Director Oren Shai talks about his directorial debut The Frontier, film noir history and advice for new directors

Following our review of the film last week, we sat down with US Director Oren Shai to talk about his directorial debut The Frontier, as we delve into the history of the film noir genre, and ask his advice for other first time directors.

What attracted you to the film noir genre as a filmmaker? How did you gain such an affection for the genre?

I got hooked after reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. It led me on a deep journey into Noir literature, which in turn inspired the experience I wanted the create with movies — equivalent to the feeling of holding an old paperback novel in your hands. Highly stylized, but gritty, the pages disintegrating in your hands. I also began consuming more and more of the movies the books inspired and became fascinated with the genre’s stylistic conventions and their evolution through the years.

What are your favourite films of the genre?

From the classic period, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, Odds Against Tomorrow, Human Desire and The Killing. The French Noirs have been a big influence, particularly the works of Clouzot and Melville, and then Shoot The Piano Player and Elevator to the Gallows. And as far as neo-noirs go, Point Blank, The Long Goodbye, Cutter’s Way, The Last Seduction and Blue Velvet… For the sake of length I’ll stop here.

There also seems to be influence in the film from Hitchcock’s Psycho – would that be a fair position to take?

I can’t say that there was a direct influence from Psycho, but it’s absolutely a fair position and I love that it came to mind!

The film is timeless in that we don’t know when it is – is this a town lost in time or did you have a specific time period in mind?

The film is set in the early 1970s, but we wanted to avoid a modern “retro” tone. The characters are Hollywood archetypes, relics of other eras – an Errol Flynn, a Lee Marvin, a Norma Desmond – long past their prime. They’re fixtures of a past scrambling to make sense of the present, looking at an uncertain future. They are lost in time, as is the location.

You have such a talented cast for this film – can you tell me a little bit about the process for bringing the principal cast together?

We got lucky! We approached the actors with the material, and once they responded to it I met them and pitched my vision for the film. With Kelly Lynch and Jim Beaver, for example, I found a kinship in the love of film history and the genre. In Jocelin’s case, she was in my mind for the role when we originally wrote the script.

What is one of your favourite memories of working with the cast on this film?

I was very fortunate to work with a group of actors who are both wonderful in their craft, and generous, giving people as well. Perhaps what I cherish most is the feeling of support and camaraderie when we were all freezing in the middle of a desolate desert road on a January night, trying to make the day. Instead of the bitter cold causing tension, it brought everyone closer together.

Was it a coincidence that you cast AJ and Jocelin together, as they have starred together before?

It was a coincidence as they really were cast purely based on what they brought to the characters. But it did turn out to be an advantage, as I believe their friendship helped intensify and layer the interchangeable cat-and-mouse relationship between Laine and Gault.

You co-wrote the script with Webb Wilcoxen, your writing partner. Can you tell us how you two came to work together on the script and how that collaboration evolved through the writing process?

Webb and I were introduced by our mutual friend, Roy Frumkes, at a screening of Frank Henelotter’s Frankenhooker years ago. We struck a quick conversation, met for coffee, and very naturally started plotting and writing The Frontier. Our friendship developed along with the writing. We spent about 6 months outlining the whole film and writing detailed character bios, then Webb wrote the first draft, I wrote the second, an so forth.

How much did the finished product look like what you first started talking about, when you came up with the idea for the project?

I think the final film is pretty true to the original vision. The overall essence and tone of the film, and the vividness of the characters, remained in tact. This is largely a credit to the cast and crew, who were totally in synch and had a shared vision of the type of movie we were making.

Are you working on anything else with Webb at the moment?

Yes. Webb and I are developing an urban Noir of quite a different flavor.

What advice would give to first time filmmakers that you learned the hard way from making The Frontier?

Shoot on film.

The desert is freezing on January nights.

If you think you wrote a simple one-location script, think again.

Collaborate, listen, and consider every option seriously when making decisions, and then always trust your instincts.

Really, shoot on film.

You premiered the film a year and a half ago at SXSW, what was that initial screening like and what has the journey been like with the film since then?

I screened a short film I made in 2006 at SXSW and always dreamt of coming back with a feature. The initial screening was a blast, I couldn’t have asked for a better premiere. The journey since has been a whirlwind of ups and downs that culminated with the movie being released in North America by one of my favorite distributors, Kino Lorber. I’m thrilled The Frontier found a home at a company with such high regard to the history of film, and in the same catalog as some of the movies that influenced me the most, like G.W. Pabst’s Diary of the Lost Girl and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Our Blu-Ray will fit nicely between them on my shelf.

Select theatrical engagements of The Frontier will be followed by a DVD/Blu-Ray/multi-platform VOD release. Head to the film’s Facebook Page for all the details.