Murder Made Easy with Director David Palamaro
by Cameron McCasland
David Palamaro is a writer and film director residing in Los Angeles. He honed his creative skills playing in rock bands and as a director of the feature documentary, In Heaven There is No Beer. He also directed the Student Academy Award nominated short documentary, Grandfather.
This week I caught up with David about his new Agatha Christie inspired thriller, Murder Made Easy. In the film, best pals Joan and Michael host an elaborate dinner party for their closest friends on the anniversary of the death of Joan’s husband. As each guest arrives, they find their very lives are on the menu to protect a secret that links them all.
The film premiered at the 2017 Women in Horror Film Festival where it won the Indie Spirit Award. Over the course of its festival run, it has picked up laurels from the Flyway Film Festival, Hot Springs International Horror Film Fest as well as winning Best Actress at the 2018 GenreBlast Film Festival. The movie is a textbook example of an indie film shot in one location with a small cast. It is being released on Blu-ray from Scream Team Releasing on May 21st, and pre-orders are now available online.
Cameron McCasland: So with Murder Made Easy, you’ve made a thriller that takes place in one location. It plays a lot like a stage play, in that you really could do this live. Was that a conscious choice?
David Palamaro: Placing the story of Murder Made Easy in one location was definitely a conscious choice. The film is heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope and that film was a play before it was turned into a movie. So I wanted Murder Made Easy to very much feel like a play. And from a budgetary standpoint, it was a way in which we could self-fund the movie as we obviously saved money by not having to shoot in multiple locations. But the flip side is: how do we make a one location story interesting? That’s the challenge. I hope we succeeded on some level!
CM: I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope which of course was a play. I know you have talked in other places about how that movie influenced you. Can you tell me about how you came to find Rope, and how it influenced your film?
DP: I saw Hitchcock‘s Rope when I was pretty young. I think it was on TV and it really had a huge impact on me. I was really impressed by the long takes and it was incredibly well directed and acted. I always wanted to sort of mimic that style that Hitchcock pioneered in that film. Hitchcock has said that Rope was sort of a failed experiment but to me I think it’s one of Hitchcock‘s masterpieces. Murder Made Easy was also heavily influenced by the original Sleuth and Deathtrap, both of which were plays before being adapted into films.
CM: I found Rope early in my twenties when I was going through Hitchcock’s entire catalog. I had seen all the big movies, and Rope was one that all my aspiring filmmaker friends would gush over because it was cheap to make, and of course the idea of one long take hidden with a few camera tricks. That said, did you ever think of doing this all in one pass? And how long did it take to shoot?
DP: Doing Murder Made Easy all in one shot would’ve been a really interesting challenge. There’s been several films that have done that over the years like Timecode 2000 and a more recent film called Victoria. There was also that one episode of The Haunting of Hill House. And my cinematographer, Sherri Kauk, and I — we definitely studied some of those films before we shot Murder Made Easy. We wanted to do as many one-shot scenes as we could but it was definitely technically challenging just to get those shots. So I can’t imagine doing a whole film in just one shot and I’m truly awed by the filmmakers who have done it.
We had a really quick shoot. We did six days of rehearsals at the shooting location and then we had seven days to shoot the film, believe it or not! It really just came down to our budget. We had a certain amount of money for the budget and that allowed us to shoot for X amount of days. But luckily, the six days of rehearsals really helped us block out all the scenes and plan for all of those long takes. That was hugely invaluable.
CM: You do use quite a few long takes which I think is always a testament to good actors. But I was really impressed with some of the camera work. For as small as the space is, where the movie happens, your camera seems to naturally float through your scenes. And it looks like you shot 2:35:1. Sherri Kauk shot it? Can you tell me how you came to find her for this project and making that choice to go with anamorphic lenses?
DP: I met Sherri Kauk, our cinematographer, through our lead actress Jessica Graham. Sherri shot a short film that Jessica directed. We had a meeting with Sherri and she seemed to get the aesthetic we were going for right away. She’s tremendously talented and it was Sherri that suggested using an anamorphic lens. At first I wasn’t really sold on the idea because we were shooting in a small space. I thought anamorphic meant big sweeping shots, you know, like Lawrence of Arabia kind of thing.
