Sasha Sibley on Debut Feature Film, "The Box": Safety Balanced with a Willingness to Experiment.


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Sasha Sibley on Debut Feature Film, "The Box":
Safety Balanced with a Willingness to Experiment.

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Sasha Sibley is a 22 year-old filmmaker in Los Angeles who has directed numerous short films and recently secured distribution for his first feature, ‘The Box’ in 2021, through Midnight Releasing. His achievements have been recognized at various film festivals, including SITGES, Hard:Line, Dances With Films and NFFTY. Sibley graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2020 with a BFA in Production & Screenwriting, and was distinguished with a Gold Lion Award for Best Undergraduate Thesis Film. We spotted Sasha in the Filmmakers Network, and we asked him about his work on his debut feature film in this exclusive interview.

Actor Graham Jenkins on set of Sasha Sibley's debut feature film, The Box

Can you tell us about one of the most dramatic scenes that you’ve directed so far?

Sasha Sibley:
In ‘The Box’, there’s a scene after protagonist Tyler Stevens is in a near-fatal car-crash. He’s also just been evicted, so he’s homeless, and he checks into a cheap motel. His dreams of becoming a successful Hollywood actor seem to be dead. He’s hit an all-time low, and he’s completely alone. Out of desperation he calls his ex-girlfriend. What starts out as a semi-awkward phone call, becomes an emotional outpouring, as Tyler expresses his hopelessness verbally for the first time. This was one of the most dramatic, emotional scenes in ‘The Box’, and it was the one I used to audition actors for the lead role because I knew it would be the most challenging scene to act. Fortunately, I was incredibly lucky to discover actor Graham Jenkins. His audition for the role was incredibly moving, and so much of what that scene became was based around what Graham brought with him that day. The honest truth about preparing for dramatic scenes is that you absolutely have to cast the right actor first. Once you’ve got that person, 90% of the work is already done. Everything else is about finesse, having open discussions about motivation and character with your lead, and being open to experimentation. Give them the space to open up and share their experiences and together you’ll find the heart of the scene. I was very fortunate with Graham, because we were able to spend so much time in pre-production discussing the character and preparing for that scene, that by the time we got to shooting at the motel, we only had to do a couple takes. Moreover, I was able to focus almost entirely on camerawork while making sure that the crew communicated silently so that we could give Graham the mental space he needed to get into character.

Sasha Sibley and film crew on set. Filming debut feature film, The Box

Your debut feature film, psychological thriller, ‘The Box’, has recently secured distribution for 2021. First of all, congratulations! What were some of the most unique challenges solved during pre-production, production, and post-production, and how did you overcome the challenges?

Sasha Sibley:
One of the key set pieces in ‘The Box’ involves a recurring dream where protagonist Tyler Stevens finds himself trapped in a house surrounded by impenetrable mirrors. Mirrors on the walls, in the doorways, the windows. He tries to break through them—trying to escape the inescapable Box he’s found himself trapped in, but to no avail.

One of the biggest hurdles on this production was figuring out how to tackle the technical challenges within the shoe-string budget I had cobbled together. The film was made with a ‘skeleton crew’ over the course of three weeks. I poured my life savings into the project, aided by donations from family and friends, and that was basically the ‘financing’ for the entire movie. And everything in the film depended on special effects with ‘unbreakable mirrors’, which proved to be much more difficult than it sounded. The reality is, mirrors get exponentially more expensive, the bigger they are. So a 3×4 at Home Depot might only cost $20-30. But add a couple more feet of glass and it becomes prohibitively expensive. And we needed A TON of glass. Everywhere. After many weeks of research, I finally found a place called Recycled Sets, where they just so happened to have several full-size mirror flats. 8’x4’s. We ended up renting those and using them extensively. I had another mirror company that was sending us two 8’4’ high-durability shatter-proof mirror doors for the stunts, but the deal fell through because, [ironically] the shatter-proof mirrors broke during shipment! And I found out about it only two days before we were supposed to shoot. So suddenly, all our plans went out the window, and the challenge became finding a way to impact the real glass mirrors WITHOUT actually damaging the glass in any way. As a solution, we got duplicates of everything made out of foam. The prop gun had a foam counterpart. Foam brick. Foam sledgehammer. Real tools used against the glass were actually filmed near the glass and then I used After Effects to create the illusion that they were colliding. A lot of what’s in the movie and the trailer looks like this guy is battering and hacking away at these mirrors, but in reality Graham was pulling all his punches. It was sort of a delicate dance, and I was very fortunate to have a supportive cast and crew around me who understood the importance of safety balanced with a willingness to experiment.

I think the reality of making your first feature is you’re always rolling the dice. Especially if you’re at an ultra-low budget level. There were so many things during production that had to be changed and reworked, and conversely there were a lot of times where we got very lucky and certain things worked out better than I had hoped. You have to be able to adapt and go in with the expectation that there’s going to be a certain level of chaos. But at the end of every day, I was still starry-eyed and knew that I loved doing this more than anything. That kept me going, even though it was the most exhausting month of my life.

