It is funny how things work out in life and this interview with first time director Zach Brown is certainly one of those moments that just seemed to fall into place. While writing the review for his new film, Hard Surfaces, (which you can read here) I contacted his PR team with a question about a certain song in the film hoping to get some insight about it. To my surprise the agent I work with connected me directly to Zach Brown and we soon began corresponding via email and phone discussing the film, his life and more. I soon found Zach to be a wonderful conversationalist and genuinely interesting person who was more than happy to talk about, well just about anything. The following represents the results of this correspondence which not only paints a wonderful portrait of who Zach Brown is as an actor, writer and director but also as a person.
I present: Under the Surface: A discussion with Actor/ Director Zach Brown about his life, Hard Surfaces and more.
Late To The Game (LTTG): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, and how your experiences led you to acting, writing and directing?
Zach: I was actually born in Winston-Salem, NC where I shot Hard Surfaces and where the story’s set. When I was a kid I knew that I wanted to do something with movies. When I was 10 or 12 years old, some friends and I made a few little movies with my parent’s video camera. We didn’t know how to edit so we did the edit by cutting and starting the record again… so we didn’t have the luxury of more than one take per shot. Haha. At any rate, after college I ended up working on my family’s koi fish farm. After 8 months of that I knew it wasn’t my calling and that making movies was. So I moved away in the middle of the night, completely spur the moment, and relocated to San Francisco, where I started studying acting and teaching myself how to write screenplays. Cut to 10 years later and I have my first feature out for the world to see!
LTTG: So, you just left home in the middle of the night, there has to be a story there.
Zach: There’s story behind it and one day I think I might write a script about that too, but it’s really difficult writing scripts about your own life. We all think our lives are a lot more interesting and they are the coolest. It’s a really cool story for me to tell you over the phone or to a random stranger at the bar that I’m sitting next to and all that but making a movie, you know, you really got to amp things up. So it’s not necessarily a movie story.
But yeah, I grew up raised the Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery. My dad and his nephew, whose only a few years younger than him, own it. Its probably the biggest koi breeding company in the US. I was born to do that, you know, I worked there as a child, went to work with my dad, played in the mud ponds, caught the fish, caught bullfrogs, went frog gigging, ate crawfish, the whole the whole gamut, everything you could imagine. Got salmonella when I was a kid, almost died from that, like the whole gambit of growing up on a fish farm and then basically, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college or not. I thought like well, why would I go to college? I have this fruitful business that I could you know inherit and do quite well for myself.
Then they met with a consultant that does family business consulting and then the consultants said to make sure that anybody who’s going to inherit this business goes either gets a four-year degree from an accredited University, bachelor’s degree, or has a job for four years somewhere else besides the fish farm and receives two promotions. I was like, well, I don’t like that second one at all, visited some older buddy at college and was like, I’ll go to college.
So I went to college literally just to get a degree. Started off in fishery science and after about two years of that I like why are the world am I doing this when I have a job in that already? So I switched the business didn’t like that, switched back to Fisheries, switch back again, so to I went to the guidance counselor and told them that I just needed to get a degree. I don’t want to do Fisheries. I don’t want to do business, just get me out of here as fast as possible. She’s like, all right GIS, geographic information systems. So I was like, okay what programs do they have with that? She said, ‘Geographic information systems are the concentration in geospatial and environmental analysis’.
I was like. whatever that is, it sounds good. It turned out to be so cool, but not very like lucrative. You have to go to grad school for another three years after you get a bachelor’s degree and then come out making $38,000 a year. Then have to work your way up from a from a technician to an analyst at all that that whole thing. So I was like, well, I’ll go back to the fish farm.
So, I did that, I graduated from college went back to the fish farm like I was supposed to. After eight months, well, I had been cultured so much at Virginia Tech, l had friends from all over the world then went back to this tiny little town in Southwestern Virginia and I was like ‘I can’t do this. I got to get out of here. I need to be creative. what do I really want to do?’
So it was ten o’clock at night on a Sunday, I had a few mimosas with a buddy of mine. That afternoon was watching the movie Into The Wild and when it finished it was about ten o’clock. I had sobered up quite a bit and I was like, I’m out of here. I went home to my to my trailer where I was living on the fish farm, which was an hour away. Drove an hour 11 PM, packed everything that I could, had everything in my car by 2:00 AM and I left. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going.
I was in Texas getting ready to cross in a New Mexico and I needed a place to crash with my dad’s brother. So, I called my dad, after having been gone for four days already, and told him that I’m leaving. He’s like, ‘oh I figured, you know, you’re not here anymore’. And I was like, I just wanted to let you know so your brother doesn’t let you know because I’m going to be staying with him tonight. Then I went to San Francisco because I didn’t know where I was going to go. I wanted to find some people that I knew and had a buddy from High School in San Francisco, so I want to stay with him. I found a job selling copier machines after two weeks of being in San Francisco and I was like, all right, I got my money my survival money. Now what I want to do? So that’s where that all started.
