'Host' short spawns 'Perfect' feature

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Filmmakers often start out by making a short, but for Nick Tomnay that short grew into his first feature.

Tomnay spring-boarded from his 2001 short "The Host" into a full-length psychological thriller "The Perfect Host," which just world premiered at Sundance and is talking to interested distributors.

It's about an L.A. bank robber, John (Clayne Crawford), who must drop out of sight to avoid the cops. He cons his way into a house after seeing a postcard in the mailbox to Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce) from Julia in Australia.

John lies about meeting Julia Down Under and being told to look up Warwick. Warwick's busy preparing to host a dinner party in a few hours. Against his better judgment he lets John in. Big mistake -- and not just for Warwick. That's where the twists begin -- and they don't end until the end.

"The reaction I got to the short was that people wanted the film to go on when it finished," Tomnay told me.

That got him thinking about what could, indeed, happen next.

"The character of Warwick was a very rich one in my mind so I thought I'd try to develop it into feature length and see if that was actually going to work."

You get a good sense of what Warwick's like just knowing Hyde Pierce plays him.
"He's pretty specific in the way he behaves and acts," Tomnay said of Warwick. "So when I got into the process he just untangled stuff in my mind and that's how it began."

He wrote "Perfect" between 2003 and 2008 and shot it that fall in L.A. over three hurried weeks. Several production companies were involved over the years, but as is typical with indie filmmaking, things didn't work out.

"The first one wanted me to change it and move it to something quite different and I wasn't prepared to do that so that fell through," he explained. The second deal just didn't materialize.

Finally, his manager, Stacey Testro, who produced "Perfect" with Mark Victor, called Tomnay and said, "Look, let's just do this ourselves." Which is what they did, making it for "under a million."

"I didn't have any particular actor in mind when I wrote it," he said. "It was a matter of thinking of an actor who could do everything that Warwick does and do it convincingly."

Hyde Pierce was one name on their wish list for Warwick. "The character is quite complex and had to do a lot of scenes. When we first meet him he has to appear harmless, congenial and friendly."

Tomnay credits Testro with realizing Hyde Pierce was their perfect Warwick: "What happened is Stacey was watching 'Frasier' one night and she said, 'I really think we should look at David Hyde Pierce again.' "

When they shot it was with a Red camera. "It's a digital camera, the latest thing. It's not really HD, it's its own thing. It's more a computer that uses film lenses and captures media and puts it on a drive so you don't actually go through the tape process at all. It's all on files, but it's more akin to film than any other non-film format."

One of Tomnay's worst production challenges came when his steadicam operator broke the Red camera during a 4 a.m. shoot.

"We were doing the party sequence and we had a whole party full of extras. Luckily, the grip had his own Red camera at his house -- but that was like an hour and a half away."

To kill time, he recalled, they started playing music and having a party. But the energy wasn't there to party so they just sat around waiting.

"That was the most nerve-wracking experience on the film, but we recovered and the party, hopefully, didn't suffer."

Because "Perfect" takes place mostly in one location, it's like a play and Tomnay worked with his actors as if he were doing it onstage.

"Clayne, David and myself spent four or five days in a rehearsal space. We went through the script with all the blocking ideas and improvisations and basically rehearsed it to the point where we felt we understood it internally. But we didn't kill it in rehearsals.

Tomnay shot-listed and camera-plotted the whole movie. He knew it so well that during production he really didn't need to look at what he'd planned. That left him free to spend more time with his actors and let him be more spontaneous while shooting.

"You plan everything to the last detail, but the gods don't always shine favorably on you. You have to be quick to adjust and still make your decisions the right thing for the movie."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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