Interview: Filmmaker David Palamaro talks MURDER MADE EASY
Genre masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, David Fincher, and Karyn Kusama all know how to build tension in a single location through dialogue, space, and action. Building a murder mystery thriller in the modern landscape of cinema where short impulse and visual overstimulation is a true challenge for the most talented writers and filmmakers. Coming off a very successful film festival run, Murder Made Easy is a throwback to the classic murder mysteries that follow in the footsteps of the masters.
Revolving around a widow and her dead husband’s best friend, we see how one dinner party can be to die for with friends and loose ends. Offering a sharp wit, clever execution, and diabolique pace, Filmmaker David Palamaro, cast, and crew have put something together that is lean, smart, and wicked! Taking some time from his latest festival screening, Palamaro talks with us about the different influences for the film, the impact of an actress and producer, as well as the horror roots that helped elevated this project on so many levels for Dread Central.
Dread Central: How did you meet co-writer Tim Davis and how did this project come to be?
David Palamaro: In 2016, I co-wrote a feature horror script called The Housesitter with my talented friend Suju Vijayan who’s also a director. The Housesitter won ‘Best Horror Screenplay’ at Slamdance and was a finalist at Screamfest. Suju and I were absolutely thrilled and humbled. After that, we got a lot of interest from production companies which lead to tons of meetings but no one willing to finance the film.
Out of frustration of not being able to get The Housesitter off the ground, I came up with the idea to do an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. It would have one location and a small number of actors to keep the budget down. That way I could self-finance the film. The story for Murder Made Easy (complete with all the twists and turns) came to me while driving home from work one day. I ran home and jotted it all down before I could forget it!
Then, I met Tim Davis on a TV show we were working on. We’re both big fans of the Granada produced Sherlock Holmes TV series from the 80’s (starring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes). Being such a fan of murder mysteries, I thought Tim would be the perfect writer for Murder Made Easy.
I pitched Tim the movie and he was like “Eh, I don’t know.” I handed him a treatment that I wrote. I told him to go home and read it. The next day he called me and said, “Okay, let’s do this.” Thank god for that treatment because apparently, I’m a terrible pitch man!
DC: The treatment can be such an ace card. Can you talk more about the influences that helped form Murder Made Easy?
DP: The three biggest influences on Murder Made Easy are Sleuth, Death Trap and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. They were all staged plays before they were adapted into films. Rope was the main influence by far – it’s one of my favorite Hitchcock films. The twisty-turny style of murder mystery that these films did so well is what we were going for with Murder Made Easy.
DC: Once Tim came on board, how challenging is it to build a horror/mystery/comedic hybrid?
DP: That was a challenge that Tim and I faced from the very beginning. We knew that we wanted to infuse Murder Made Easy with clever twists and turns but also with humor as the subject matter could get pretty dark. We felt that it needed humor to lighten up the mood and give the audience a bit of a release from time to time. Pulling that off is really tricky and we knew we had a high standard to live up to with films like Rope, Deathtrap, and Sleuth. All of those films have some really clever dark humor in them. So, Tim and I spent a lot of time on the comedy that’s in Murder Made Easy.
DC: It really works with Murder Made Easy. This is your first true genre feature David, how has your work on documentaries and short form helped to get this project done?
In college I was lucky to be nominated for a ‘Student Academy Award’ for a documentary I directed called Grandfather. I moved to LA and thought that my directing career would immediately take off. I was very naive at that time. In truth, it was a noble goal just to find work as a production assistant to pay for food and rent!
I am also a musician and from 2002 – 2007 I got involved with a music scene called Kiss or Kill. It was an incredible group of bands that all supported one another which was very unusual for LA. Kiss or Kill rekindled the filmmaking fire in me and I directed a feature documentary about it called In Heaven There Is No Beer. Going to the film festivals with In Heaven There Is No Beer and seeing the incredible work of other indie filmmakers inspired me to co-write The Housesitter and direct Murder Made Easy.
Obviously, documentaries and narratives are two very different genres but to me it’s all storytelling. One big difference is that documentaries are a ton of work on the post-production side. It took me five years to edit In Heaven There Is No Beer! There was just so much footage to sort through. With Murder Made Easy, it was much more work heavy on the production side – so many moving parts to make sure all sync up. But the editing part of it moved fairly quickly. We had the first cut of Murder Made Easy finished in just a few months.
DC: Wow! That is a quick turn over. Can you talk about casting on the project overall? Were there any personal influences or relationships perhaps stereotypes that played into crafting these characters?
