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Interview with Filmmakers Tom Mattera, Dave Mazzoni, Daniel M. Kalai

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The 4th Dimension premiered at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival amid much acclaim and sold-out screenings. Three local filmmakers, Tom Mattera, Dave Mazzoni (a co-writing/co-directing team), and producer Daniel M. Kalai created an enigmatic sci-fi/philosophical/psychological/think-piece that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of your average sci-fi/philosophical/psychological/think-piece and, what’s more, found a pretty sizeable audience for it. The film went on to win the NFL Technical Achievement Award from the Philadelphia City Paper Festival of Independents. Tom, Dave, and Dan sat down with, um, the website recently to give their views on the making of the film.[ADBLOCKHERE]

DDT: What is it like to co-direct a film? Does anyone have “final cut?” Is one better with actors and the other better with camerawork? (For Daniel: What is it like to work with two directors at once?)

Tom Mattera: Dave and I work very well together. We are both on the same page – it’s almost like we share the same mind, even though we are have completely opposite temperaments. Dave is fast-paced, while I am very laid back. During brainstorming, our opposite demeanors coming together result in a lot of energy and emotion in our work. We also keep each other in check – there’s always the option of having a second set of eyes on each of our ideas to be sure that they really work in the overall scheme of things.

We collaborate on every aspect of the production, and every creative decision that is made. On set, we meet with each actor together. It serves as a group session where we offer suggestions while not limiting the actors from a truly organic performance. It makes for a very free and creative environment. We’ll also meet with our director of photography (Daniel Watchulonis) as a group and treat it the same way. It’s great that there are two of us, because as a director, you need to cover a lot of ground. Once we have had our initial meetings, and the scene is under way, Dave and I are interchangeable – so we can bounce back and forth between actors, camera, production design, etc. It’s like being at two places at once.

Daniel Kalai: I had my apprehensions at first about working with two directors. Opinions can differ and creative visions can change. This was never the case with Dave and Tom. They always knew what they wanted and that made my job easier and sometimes more difficult. They were always open to new ideas and invited my opinions on many issues. It was never about ego. It was always about making the best film. Dave and Tom always collaborated with all elements to make the best film we collectively could.

DDT: How did you all meet?

TM: Dave and I grew up down the street from each other. We met in nursery school. We really started hanging out together in the third grade and the rest is history. We consider each other as brothers.

Dave and I met Dan Kalai in film school at Temple University. We all had a Screen Directing Class together with our Professor Eugene Martin. The entire class collectively made a short version of Eugene’s latest narrative script, Angel Brothers. Dan took on the producing role of the entire production while the rest of the class split up the directing role by each directing different scenes. Dave and I were so impressed with Kalai’s relentless work ethic, and charming personality; we knew that he would be the perfect fit for the producing role for The 4th Dimension. We had a sit down at Sonny’s Steaks in Old City, and made him an offer he could not refuse.

DDT: Is this your first film?

TM: The 4th Dimension marks the feature film debut for Dave, Daniel, and myself. However, Dave, we have all worked on a number of short films in order to help prepare us for The 4th Dimension.

DDT: What surprised you the most about the process of making this film?

TM: There were a number of pleasant surprises when making this film. One in particular is how much the story changed from script to screen. We went into the production with a very open mind. We looked at the script as a skeleton, where we would bring on the cast and crew along with ourselves to apply the “flesh,” by everyone involved having the creative freedom to bring their own personal influences to the piece. The story really evolved from a scientific/plot discovery to a strong and emotionally character driven piece – a story of a lost man’s self-discovery.

Everyone involved, in particular Louis Morabito, brought so much to the table. It was far more than we could have ever expected, and far better than we could have ever written. When you make people a part of something – and allow them to contribute their own personal interpretation of the subject matter – that’s creating art.

DDT: What were some resources you used in Philly? Are there any that you’d like to see added? Is Philly an indie film production-friendly town?

TM: The Philadelphia Film Office was a huge help with regards to location scouting. They have an endless wall of filing cabinets filled with possible shooting locations. We became fixtures in the office, spending hours researching, compiling lists, and making cold calls. They were also there to point us in the right direction for insurance, crew, and other organizations involved with production in the Philly area.

We hired The Hirshorn Company, a Philadelphia–based insurance broker, for our production insurance. The majority of our cast and crew were Philly-based, as well as the grip and electric companies we used including: Location Lighting, Lighthouse, Inc., and Get-Kinetic. We casted through Heery Casting, located in Old City. Philadelphia proved to be very production-friendly. Another important note is that you do not need a permit to shoot in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Film Office helped out with locations as well as The Bucks County Film Office – mostly for locations outside of Philly.

DDT: How did you find your lead actor?

TM: Philadelphia based Heery Casting (Diane Heery, C.S.A.) casted our film. She brought in 15 actors to audition for Jack. Louis (Morabito) showed up to the audition dressed for the part – glasses, jacket and all. As he read for the part, we could sense that he hand an understanding of the character and embodied the physical characteristics that we had envisioned for Jack. He also had a strong camera presence. We called his agent and casted him that same day. No callback. He nailed it.

