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On March 6, filmmaker Michael Nader was waiting for the first teaser for his movie The Toll to hit online. He’d spoken to The Hollywood Reporter a few days earlier for a story that would accompany the teaser ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere. But that afternoon, instead of the teaser, he soon saw headlines that the festival had been canceled by Austin officials because of Coronavirus concerns.
“I had been dreading the possibility for the whole week, so it was oddly a relief to finally have an answer,” Nader tells THR.
Despite the setback, the film will still see the light of day on March 15, timed to when it was scheduled to premiere at SXSW. Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin-based theater chain, is hosting a pair of theatrical screenings at locations in Austin and Los Angeles at 10:30 p.m. (local time) in both cities, with filmmakers appearing for Q&As at both. The team behind The Toll sees it as a way for friends and potential buyers to check it out if they’d like to.
The film’s origin story dates back to a whirlwind week in 2017, when Nader penned a screenplay with an intriguing premise: What if you had to depend on the worst Lyft driver you’ve ever had to survive the night? You can get a taste of it by watching a clip at the top of the post.
Nader, 26, makes his feature directorial debut with the project, which centers on Cami (Jordan Hayes), a woman who grabs a ride share from Spencer (Max Topplin), a driver who acts increasingly suspiciously as he drives Cami to her father’s remote home. Things come to a head when the car breaks down and a rock smashes through the window with a message: “Pay the toll.” A supernatural force known as the Toll Man is after them, and one of them must die for the other to survive.
Nader had just 15 days of filming in Toronto, which meant he had to do everything he could to make the most of it.
“My entire directing approach was, let’s be as efficient as humanly possible. Close to a 1:1 shooting ratio,” Nader says. “I wanted the movie to feel big and expansive even though we had extremely few resources. That was all about finding the three- or four-second shots here and there that we needed to spend half a day on.”
After completing the film, the team began submitting to festivals. After a period without any luck, Nader had resigned himself to not getting in one of the big fests. But in January, he received a call from producer Will Frank and stars Topplin and Hayes, who also produced the movie. They punked him, saying there was a big problem with the movie, before letting him know they’d gotten into SXSW.
“Because they were laughing, it took me a while to understand they were actually telling me that we got in,” recalls Nader.
He still is mourning the cancelation of SXSW but is glad people will get to see his film on Sunday.
“I was — and still am — devastated for SXSW’s organizers and the people of Austin who rely on it for their livelihoods, and I know my fellow filmmakers and I are all heartbroken to have lost such a wonderful platform for our work,” says Nader. “But independent filmmaking is all about triage, about having your plans dashed and finding a way forward anyway. I know we’ll all get our films to an audience one way or another.”
4AM Films is behind The Toll.
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