I first met our two lead actors Christopher Soren Kelly and Jessica Graham at the Dances with Films film festival in LA. Chris directed and starred in a short film called Chasseur. It was almost like a one-man play with Chris talking to the camera. He gave a riveting performance and I was like, “I don’t know who this guy is, but I have to work with him.” Then I saw another short film called Monkeys that starred both Chris and Jessica and I knew right then that they were perfect to play the leads in Murder Made Easy. The rest of the actors were cast through auditions. And honestly, I couldn’t be prouder to have such talented actors in our film.
Each of the characters in Murder Made Easy are defined by their biggest character flaw. The alcoholic professor, the blowhard filmmaker, the annoying preachy hippie, etc. Although they’re not based on anybody I know personally, I do have an aversion to pretentious people, so I suppose that’s where that comes from! Daniel Ahearn, who plays the slimy filmmaker Damian, told me he based his performance on a fairly well-known director that he knows personally. Unfortunately, he won’t tell me who it is! Maybe I’ll find out one day.
DC: Can you talk about the impact of Actress and Producer Jessica Graham?
As an actress, Jessica brought passion and an incredible eye for detail to the character of Joan. Early on when we were developing the character, Jessica said to me, “I’m playing a grieving widow so wouldn’t I still be wearing my wedding ring?”. So, she borrowed a friend’s wedding ring and wore it throughout the film. And she made sure that the camera always saw that wedding ring. Just by the way she positions her hand. I didn’t even notice that until we got into the editing room! That’s just one example of the kind attention to detail that Jessica brought to her character. There are also moments in the film when the camera lingers on her face and she has to act with just subtle expressions. She nailed it, conveying so much with a look, a frown or a smirk. I think she did a tremendous job as Joan.
As a producer, she was extremely helpful in terms of setting up auditions, finding actors, dealing with SAG. All of which she had experience with and I really didn’t. When we were shooting, she was like our assistant director, making sure the schedule ran on time, that we ate our meals when we’re supposed to. Even when one of our actors dropped out the day before he was to shoot his scenes because he got pneumonia, Jessica was the one saying, “We can’t wait or push the schedule. We don’t have the time or the budget. We have to recast him now.” Luckily, we got the talented Edmund Lupinski to come in and play the Professor role at the last minute. Jessica was invaluable and without her Murder Made Easy would not have been made.
DC: Murder Made Easy feels and looks like it shot like a play. Any theater influences behind this project?
I was a theater minor in college, so I suppose that’s where my love of theater started. I’ve always admired and appreciated a good stage play but learning the nuts and bolts of how plays are put together was really eye-opening. The plays by David Mamet in particular have always inspired me like Glengarry Glen Ross and America Buffalo. He’s written so many amazing plays!
DC: Can you talk about bringing on Composer Sean Spillane and what was his musical fingerprint was on the project?
Sean Spillane was a musician that I knew from the Kiss or Kill music scene. After Kiss or Kill ended, he started doing film composing for producer Andrew van den Houten. Andrew made such films as The Woman, Jug Face, All Cheerleaders Die, and most recently The Ranger. Sean showed Andrew my documentary In Heaven There Is No Beer and Andrew loved it. Andrew helped me get distribution for that film and we became friends. Now he is kind of my filmmaking mentor which I am very grateful for.
DC: How did Sean match your musical vision for the film?
DP: When it came time to do the music for Murder Made Easy, I called up Sean and asked him if he’d be interested. I showed him an early version of the film and the first thing he said was, “What’s the tone you’re trying to set?” I hadn’t really thought about that in terms of the music.
Sean came on board and started coming up with musical themes that would reoccur throughout the movie. He even had the idea of doing some jazz. It took quite a while to figure out when to have music and when to let the dialogue play by itself. It’s a very involved process and there was a lot of trial and error. But Sean did an amazing job guiding me through it as I didn’t have experience with film composing. In the end, I love all the music that Sean did for Murder Made Easy and I feel like we were very lucky to have him on our team.
DC: Can you talk about the kills executed by the characters of Michael and Joan and how you planned them to escalate?
Tim and I always knew that we wanted each murder in the film to get more grizzly as the film goes on. The idea is present the main characters with increasing obstacles. You know, maybe the first murder goes really smoothly then it gets messier and messier as it goes on and things start falling apart. How are these characters going to respond when things don’t go according to plan? That’s always fun!
DC: Murder Made Easy is 76 minutes long, can you talk about the post-production and edit of the film? Was this film always supposed to be this lean?
