Josh Lobo is a first-time director and recently premiered his ambitious first feature I Trapped the Devil. The taut and tense movie echoes early Roman Polanski with nods to Mario Bava and Black Christmas. It’s a chilling and rewarding slow burn that marks the beginning of an exciting career.
Josh and I discussed filmmaking and how he was able to get his first feature off of the ground. First, here are Josh Lobo’s key insights for aspiring filmmakers:
Get some skin in the game. They say never put your own money into a production but in Josh’s case, he liquidated his funds to pay for his movie. In doing so, he quickly realized that if the film failed, his entire financial foundation would fail as well, which significantly raised the stakes and forced him to make the movie a success. This is true trial by fire, and sometimes gambling big on you our own success is what can make you successful.
Don’t over-plan your shots, focus on what’s in front of you. Josh refuses to storyboard his shots which lets him approach his scenes without pre-conceived notions of what the scenes should be. This enables him to stay in the moment and discover things he never would have noticed had he planned the shot. This can be a risky move, but it’s a more organic way of directing and is also what David Lynch does. Doing this requires you to know your crew and location exceptionally well, so if you throw out the shotlists and storyboards, make sure you’ve done your homework.
Find and nourish a shorthand with your crew. Developing a creative shorthand with collaborators is a key part of being a director. Work on developing your working relationships with a crew over time. After a while, you will all be in lockstep together and your productions will go more smoothly because you will have a circle of people that you can rely on and who know your artistic sensibility and work style. Find your crew, and nourish your relationship with them.
Collaborate closely with your actors. Good actors are critical to the success of any movies but particularly low budget ones. One of the best ways to attract great actors and get incredible performances out of them is to turn to them to help you flesh out the characters. Find out what your actors want to do artistically and craft the characters and performances around that. Remember that you and your actors are there to find it together, so being receptive to their ideas and desires allows them to feel more involved and invested in the project which will inspire them to work harder and give you a better performance.
Josh Lobo: How’s it going?
Dread Central: Well thanks. How are you Josh?
JL: I’m good!
DC: So how did I Trapped the Devil come together?
JL: I lived in LA for five years or so. I went to film school. I did the textbook route. It didn’t really work out for me. The filming is really hard because there’s a lot of gatekeepers and you can’t make something unless you can get past the gatekeepers, your content isn’t going to be seen, you’re not going to be able to connect with people. For me, that’s the hardest part. I started focusing less on making films and more on meeting filmmakers and people that were actually doing things.
There’s a lot of filmmakers that say, “I’m a filmmaker. I’m making something,” but they’re not. It’s all talk. You have to weed out those. I went in looking to gain friendships. It wasn’t so much about knowing people and getting contacts. I wanted to be friends with the people that were creating the content that I was taking in.
JL: That was probably the best move just because once you’ve cultivated friendships with people that actually know what they’re doing, the idea of being able to put something together is a lot more achievable.
DC: How were you able to meet those people?
JL: Funny enough, social media. Social media is cool. You just spark a conversation from a genuine place with the people that are making your content. Just remember, everyone is a person. You can’t go up and start talking to Spielberg but a lot of these indie guys, they’re just people. A lot of them have a day job. I have a day job. You spark a conversation.
That and attending film festivals, when you go to film festivals, it’s hard because if you don’t have a credit, it’s hard for people to take you seriously or to legitimize you but you can meet people that are on your own level and just work your way up.
One of the hardest things is trying to connect with people that are your senior when you really should be connecting with people that are your equal because the people that are your equal are going to be someone else’s senior. You just have to wait. Be friends with these people at your level because they are the ones that are going to be coming up with you. That’s what I did. I met a lot of people and 50% of them I could cultivate a friendship with. Those are my friendships now.
I got really tired of sitting around waiting to make a film. I had originally made a first feature five or six years back. It just was too big for what I was trying to do. I wanted to make this weird detective, Twin Peaks meets like The Wicker Man story. I tried to make it for 20 grand. It blew up in my face. We just failed miserably. It came from a level of preparation I just was not prepared to undertake.
Then I started writing what was then called The Man in the Dark, it since changed to I Trapped the Devil. When I started writing it, I was trying to see if I could do things that were exactly the opposite of what I normally did. I didn’t want a lot of violence. I didn’t want a sprawling scope.
I tried to make something that could be rated PG-13. The movie couldn’t but there’s a certain level of restraint that comes with that. I wouldn’t write for a budget. I just was writing the story I wanted to tell. When I got to the end, I was like, “Wow, okay. Cool. This is like some characters in a house.” It’s a horror film but it’s also not and it’s got existential dread, atmosphere, and grief.
