Dashcam: An Interview with Christian Nilsson And Larry Fessenden

Dashcam is a very fine piece of work. It’s airless, claustrophobic; one of those thrillers which make you believe that everything is a conspiracy. And maybe it is. The central character, Jake, is in his apartment with his screens. He’s working his way up to being a reporter by cutting a piece together for his ass of a boss.

So far, so usual for so many. But this story is about a double killing of a cop and the former attorney general, played by Larry Fessenden, who so many will know from so many horror projects; he’s a big wheel in the underground and overground movie scene.

The killings take place on the freeway and news media have been promised the cop’s dashcam footage. It comes to Jake who starts to work on it, only to notice another email with dashcam footage marked ‘confidential’. It clearly shouldn’t have come to him. Does he open it? He does. And that begins a train of events which he can’t stop.

I was delighted to talk to Larry alongside Christian Nilsson, who wrote and directed the film. This is Christian’s first full-length feature, and yet, last year he had the number one movie in the US.

Yep, no scam. This was for the short he and Eric Tabach produced, Unsubscribe, a horror film based around an online video call that falls foul of a mysterious internet troll. It’s good; check it out on Vimeo. But they really did it to prove a point: that ‘four walling‘ works.

Last year there weren’t too many blockbuster movies released, what with the pandemic messing things up and all. So Christian and Eric hired a movie theatre, bought all the seats themselves, showed the movie five times in one day and pocketed the receipts. They had a sell-out movie.

I start by asking Christian, no Unsubscribe, no Dashcam?

‘I don’t think so.’ He thinks about it for a second. ‘For a number of reasons. One, personally I had been developing a film for a number of years that was supposed to start shooting shortly after the pandemic started; we lost our funding, as many films did.

‘And I thought that was the only way you could make a film—you put together a business plan, you find investors. Unsubscribe showed me I could make a film without any of those resources, without a crew, and really write a story based on what was available to me.

‘So I don’t think I could have made Dashcam without Unsubscribe because I didn’t know that about myself. After we made Unsubscribe, people started reaching out to us and saying ‘Hey, do you wanna make a feature film version of Unsubscribe?’

‘But Unsubscribe for us was a film we made for the stunt. So when this one producer, Andrew Van Den Houten, asked, I said ‘I think I have a better story for you’. And I pitched him Dashcam.

‘We wrote every scene around what was possible. We knew we couldn’t have actors on set, so we knew there would only ever be one character within the frame. I learned a lot about myself in this project.’

Larry arrives with wine. It’s 11.30pm where I am, but ‘it’s the cocktail hour for me’.

And things must have been a little different on this movie, as the majority of Larry’s character Leiberman’s time on screen consists of telephone conversations; he has a world-weary feeling that something bad is going to happen mixed with an energised frisson that he’s up to something important.

‘I also know Andrew Van Den Houten,’ Larry explains. ‘He’s a comrade in the trenches, (an) independent filmmaker and also supports the arts. Andrew gave me a call and he pitched Christian and Christian’s film, and told me the story of the previous movie and how resourceful and fun it was. I was intrigued. I like people who work on the edges of the industry and figure out a way to do something special and good.

‘I liked the premise of the script; of course, we’re all fond of the ’70’s paranoia thrillers. And then I loved the gig, one day doing something kind of intense and subversive, out in the dark and knowing that scene would resonate through the movie. A delicious opportunity and perfect for the covid blues.

When I was little, I would listen to cassette tapes of movies, it was before VHS, so I had a sense of the audio world of a movie that you might like and the rhythms. For the character, you try to understand the situation he’s in. I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know how it all works!’

Christian breaks in, ‘You’ve at least seen the trailer though, right?’

Larry answers with Oliver Hardy grandeur; ‘I certainly have!’

And in the news footage for the film, he looks almost fresh-faced and scrubbed up for the photo the report shows. It’s another side of him. Larry agrees.

‘Christian said ‘do you have a still of yourself looking half cleaned up? and I said ‘Oh yes, certainly sir, I will look’ and three days later I was still searching! He said ‘We actually found this, we did this, is this OK?’ And I was like ‘Thank God!’

