How Noam Kroll Delivered a Polished and Effective Thriller on a Budget with Psychosynthesis
Indie Film Junction | August 3, 2020
Indie Film Junction | August 3, 2020
Noted micro-budget filmmaker Noam Kroll just released his second feature, Psychosynthesis. We spoke with Noam about his production methods and what keeps him coming back to make truly independent movies.
IFJ: Congratulations on the release of your second feature, Psychosynthesis! Can you tell us what it’s about?
NK: Thank you! The film tells the story of Alice, a young mother who gets a heart transplant and begins to take on the characteristics of her donor. It’s very much an art-house genre film with a psychological twist.
IFJ: Where can people watch it?
NK: Currently the film is available exclusively on Amazon Prime, but in the coming months it will be rolled out to many other streaming platforms too.
IFJ: What was the inspiration for the concept, and how long did it take to develop it into the iteration that you shot?
NK: The concept originated when I read an article about a man who had a heart transplant and wound up getting married to his donor’s widow. It was one of those bizarre stories that already sounded like the first act of a movie, so I followed that lead. Through some research it became clear this was a phenomena that many people had experienced, and the more I learned about their stories the more excited I got about this concept. To take things to a different level though, I decided to go into genre territory with the movie. It could have easily been a straight up drama, but adding a touch of thriller and elements of subtle horror gave it another layer, I think.
IFJ: You’re somewhat of a micro-budget filmmaking evangelist. What drew you to low budget filmmaking?
NK: To me, DIY filmmaking is the only thing that makes any sense right now. Not necessarily for everyone, but at least for the way that I like to work. Most of the films I love and the films I want to make aren’t big spectacle movies. They don’t need a ton of money, so rather than wait 5 or 10 years to raise money for a movie that may never even get made, I’d rather make the projects I can right now, and not have to wait. You learn so much on every film, and get to exercise your creative muscles, and I would hate to lose that because I’m waiting for the next best thing. Opportunities are created by ourselves, not others, and those willing to make their own movies tend to move in the right direction, regardless of budget.
IFJ: What equipment did you use to make Psychosynthesis?
NK: Our setup was really minimal. We shot on my Arri Alexa Plus 4:3 on an O’Connor tripod/head for the entire shoot. We had no other support gear/stabilization, just some basic lighting – litemats, china ball, 2K, etc. that all fit in a small van. Our sound recordist brought his Sound Devices mixer and all the lavs/booms we needed and that was about it! Oh, and the fog machine too – which was used non stop.
IFJ: Can you give us a breakdown of the shooting schedule?
NK: The shooting schedule was 9 days total. Everything took place in only two locations (houses) so we shot the first 5 days in house #1 and the last 4 days in house #2. We were shooting upwards of 10 pages every day, so things got really tight… But somehow we got everything we needed and there were no re-shoots or pickups.
IFJ: What was the biggest obstacle you encountered while shooting, and how did you overcome it?
NK: We had some major sound issues at location #2. We were shooting in a house right in Beachwood Canyon in Los Angeles, which is a busy residential area under the Hollywood sign. All day every day we were battling sounds from motorcycles, trucks, police cars, etc. To get around it, we would record wild lines in a quiet closet after almost every scene, and in post I replaced a lot of the original dialogue with those takes to maintain quality.
IFJ: What’s something you learned from making your first feature, Shadows on the Road, that helped you on Psychosynthesis?
NK: I think I learned two big things. Firstly, I learned that there is value in structuring your days more concretely. On Shadows On The Road, I shot much more loosely, and that often resulted in less source material captured for each scene. Less planning also meant I was taking way more creative risks, which only worked out some of the time. This time around though, I was much more strategic – limiting us to 2 locations for instance – to ensure we could maximize every last second of time on set. The other thing I learned was to lean into my instincts when it comes to tone and genre. On my first feature, there was a hint of suspense throughout the film, which I probably could have explored more. So on this film, I didn’t shy away from having a slightly heavier hand stylistically, because that’s where my gut was taking me.
IFJ: Was there anything you learned from making Psychosynthesis that you wish you knew going into production?
