‘ABIGAIL’ dir. Matthew James Reilly

A passive gas station attendant is at odds with her slot in life.

Writer-Director: Matthew James Reilly
Producers: Raven Jensen, Seth Blogier and Matthew James Reilly
DOP: Alexander Crowe
Key Cast: Ashley Jane Peoples

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Abigail’ come from? 

MJR: To be honest, it’s a little hard to remember. I think I just really wanted to make a movie about a character that was completely passive, never really putting up a fight and instead spending the duration of the film slowly accepting her slot in life, coming to terms with sacrifices she must make for others, but in a very silent way. But before all that, I was strongly attracted to the image of a young girl working at a gas station. I grew up in LA where full service gas stations don’t exist. I remember visiting family in New Jersey while in college and seeing people getting their gas pumped for them. As mundane a sight as it is, I was so fascinated by it. It was imagery I had only known from Edward Hopper paintings, sitcoms from the 50′s and the occasional foreshadowing old man from horror movies. Seeing that imagery presented in our postmodern world, I don’t know, there was something compelling about it.

C8: How long did you spend developing the script? How long did the scriptwriting process take you?

MJR: The writing process took about three months. During this time the script took on a number of different structures. Originally ‘Abigail’ was going to be one segment in a series of micro vignettes, in the vein of ‘Mystery Train’ or ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ (The early work of Jim Jarmusch was a massive inspiration on this film.) The unifying theme of these shorts being that they all took place in Plainfield, New Jersey. The script was becoming too big for its own good and I decided to instead focus on developing my favorite of the shorts, which was the one about the passive young girl who works at the local gas station. After another month of writing I realized I had overdeveloped the script yet again, adding new characters and scenes with what the viewer would think to be Abigail’s mother but at the end realize that it was Abigail herself in a not too distant future. It became a bit of a mess. Ultimately I shredded the script down to the absolute bare essentials of the story, removing as many scenes and dialogue as possible. I had foreseen that a big aspect of the story would be the atmosphere and pacing, so giving every moment in the film time to breathe was very important. The shooting script itself was a little under ten pages, but the movie ended up being close to 17 minutes long.

C8: How did you finance ‘Abigail’? Did you get any support from funding agencies?

MJR: The film was entirely funded via Kickstarter. With a production budget of $3,500. Can’t thank all the backers enough.

C8: How did you cast the film? What were you looking for in your actors?

MJR: For the role of Abigail, it was crucial that the actress we cast was able to be compelling whilst doing nothing but walking down sidewalks and standing at bus stops. I wrote the movie with Mickey Sumner in mind for Abigail, an actress I had met during my early years at NYU. Up until a little less than three weeks before production, Mickey was set to play Abigail. Weeks prior during a directing course at NYU, my professor had brought in a few local actors to participate in a live rehearsal exercise. One of these actors was Ashley Peoples. As I watched the exercise I thought that she was amazing and would be perfect to play Abigail, if I hadn’t already cast. Unfortunately due to a scheduling conflict, we lost Mickey. We resorted to submitting a casting call on Mandy, and coincidentally the first actor to submit was Ashley (I had completely forgotten about her). We had her read and then cast moments after and I couldn’t have been happier with her performance.

C8: Did you set aside time to rehearse with your actors? How much direction did you give them on set?

MJR: We made sure to set aside a lot of time for rehearsal before the shoot. Because of our small budget we only had four days to shoot the film, so it was important to lock down the performances as much as we could before production started. Having said that, there was definitely a lot of direction given on set. One key example was that Jack Ferry, the actor playing Beaumont, was cast the day we filmed his scenes. The previously casted actor had to cancel to do background work on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (ironically a show that Mr. Ferry would go on to have a recurring role on). Jack and I had to pretty much create his character in less than 20 minutes. Jack’s an absolute pro and handled the role perfectly.

C8: Where did you shoot the film? Did the location influence your vision of the film?