But Sherri convinced me that one way to make this film look more cinematic was to shoot it on the anamorphic lens. That way we would have a shallower depth of field. It would also make the space seem bigger because you’re getting a wider aspect ratio. Once Sherri showed me a few camera tests with the anamorphic lens, I was all in. I loved how it looked.
The actual aspect ratio of the lens we used was something like a 1.5 which is very extreme for an anamorphic lens. So I actually wound up squeezing the image vertically in post production to get the image closer to 2.35. But overall, I fell in love with the anamorphic lens and I think it really served our film well. That’s a testament to Sherri‘s vision of how she wanted to photograph Murder Made Easy.
CM: As far as your other collaborators, where did co-writer Tim Davis come in? Did you develop this together?
DP: I actually had the idea of Murder Made Easy before Tim Davis came on board. I wanted to do a horror film from a script called The Housesitter that my good friend, Suju Vijayan, and I wrote. The problem was that it needed a sizable budget that we didn’t have.
So out of frustration not being able to raise the funds for The Housesitter, I thought that maybe I could do a one location murder mystery with a small amount of actors and equipment etc. That way we could self-fund the film. And I had met Tim years ago on a TV show we both worked on. We bonded over both being big fans of Sherlock Holmes and stuff like that. So I immediately thought of Tim when I needed a writer for Murder Made Easy. I pitched Tim the outline for the film and he was totally on board as our writer.
CM: I feel like we should back up a little. Let’s talk a bit about your career before Murder Made Easy. You were nominated for the Student Academy Award for a documentary film named Grandfather. When was that?
DP: Grandfather was a short documentary I directed about my grandfather, not surprisingly! It was nominated for a Student Academy Award. That was my senior film project at college so that was a little while ago. Then I moved to LA and became a production assistant and after a few years, started doing editing on TV shows. So there was bit of a gap between my student film and when I picked up a camera again to do my own projects.
CM: Do you feel like that gave you a spring board or, oppositely, a false hope? I can imagine how early success might make you think you’d fall right into a career.
DP: I naïvely thought that being nominated for a Student Academy Award would kind of be a springboard for my directing career. But I learned very quickly that just because you are nominated for an award or whatever, you still have to get out there and do projects on your own. People have to see what you can do before they can know that you are a capable director.
CM: I feel like you and I are very similar in that we both have worked in both narrative and documentary films. Similarly I have a background with music, as did you with Kiss or Kill? Tell me about that. How do you think working in music brought you back around to filmmaking?
DP: It was really years later when I got involved with a music scene in Los Angeles called Kiss or Kill that inspired me to be a filmmaker again. Kiss or Kill was a really great community of supportive artists and bands. And I was inspired to pick up a camera and document it. I worked on that documentary, called In Heaven There Is No Beer, for five years. We finished it in 2012 and it was released in 2014. That kind of got me back on the the directing path.
CM: Now that you’ve got a feature length narrative film under your belt, do you feel any calling back towards music or documentary films?
DP: Right now, you know, I would love to do a horror film, the aforementioned The Housesitter script. I would love to keep doing narrative films but I love documentaries as well. If there were a subject that I was inspired by and passionate about, I would absolutely do another documentary.
CM: Well one thing this film has that documentaries don’t is good actors. This film includes Christopher Soren Kelly (Fargo, Infinity Chamber), Jessica Graham (BnB Hell) starring alongside Shiela Cutchlow (The Wire, True Detective), Edmund Lupinski (Hello My Name Is Doris), Daniel Ahearn (SMILF), Emilia Richeson (Psycho Sleepover) and Paul Rose Jr. (Bones, Castle). I really dug the performance of Christopher Soren Kelly and Jessica Graham. They paired really well. How did they come into the project?
DP: I first met Jessica Graham and Christopher Soren Kelly at a film festival called Dances With Films in 2013. I saw a couple of short films that they were in, and that Chris had directed, and I was blown away by how talented they were. I immediately knew that I wanted them to play the leads in Murder Made Easy.