NK: There were several scenes that were ultimately cut from the movie, which collectively would have taken about 1 1/2 days to shoot. That’s a ton of time spent on scenes that were ultimately trashed, and I would have much rather spent that extra time elsewhere if I had known we wouldn’t need that material. That happens on every shoot of course, but still I want to work more diligently next time to ensure there’s less margin for error in the translation from script to set.
IFJ: You share a cinematography credit on Shadows on the Road, but Matteo Bertoli is listed as sole cinematographer on Psychosynthesis. Can you talk about the pros and cons of shooting and directing and what went into your decision not to shoot your latest movie yourself?
NK: While I do have a lot of fun shooting my own material, I usually only go that route if the budget requires it. Even though I’m very comfortable operating a camera and lighting/framing shots (particularly on natural light productions), it does take my focus away from the actors at times, which I don’t like. This time around it made sense for me to fully step back and just direct, and I definitely don’t feel like I sacrificed anything visually. Matteo is not only a great DP, but he was very understanding of how specific I can be. I told him from our first call we would be shooting in 4:3 on zoom lenses, going for an analog look, etc. and he was on board. So in the end, I was able to trust Matteo with the vision and he and his team just ran with it!
IFJ: Locations are always difficult to get and keep on smaller budget films. What was the scouting process like, and how did the locations you were able to get inform or change the script, if at all?
NK: I scouted all the locations online using Peerspace primarily, and then reached out to location owners directly. It took some trial and error before I was able to negotiate the right rates for the right homes here in LA, but in the end I was very happy with the locations we found, especially considering the budgetary limitations. Thankfully the locations didn’t really affect the script in any major way. There were some little hiccups – for instance we didn’t have a 3rd bedroom in one of the houses, so we had to re-dress one bedroom to cheat it as another, but for the most part it was smooth sailing.
IFJ: Filmmakers often forget to budget for things like clearances and E & O insurance. What advice do you have for people who have limited resources to make their movie and don’t have experience navigating the legalities?
NK: If possible, it’s always best to consult with an entertainment lawyer, even for an hour or two before your production. While I can’t give any legal advice (definitely not qualified!), I will say that the bigger your film and intended release, the more critical all of the legal elements become. If you want to make a backyard movie with a few friends, you don’t show any logos or use any unlicensed music, and you plan to release the film yourself without a distributor, you’ll have a lot more flexibility on things like E & O. On a bigger scale production though, things get a lot more complicated. In any case, a brief chat with a lawyer can go a long way in ensuring your ducks are in a row. And it’s always easier to sort it out before you start shooting than after it’s already in the can.
IFJ: In addition to making movies, you have a business, a family, a podcast, and a blog. What’s your strategy for managing your time and balancing all of those things?
NK: Balancing everything is always tricky, but what works best lately is assigning certain tasks to certain days. For instance I tend to write my newsletters on Sunday or work on my cinecolor.io website on Wednesday. That type of scheduling ensures that I’m working on every aspect of my working life at least once or twice a week. And when a big project comes along (like a new product release or a commercial shoot), I’ll allocate extra hours as needed during that period, while still maintaining my usual baseline. I try to use my time wisely during the days to wrap up at a reasonable time and relax at home with the family. I used to work all hours of the night, but tend to be more productive these days with some turnaround time.
IFJ: Now that you’ve released two features, what would your ideal next project look like? Do you want to do something on a larger scale, or would you prefer to apply your micro-budget expertise on another low budget movie?
NK: I’m already starting to work on the next idea, and I’m very excited about it. It’s in the same emotional vein of Psychosynthesis, but with a very different story and visual feel. My goal is to raise between $250K – $500K for this feature right now – not because we need that much to shoot it, but because I’d like to secure name talent if possible. That helps tremendously when selling a film, and would be the main use of our budget. In every other respect I would imagine the production being nearly as simple as the last one, just with a few more days and a few more crew. So yes, it would be a slightly larger production, but my goal will be to keep it as lean as possible.
IFJ: Where can people find you online?