I thought, “Okay, cool. I can make this.” I shopped it around for a little while. I didn’t get any bites. Then I basically figured I had to make it, so I liquidated my entire life, everything. I was going to take a big gamble. I used that to put up 3/4ths of the budget. Then I went to a family member, my uncle who had since passed away.
DC: I’m sorry.
JL: That’s okay, yeah, he took a leap of faith with no expectation that it was going to go anywhere. I just spent a lot of my own money to make it. When you’re doing that, it also makes it a bit more of a serious endeavor because if I fail, I’m failing multiple times.
JL: So we went and shot it. I live in Wyoming. It’s in the middle of nowhere, I like it. It’s quiet and I can write. We shot here in the middle of winter in nine days.
DC: My God, you shot that whole movie in nine days?
JL: In nine days, yeah.
JL: It’s people talking and dread. There are no crazy gore effects. There’s no monster stuff. We were like, “Okay, cool. We can shoot for 18 days,” and we could spend a little less money each day to do it, or we could fucking buckle down, and do this in a compressed period of time and just put as much money as we can onto the screen.
I went out to AJ [Bowen]. AJ basically introduced me to Susan [Burke] and Scott [Poythress]. These people are so talented. They’re all professionals. They know what to do. They don’t need more than three or four takes to get to where they were going. It was cool. We would get in, we’d have some variation and we’d get out.
We did that through the whole movie which was a blessing in disguise because it forced you to decide. I’ve been on a lot of sets where people are free roaming. They’ll get this piece uncovered and then this piece uncovered and then this piece uncovered, and they try to build it in the edit. I feel like that inhibits because it’s a wishy-washy way of doing it. When you get to the edit, you don’t know what you’re going to do.
DC: But you went in with a very firm intention.
JL: Yeah, it’s like I have one shot. We sat around for 20 minutes thinking what’s the shot that’s going to convey this. We get that one shot and then we move on. We get the edit. You can trim timing down but you can’t meld the narrative (in post).
DC: Yeah. The movie felt very tight in a good way and it still had the breathing room to allow the tone to unfold. There’s something fierce about that combination that gives the movie an energy. That’s probably because you had to be very specific with direction since you didn’t have a whole lot of time.
I feel like that gives movies a real palpable energy instead of when the actors are waiting around on set all day and they have all the time in the world to shoot, and the directors have all the time in the world to overthink things, versus knowing specifically what you want and flying through your shoots. I feel like actors like working that fast too.
JL: One hundred percent. It’s extremely stressful while you’re on set but it does create this crunch where we have to get through this, we have to get through this. There is an immediacy to it. See, I don’t shot list my movies at all, I like to feel the creative energy in the room when I get there.
It drives my AD and people crazy but I show up and go, “Cool. Here’s what I want. What do you want?” Then we develop the scene really quickly and we just start shooting it. If you know your location and you know your crew well enough, you can make gold out of anything.
My taste is all over the place. I love, horror movies but I don’t know if I would call this a horror film. It’s not like I think it’s elevated horror or something like that. I hate to be one of those people but I do think that this is more of a psychological thriller. This movie is not going to scare you. It’s a tone poem. The whole process was trying to make a movie where the tone was consistent from minute 1 to minute 80. It’s just cranking the tension.
DC: Do you have any kind of director look book where you save things you like and then return to them when you’re crafting the movie?
JL: When I’m finished writing something, before I’ve ever gone out to an actor, before I ever really gotten in touch with people, I just find things, because my writing process is pretty elongated. As I’m writing, I’ll find a picture and put it in a folder. When I’m done writing, I have this folder of all these images.
You can tell the outliers. Like, if all images are red, one’s blue, I’ll look at the blue one and think, that’s not totally in line with what I’ve been thinking and I’ll get rid of it. I end up having this folder of all these things that look the same that are portraying different aspects of a film. Then I take it to my DP, who’s my best friend, and say “This is what I want.” I want to capture the feel that these pictures are capturing, not a certain lighting.
You have to filter that through yourself but this is the world that I’m trying to make, same with production designers. I wanted to make something that felt aesthetically similar to Black Christmas without having anything to do with Black Christmas. That movie has a very interesting Christmas look.
DC: Nice. Are you in a place where you can discuss what your next project is?
JL: Right now it’s done being written and we’re going out to actors, I would like to shoot within the year. It’s like a Franz Kafka’esque horror adventure movie.
DC: What were some of the biggest lessons for you making your first feature film?
JL: That actors and crew are everything and my contributions to the film are so minimal and the backbone of the project is whom I bring onto the project. You got to get the best actors for the part because if you don’t then it’s not believable.
