Richard Stringham is the epitome of an indie filmmaker. On his Close Calls, he scraped together a crew, cast, and cash to create first feature — in Arkansas. At times, Close Calls is strangely hypnotic, an odd fever dream of a film in which a teenage girl bound to home must fend off predators of both genders on a drug-induced night.
As you can imagine, some pretty weird stuff happens. I spoke to Stringham about making Close Calls, fending off a homeowner’s group, his cast, horror movie homages, and much more.
DC: Close Calls is your first feature. Was this always the first film that you wanted to make or were there a few scripts you chose from?
Richard Stringham: I wouldn’t say Close Calls was the first one I wanted to make, but at the time it seemed to be the simplest one to go ahead and pull the trigger on. I actually had several scripts stacked in my drawer over the past ten years, but they all required big budgets, lots of actors and different locations. And at the same time, I knew I wasn’t quite ready or able to make my dream project just yet. You never really are with your first film. But with Close Calls, pretty much the entire story took place in one big house, and had very few characters. So the simplicity of those two things right there made it pretty easy for me to say, “This is the one we’re gonna make.”
This may sound bad, but Close Calls was easy to choose because my heart wasn’t completely into it at the time. It was a script I wrote in three months for therapeutic reasons, but I was emotionally unattached from the material. I fell in love with the story and the characters throughout the writing process, but when I was done with it, I just never really thought about it again. It was sort of a personal exercise, I guess. And when I chose to make it into a film, I knew that I was gonna make a lot of mistakes. So essentially I just told myself … “If I’m gonna make mistakes, I can live with ‘em on this one, but I’m still gonna strive to make the best fuckin’ horror movie I can.”
DC: How long was your shoot, and did anything go awry?
RS: The shoot lasted about three months, but of course it wasn’t planned that way. The actual duration of principal photography I’d say was about 45 to 50 days, but the crew and I were constantly busy building sets, making new shot lists, and changing the script to accommodate our new locations. See, originally, the movie was supposed to take place in one big house, which I had rented for a month in a private gated community. But as soon as this neighborhood got wind of what we were doing, the Property Owners Association did absolutely everything they could to kick us out and sabotage the production. Harassing us daily, calling the police, changing gate security codes. Once we finally decided it was time to get the hell out of there, we rented a 10,000-sf airplane hangar and managed to mimic the house we were in by constructing some of the largest, most elaborate sets in the state of Arkansas at that time. That’s why it took three months. It was hell, but we pulled together and made it work.
DC: What was the most interesting thing you learned making Close Calls?
RS: I learned a lot about just leaping off the cliff and building wings on the way down. To me, it was about the notion of failing forward. The idea that every day may be some sort of small failure, but it will eventually lead to a series of small successes in the grand scheme of things. I had to train my brain to think this way because otherwise I was just gonna give up. I had no choice but to believe that every failure and mistake was a new opportunity for me. It’s so easy to let a film kick your ass and get you down. Throughout the shoot, I remember being a nervous wreck and physically sick most of the time. But I kept thinking about the underdog prizefighter who gets his ass kicked every day and still manages to get up and swing. That’s what kept me going. I’ve basically learned that if you can make one feature, you can learn a lot about how to fight a few of the battles. But if you can keep going and make several features, then you can pretty much master the art of the war, so to speak.
DC: Anything fun you can tell us about production?
RS: It’s hard to reflect on the fun times, because it was such a tumultuous shoot. But I will say when we hired some art department members who had worked on the movie Mud, it was fun to see these guys come in and build five sets in fifteen days. Seeing this kind of movie magic made me feel like a kid again. It was an amazing thing to witness. Just being on the soundstage and watching these professionals do their thing made my eyes light up. Also, we worked with a professional animal wrangler who brought in real spiders, rattlesnakes, and other critters for the shoot. That was pretty awesome as well.
DC: Your star Jordan Phipps carried the film well. What was the process like of trying to cast the main role of Morgan?
RS: It actually wasn’t too difficult. I remember Jordan being one of the first to send over a headshot and resume, and as soon as I saw her photo. I knew she was perfect for the part of Morgan. It was fortuitous, to say the least. Not only did she look almost exactly the way I pictured Morgan in my head, but she turned out to be an amazing actress for being just 19 years old at the time. She had never done a feature film before, but she had a theatrical background, which immediately caught my attention. Jordan had this incredible propensity for blocking and dialogue, so she was great to work with on so many levels. She was pretty intuitive and precocious in the sense that she understood the complexities of the Morgan character and agreed to tackle a lot of the adult themes in the film. Jordan Phipps is definitely the face of Close Calls, and I’m so glad I was able to find her. She’s an extremely unique and talented performer.
DC: Greg Fallon was also great as Morgan’s dad’s friend who takes a surprising turn. How did you find him?