LTTG: Wow, that’s quite the experience, just to go.
Zach: It was such a liberating experience. I took a week-long drive across country, stayed with my grandmother, went south down to Texas, stayed in New Mexico, stayed at the Grand Canyon, did the whole thing. It was a lot of fun. I want to do it again someday when I have some time, but now that you know Hard Surfaces is kind of getting me more jobs, So you got to take the job. You know, I went to Thailand a couple years ago. I loved his going away and get away from everything, and that was kind of like that for a week and then my life changed forever.
LTTG: Hard Surfaces seems like a very personal film, what did you draw on for inspiration?
Zach: It is, As I get older a lot of my friends have been having kids and we were wild and college, like we partied a whole lot, and all this and that and then all the sudden if they find out that they’re having a kid and they had eight months to get their act together. All of them are now great and amazing parents and responsible people. So I thought it’d be cool to write a story about a guy that doesn’t have eight months to get it together but more so like two days to get it together. So I made him a little worse off than some of my friends were and I’ve been I gave him a lot less time to get together which makes her a little conflict and I sort of conflict in a movie.
LTTG: What was your vision for this film and do you feel that you were able to fully capture that vision?
Zach: This being my first feature, the entire process helped me begin to learn my vision as a director. I had a good idea as to what story I wanted to tell and had a pretty good plan of attack. I actually got lucky and ended up surrounding myself with a lot of super talented and very experienced people at key positions that helped me through the process. I’d imagine the process directing features is similar to writing them. You have a process and vision that evolves as you go. I’ve written seven feature scripts and with each one I learned something new that I wanted to add or use to tweak my screenwriting process. Directing Hard Surfaces gave me the experience and confidence to feel great going into my next directing gig. Im excited to see what I learn about my directing process on this next one.
LTTG: What were the challenges you faced doing triple duty for this film?
Zach: I’d imagine anyone who’s made an ultra-low budget feature has had to do double, triple, or even quadruple duties. I think it’s a rite of passage into the indie feature world. On one hand, it’s hard as hell, but on the other, it’s a tremendous learning experience and is really great for getting a sense of what goes into each facet of film-making. For instance, I learned that producing is not my jam… but now I have a good idea of how to do it so I know what I’m looking for in producers when I’m directing a movie. Also, having produced, I now know as a writer what can be realistically shot for a reasonable budget and in a very short amount of time. I don’t want to do triple duty again unless I completely have to get a story that I’m crazy about made, but I’m so glad that I did it on Hard Surfaces.
LTTG: Are there any experiences on the set of Hard Surfaces that were memorable to you that you would like to share?
Zach: As I said before the entire thing was a very difficult experience. It was fast and no matter how prepared we were, something always managed to go wrong and catch us by surprise. It’s one of those things where it was really tough… but I’d give anything right now to be back on any one of those shoot days with my crew that I had. When you make a movie, you all become family. So that was probably my favorite part. Growing so close with the cast and crew that I was lucky enough to be surrounded by. I really hope to work with some of them again… which it’s looking like I’ll get to do very soon. Super excited about that.
LTTG: The song selection and score by Ryan Rapsys really stand out. Can you give us some insight in the selection of the songs and what they mean to you, if anything?
Zach: With music, it’s all about a feeling. I’ve always been so amazed by how much music/score in a movie can control the emotions that the audience goes through. Which shouldn’t be surprising. We can hear a song (not even in a movie) and be reminded of a certain moment of our lives and completely relive that moment and experience those feelings. When you combine that with picture in a movie, it’s a double whammy. With Hard Surfaces, luckily my editor, Patrick Bellanger did a great job giving us a temp track on an early cut. So, he was able to start us off on the right foot. I listened to a ton of Ryan Rapsys’ stuff before I even met with him. At the moment we were working with another super talented composer, but due to the inner working of post-production, we had to explore other options. I loved Ryan’s stuff. He was very talented, what we were looking for tone-wise, he was easy to talk music with, worked fast, and was within our budget range. When I gave him notes he took them and worked super-fast with getting me something else to work with. Once we were on the same page, he got rolling, and for the most part, I left him alone. By the end of working with Ryan, we were throwing his first or second take at cues right into the edit. As for Brandon Mcculloch, who has two songs placed in the movie. Warmest Dreams and Tenderly. Brandon and I met back in 2012 when I was Bartending at a bar in Hollywood. We found out that we both went to the same college (Virginia Tech) and we hit it off. I used to listen to his band ‘Folk Riot’ every other week at Piano Bar in Hollywood… when Piano Bar was still around. I always loved his music and while in the edit, I just knew that his style was right for the tone of Hard Surfaces. During post production, Brandon and I grabbed a burger and a beer in Hollywood and by the end of lunch, I had two amazing songs to put in the movie. He’s a great dude and makes great music. What more can you ask for when picking songs for your movie?
LTTG: What advice do you have for aspiring writers and directors?