Like I said I don’t, storyboard but I was prepared. The set around me was 360 decorated and I went in being like, “Okay. This is what I think that I want these characters to do.” You find out how to shoot it real quick but it’s just one of those things where just being prepared makes the world of difference.
DC: Yeah. It sounds like a very organic approach. I think I’ve heard David Lynch talk about the virtues of just not being so agenda-oriented when you’re directing actors or framing a shot but instead, observing what’s around you and being present but also intuitive.
I think there’s something very interesting about the notion of being very prepared but also having a sense of presence on set where you can intuitively find exactly what you need even if the day before you didn’t really know what that was.
JL: I was friends with somebody who was making a documentary about David Lynch through the BBC. I don’t think it ever came to fruition. I got to bum around with David Lynch for a little while, while he was focusing on paintings and things like that. I got to clue into his creative process. He was so deadset on creating and always pumping out content.
I wasn’t familiar with David Lynch’s artwork, which I think was so informative because I got to hang around him see how he operated. He’s a very normal dude but it also made me appreciate his artwork more.
DC: So you liquidated your savings and just went out and started shooting, how did you start to get producers involved?
JL: I have two producers. I knew Scott Weinberg from going to film festivals, he just knows everybody. I reached out to him. He had just come off Found Footage 3D. I was like, “Look, man. I want to make something that is completely different than what your last movie was,” but it’s interesting. He introduced me to AJ and got me situated with him and we went from there.
I was one of the main producers then I have another producer who’s a friend of mine, Spence. We shot this movie in January 2017 and about six months after we shot it, I realized there were two scenes that just didn’t feel tonally consistent with the rest of the scenes. So I just sat for basically a year because I wouldn’t release the movie. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I had to wait to do a couple reshoots until the next holiday season.
JL: There’s this great saying: “Do you want something good, fast, or cheap, pick two.” Time is whatever. At the end of the day, if I rush through this thing and it’s a piece of shit, I’m never going to get another job.
JL: You want to get out of the gate with the strongest thing possible. This movie didn’t have to be perfect. I don’t think it’s perfect at least in my opinion but it just needed to show what I can do.
I got the Yellow Veil guys involved when I started to re-edit the movie. They just built their company. I took a leap of faith and those guys just delivered so insanely much. They put the movie in front of IFC [Midnight]. IFC picked it up and those guys have just done an incredible job.
DC: You had some great actors, do you have any advice on working with actors or finding the right actors? Is there something that you look for in the audition process that helps guide your decisions?
JL: Really, it’s a matter of whether you can get along with these people and how they make you feel. You’re around them for so long, you really have to build a mind-meld but really trust their instincts. The second you get to set after you’ve hired that actor, you’re stuck, man. They’re there.
Talk to them and see what they want to do. If you’re always trying to push your agenda through these people, you’re not going to get something that feels organic. You really have to realize these are artists. They have their art. They have their taste. I hired them for a reason. Let them do what they think. At least, let them experiment and then you can experiment with what you want to do as well.
If anyone gives you a good idea and you’re receptive to it and you can get over your ego, that’s where some of the best stuff comes from. That crew will work 10 times harder for you because they feel like they’re actually having an impact on the product. If you’re receptive to the people that you hired you’re just going to have a more efficient working set.
But the set shouldn’t necessarily be fun. We shot in such a small amount of time in horrible weather conditions. All night shoots, the set was hellacious. But two years later, you don’t remember the shitty parts. If you’re all having a really good time and it’s very breezy, you’re not putting enough attention into the stuff that you’re making.
DC: That’s interesting. Was there a way that you were able to deal with low morale if that was ever the case on your set?
JL: Low budget is hard on people because they’re not getting paid and you have to work harder for less. You’re all in the trenches together. I don’t believe in a director’s chair because I feel like at any point, you should be helping. If you’re directing the movie, go outside and pick up the lights. Go outside and move some stuff.
Also, remember that you’re going to fight with people. If the project ends and you’re still at odds with them, that’s fine. The whole world doesn’t need to love you but you can do your best to re-counsel your relationships.
DC: Yeah. That makes sense. Any parting advice for aspiring film makers?
JL: I can’t advise that you just liquidate your savings to do this but there are so many options to make a film, just make something. Though, I don’t believe in short films.
JL: If you spend $30,000 on a short film, you’re never going to see that money back when you could easily spend $30,000 on a feature. The feature could be trash but at least, you can put it on Amazon and it might sell a little bit.
DC: Right. That makes sense. Where can people see I Trapped the Devil?
JL: It’s on VOD so Xbox, iTunes, Voodoo, everything.
DC: Great, Josh, this was a whole bunch of fun, man. Thanks a lot.
JL: Thank you for having me.