From gaffer to director -- dreams can come true

Bryan Bertino talks about his debut with 'The Strangers'

"Strangers" story: Although we call them first-time directors, by the time many filmmakers make their first feature they've already had years of experience directing music videos, commercials or short films.

That's not the case, however, with Bryan Bertino. His suspense thriller, "The Strangers" which opens May 30 via Universal and Focus Features' Rogue Pictures, does mark the start of his filmmaking career. A terrifying story about a couple whose remote getaway home is invaded by masked strangers, it's written and directed by Bertino and produced by Doug Davison, Roy Lee and Nathan Kahane.

I caught up recently with Bertino to explore how he managed to transition from working as a gaffer on low-budget indie films and commercials to directing.

"The world has very definitely changed for me over the past two or three years," he told me. "I've gotten to see a lot of different sides of the film industry and it's been a very fortunate time for me. When I moved out here I came from Texas and didn't have a lot of connections. I'd studied cinematography in college and came out here with the idea that I wanted to work in the business and I thought I wanted to be a shooter. What happened is that when I got out here I realized that that wasn't necessarily the path I really wanted to take anymore, but I loved telling stories. While I didn't necessarily want to concentrate on the lighting and the cameras, what I did love is being on set and visually telling stories.

"I went to work and tried a lot of different jobs. I worked as an editor's assistant. I went back to working on crew. But one of the big things I did was start trying to write scripts. I felt as long as I kept writing I was getting to tell stories even if I wasn't on a set. So after a few years when I had hammered out a few scripts and kind of learned the process of writing and started to like the stuff that I was doing I began entering my scripts into screenplay competitions and was very fortunate that in the Nicholl Fellowship I finished in the quarterfinals and the semifinals with a couple of my scripts.

"[A]lmost out of nowhere my name got on a list of agents and managers and from there within a week I found my manager and we took my ('Strangers') script out and it sold. So right off the bat my dreams had come true as far as becoming a writer."

That was in the fall of 2004.

"At that moment I quit my job working on low, low budget movies and had a crash course in the business," Bertino explained. "Back then I had no confidence thinking that I could move towards being a director very soon. It seemed more like I should take the time and learn the industry and the whole development process because up to that point I had done nothing like that.

"Basically, what wound up happening with the script [for "Strangers"] is that they tried for a couple of years to find a director for it and it went from big Universal to Focus/Rogue. Andrew Rona took over [as Rogue's co-president] and got really excited about the script. As they were searching for a director, Andrew was trying to figure out exactly what he wanted. He had the idea to bring in the original screenwriter. So he called me and asked to set up a meeting to talk about the project -- and, how lucky for me, we really hit it off. What started out as a 30 or 45 minute meeting turned into a two-and-a-half hour meeting. And when I left his office he called my agents and asked if I wanted to direct the movie. It was pretty amazing. The next few days were spent with me scrambling around to buy a couple of books on how to direct and we were off and running."

Asked how things went after he took the plunge, Bertino replied, "I think the thing that I learned pretty early on is that there was no real way to be prepared for your first time directing a feature film, especially at this level. I mean you really are facing challenges. Everything is new when you're directing for the first time. No matter how many books I would have read or how many people I would have talked to about the process, it's different for everybody. …It was always exciting every day, but it was definitely at times scary."

And how did he manage to get Liv Tyler to star in his first feature?

"Liv had read the script and I knew that she had reacted to it," he said. "She had been somebody that in the back of my mind I thought could really perform this role. The character of Kristin is a very emotional woman. There's a lot of sadness with the two main characters and I felt [it helped that] Liv's background [was] not only doing giant Hollywood films, but she'd also worked with Robert Altman and had done a lot of things where I felt she'd really tapped into a lot of the emotions that I was going to need. I was excited about the idea of trying to bring somebody in who had never done a horror film. I knew that I didn't want the movie to feel like just another kind of slasher movie. I wanted it to feel very honest and really open."

Shooting took place in South Carolina for 36 days.

"This was a year and a half ago. We were really fortunate in that we shot five-day weeks. One of the things I pushed for early on was shooting the script mostly in order, which is kind of unusual. But because of the nature of the emotional arc for the characters and because I had not shot a film before I thought it would be a great way for us to all to stay on the same page and be able to follow the arcs of the characters. It's definitely like a marathon-slash-sprint in that you're exhausted but it just keeps going on and on.

"But as the shoot progressed I found that the days we were off were almost harder on me than the days we were on because you get so much energy and so much excitement from making a movie that you're always thinking about it. "

When I asked how he worked as a director in terms of storyboarding and rehearsing with his actors, Bertino told me, "Visually, I felt it was important to storyboard. Shot listing and storyboarding were something I really believed in. Having started in cinematography I felt like it was always good to have some sort of sense of what we were going to do with the scene going in even if we changed or tweaked it later. But it was always a good way to start every day of the shoot having a shot list and some storyboards that I had worked through with the DP so that we, at least, were on the same page initially. As far as rehearsing, I always think of scripts as kind of a blueprint anyway that you're going to change and so I'd kind of master certain things with my cinematographer. I felt it was important that Liv and Scott felt that they could be free to move and make it as natural and organic as possible. Especially with some of the more dramatic scenes, we would rehearse quite a bit and try to make sure that the lines and the beat felt more organic."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Bertino pointed out, "I definitely think the idea of two people in a house for 36 days had some interesting challenges that I don't think a lot of movies have. In some ways, when we were shooting the movie it felt like a play in the sense that every day we were walking into the same space and every day we were moving around the same five or six rooms. I think that the challenge of that was to kind of avoid the cabin fever stir craziness of 'How do we make this interesting again? How do we fall in line with where the rest of the movie is while also adding something new?'

Bertino also faced challenges in post-production: "The whole experience as far as getting into the editing room and how you have to let go of not only the original script that you wrote but the movie that you made in order to be able to objectively look at the actual footage was probably one of the most difficult things. It's a real adjustment period in the first two or three weeks of saying, 'Okay, it doesn't matter what we were trying to do. It's more now at this point what we have and what can we do and how does the film continue to evolve in the editing room?'

"Post is in some ways to me the most foreign thing in that I don't always enjoy sitting in a chair in the dark staring at a computer for hour after hour. But I also felt that my editor [Kevin Greutert] was able to give me some really interesting ideas on scenes and so I really ended up getting excited about it in the end because what you discover is that by editing certain footage, holding on shots and adding music you can sometimes take things in a completely different direction. Those are the moments where you get really excited."