Writer-Director Omar Naim and Editor Russell Lichter Talk to Us About Their New Film – Becoming
Indie Film Junction | June 22, 2020
Indie Film Junction | June 22, 2020
IFJ spoke with Omar Naim and Russ Lichter about their new film, Becoming. Among the many valuable lessons shared, it seems that hyper organization, communication, and openness to the ideas of others are consistent ingredients for a successful director/editor, director/DP, or any other kind of relationship.
IFJ: Congratulations on your new movie, Becoming! What is it about?
ON: Thank you! And thanks for chatting with us about the film. Becoming follows Alex (Toby Kebbell) and Lisa (Penelope Mitchell), a couple newly engaged and deeply in love. While on a road trip, they encounter an ancient evil force that chooses Alex as its new host and begins to slowly take over his mind and body, gradually transforming him into someone terrifying and violent. The changes are small at first. His handwriting. His body language. As Alex struggles with the horror of losing his identity, Lisa notices the shifts in the man she thought she loved. Is he falling out of love with her, or is it something far, far worse? Lisa tracks down Kevin (Jason Patric), a damaged survivor of the entity who has dedicated his life to defeating it. Together, they must outwit an indestructible malevolence that doesn’t want to destroy Alex, it wants to be him.
IFJ: Where can people find it?
ON: The movie is available to buy on Blu-ray, and to rent and buy on all reputable streaming services, including Amazon Prime, Itunes, Youtube and Google Play.
IFJ: What inspired the idea for the film?
ON: When I was young and started to think of myself as a writer, I was a huge fan of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft. As a director, I’ve always hoped to make one movie in every genre, and try and carve out a personal space within their conventions. One day the central conceit of the movie arrived in my brain, who knows from where, and it kept scratching for attention. The idea of an entity gradually replacing a person, and removing pieces of their original personality, was an approach to the “possession” tale that I had never seen before. I thought it could make a very tense movie, but also provide the opportunity to explore characters in crisis, questioning their knowledge of each other and themselves. What makes a person who they are? This is something that I explore in The Final Cut, and quite by accident, I ended up exploring it here.
I was also really interested in making a horror movie without a familiar supernatural creature. I like vampires and ghosts and the devil as much as the next guy, but I always found it more scary to come face to face with a nameless, faceless thing. Part of the reason Asian horror films get so deeply under my skin is that I don’t know the mythology. I wanted the evil entity in Becoming to feel like mythology from another culture that you didn’t understand, devoid of any Judeo-Christian ideas of sin and evil, and devoid of familiar monster tropes.
IFJ: What is your writing routine, and how many projects are you typically developing at the same time?
ON: When I have an idea that keeps rattling around in my head, I dedicate a section of a notebook to it and start writing down anything that occurs to me about the idea: characters, scene ideas, complications, subtext, story beats. After a few weeks or months I have pages and pages of rambling notes, and then I sit down and organize them, see what fits together, what doesn’t work. Then I write an outline based on those notes. Then I write a first draft, usually quite fast, without looking back, just head down and barreling straight ahead. That first draft is meant to be a mess, and just for me. Then begins the real fun, which is the rewriting. I do many many drafts, because I don’t really know if something works or not until I integrate it into the script and re-read the thing as a whole. I have numerous such notebooks full of ideas in development, but I usually only write one screenplay at a time.
IFJ: Becoming is your third feature and the second that you also wrote. What are your thoughts on directing your own material vs scripts written by others?
ON: Ideally I would love to be able to alternate between films that I have written and films written by others. There’s much to be learned from other people’s writing, and many kinds of stories that I simply am not equipped to write but would love to direct. Also, looking at a script purely as a director, without the emotional baggage of having originated it, allows you to more clearly see what the movie actually is. I recall an interview with Stanley Kubrick where he was asked how come he doesn’t write original screenplays, and he replied that if he had written them, “how would I know if they were any good?”
On the other hand, I am a writer, and have been since I was 12. There are things I am compelled to write about, and stories I believe I am well equipped to write. If I had not been a writer, I would not have a career as a director at all. So I am protective of the writer in me. He’s a good kid. He keeps the lights on.
