William Dickerson is an award-winning writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. Known for “Detour” (2013), “The Mirror” (2013), “Don’t Look Back” (2014), he received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. His debut feature film “Detour,” which he wrote and directed, was hailed an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. His latest book, “DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter)” is available now.
When and why did you start writing and making film?
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to make movies. My grandfather handed down his Sony Camcorder to me when I was in 6th grade and I made my first movie with it: an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” which I made for school in lieu of writing a book report. Going to the movies is a pastime in my family—my grandfather and father would take me. Seeing a movie in a movie theater as a child is as close to experiencing magic as you can get. At least, in my opinion.
What particularly inspired you to write Detour, your debut feature film, and what was your main intent for the story? Did you carry research on mudslides and survival skills beforehand?
After several misfired attempts to get my films made, screenplays read and optioned, among other seemingly impossible tasks, my writing partner and I put our heads together and decided to write something that we could make ourselves without the required permission and financial funding from Hollywood. We thought to ourselves: what could we write that is logistically manageable, something that employs minimal characters, along with minimal shooting locations?
I was always told to write from the heart, to never write with practical motives in mind, like writing in a particular genre because that genre is trending at the moment, or writing a story with a particular production budget in mind. However, we broke our rules this time and began writing a story that could be shot on a shoestring budget.
Detour stays put in one location, predominantly focused on a single character. How did you aim to retain viewer engagement, emotionally and aesthetically? Did you have any particular stylistic influences for the film?
It was imperative to maintain the audience’s attention. It may be cheaper to film one actor in one location, but the scenario makes it significantly more difficult to direct the film in a manner that is dynamic, or in other words, in a way that won’t bore the audience to tears. It wasn’t easy, which meant it was easy to screw up.
As a director, I shoot the beats of the film. As the word implies, the “beat” is the pulse of the movie—it’s what drives the story forward. As directors, we must determine what the beats are before we even think about directing the film. In my experience, there are approximately four to seven beats per scene, and if each beat advances the story into a new direction, than each beat should be filmed differently to underscore that. This leads to more dynamism from shot to shot, and less repetition.
It’s difficult to find an actor who can carry a film set in one place so completely on his own – Tom Hardy in Locke, for example, or James Franco in 127 Hours. How long did the casting process take? How did you know that Neil Hopkins would be your Jackson Alder?
I had worked with Neil previously on my AFI thesis film, Shadowbox. Neil was not an A-Lister, but he had starred as Dominic Monaghan’s drug-addled brother in the hit television series Lost, among other notable roles. He is an extremely passionate actor who is committed to his craft—I needed someone who was both committed to his craft, and was someone who I could trust, because this film as going to be all him. Neil was the right choice, the only choice, and he knocked the role out of the park.
Film tends to be a constant compromise between art and commerce. How has your filmmaking been shaped by the budgets you have (or haven’t) had? Do you create film works with financial limitations in mind?
This was certainly the case with Detour. Since making Detour, I’ve gained a reputation for being able to make “microbudget” films look like a million bucks. I’m very proud of this reputation (we made Detour for far, far less than a million bucks!). The Mirror was made for less than what we made Detour for, and my latest film, Don’t Look Back, was made for approximately half a million. I’m always cognizant of budget—I didn’t used to be this way, but microbudgets have changed the game. Writers and directors in the independent film world are expected to produce big results on small budgets with modest resources.
You recently released an eBook full of advice about filming on a microbudget. What would you say is the most important factor of all to consider when shooting on a limited budget?
Pre-production is absolutely everything. You need to, literally, make your movie in pre-production, and when you get to set: execute the plan. David Mamet once wrote, “You’ve been creative, in the writing of the script; you’ve been responsible and careful, in the reduction of the script to shots and directions which you can communicate to the crew and cast; now all you have to be is courageous, and stick to the program.” I could not agree with him more. It’s the program that would-be-directors must learn and figure out before stepping on set.
Hitchcock was famous for saying that he was bored during the productions of his movies, because he had already made the movie prior to stepping onto set. What he meant by that was that he had done all his homework: He knew the intentions of his characters, was familiar with the ins-and-outs of the beats, and he storyboarded each and every frame. The rest was, as Mamet put it: sticking to the program.
To what extent does living in Los Angeles affect your filmmaking and/or creative process?
For the most part, Los Angeles is where the movie business is in America. Of course, movies are made elsewhere in the country, but the heart of the business resides in LA. It’s where you take meetings, pitch your material and hopefully sign the contracts. Virtually everyone that lives in Hollywood is in the entertainment business, and this is both good and bad. It’s good because every interaction is a possible networking opportunity. It’s bad because it’s often hard to draw a line between your personal life and profession life.
What are your views on Hollywood?
It’s easy to get caught up in Hollywood’s glamour—but, really, it’s much more glamorous in the way it’s portrayed on television than it is in reality. I try to be aware of Hollywood and its system, but I do not depend on it. To do so is foolish, I think.
If you’re seeking validation, Hollywood is not a place where you will find it—not usually. It’s extremely important to find satisfaction and fulfillment in the doing, in the process of writing the script, shooting the movie, editing the film, and the like. Throughout his career, Woody Allen has been very vocal about the fact that he never watches his films once they’re complete; that his role in them, and the satisfaction he’s taken out of the process, is over. He releases his films to the world and then moves on to the next.
The palm tree is a more appropriate symbol for Hollywood than its famous sign, not only for its correlation to southern California’s topography, but also for its coconuts.
Breaking into Hollywood is often like trying to bite into a coconut: you’ll find it’s impenetrable, and your attempt futile, no matter how badly you want inside of it.