot of it was these comedies and action films that had ridiculous premises, but had well fleshed out characters and had a great story structure, and it had arcs, and still really worked. And it was very interesting seeing these rational characters working within this ridiculous world they found themselves in, which, we embraced. … We knew some of this stuff is a little exaggerated and a little farcical in our film, but through it all, we still hope it makes sense, you still believe it, you believe these characters would still act this way and they still have goals and they’re still trying to accomplish their goals. But they have these weird real-life constraints put on them that changes how they have to go about doing that.
So, you mentioned Quentin Tarantino and the film is called Let’s Rob a Fucking House, which has a suggestion of some edginess in it. Is this “edge” reflected in the film itself? Is there a lot of violence or anything like that?
There definitely is a turning point, tonally, in the film, which was really hard to grapple with to keep it cohesive throughout. It gets a little dark in the middle, but hopefully it still plays with the tone. I don’t want to give too much away. I don’t want to spoil it going forward, but it’s ironic, because I’m not the hugest Tarantino fan out there, but I obviously respect him and Jimmy’s a huge fan. So, yeah, I definitely think some of that worked its way in and hopefully audiences will see that and pick up on it.
Yeah, I was going to ask about the nature of the comedy and when you mentioned Tarantino, I thought about mixing the macabre with more light-hearted humor and putting those two things together, which is a common juxtaposition in these kinds of movies.
I’m really hoping that that’s the point we got to. I think Jimmy likes to compare us to Reservoir Dogs. There is a setting that is this more “warehouse-y” setting which I think really resonates with Reservoir Dogs.
What kind of location were you working with for this film?
We shot this on location [on] a farm in Owego, New York. It was a farm that’s been in the family since the 1800s. John Howland was the guy working on the farm who was in charge of the whole property and was our point of contact for a lot of it. And he was great. He was super accommodating, and it was really interesting working on this historic farm that’s been around since the 1800s. And then, shooting this funny, goofy film, he [Howland] was saying how he was getting calls from neighbors [who were] concerned because there were kids running around covered in blood or wearing ski masks, breaking into houses.
But the location looks beautiful. It’s gorgeous, it’s incredibly scenic. We loved shooting there. We would definitely go back. We were also very thankful that the Howland family was willing to let us shoot there and willing to take a chance on a bunch of college kids using their family farm to help make this vision a reality.
It’s definitely a distinctive choice. I would generally think of a normal suburban house or an apartment as the location for this kind of break-in story. But I wonder what a location like that would add to the story itself, or just the vibe of the film.
Originally when we were pitching around, we also thought [of] a suburban house and we started going through some of the location scouting, and when we found this farm, we saw that it would be a possibility. Over the summer, I even drove up and met John personally, and it was so incredible and so scenic and it had everything we needed … So, we found a way to finagle some of the elements [so] that the farm itself can still serve as a character in the script and that it does play an integral role in the plot and it’s not just, “Oh, this is a movie that just happens to take place on a farm because that’s what we got.” We made it important and part of the story that the farm was there, so we’re really happy that we could help incorporate that into the script.
You mentioned people running around covered in blood. Now, I don’t want to get into spoilers like you said, but what was it like working with stunts or makeup in this film? Was there a lot of that?
I think the biggest challenge, for sure, was fake blood. We made it ourselves. It was finding a way to deliver the fake blood in a convincing way on camera because we were relying almost exclusively on practical effects. It was a big challenge also for the actors, who haven’t worked in that before. The fake blood that we used — one of the main ingredients was sugar, and then you’re shooting outside and the insects are flying around and they’re all over you, and then you need to keep shooting and you’re sticky and you’re covered in this fake blood.
They took it like champs; they didn’t complain at all. So, my heart goes out to them. I’m in their debt forever, but I think you need a lot more time, and when you’re working in fake blood, you need time to wash off or change costume if you need to, and I think that was a unique challenge. … We looked at the footage … and it all plays and we love how it turned out.
So, no major setbacks, like you had to go back and shoot things again? Or it just worked?
No, it all worked. We made sure to — because we knew we had a weekend, we knew when you start spraying fake blood around, you can’t just rinse off some costumes. You get covered in blood, there’s nothing you can do about it, so we knew we had a limited number of takes. We actually were doing “blood tests” in our backyard preparing for the shot — our neighbors thought we were crazy.
There [were] about three different blood tests we did going into shooting to make sure that it would work, it would look good on camera, there would be enough blood, and that [it] would be a convincing effect. And for a weekend of shooting, to shoot a 15-minute film, I don’t know how the crew did it. Everyone was in great spirits the whole time, and we got everything we needed. It was surreal looking back to see, “Oh, we pulled it off and we did it in the time we had.”So, you’d call it a very fast-paced production?
I would. And I think it helped that it was this action-comedy, so the pace of the film was pretty quick, and it was funny, so I think [the] crew enjoyed watching it. 10 takes into some scenes, we would still be laughing, so that was really encouraging on set that we knew, “This is actually funny and it’s not just this novel gag.” … The on-set morale kept us moving super efficiently through.
I can imagine the intense energy of the production might bleed into the film itself.
Yeah, like I said, it’s 15 minutes — we showed a cut and people were saying we should add more to the film … and our professor even said, “It’s 15 minutes, but it feels like 10.” I took that as a compliment. I don’t know if he meant it as that or not, but I took it as a compliment that it has this pace that moves and I don’t think it’s too rushed. I guess that’ll be for the audience to decide. Hopefully they think it moves as fast as it should, but I think it definitely has a pace and it has a rhythm that I’m very happy with.
