Dominoes – How Hussein Hammouda Made his First Feature
Indie Film Junction | February 17, 2021
Indie Film Junction | February 17, 2021
After making multiple shorts and working on big budget productions, writer/director Hussein Hammouda decided to embark on his first feature, Dominoes. We spoke with Hussein about the objective of a first feature, the DIY spirit, and crafting a script to overcome the limitations of shooting during a pandemic.
IFJ: Congratulations on Dominoes, your first feature! Can you tell us what it’s about?
HH: Thank you! Dominoes, in the spirit of films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker or Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, is a series of vignettes that are stitched together through recurring characters and themes. Like Slacker, you move through a series of characters like a game of telephone, with each segment of the film sharing a character from the previous and forthcoming vignette. The idea is that every character’s story topples into the next, like a series of dominoes. We put our own little twist on it, though, where some characters pop back up again later in a different light, but I won’t delve into spoilers there too much. I haven’t seen many films done with that narrative style, so that was a type of structure that I’d been wanting to leave my mark on for a while now.
IFJ: You successfully crowdfunded the film on Indiegogo. What tips would you give other filmmakers that are considering the same route, and what did you learn from this campaign?
HH: We were going to make the movie whether or not we met our goal, and we actually launched the page two days before production began, so that took a lot of pressure off the crowdfunding. I know that won’t always be the case, but if that’s something that you can afford to do, I recommend going that route. Not only does it alleviate the burden of you having to meet a “100% backed” goal to make the project, but it also makes it less risky for the investors/backers, because they know their money will go towards helping you regardless of whether or not you hit the target.
It also allowed us to continually share the crowdfunding link with daily footage, behind-the-scenes photos, and updates, which kept the movie fresh in peoples’ minds and allowed them to decide whether or not they wanted to contribute as production proceeded. And because we eventually hit our goal, our page can now stay open indefinitely, so that’s always something good to keep in mind also!
IFJ: You wrote and directed Dominoes. How did you find the experience of developing the script so you could feasibly shoot it? Is there anything you would have approached differently?
HH: The constraints of what we could and couldn’t do during the pandemic really helped with the writing process, because it automatically limited the locations we could use, how many people could safely be in a scene, and so on. And the daisy-chain nature of the story also helped, because anything goes when there isn’t necessarily a rigid plot to follow, which allowed me to mash together all of these stories that I’ve been wanting to tell that have been in my head. A lot of the writing process was working backwards from that, picking locations that I had ease of access to (a giant field in the middle of nowhere, an abandoned movie theater, backyards) and writing to that. And, of course, making sure it all made sense and that these stories worked within the themes and characterizations of the movie.
I don’t know if there’s anything that I would change now, but while I was in the middle of casting, I really regretted my decision to have 26 characters. Trying to manage that with COVID was an insanely big headache, but it really forced me out of my comfort zone, helped me meet a bunch of really talented actors, and it came out nicely. We also had one actor drop out at the last second, which led to us casting a barber that was watching us on the corner of the street the day-of, so that’s also a fun thing that came of that.
IFJ: Production took place in the midst of the pandemic. How did it inform script choices, and how did it impact the logistics?
HH: The whole premise of the script stemmed from having to shoot a micro-budget indie during the pandemic and finding the most manageable way to do that. I had this other script called 9/12 that was gaining some traction and was getting eyes at reputable places, but it would’ve required a much larger budget and crew if we were going to make it, which is a hard sell right now. With a lot of downtime, I knew that I wanted to make something during the pandemic, so it was just a matter of figuring out what.
And so I wrote what was basically the antithesis of your standard two-hour indie, which was a scaled down feature that was comprised of 10 eight-minute vignettes. That way, we could dedicate one day to one vignette/scene and not have to worry about having to secure cast and locations for the full two weeks during a pandemic. That made it a lot more manageable from a scheduling standpoint and, in turn, from a directing standpoint.
IFJ: What was the shooting schedule? How many days did you film over what period of time?
HH: Because we were making this in the midst of a pandemic, I wanted to strip things down as much as possible and make it as easy on the cast and crew as much as I could. We shot the movie over 9 days, and we generally started our days around 8am and wrapped around 5pm. And then I’ve been going around and getting random inserts on my own free time, but it was otherwise a very quick shoot.
IFJ: Can you give us a breakdown of the crew?
HH: The crew was incredibly small. I asked my friends Max Neace and Sally Northrop what they thought about the script in early August and if it was something we can feasibly do. Before I knew it, it was the last week of August, Max had flown from California to Massachusetts and we were scouting the locations, and Sally graciously came down from Maine every day to help with that process as well. That was the core producing team and all of this absolutely wouldn’t have happened without their support and encouragement.
Max ended up handling everything related to sound, my friends Matt Toole and Danny Dragin helped out with camera and lighting when we needed it, and I would occasionally ask Sally to act as a script supervisor or to step in as an AD to make sure we finished a scene on time. And then my wife, Mariah, would help with random things that came up when she wasn’t working.
So all in all…six people? Seven if you count Tristan Miller, one of the actors, who doubled as a stills photographer when he wasn’t on camera.
IFJ: What equipment did you use to make Dominoes?
HH: The “A” camera that we shot on was a Sony A7III, and then we had a Sony a6000 as the “B” camera – ie, the cheaper camera that we strapped to my car for all of the driving shots.