Sasha Sibley and film crew on set. Filming debut feature film, The Box

How did you plan, prepare, and succeed in securing distribution for your first feature film, ‘The Box’?

Sasha Sibley:
As with anything, it was a mixture of hard work and luck. A year earlier, I had the great fortune of interning with a renowned Iranian film director, Amir Naderi on his film, ‘Magic Lantern’, which ended up premiering at Venice Film Festival! I served in several capacities on the production, including as Assistant DIT and Location Scout, and through my work with Amir I got to know the producer, Ramin Niami, who has become a mentor to me. When I showed Ramin the first cut of ‘The Box’, he gave me his notes and offered to come on as an Executive Producer, and he helped me get the film across the finish line although it was a two-year process. In hindsight, I didn’t really have a plan for post-production or distribution going into it, which could’ve been a MASSIVE mistake. I got lucky, in that I was able to find a producer who had some connections to post people as well as distributors, and he was able to advise me on ways to finesse the cut, and optimize what I already had. That’s not to say that you can’t do that all yourself. I’ve heard of people selling their feature on their own by cold-calling distribution companies or going to AFM. It also helps if you premiere at a major festival. But if you can find a producer early on who will help make the deals, it’s a huge boon. Especially if you find that person before you shoot a single frame of the movie.

Sasha Sibley and film crew on set. Filming debut feature film, The Box

If you could share your Top 3 Tips for New Directors, what would they be?

Sasha Sibley:
I heard this great phrase the other day from one of my professors. He said a friend he knows who works in VFX has this motto: “Fail faster”. That would be my first tip (even if I’m stealing it!). I can’t count the number of times I’ve failed over the years. Projects that didn’t materialize, festivals that didn’t select me, mistakes I’ve made on and off set; not getting the right shots, not planning enough, or planning too much, running out of money, running out of time, sending emails and making calls with no response. The list goes on. You can’t be afraid of failure, because it’s a natural part of the process. Even if it sucks. Every time I’ve failed to achieve one of my goals, I’ve learned something. And it almost always pertains to something I wasn’t doing or perceiving properly. And so ‘fail faster’ really just means ‘learn faster’, and don’t be afraid to screw things up, because that makes you better, faster.

My second tip specifically relates to production. Always read the scene right before you shoot. So, say you’re on set, and you’re all ready to shoot a scene. Maybe you wrote it, or maybe someone else did. But either way, you know it by heart. (Or at least you think you do). And you don’t have time to sit and read right now, it’s time to shoot! So you film the scene, and move on. And then a week later, you’re editing and you realize you completely forgot to film the part where the protagonist finds the necklace in her pocket—or whatever. And that necklace is the most important thing in the movie right now, and you don’t have the footage. I’ve made this mistake too many times. Yes, if you have the money for a great script supervisor, then this probably won’t happen to you. But if you’re working in the ULB realm, having a scripty is a luxury. So I always try to carve out 3-5 minutes to sit down right before shooting and read the scene once-over with no distractions. Usually just trying to remember what I wrote and why, because the set can become so frantic and crazy that you forget the little things.

My final tip is ‘find your voice’. It’s such a truism at this point, that I used to roll my eyes every time I heard it. I think it’s because sometimes people say it as filler when they don’t have any real constructive feedback to offer. But it’s actually SO true, and probably the most important thing you can do for yourself as an artist in any discipline. It’s also painfully simple if you know what you’re looking for. Over the past few years, I’ve struggled with this the most. I found myself often just emulating what other filmmakers had done without a purpose. I think you have to start with ‘what kind of movies you like’ and ‘why’, and if you’re able to answer those questions, you’ll be purposeful with your work. For example, I love the old high-concept 80’s and 90’s genre blockbusters. Those are the movies I grew up watching on TV, and those are the films that have had the deepest impact on my life. They always leave me with a sense of nostalgic wonder and excitement. And I feel empowered knowing that I want my work to have a little bit of Zemeckis’s camerawork or James Cameron’s flair, because it’s all driven by my authentic tastes. I think the most important thing is to be authentic. If you love watching obscure art films, then that should absolutely be your genre. If you love old spaghetti Westerns, then you should incorporate that style into your work. Nothing is more obvious than someone just trying to write or make whatever is currently ‘in vogue’. Make the movie that youwould want to go see, and you’ll find your voice along the way. And once you find it, the sky’s the limit.

Sasha Sibley on Debut Feature Film, The Box: Safety Balanced with a Willingness to Experiment
Follow Sasha on Instagram @sasha.sibley

Watch the trailer for "The Box" here:

Watch Sasha’s trailer for “The Painted” here:

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(Sasha Sibley on Debut Feature Film, "The Box": Safety Balanced with a Willingness to Experiment)