Christian: ‘It’s a different body, different head of hair’. Larry replies ‘IMDB here we come!’

One of the main features of the movie is its taut, claustrophobic feel. It isn’t noir or a pandemic movie. Instead, it has a feel that Jake’s comfort zone is starting to become hostile. Christian takes us through how the feeling was achieved.

‘For 80, 85% of the film, we’re just in an apartment, we’re just with Jake. We had to work out how do we make the film always seem fresh, and it was important to me that we never repeated a shot. I never wanted to see the same angle in the room twice, so we really had to figure out how to break up the blocking so that we were always able to see the room in a fresh way. But we always get closer and closer and closer, and at the height of his paranoia, we are looking through the monitor.

‘I also wanted a moment of fresh air in the third act when ‘Jake’ goes outside for the first time. A new world. And that’s the reason why it wasn’t a found footage movie, I wanted to break that out, a palate cleanser.

Rather than describing it as a pandemic film, I’ve been describing it as a pandemic adjacent film. It really could exist in any time, but I was really conscious in creating the film of touching on the emotions that a lot of us were feeling; isolation, being disconnected from the world, to make a move that was of the moment but wasn’t defined by it.’

Jake’s world is dominated by screens and it’s telling that in the movie, his window to the ‘real’ world is behind him; he has his back to it. The monitors are his windows on the world, a world of communication he can mostly control. In a way, this is like a modern retelling of Rear Window, with Jake looking at the world as he sees it, as he edits it and creates it. Luckily, Christian didn’t snort with derision at this reach.

‘And he would probably say that he is connecting with the world! Jake is your eyes and when we cut to the screen, we’re in the screen. It was important to me that the audience really feels they are Jake and so in the more edit-heavy moments of the film (action rather than post-production), we’re only really checking in with Jake to see where he’s looking, to see what his eyeline is, which monitor he is looking at. So that you are learning things with Jake. As he finds more sources, you also have that moment of ‘Oh my God, I see this now’.

And it wouldn’t work if the main character wasn’t likeable.

‘I think Eric (Tabach), who plays Jake, in his performances is just so likeable; that was really important, for Jake.

‘In Unsubscribe, the bad guy was Charlie Tahan. He was supposed to be Jake, but maybe 2 or 3 weeks before we started shooting, Ozark was kicking off and everyone’s trying to get their footing as far as covid protocols. So he said, ‘I Don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do this, I’m gonna be in a hotel for a while’.

We found ourselves in the middle of a production that was already full steam ahead, Eric was a producer on the film and so I said ‘I think you can do this, I think you just need to reimagine him a bit’. Watching the film, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. I love Charlie, but I think Charlie’s Jake would have been a little bit more of an underdog, a little bit more of a sleazy character. You would have found him interesting but maybe not relatable. Watching Jake you really feel for him the whole time.’

After discussing the shooting (‘on a micro-budget over many, many long nights’), we discuss the political thriller feel of the film.

Although Blow Out has been mentioned, I felt there was a feeling of the US thrillers of the mid-’70s, when people didn’t seem to be sure of their leaders, from Nixon’s resignation to Gerald Ford’s ‘the state of the nation is not good’. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

‘That was definitely one of our objectives in making the film. I like the ending of Blow Out, I like the ending of The Conversation when they end on these notes of ‘did this happen, did this not happen?’ Most audience members would walk away with a certain understanding of how this film resolves; there are just as many arguments to go in a completely different direction. And some IMDB trivia, the papers he finds at the end are the JFK papers that were unsealed.’

Larry puts it all in a nutshell: ‘We’re referencing the 70’s movies that always had the availability of a despairing ending, an existential ending that came from the ’60’s. I think we need to bring that back.Art needs to remind people who are addicted to Facebook and in the media cycle, it’s essential for art to say ‘No, there never was a resolve, there never were answers’.

You can take comfort from knowing that and stop spinning your wheels and buying into false stories. Just understand that the world is not gonna be tied in a bow.’

Amen to that.

Lovely to chat with these two, particularly to discuss such a great movie. Seek it out, you won’t be disappointed.

Written by Steve Swift

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