I always wanted Murder Made Easy to be around 80 minutes. I felt that 80 minutes was a good length for a dialogue-heavy film. Hitchcock’s Rope was about that running time, so I felt that it was a good template to follow. Our rough cut of Murder Made Easy was 87 minutes. I thought, “Great. The film is just the right length.” But when we showed it to fellow filmmakers, people like Andrew van den Houten, they almost all said it could be trimmed down. Even my editor Erik Rosenbluh thought that.
My reaction at the time was, “No we can’t do that. We’ll mess up all these long takes that I did.” But after a few weeks of thinking about it, I realized that they were right. We wound up cutting a few scenes that were unnecessary and trimming a bunch of stuff at the top of the movie. All in all, we took out 11 minutes. So, our final runtime became 76 minutes and it works for this film.
DC: What benefit did it serve?
DP: The shorter version of Murder Made Easy is the one that started getting into film festivals. The lesson here is listening to trusted and talented friends – even if means having to kill your babies!
DC: It has a style that reflects pre-1950’s. Can you talk about the style of this film with costume and production design?
The costume design was something that I had a very clear vision about. And the retro look with the costumes was definitely intentional. I knew what each character should look like based on their personality traits. So, it was just a matter of working with the actors to hone in on the look until we found something that we all were satisfied with.
The production design of the location, however, was a little more challenging. Our writer, Tim Davis, offered up his condo as a possible shooting location. He knew that I was looking for an open floor plan. With so many moving shots and long takes we needed a space that was laid out almost like a sitcom set.
At first, I was skeptical about using Tim’s place. I thought maybe he just wanted to say that, “I had someone shoot a movie at my house once!” But when I walked into his condo for the first time, I could see that it was perfect for what we needed.
The only issue with the place was that it was decorated in a very family friendly way, you know lots of florals, colors very domestic. It had been decorated by Tim’s girlfriend. Problem was it was supposed to Michael’s house in the movie. And would that character decorate his home that way? And the answer was probably not.
It was Jessica Graham and Christopher Soren Kelly who convinced me to put a little money into re-decorating the condo. At first, I was reluctant because we really didn’t have money in the budget for it. But once I realized that they were right, we changed the entire interior of Tim’s place. We swapped out furniture, put new pictures on the wall, hung new curtains. Pretty much everything. So, I learned that even if you don’t have much of a budget, put something into the production design and art direction. It will really add value to your film!
DC: Does the one location created a theater feel? How much does one location help you as a filmmaker and create pace in the film?
Since the movie is very much like a play, having one location really set the tone. It enabled the actors to use the space much like they would on a theater stage and act in real time. It also meant that we saved money in the budget because we obviously had less locations than a normal feature film usually has.
However, the challenge of having one location was, how do we make our location look cinematic? It came from Sherri Kauk, our talented cinematographer, came up with the idea of using an anamorphic lens. This lens creates a shallow depth of field and a wider field of view that makes the space look a lot more cinematic.
DC: Did you buy into anamorphic lens?
DP: It took a while for Sherri to sell me on the anamorphic lens because I was a bit intimidated by it. But once I saw some camera tests, I was all in. I love the look that Sherri created for Murder Made Easy. I mean, we didn’t have the budget for a full camera crew or steady cams. So, Sherri was pulling her own focus and moving the camera around doing these long, complicated takes. She never said, “We can’t do that.” She always found a way even with our budget restrictions. I can’t wait to work with her again!
DC: Can you talk about the film festival run for Murder Made Easy and when we will see Murder Made Easy in wide release?
The festival run for Murder Made Easy has been incredible. We were lucky to screen at festivals like Dances with Films in Los Angeles and the Flyway Film Festival in Wisconsin. They are very community driven, very filmmaker supportive festivals that were amazing to be a part of. We’ve also been embraced by the horror community and horror festivals, like the Women in Horror Film Festival, Genre Blast, Hot Springs Horror Film Festival and Terror in the Bay. Plus, we’ve learned about genre festivals like Nightmares, Austin Revolution and many others.
These mid-range horror festivals are all interconnected, run by incredible people and are playing some of the best horror films you ever see! It’s an amazing community to be a part of. The support and love that goes on at these festivals very much reminds me of the Kiss or Kill music scene. Even though our film is not a straight-up horror film, we are very proud and honored to be a part of those festivals. I feel like it’s a very special time to be a horror fan right now because there’s so much great indie horror cinema out there!
As far as a release for our film goes, Murder Made Easy has attracted interest from distributors since we’ve been screening at festivals and we are expecting to release the film to the public in early 2019.