IFJ: Do you have any casting tips?
ON: Casting is very mysterious. I think it’s crucial not have a rigid idea of what kind of actor would be ideal for the role. Casting is alchemy, and you want to see what kind of chemical reaction happens between you, the script, and the actor. Ideally you and the actors know and agree on what kind of movie you are making. It helps if you all share a sense of humor. On the films that I write, I also want to be surprised. I’ve been living with the characters for so long that I am eager to to see how another creative person would interpret them.
For Becoming, Toby Kebbell read the script and loved it. We had a great phone conversation and realized we really want to make the same kind of movie and we have a similar energy. After that point, despite all the ups and downs of the financing coming and going, Toby was committed to the film, which is incredibly rare. He’s a huge part of what the movie is, and it likely would not exist without him. He’s full of ideas, willing to experiment, and we had lots of fun.
Penelope Mitchell was cast very close to production. The opposite of Toby. And yet, I cannot imagine the movie without her in it! She and I also clicked creatively, and when I started to get to know her and her skill as an actor, I saw that she could really mine the depths of the character. She’s an actress of extraordinary talent and sensitivity. Most of the scenes in the film are just Toby, Penelope, and the camera. There’s nowhere to hide. It was electrifying to get on set every day, set everything up, and then see what these two terrific actors were going to do.
The rest of the cast did amazing work in their supporting roles: Jason Patric, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lew Temple, Beth Broderick, Stephen Ryder, John Newberg, Melissa Bolona. Often these actors only had a day or two of filming, but contributed so much to the film.
IFJ: Can you give us an overview of how the production went? How many days did you shoot, how many locations were there, and over what period of time?
ON: We shot in the movie in 20 days in Louisville, Kentucky. There were too many locations! It being a road movie, we were constantly running from place to place, sometimes three company moves in a day, until we settled in to the family house for the third act. The shoot was very challenging. Very. But our producers Cole Payne and Michael Phillip kept the machine on track and on schedule despite insane obstacles, and our department heads and crew worked with all their heart and soul to make as good film as we possibly could.
IFJ: What’s your approach to collaborating with a DP?
ON: The DP for Becoming was Matthew Irving, and we had a great relationship. To me the DP is so important not just for their creative and technical skills, but for who they are as a human being. You will be making so many decisions together, leaning on each other, depending on each other’s taste and experience.
The personality of the DP is also important in how it affects the actors. Matthew was his own camera operator, so in effect the creative space of each shot involves me, Matt, and the actors in very close proximity. You want that creative space to feel comfortable and positive, and Matthew has a great energy that keeps everyone at their best.
The original idea for the shots come from me, but then Matt would add, subtract, improve. When it comes to lighting, however, we talk about general look and feel, but that is firmly the DPs realm.
IFJ: How do you stay on top of what shots you need for each scene? Do you make a shot list, use storyboards, etc? How rigidly do you adhere to either, or are they mainly there as one way to do it, leaving room for spontaneity?
ON: I make shot lists, and storyboards for some scenes, and for other scenes I leave it for the day. Even scenes that I have worked out carefully beforehand will change once we are in the space and new ideas start to emerge. But if you don’t plan ahead of time, the danger is that you will end up just doing coverage, which is basically shooting the scene in a very simple way, master shot, medium shots, closeups. Suspense scenes especially need shots that more expressive than that, and you won’t get those shots if you haven’t prepared to have the appropriate equipment and time to pull it off. With a low budget film, where time is limited, you have to prioritize certain shots, and say no matter what, we are doing this shot, coverage be damned. You have to take those risks sometimes because style is not just a seasoning, an afterthought, it is deeply integrated in to the effect of the movie. You aren’t just there to record the scenes!
During pre-production, Matt and I spent a couple of days alone just talking through every scene, shot by shot. Matt became the caretaker of that plan. We were constantly improving and adjusting, but the blueprint was there. We also talked about lenses, and I told him that I wanted to shoot as much as possible with the 25mm lens, which does wonderful things to faces and has a great depth of field without too much distortion. It also means the camera will be physically very close to the actors, which I thought would raise the stakes and tension in the performances themselves. We talked about aspect ratio and settled on 2:1, which I thought would be appropriate for the claustrophobia of the story. People think of a road trip as maybe a wide-screen, open space experience, but the reality is, you’re in a car for 12 hours, then you’re in a tiny motel room!