DDT: What are you working on now?

TM: Our next project is actually the first feature length screenplay that Dave and I wrote. Mectl is a story about an up and coming thug who gets caught up in the middle of two feuding Russian Organized Crime Lords after a job goes wrong. As the complex plot unfolds, the audience will be guessing who exactly is behind all of the mayhem. Consider it a cross between Pulp Fiction, Snatch, and The Usual Suspects. However we still intend to stamp it with a dark and mysterious (“Lynchian”) feel.

DDT: Talk a little about the evolution of this film.

Dave Mazzoni: In the summer of 2001, The 4th Dimension began as a three minute Mini-DV short film that was submitted to the HBO Project Greenlight’s Directing Competition. It was then titled Reciprocation. After receiving positive feedback and an overall interest in the concept by our reviewers, Tom and I felt that we had created a very interesting character and wanted to explore his “story.”

Over the next four years, Reciprocation transformed from a two-page short, into a feature length script entitled, The 4th Dimension. It was at Temple University that Tom and I were able to utilize each film class to enhance and workshop The 4th Dimension. In our two years at Temple, The 4th Dimension transformed from a 21 minute Mini-DV short, to a 5 minute 16mm short, and finally into a feature length script. Before locking the script and entering pre-production, Tom and I went through 5 drafts.

As for the film itself, the most beautiful evolution was that of Jack’s character. While time, physics, and the supernatural were always strong themes in the film, it was an amazing process to discover the true arc of the character. Louis Morabito did a phenomenal job of bringing Jack to life and added so many layers that enhanced the character’s depth. It was a truly amazing thing to watch the story unfold on set, and to realize that there was so much more going on in the life of the characters than what was written on the pages of the script. After all, this film is an intimate observation of a man’s internal struggle to come to terms with who he is.

DDT: Given the multiple interpretations possible for this film, do you all agree on what happened or what it all means? (I know that it’s hard to answer that question without giving out spoilers, so I understand if you need to be vague).

DM: Throughout the process, Tom, Louis, and myself dissected every circumstance and interaction in the film, and discussed their meanings. We also analyzed each character and their meanings/implications with regards to Jack’s character. As a result, we were all on the same page throughout production and post-production (editing). Being that we are so close to the film, we certainly all have the same understanding of what happened and what it all means.

However, what we feel is the most enticing attribute of this piece is the fact that it is open to interpretation. Although we could explain the symbols and layers in detail, the film allows the audience to draw their own conclusions and raise their own questions. Being that it is an intellectual and demanding film, the audience must be willing to emotionally invest themselves and partake in the characters journey. At one point or another, everyone has experienced a traumatic or difficult situation that they repress and try not to deal with. However, at some point, we are all forced to face ourselves and deal with each difficult situation.

DDT: What was it like to have the first film to be sold out at the fest? Are you planning on taking the film to any others?

DM: It was a great feeling to learn that we had sold out our first screening within hours of tickets going on sale. It was even more incredible when we found out that we were the first film in the 15-year history of the Philadelphia International Film Festival to do so! Being that the film is an Art House piece and goes against the mainstream grain, it was also very gratifying to see that there was such a large audience interested in our film. We are very thankful that we have gotten some buzz for the film and that we have had the opportunity to screen in our hometown.

We are certainly interested in taking the film to screen at other festivals. In fact, we have a list of about 50 festivals that we would like to target, including international festivals. Here is a partial list of festivals that we have targeted: Edinburgh International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Newport International Film Festival, and the Los Angeles International Film Festival.

DDT: Talk a little about the research that went into the making of the film.

DM: During the scriptwriting process, most of our time was dedicated to researching the major thematic elements of the film, in particular the scientific aspect. Tom and I were very concerned with presenting the material with scientific validity. Therefore, we met with Physics professors from Penn State University on several occasions, to discuss the theories and phenomenon with which Jack was obsessed. Therefore, all of the formulas and equations that are portrayed in the film are accurate and plausible. We really wanted to be sure to make a film that did not alienate members of the science world.

In addition to the scientific aspects of the film, Tom and I also researched many of the behavioral conditions that Jack suffers from, in particular his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Again, an accurate portrayal of a character suffering from this condition was a top priority.

Tom and I also made it a point to get Louis (Morabito) the proper training repairing clocks. Being that the main character worked at an antique shop, it was important that Louis looked comfortable working with the various antiques, particularly the clock. We were able to meet with the owners of two antique shops, Gene Ruppel (Pineville Antiques) and Ashley King (The Clockmaker), who were very helpful in the process. They spent time with Louis and taught him how to take apart and assemble the antique clock.

Finally, this film is in part autobiographical. Tom and I used personal experiences that have occurred in our lives, as well as discussions that we have had on this subject matter to help flesh out the story.

