Wildcat is one of those indie films that you can detect that every single last detail was considered in creating ambiance, from the production design to camera placement, in order to service the mood and claustrophobic journey the viewer is about to embark on.
Wildcat stars Georgina Campbell (“Black Mirror,” Murdered by My Boyfriend), Luke Benward (Dumplin’, How to Eat Fried Worms, Life of the Party), Ibrahim Renno (“Broad City,” “The Looming Tower”), Mido Hamada (American Sniper, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Ali Olomi (12 Strong, “Stumptown”). The film was directed and written by Jonathan W. Stokes (The Last Hurrah, Air).
An ambitious reporter (Georgina Campbell) stationed in the Middle East is taken captive after a militant group ambushes her convoy. Convinced that the young woman is hiding her true identity, they’ll stop at nothing to extract information crucial to the success of their upcoming terrorist attack. With time running out, she must find a way to survive and turn the tables on her assailants.
I had the opportunity to speak with the incredibly copacetic writer/director Jonathan W. Stokes about setting Wildcat in a contained world, the importance of pre-production and how his improv background informs his writing routine.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: I noticed that you started out studying philosophy and then you moved on into improv. Can you give a little background into your filmmaking journey?
Jonathan W. Stokes: Yeah, my school didn't have a film program, and it didn’t have a writing program. Philosophy seemed like the right thing to do at the time [laughs] although perhaps wasn't the best long-term thinking for me career-wise. And ditto for improv. I learned so much about writing from doing improv, but there's not a lot of professional improvisers out there having careers either. [laughs] But screenwriting has been my bread and butter for a long time and it's extremely gratifying to get to actually make something, rather than just hop from studio job to studio job developing scripts that are on a very long pipeline shared by a lot of other screenwriters.
Sadie: Getting the opportunity to direct your own piece?
Jonathan: It was a dream. I will probably never have such an easy, painless experience ever again [laughs] in filmmaking. Because it was a one-room movie, the budget, you know, there are no expensive car chases, there were no UFO landings, so I could be entrusted to work in one room with a bunch of actors, pulling from my theater background or perhaps even from my improv backgrounds. So, we had the luxury of being able to choose just a very talented team to surround myself with people who have more expertise and far more knowledge than I will in all of their various domains. And it was such a pleasurable shoot just on a soundstage, here in Burbank. Because we didn't have any company moves, we didn't have to worry about a night shoot or a snowstorm or anything like that, we were just in one room. It was a quiet, relaxed sedate, comfortable shoot.
Sadie: The benefits of just coming back the next day, not having to strike anything or rebuild anything that's a time saver and money saver.
Jonathan: Oh yeah, we were able to put all the money on the screen. And we made it at Soapbox Films in Burbank and Soapbox provided all our pre-production facilities, all our production facilities and all of our post-production facilities. So, we actually got a lot of great bang for our buck there.
Sadie: From a writing standpoint, what's the benefit of writing within a contained world?
Jonathan: I'm a huge believer in the law of creative limitation. I don't know if you had the experience in high school in this class where your teacher tells you to write three pages about the back of a penny. [laughs] Did you have that assignment?
Sadie: [laughs] No, but now I want to do it.
Jonathan: [laughs] Well the teacher gives you that assignment you think, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I gonna fill three pages about the back of a penny?’ and then you start writing and before you know it, you've got 10 pages. So, I use that law of creative limitation in a lot of what I write. So, once I decided this is a one-room movie, I found it extremely liberating. And I actually think it was a wonderful challenge for every department, you know, imagine being Adam Lee, our DP, who had to figure out a way to shoot this in an interesting way, confined by four walls, or our composer Nicholas Jacobson-Larson, we decided to do the entire score percussion only. There is no major-minor tonality until the last 30 seconds of the movie. [laughs] So, nearly every department had incredible constraints to work within, but I think that they found that to be a wonderful creative spur.
Sadie: Incorporating different languages, did you do a pass with a translator or did you have a dialect coach on set with you as well?