Regarding your actors: when it comes to a comedy, you have the words on the page of course, but it’s up to the actors to really bring them to life and make them funny. How do you work with your actors to get the performance you want? Do you improvise? What level of flexibility do you have with them?
I think I just have to start with first — these are some of the most talented actors. I love them so much. They were incredible and I think people see in the screening just how the chemistry is there. They all knew each other beforehand; they’re all acting students here at IC. … They had the script over the summer near the end there, so they all came in knowing their lines and they came in with backstories. They were ready to talk about the script in-depth. So, I think what really helped was we had these nice long talks about backstory and what would happen if the film kept going — what else would we see? and they came in with these really deep understandings of their character, which obviously, the audience isn’t going to see all that other stuff, but I think they helped bring it to the surface during the film … It really plays in the time you have with the characters. You can see that there is this rich other world to the character. They’re not just these flat people that showed up for 15 minutes and then they’re gone. … And you think there would need to be these weird [timing] things, but they all had this natural comedic timing and they fit the roles perfectly.
What was the casting process like? Because I know that’s not talked about too much, but did you go through a lot of people to find those actors? Or were they just people you knew?
We were a little creepy in our casting process. We would go to the Dillingham [stage] shows and we would see who was good. We worked with some Dillingham actors in the past, so we asked them for recommendations, but the way this film was cast was: the actors getting a friend request from me out of the blue on Facebook, and then a message out of the blue saying, “Hey, I’m a film student and it would be great if you were in this film. Can we meet and talk about it?” And so, we had this mini casting audition before the summer so we could pre-cast it, which was really great going into the semester knowing we had our cast. … I found that to be the best way. I know open casting calls are really hit-or-miss, so I think targeting the acting students on campus — who are incredibly talented — I think that’s definitely the way to go. And they were nice and gracious and receptive enough to hear us out.
I want to go back a little bit before this film. So, you mentioned you’d worked on some things with Jimmy Doyle before on some other projects and it was mentioned on your Kickstarter that you previously made an animated short called Turner and Ruby’s Almost Adventure. Are you interested in going into animation or was that just an experiment?
I was glad I tried it. It was definitely an experiment. It’s a field of film I was always interested in, because I didn’t know a lot about it. We collaborated on this film — Jimmy was actually in London at the time, he wrote the script from London. … I don’t think I’m the best animator out there. I don’t know if I have a future in animation. It was a lot of hard work, which was great, and I had this personal connection to the film because it was me drawing every single frame of it. And it’s a connection you might not get as intimately with live action, where there’s so many other people helping you achieve the vision. It was great in that sense to help hone my own directorial vision for the film, but I think there [are] people out there who could probably do the animation a little better than I can.
What is it about cinema that inspires you? And what is it you hope to achieve as a filmmaker? Not necessarily “What kinds of films do you want to make,” but what kind of response or reaction do you want to get from people? What kind of impact do you want to make?
I think what definitely inspires me, on the first point, is telling a story. That’s my favorite part about it. I know I’m not a gearhead. We work with Zach [Tidwell], who is our DP — we work with him a lot, and he has a great eye, he has a great vision. And I know he’s good at the visuals and I’m great at the story, and that’s what I’m really interested in. I love doing the scriptwork. I love doing the character work. So, I think telling the story is an important foundation for a film, obviously, and that’s really what draws me to it and inspires me is telling these interesting stories, but telling them well — making sure you have all those elements of a good story there.
I think what I would hope to achieve is — obviously you want to entertain audiences, but I think if you can impart some themes, that’s always great. If people can take something away from your films, that’s great. And that’s why I think we like telling these stories about people who you don’t hear about often. … I’m a sociology student — sociology minor — so, I always find it very interesting — you explore these smaller groups that you don’t really think about often. Like, they just had the bronies documentary that just came out, and I feel like those are really interesting people that you never hear about. And I think just telling those stories [about] people who might otherwise not normally get a story in a film, and if you can have audiences come away with a different understanding of either a person or an issue or a group, that’s great.
That makes me think about documentary filmmaking — if you’ve ever thought about dabbling in that at all? Or if it’s strictly scripted for you?
I think loving the story is why I’m drawn to scripted. … I know documentaries — you go out and you kind of know what you want to say, but sometimes a story finds you based off what people say in interviews and what footage you find. So maybe I’m too much of a control freak.
What is your “Mount Rushmore” of cinema? Four people — it can be directors, it can be actors, it can be composers, cinematographers. Or, if you just wanted to name a film — just four things that have influenced you the most as a filmmaker or as a film-lover.
I think I’m instantly drawn to think of my favorite films. And so, I definitely would put Elf and School of Rock on there. Those are two which fit in with that ridiculous premise, but still [with] these very real characters operating within it. I would definitely put The Graduate on there. I’ll get a little more academic of an answer there. I loved The Graduate, I thought it was great — it was very formative for me. … I guess [for] my fourth, I would go with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the animated film. I love Don Hertzfeldt … and I think even though he’s not really following this story structure, he has these very complex issues and themes that he wants to deal with that he tells through interesting characters, but he doesn’t tell [the story] in a conventional way, but I think there’s still a good way through character that you can still explore these themes and issues that are important to him.
“Let’s Rob a Fucking House” will be shown in the Park Auditorium on the Ithaca College campus in December as part of the senior thesis screenings.