Both Matt and I worked very closely with our amazing production designer James Wise to give the film a very lived-in, natural look. I really wanted nothing Gothic about the look of the film, I wanted to break away from that kind of supernatural palette of “spooky” locations, and let the world be mundane and the horror much more plausible because of it.
IFJ: We’re lucky to also be joined by Russ Lichter, the editor of the film. Welcome, Russ! Can you tell us what drew you to this film?
RL: Hey there. Well, Omar & I became good friends after working on student films together at Emerson College. After graduating we both moved to L.A. and would collaborate on small projects. One day he let me read an early draft of Becoming and I thought it was such a cool idea. We even worked on an animatic to help get the film funded. He came to my little apartment with storyboards and I animated them and added sound. Then, one day in 2017, he called me up to tell me the movie was being made and asked if I’d edit it. I was thrilled! So getting to work on the actual film was really a fulfillment of what we started all those years ago.
IFJ: What are some things that you feel all directors should do to set editors up to succeed in post that might not be apparent to everyone?
RL: Organization and vision are key. If a director’s sloppy or lacks focus it’s a real challenge. Omar comes prepared with notes, storyboards and a brain bursting with ideas.
IFJ: Did you have access to any of the footage during the production, or did you first see it after shooting wrapped?
RL: We were on a super tight schedule once production began, so I was getting footage within days of them being shot. I cut scenes together so Omar could see how things were looking and maybe change course or pick up shots during the shoot.
IFJ: Can you describe how you approached the edit of Becoming? Did you have any specific stylistic goals going into the process, or did the footage dictate that?
RL: Omar and I discussed various films that were of influence to this story, which I watched or rewatched before the shoot began. Lots of thrillers, as you can imagine. In the end, though, I just wanted to tell a good story. We weren’t trying to reinvent anything, so the footage pretty much dictated how the edit was going to look. Both of our leads gave great variations on their takes. Toby would sometimes do it a little darker, Penelope would sometimes do it more naive. We just kept trying takes until we found what flowed best.
IFJ: For you two, what does the director/editor dynamic look like? How did you establish it?
RL: I think we were both a little nervous about working on such a big project together. Things can get pretty intense in the edit room and we didn’t want to ruin our friendship. I cut a big chunk of the film on my own in Los Angeles while he was shooting in Kentucky. Once shooting wrapped we continued the edit in Oregon. We spent a solid three weeks in the edit bay and we really pushed each other, but in a good way. I would present ideas, but it was always Omar’s show. There were times where we’d watch a scene and one of us would stop it, throw out an idea, and then I’d kick him out while I retooled it. He’d come back fresh and we’d see if it worked. It was pretty exciting, honestly. If anything, I think working on the movie made us even closer. He also cooked amazing frittatas, which helps.
ON: For me, all the pain of writing, development and production are rewarded by getting to edit the movie. It really is the most magical and uniquely filmic process. Again the personality of the editor is crucial, you are going to be in a room together coming up with ideas, so you better like each other and trust each other. During planning and filming, I will often have a specific idea of how I want the shots to flow together for a particular scene. So I prefer our first crack at the movie be an attempt to make that original conception work. Then, if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. Russ and I experimented a lot, and there are quite a few “moments” in the film that were not scripted and were inventions of the editing room to deepen the story or characters.
IFJ: Editing while production is still underway is becoming more common. What do you see as the benefits of this approach, and did cutting while shooting change or inform what you set out to capture the rest of the shoot?
ON: I think the advantages of cutting while shooting are numerous, and it has happened on all my features. We were able to shoot somewhat in continuity, so Russ got the early scenes cut together so I could see how the relationships were coming across. That way I could adjust later if we found something was missing. It’s rarely a shot or a story point that is missing, we’re pretty organized on set and shots don’t fall through the cracks, but what might need adjusting are performances and tone. Also, it’s a good way to bond with your editor before you face the confinement of the editing room. And honestly, sometimes while I’m shooting and things are tense and challenging, I really want to talk to a team-mate who isn’t in the trenches at the moment and can talk me off a cliff and tell me “it’s all going to be okay, I’ve seen the footage, you’re doing fine.”