Jonathan: Yeah, all of the above. Georgina Campbell our lead actress did an amazing job, not only with becoming an American [laughs] in the movie, but also, we had not just an Iraqi language coach, but Northern Iraq, that was a Mosul accent, it’s very specific. And then we were also fortunate in having a lot of Arabic speakers on set, who could help out throughout either with catching pronunciations or colloquialisms in pre-production or even as we were shooting. So yeah, seventeen production days was a tight schedule, but we were able to make it work because we had the luxury of pre-production, where we had an entire week for rehearsals with the actors, an entire week to pre-light and test all our lighting setups. You know the set had already been built so we could really rehearse it like a stage play inside that set. We were able to do all the camera blocking for instance inside the set, once the set was built. So, seventeen shoot days felt almost luxurious because we had plenty of time to prepare thanks to Soapbox Films.
Sadie: Having that that creative space, were you able to look at your dailies and start doing precuts of certain scenes to make sure that they're working?
Jonathan: Honestly, I was at my absolute bandwidth. I would be so exhausted at the end of the shoot day [laughs] that I did not have time to look at dailies, and I actually preferred that process. When I did finally sit down with the editor and we began to look through the footage, I was removed enough from it in time that I was really looking at the footage, much more objectively, than if I'd been looking at the footage that very night. A smarter director might have been able to cut dailies the night after shooting, I can't even fathom how a director comes off a 16-hour day and then goes and watches dailies, I don't have the energy level. [laughs]
Sadie: What’s your writing process like on your own personal work and doing work for hire projects for other production companies?
Jonathan: Perhaps because of my improv background I think that fast is better. Improvisers have an almost religious devotion to their own subconscious minds. When you're up on stage, you don't have time to second guess yourself or edit yourself. Whatever comes out of your mouth, that's what you needed to ‘yes and’ and what you need to go with. And oftentimes your subconscious mind can summon up something far more brilliant. [laughs] So, a line comes out of your mouth on stage and you're thinking, ‘Why on earth would I have said that?’ and as long as you trust it and ‘yes and’ it, it can really turn into something brilliant. So, Wildcat I wrote in four days. And that's pretty much the draft that we shot. And generally speaking, the faster I write something, the stronger I think it is. If I really labor over a script and it takes a long time to write, it's probably not that good. [laughs] Whether I'm writing for a studio job or whether I'm writing a spec for myself, I really want it to fly out of me and I want to be sort of editing myself as little as possible, judging myself as little as possible. And I think you end up tapping into something, tapping into the best parts of your mind, if you just get out of the way of your conscious mind and let the writing flow out of you. That sounds really hippie-dippy, but I really believe it. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] As a writer myself, we're our worst critics and we're always in our way. I think that's great advice for any creative, just get out of your own way.
Jonathan: Yeah, I think that there's so many writers, the Kerouac’s and the Hemingway's, who needed to use alcohol or Benzedrine [laughs], Hunter S. Thompson liked substances in order to kick that editor out of your head and just get the writing on the page. So, you can either drink, do lots of drugs, or you can become an improviser, or whatever gets rid of your external editor.
Sadie: [laughs] None of them are safe but do what you will with it. Any advice for first-time filmmakers working with a limited budget?
Jonathan: I guess build as much time as you can for pre-production too. As soon as you start, production dollars are being spent, and everyone's on the clock. You don't want to be on set and have your actor just discovering a problem that takes a lot of deep thought or having your DP discovering a problem that needs a lot of deep thought or rethinking. You want to have thoroughly discussed, anticipated and solved all those problems in pre-production before you ever start shooting. So, the more you can work with your actors before you shoot, the more you can work with each department head and try and anticipate every problem like you're planning a bank heist [laughs] really visualize every day of shooting, long before you're actually on set. That can save you a lot of time and headaches because problems will come up on set, but you can try and solve as many of them as you can before you ever start shooting.
Our mantra was, “The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in war.”
Sadie: That should be on a t-shirt.
Jonathan: [laughs] So, we killed ourselves in pre-production, and I think our actual production was somewhat painless as a result.
Sadie: I think that’s great advice. Jonathan, thank you for your time. Best of luck with your future projects!
Jonathan: Thank you.
Saban Films will release the thriller film Wildcat in theaters on April 23, 2021 and On Digital and On Demand on April 27, 2021.