RS: Fallon was an awesome, rare discovery in the state of Arkansas. He basically found out about our casting call through social media and submitted a little demo reel to us. I remember there was a clip of him doing three or four different versions of the same line of dialogue. And when I saw these different variations, I realized instantly that this dude had incredible range as an actor. When we first met in person, we hit it off immediately. We were discussing things like serial killers, sociopaths, and what makes them tick. Greg understood the psychology of the Barry Cone character because of his background in law enforcement and as a child welfare attorney. It was disturbing at times to see him transform from an incredibly nice guy to a mean son of a bitch. But having come across monsters like this in real life, I think made it so much easier for Greg to tap into the inner workings of a fevered ego. He’s a tremendous actor.
DC: How is Morgan even still standing after all the drugs she does during the film?
RS: That’s definitely something that was intended to be a little over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek. It was done excessively to make the audience question what kind of a world they’re in. After a lot of the drug sequences, you’ll notice the film gets a little more strange and disturbing each time (even after Morgan drinks at the bar). I was trying to entertain the idea that we’re not able to entirely trust Morgan’s point-of-view as the film progresses. Not knowing what’s real and what isn’t can be a scary thing. I’ve had some psychedelic experiences in my life that were profound and enlightening, but also kind of frightening. I wanted the whole film to feel like that. Like an open-ended drug trip with lots of highs and lows and transient hallucinations. Questioning your own sanity and perception was one of the existential themes I was playing with throughout Close Calls. I wanted to make sort of a hyper-realized parable about mental illness, and how the excessive use of mind-altering drugs can induce panic, anxiety, nightmares, hallucinations, and even psychosis.
DC: Think you’ll ever do a prequel and explore more of what happened to Morgan’s mom and grandma?
RS: As much as I’ve thought about it, I know I’ll never do it. I think some of the more interesting aspects of the film lie in its ambiguities. I know that sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but I’ve always loved certain abstract films of the ‘60s and ‘70s that raised a lot of questions, but provided no answers. Leaves a lot more for the imagination. You see this a lot in gialli, too, where the mysteries and the MacGuffins serve as substantial undercurrents to the narrative, but they end up being pretty inconsequential once you cut to the heart of the film.
DC: Black Christmas, Carrie, The Beyond, giallo films, 80s slashers… Close Calls is kind of an Easter egg hunt for horror fans, because there are so many homages. Tell me about the favorite ones you slipped into the film.
RS: I have a hard time pinpointing some of the homages because a lot of ‘em I think were done subconsciously. I’d have to say the most on-the-nose references will always be Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls, maybe even Scream, but some of the most fun things I remember slipping in were a few nods to The Shining here and there. There’s actually a scene in which one of the characters says some of Jack Torrance’s dialogue, word-for-word. So that was fun. I’m sure it’s obvious I have an affinity for Italian horror, too (as you mentioned). One of the most fun ways of paying homage, I think, was figuring out different ways to light the film and play with color the way Bava, Fulci and Argento always did. In the end, I just hope horror fans are able to pick up on some things I wasn’t even aware of though. I’d have to say that’s probably the funnest part of showing a film to an audience.
DC: What’s been the audience reaction at film festivals?
RS: Overall, it’s been pretty positive. There are a few people who didn’t get the film or maybe thought it ran a little too long. But one of the greatest things I witnessed, when I watched it with an audience, was when they laughed and jumped in all the right moments. There were even these moments of dead silence in some of the more disturbing sequences, so I was definitely on cloud nine about that. We did have this one lady at Spooky Empire get up and leave, I remember. And on her way out, she told one of the programmers that the film was exploitative. But that’s really the worst thing that’s happened, and I wouldn’t even say that’s a bad thing. I realize the sensitive times we’re in now, but to me, horror has always been about shocking, scaring, offending, upsetting, and grossing people out. I think if you’re working in the horror genre — and you’re always thinking about how to dance around delicate sensibilities — you’re probably not doing your best work.
DC: Are you working on anything now, and can you tell us what?
RS: I’m actually working on three different scripts right now, and they’re all pretty much in the horror genre. On one of ‘em, I’m really stoked because I’m getting to work with a script consultant named Jeff “The Dude” Dowd. He was the Coen Brothers’ inspiration for The Dude character in The Big Lebowski, so he’s been a blast to work with. He’s basically helping me tailor this script to try and sell it, so the experience and the opportunity has been both exciting and challenging at the same time. The other two scripts are being written in my spare time. And I suppose whichever one I finish first will be the one I start filming towards the end of this year. I guess it depends on which one has the cheaper budget, too.
DC: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
RS: I’d say you’ve pretty much covered it all, Izzy, and I just wanna say thanks for taking the time to watch Close Calls and for doing this interview with me. In spite of all the problems we had during the production, I can actually look back at the film now with somewhat fonder memories. Close Calls is a fun little film, and I just hope it finds its target audience.
Where can fans find you and your work online?
RS: Eventually, I’ll be setting up a website, but for now I have two pages on Facebook for fans to follow. One for Close Calls and one for S & Drive Cinema, my production company. You can keep up with all the projects we’re doing through the S & Drive page and see the upcoming announcements we’ll have later this year.
Thanks so much for your time!