IFJ: Do either of you have any tips for filmmakers coming from more of a DIY background on how to successfully collaborate with an editor in post?
ON: A DIY background is actually preferable in my opinion, because that means you’ve done some editing yourself and you know the process. You know what is possible, and what isn’t. You need to speak the same language as your editor, and if you haven’t spent time actually doing some cutting, you don’t really know what the medium is capable of. As a DIY yourself filmmaker, try to have the objectivity to realize that another creative person in the room with you only means more ideas. Don’t be precious.
IFJ: Did anything substantially change in the edit as a result of feedback you got on any of the earlier cuts?
ON: No drastic changes, but we did re-structure the first act significantly. We omitted some early scenes that were complicating things too early, and we moved some of their more tender scenes earlier so you would feel that they were in love before the shit hits the fan. The film also worked better the more subjective it got, so we did away with some scenes that didn’t feature the main characters. In the script I had written title cards to indicate which state they were in, but we discovered it was too intrusive a formal element, and the film worked better the more naturalistically it was told.
IFJ: On this or any other movie you’ve worked on, what is the most challenging obstacle you’ve ever had to overcome in the edit, and how did you overcome it?
RL: I think for me, the hardest part was figuring out what things to reveal and what to hold back on. We’re following Alex as he transforms, but we’re also following Lisa who’s in the dark for most of the story. It was a balancing act. The script lays everything out, which is great, but when we got to piecing scenes together, we realized that holding back on certain information made things much more exciting. Figuring out where that line is was tough.
ON: It was during the editing of my first movie, The Final Cut. The film centers on Robin Williams’ character and a traumatic incident from his childhood. In the original screenplay, the flashback to his childhood was broken up and spread out over the first hour of the film, so the audience would gradually piece together what makes Robin’s character so cold. Our first few cuts of the film retained this flashback structure, and we noticed that the audience was not investing in Robin’s character. The revelation about his childhood came far too late in the movie to make him sympathetic. It was a real struggle, I thought we were doomed. Then one day it occurred, like a bolt of lightning, that we should turn all the flashback fragments into one scene, and start the movie with it. As soon as we did that, the movie changed significantly. Now we see a little boy watch his friend die in front of his eyes, and then we meet him as an adult, and immediately you sympathize with the character, you forgive how cold he is because you have the information to forgive him.
IFJ: On all the films you both have worked on, have you ever encountered potential legal issues in post-production? If so, do you have any advice for filmmakers to avoid similar situations?
ON: On The Final Cut, the name of the hero was Alan Hackman. It turns out you can use a name if it is common, but in this case, there was like only one real guy with that name, so I had to drop the C, which drives me nuts to this day.
IFJ: What’s next for both of you?
ON: I am completing a documentary filmed in my native country of Lebanon, called Two Cities, which is about a theater struggling to survive while there’s crisis all around it. I’m also writing new features as well as scripts for television. You’ve got to have multiple projects in the air because it’s so hard to get anything made.
RL: I have a documentary called reFashioned coming out later this year, about sustainable fashion in Hong Kong. I’m hoping to hop on another narrative feature next.
Director Omar Naim
Runtime 98 min
Becoming follows Alex (Toby Kebbell) and Lisa (Penelope Mitchell), a couple newly engaged and deeply in love. While on a road trip, they encounter an ancient evil force that chooses Alex as its new host and begins to slowly take over his mind and body, gradually transforming him into someone terrifying and violent. The changes are small at first. His handwriting. His body language. As Alex struggles with the horror of losing his identity, Lisa notices the shifts in the man she thought she loved. Is he falling out of love with her, or is it something far, far worse? Lisa tracks down Kevin (Jason Patric), a damaged survivor of the entity who has dedicated his life to defeating it. Together, they must outwit an indestructible malevolence that doesn’t want to destroy Alex, it wants to be him.More