Zach: Haha well having made only one movie, I don’t know that it’s fair that I give advice quite yet. But advice that I give myself is to be tenacious and have thick skin. Whether that’s with rejection or the actual process of making a movie. Things go wrong making a movie and every single day I can be presented with a plethora of reasons to give up. Don’t give up. Making a movie is a hard thing to do and I don’t expect it’ll be any easier to do moving forward… just less difficult… I hope. Also, I never want to stop learning. Especially with writing. I’m amazed by how much I learn about screenwriting and myself as a screenwriter with every script that I write. I also am always reading screenwriting, directing, and film-making books. I didn’t get a chance to go to film school, so I’m constantly trying to teach myself new things.
LTTG: Now that you have an award-winning film under your belt, what’s next for you?
Zach: It’s funny. This is a bit of a tangent but I think relates to this question. After I had a shopping script and a pitch deck for Hard Surfaces (back then it was called The Moleskin Diary), every potential investor would ask me the question, “Why do you want to make this movie?” I would answer something of the sorts, “So that myself and everyone involved can get more jobs making movies! So we can springboard our careers!” None of them invested. Once I changed my answer to, “because I love this story, I love these characters, and I don’t think I can go on living without the world knowing this story,” the investors started biting. I was always passionate about the Hard Surfaces story, but then wasn’t the time to think about other jobs. Then was the time to focus on making an amazing movie and telling a great story. I did that and now I’ve (just last week) been hired to direct a thriller/horror feature down near San Diego this summer called ‘Badlander.’ Again, it’s actually an amazing story in a genre that usually lacks in story. I’m super excited to be a part of it and can’t wait to get back on set. I didn’t write that script but I related to it so much that I knew I had to be a part of it. I also have another movie in development that I’ve written called ‘The Hadley Project.’ If all goes as planned, I’ll make that one on the east coast this fall. That one is a really great story too. So I look forward to seeing how things play out with it as well.
LTTG: Every writer, director and actor have a passion project, whether it is a book to make into a movie or an old film to remake, what is yours and why?
Zach: I think that every movie that I make is a passion project. I know that sounds pretentious, but I think it’s true. They have to be passion projects. If you’re not passionate about it, I think that’ll come across in the work and you’ll end up making a big pile of junk. Before being presented Badlander, I thought that only my projects were my passion projects. But I related to the script so much, now Badlander is a passion project of mine as well. Once I’m finished with Badlander, I can redirect my passion to The Hadley Project. I guess in a way, you can say filmmaking is my passion project.
LTTG: What are your top ten favorite films and directors? Why?
Zach: oh man that is such a tough question. For the most part, I really like watching movies that are totally different from the types of movies that I make. When I watch a movie for entertainment, I like to do just that. I don’t want to be worried about the inner workings of making the movie. So I gravitate toward huge crazy sci-fi movies like Star Wars, The Mummy, fantasy movies… stuff like that. Although I’m a sucker for a great story, or a good indie movie, if I really want to escape, I watch sci-fi. As far as favorite directors, that’s tough as well. There are so many talented ones. I’ve always liked Danny Boyle’s work because he really gets gritty when telling stories. I like the shock value of things that he uses and kind of inspire to do things like that directorially with my own stories.
LTTG: Finally, we cover a lot of science fiction on the site and, since you mentioned you like to relax with sci-fi, what are you, Star Trek of Star Wars?
Zack: Star Wars. I’ve never really gotten into Star Trek because it’s too much thinking for me. I just want to like I just want to relax. Obviously, I like Indie movies. I’m like you like I’ll watch like a Winter’s Bone or or you know, think other things like Hard Surfaces, stuff like that. Just because I do enjoy those as well but it’s kind of like more work, you know, you’re kind of like thinking Story as a screenwriter you’re thinking acting as it has a director you’re thinking like production, how they shot things and how they got things and where that location isn’t that the same location is another one etc, but you know, when you’re flying through space, all that sci-fi stuff, I can really release and it happened to me recently at home, like big time, where I was able to just sit back and I realize that, biopic movies, I’m able to sit back and relax and watch also because their stories that are based on real life. I can’t critique the story that much because they already happened. So it’s like all that wouldn’t happen in real life, because it did happen in real life.
So I watched Bohemian Rhapsody and I was thoroughly entertained by it just because I was an audience member and not a filmmaker, so it’s kind of escaping the filmmaker mentality and being able to just sit back and enjoy a movie for what it is. Sometimes that happens with dramas but mostly happens with scifi.
LTTG: Well, Thanks for your time. It was great talking to you and I look forward to seeing what else you have in store.
Zach: Of Course, great talking to you as well and thanks for the kind words about a movie. Like I said, it feels it feels so good every time somebody tells me love the movie. It feels amazing because it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and it’s the longest of anything I’ve ever done. Thanks for taking the time to watch it and write a review on it.
Thank you for reading, you can check out other interviews here and be sure to check out our weekly series called Key Movies Of My Life that comes out every Thursday and our ongoing series Scifi TV Review. For more TV goodness you can also check out Retro TV Reviews here.
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Late To The Game 3/21/2019