MJR: The film was shot in a string of small towns in Central New Jersey, including Edison, South Plainfield and Metuchen. The location definitely influenced my vision of the film. All the key locations in the movie are based on the actual locations we shot at, particularly the train station at the end. This is a train station I would go to every other week when visiting my family in New Jersey.

C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

MJR: We shot on the Arri D21, Arri’s first digital camera before the Alexa. The reasoning behind this choice was mainly a financial reason. Arri CSC, being the amazing people they are, gave us an amazing deal on a D21 package. Arri CSC has always provided great resources for film students. They were definitely one of the films guardian angels. I wasn’t too familiar with the camera beforehand but quickly grew to love it. My favorite feature being the camera’s optical viewfinder. A rare thing to find on a digital camera.

C8: From start to finish what was the most difficult aspect of the production?

MJR: Probably the schedule. We filmed a lot of movie in only four days. It was also incredibly hot. Our First Assistant Camera’s sunglasses broke on Day 2. That was kind of a bummer for everyone.

C8: You also edited the film. Were there any scenes or sequences that you found difficult to cut? Was there anything that you wanted to include but didn’t?

MJR: Not really. The elimination of any full scenes made sense very early on in the edit. There was this one pretty little B-Roll shot of Abigail digging through her knapsack looking for her cigarettes that I kinda miss. The cut that took the most deliberation wasn’t necessarily a cut but rather a rearranging of two sequences. In the script and nearly all the rough and fine cuts of the film the scene where Abigail examines the gash on her hand happens after she examines the bruise on her stomach. One of my professors / mentors at NYU Yemane Demissie suggested making the swap to withhold the revelation of the bruise she’d been carrying with her the entire film. I mulled it over for a while, eventually took his advice and made  the cut literally an hour or so before mailing my submission to Cannes.

C8: You graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts film programme. How instrumental was this course to finding your voice as a filmmaker?

MJR: It definitely played a major role. A part of NYUs core curriculum is a class called Sight & Sound: Film. In this class, you are required to make five short film in under three months, shooting on 16mm black & white reversal, using no more than a crew of three fellow students assigned to you on the first day and editing by hand on Steenbecks. This course is an extreme endurance test of your abilities as a filmmaker and really puts the flame under your rear end to begin developing a style and fast. This course, combined with a small collection of professors and mentors I had the great pleasure of receiving guidance from were the two strongest factors NYU offered in helping find my voice.

C8: You come from a family of actors. How did this influence your work as a filmmaker?

MJR: The biggest factor was getting exposure to film at quite an early age. I come from a show business family, and a very proud family. I remember watching ‘The Graduate’ when I was five or six to see my Uncle Murray Hamilton’s role in the film. Of course none of the themes of the film resonated with me but I remember the overall style leaving a strong impression on me. I don’t know, things like that, things like sitting in on my mom conducting rehearsals for plays she was directing after school. These things just stick with you. Pursuing a life in film never seemed obscure to me.

C8: The film was selected to the 65th Cannes Film Festival where it went on to win the Deuxiéme Prix of the Cinéfondation. What has the reaction to the film been like?

MJR: I’ve found that people either love it or hate it. I very cliched answer I know, but it’s true. People either resonate with the films pacing/style finding something engaging in watching a completely passive character, or they find it to be a little boring, slow, etc. which is completely understandable, if you’re not into the movie after the first shot, chances are your interest will rapidly diminish before the end. Thankfully everyone at Cannes loved the movie, and since then it’s had a nice run on the festival circuit over the last two years.

C8: What makes for a good collaboration?

MJR: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. If I had to take a guess I would say it comes down to trust. Being able to walk away from your DP, from your Actor, from your Editor and feel confident that they share the same vision as you. When I say “share your vision”, I don’t mean that the people you collaborate will act as your creative surrogates while you’re not present. I think a vision for a film can be articulated in an infinite number of ways, which is what makes film so beautiful. A great collaborator is someone who will take your vision to a place that your mind wasn’t even able to conceive.

C8: What is next for Matthew James Reilly? Any exciting projects lined up?

MJR: I’m leaving for a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles tomorrow morning. I’m hoping to encounter some great stories along the way.