DDT: This is the sort of film (intellectual, ambiguous, serious) that could easily fall into the trap of being self-important or artsy, but it seems like you were very careful to ground the film through research, attention to detail, and pacing that seemed neither rushed nor sluggish. Were you aware of not wanting to be “that film” and did it affect your choices?

DM: Excellent question. Tom and I set out to make a film that was stylized and unique. We really concentrated on being able to tell this story in the most interesting and unconventional way. Being that we are first-time feature filmmakers, we felt that it was important to stand out from other films, and to create our own distinctive voice.

In order not to be “that film,” we went through several cuts of the film before locking picture. In fact, the film initial cut of the film was 121 minutes. With the help of Eugene Martin, and several focus groups, we were able to cut the film down to 82 minutes without compromising our vision. After listening to critiques and suggestions from our sample audience, we were able to streamline the narrative and present it in the most powerful way. We learned throughout the process that as a filmmaker, you have to trust the audience as much as they need to trust you.

Upon entering production on The 4th Dimension, we set out to make a truly independent first feature. We refused to shoot on video because we felt it would compromise the feel and aesthetic of the film. As a result, we selected to shoot the majority of the film in Black and White on Super 16mm film and we crafted unconventional camera techniques in order to serve the story as honestly as possible. These were risks that we took while being fully aware of the opposition that we would face from mainstream audiences. We set out to make an Art House Film and succeeded.

DDT: So, at the end of the film my fiancée turns to me and says, “I never thought I’d say this, but that was some of the best location scouting I’ve ever seen.” Talk a bit about how you found your locations.

DM: Being that we were making a film about time, Tom and I realized the importance that locations were going to play an in telling our story. It was imperative that we were able to create a “timeless” and dark atmosphere.

All throughout pre-production Tom and I researched possible locations. We were very interested in abandoned and decrepit buildings and structures. With the help of online research and The Greater Philadelphia Film Office, we were able to devise a list of possibilities. From there, Tom and I would spend every weekend traveling to each location, meeting with the owners, and trying to convince them to let us shoot there.

Our locations consisted of voids that exist amongst everyday society. These forgotten worlds were used as the backdrop for the dark and lonely story that The 4th Dimension tells. Among these locations were the abandoned Wycombe Train Station, Holmesburg Prison (shut down in 1995), and the infamous Philadelphia State Hospital, also known as, “Byberry” Mental Institution.

Throughout the scriptwriting process, we were determined to obtain the right to shoot on location at Philadelphia State Hospital. Although every previous production had been denied access, we were persistent and finally granted permission from PIDC (Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation) to legally photograph the abandoned insane asylum.

Ironically, three days prior to production, an unfortunate accident occurred on the grounds and the access contract was put on hold. However, after a feverish surge of phone calls among Daniel (Kalai), lawyers, and PIDC, The 4th Dimension film crew arrived on set at Byberry on February 23, 2005 and acquired all of the necessary shots for the production. The 4th Dimension is the only film ever to have been granted permission to shoot on location at Byberry. It is scheduled to be demolished in 2006.

DDT: Hats off to your DP. Where did you find him, and did he want to kill you when he found out you wanted to do an extended (maybe sixty seconds?) tracking shot for the opening credits?

DM: I first met Daniel (Watchulonis) while I was working as a grip on an independent feature film entitled, What Hides Beneath. I was very impressed with his lighting and his work ethic. He was also very personable and approachable, which are very important qualities that a Director of Photography should possess.

Daniel and I established a good relationship on the set of What Hides Beneath, and we kept in touch throughout the scriptwriting process of The 4th Dimension. I was very forward with him, telling him that Tom and I were very interested in working with him on the project, and he ended up shooting the short “teaser” that we did on 16mm reversal. After seeing what an amazing job he did on the short (with no crew and minimal equipment), we know that we would be bringing him on board for the feature.

First off, I just want to commend Daniel for doing an incredible job. He accomplished an amazing task of transferring the imagery that Tom and I “saw” in our minds to the scenes that we watched in the monitor.

Tom and I were very demanding of Daniel, pushing him to his limits to execute some very difficult shots. While breaking down the script, Tom and I were very determined to use the camera behavior as an extension of Jack’s character. Therefore Steadicam and dolly shots were used as a storytelling device, as well as a representation of Jack’s state of mind.

This made for a very difficult and challenging workload for Daniel. Although there were times where we frustrated him with such elaborate shots, he always trusted us and set his mind on executing them to perfection.

He worked meticulously and tirelessly to get Tom and me exactly what we wanted. In fact, his nickname on set was, “The Terminator” because he never got fatigued (even while shooting at 4:00 a.m. in bitter cold weather) and was always muttering the words, “What’s the next shot?”

DDT: Thanks for talking. And I hope to see you at Toronto. I hope to see me at Toronto. (It’s expensive.)

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About David Dylan Thomas

  • Bliffle

    “Consider it a cross between Pulp Fiction, Snatch, and The Usual Suspects. However we still intend to stamp it with a dark and mysterious (“Lynchian”) feel.”

    That’s enough to scare me away. Sounds too derivative.