As far as sound goes, we figured that lapel mics could prove to be a safety concern with COVID, in regards to actors sharing them, so we relied heavily on our boom mics and did wild tracks at the end of the day to make sure we have all the sound we need. And it was mostly all exteriors in brightly lit places, so we used bounces here and there to help with lighting as needed. There was one interior where the characters are at a make-shift lab in someone’s basement, and we used these cool color-changing lights that doubled as an off-screen portal to a parallel universe, so that was fun.
Oh! And a green screen. That was also a lot of fun, and it continues to be one of my favorite things to mess around with in post.
IFJ: What is something you learned by making this film that you wish you knew going into production?
HH: Filming inside of a car is an absolute nightmare. I thought those two days on the schedule were going to be the easiest of the shoot, but we actually lost half a day trying to figure out the logistics of that.
Jaime – the actress that plays the Uber driver in those scenes – was a real champ and did fantastically, driving and acting, but there are so many variables that you can’t control in those instances, like Massholes honking in the middle of a take and ruining things, continuity with light, etc etc. I totally get why bigger productions will shut down a whole highway or do everything on a process trailer and desperately wished we could have done that.
The good news is that once we were able to figure out the logistics, we were able to make up that lost day in the second driving day, so instead of shooting 8ish pages each day, we did 16 in one. Again, a lot of that credit goes to Jaime.
IFJ: What inspired you to get into filmmaking and what kind of projects did you work on leading up to your first feature?
HH: At first, I didn’t think it was something that I could do. I’d always looked up to filmmakers, had a deep love for film, and thoroughly enjoyed writing stories, but I always thought it was something you had to be born into or you had to know someone who can get you in. It was when I graduated college and tried working 9-to-5s that I realized I would resent myself if I didn’t chase that dream. I gave myself until 30 to direct my first feature, and I did Dominoes at 28 so…hopefully I won’t need to go back to a desk job!
On the road to Dominoes, I directed a lot of short films. When I lived in New York, we did about one every two months or so. Writing, editing, and scoring them, I learned a lot about the filmmaking process. And then I worked as an assistant on projects like Knives Out, Defending Jacob, Godmothered, and The Expecting where I had great bosses that really believed in me and encouraged me to make a feature – and so, with a lot of down time during this past summer, that’s exactly what I did with that same DIY approach!
IFJ: Apart from the accomplishment of making a feature film, did you have any particular objective going into making Dominoes (calling card, acquiring representation, monetization, etc)?
HH: It being a calling card was absolutely the biggest motivation. Like I had said earlier, I had this whole other script that I was trying to make, but it relied on so many things going right. And I’m the kind of person that gets antsy if I’m sitting around for too long, so I said “Fine, I’ll do it myself!” I didn’t want to have to prove to anyone that I’m capable of doing it because I knew I was, and that’s such a big struggle with being a first-time filmmaker, so Dominoes was my way of just going out and doing it, even if I didn’t have the bells and whistles that come with a million dollar indie.
IFJ: Do you have a marketing, distribution, and/or festival strategy?
HH: I’m working on that as we speak! I have a list of festivals that I would like for us to play at, so I’ve been submitting to those as we go. I was working on a local Netflix movie for the last few months, so that took some time away from post-production, but I’m hoping to really hop back in and begin to meet all those deadlines. Beyond that, there are now three places that have mentioned they’re interested in distribution within the last few weeks, so we’ll see where those talks go. Worst case scenario, it ends up on Amazon and is accessible for everyone, which I would also be completely fine with. At the end of the day, this is the sort of fun movie that we made just to share with people, not necessarily to make hundreds of thousands at the box office.
IFJ: What advice would you give to filmmakers reluctant to take the leap and make their first feature?
HH: Just do it! There’s a whole conversation about how iPhones are revolutionizing the ease to which people can make films, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the iPhone aspect per se, I do agree with the sentiment that if you think you can do it, you probably can! And nowadays, I don’t think there are too many first-time filmmakers that are making movies for studios without crazy connections, so I think you have to kind of cut your teeth on making a project on your own volition now instead of waiting around for someone to find you. Especially with the rise of Tik Tok and other video sharing platforms, there’s already a market for people to share videos that they’ve created, and that’s a great way for people to dip their toes in if they think they’d be interested in it. Don’t overthink it, find people that you want to make something with, and just go out and do it!
IFJ: What’s next for you?
HH: Things are starting to line up for the film that I initially thought would be my debut feature, 9/12, which is loosely based on when I was trying to navigate a post-9/11 America as an Arab-American teenager. It’s still a very small, character driven film, but it would require a bigger budget than what we did with Dominoes, so I doubt I’d be able to crowdfund that. It feels like the right time to do a story like that, and it has a lot of heart to it in the vein of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Eighth Grade, but it’s absolutely something we would have to do right.
I still want to do my follow-up feature later this year, so if things with 9/12 aren’t picking up steam by July, I’m going to focus on a sci-fi thriller about cloning that I wrote, which we would be able to do with four actors and five locations or so. I saw what Jim Cummings did with Thunder Road, partly raising the $200,000 budget through Kickstarter, and I think we would easily be able to make it with that same sort of campaign and budget level. But either way, there is a second feature in the works, it’s just a matter of which one.
IFJ: Where can people find you to stay up to date on your projects?
HH: I’m @thewisefoolHHH on Twitter and Instagram, and on there I’ll periodically post updates on what I’m working on and updates on Dominoes