Later on, Jessica came on board as one of our producers as well. She really helped with pre-production - auditioning actors and later during production. She was like our assistant director, making sure our schedule ran on time etc. So having Chris and Jessica on the project not only gave us two amazingly talented actors, but really helped with the entire filmmaking process and I’m very grateful for them.
CM: And going back a bit to the structure of the film, you kind of bring the ensemble cast in one by one with the announcements of the meals on cards. How did the food work into this story? And each of the actors as they move into their initial scene informs you a bit more about the last character. How soon did you know when writing this that was how you were going to go?
DP: The structure of the film came to me as a way to focus on each character individually as each dinner guest arrives. It’s a bit unconventional to have the dinner guests arrive one at a time as opposed to altogether, but I thought it would make for an interesting story.
And of course each guest gets a different meal in the movie so it was important to focus on those meals as a way to introduce each of the characters. And my friend, Jenny Robinson, prepared all the on-screen meals and she did a tremendous job! Each of the meals was designed to reflect the characters, so we had a bit of fun with that for sure.
CM: And the murders, they get a bit more violent as you move through the story. But you don’t really see it as much as you hear it? I don’t want to spoil any of it for anyone, but when did you know that you might not see the violence on screen?
DP: The off screen violence was definitely planned and intentional. For me and for this story, I felt that it was more important to see other characters’ reactions to the violence as opposed to the violence itself.
CM: I love the turn this thing makes.
DP: I’m glad the story worked for you but, yeah, we are very curious to see how audiences will take to the story and the twists and turns that happen throughout the film.
CM: What do you think makes a good movie?
DP: To me it’s all about story, story story. You can have the biggest budget in the world and all the fancy, most cutting-edge special effects you can dream of, but if it’s not a good story, you really don’t have much of a movie.
CM: You told me a bit in a previous conversation that you felt really good about how this movie was being accepted by fans of scary movies and festivals that historically program more horror films. But this is a straight thriller. Why do you think its connecting so well with that audience?
DP: I’m extremely grateful that some horror fans have embraced our film. Because like you say, our film is really a thriller and not a horror film at all. But to get support from the horror community and horror reviewers has been incredible. It’s given us a potential fan base and I really didn’t expect that when we made the film. So I’m very grateful for that and hopefully more people who see Murder Made Easy who are horror fans will also embrace it.
CM: With hindsight being 20/20, is there anything that stands out with the film now that it’s at the end of its festival run and heading towards home viewing? Are there things you wish you could touch again, or that you would have done differently?
DP: Making Murder Made Easy was a tremendous learning experience for me. It was scary, fun and overwhelming. But it was also very satisfying. That feeling of “I’m not sure I can do this.” But then you do it! And I feel lucky that I had an amazing cast and crew to help me get through it. Looking back, I’m not sure I would change anything but definitely I see things that I would like to improve upon as a director for sure. And that’s what I hope to do with future projects. To keep learning and improving.
CM: What do you think indie cinema provides that Hollywood movies can’t?
DP: I think the main thing that indie films can do that bigger Hollywood films may not be able to is take risks and tell unique, interesting stories. Big blockbusters, by their very nature, are designed to appeal to the widest audience possible. That means that movie studios are very risk adverse. Thus, we see so many sequels, prequels etc. Indie filmmakers on the other hand are free to explore any kind of story they wish to. Which is refreshing to me as a movie fan!
CM: With the movie coming out soon, what is next on the horizon for you as a filmmaker? What do you want to do this year, and what do you want your career to look like five years from now?
DP: Well I’m hoping to make The Housesitter, my horror script, into a movie in the next couple years. Looking five years down the road, I hope that I have a couple more feature films under my belt and I really hope I’ve improved as a director. That would be a good goal for me - improvement!
CM: If you were to give someone one piece of advice the day before they started making their own feature film, what would it be?
DP: Plan and storyboard as much as you can beforehand. It will save you time and money when you are shooting. Also, learn how to lead a group of people. As a director, you are the leader of that production. The cast and crew take their cue from the top down. What kind of leader are you? A screamer? An encourager? Passive aggressive? A nurturer? Your cast and crew will look to you for guidance so it’s important that you set a healthy, respectful tone on set. And being confident is key. Confidence and leadership are not traits that comes naturally to me so it’s something I’ve had to work on and still am