The Abandoned – Interview with Film Director Eytan Rockaway

Eytan Rockaway is a New York-based filmmaker who has just directed his first feature-length narrative film, The Abandoned [2015] starring Jason Patric and Louisa Krause. Rockaway comes with both artistic and commercial experience in film and television. His short, My First Time [2010], was nominated for best short at several festivals while his 2006 music video for Eshy’s track “B&J” and his 2007 art house film Signs has each won an award (Best Music Video and Grand Festival Award respectively) on the festival circuit. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Eytan, over the phone, about his work and his new film.


What got you into filmmaking?
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I think the first time my parents actually took me to watch a film, they didn’t have a babysitter for me. I was like three or four years old and they took me to the theatre. They were scared that I was gonna start crying, but the moment the movie came on, I was just silent through the entire thing. They just kept taking me to movies every week. And then as I grew older, I was still fascinated with filmmaking. I always had an imagination and when I finished the army, I just decided that it was time to pursue the dream and I went to college for it.


What inspires or influences your filmmaking?
I’m a storyteller so any story that I would like to see onscreen or that I’d like to be told [inspires me]. Usually, that’s a source of inspiration: A story I’d like to tell. Every film that I’m going to do, or that I do, has a statement, whether it’s a political statement, [or a] social statement. Specifically, for this movie that I just directed, the inspiration for that was Elephant Man [1980] [a movie] that I saw when I was very young. [The film] scared me but was also very emotional and that was a big source of inspiration for this movie.


Is the horror genre something you’d like to pursue?
I love the horror genre. I’ve liked it ever since I was a kid. [Having said that] I think I’m not going to focus on it. My next movie is a crime drama. The movie after that is a fantasy film. But I definitely love the genre and I think I’ll revisit it [for] maybe my third or fourth film.


How did directing your first feature-length narrative film compare to your previous directing experiences?
It was very different. I always thought that I’d be prepared because I did a lot of music videos and commercials and short movies, but nothing really prepares you for the first feature because it’s such a large scale [project] both emotionally and technically. You learn a lot about not only yourself but people and how to collaborate with people. It’s an amazing experience. I think, at the end of the day, making movies is adults playing make-belief with millions of dollars, but directing a movie is definitely a humbling experience as well as one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had. I would definitely recommend it to anyone if they have the opportunity.


Were there any lessons that you learned from previous projects that influenced how you went about making The Abandoned?
Yes. I think technically, the experience that I had in commercials and music videos and so on helped me a lot with the technical aspects. I could solve many things on set that I think that maybe other directors if they didn’t have any production experience, might have a problem with. At the end of the day, if you assemble a good team around you, usually it’s very helpful. In my case, I had a very good DP and a great production designer, which I think are the two most important people on set when you’re directing a movie. But it was such a small movie; we didn’t have money for almost anything. We didn’t have money for special effects. We didn’t have money for make-up effects. So, we were going along and solving problems as independent filmmakers do. A lot of the special effects in the movie were actually done by the production design; which, usually that’s not the case, but when you’re tight on schedule, tight on time, you just have to be creative.


What were some challenges in making this film? And what did you learn from making this film? 
The challenges were from pre-production [i.e. the get-go]. I think financial problems; I think technical problems: Everything from the location set up to how can we do the special effects and so on.

I learned from it mostly problem-solving. The greatest thing that I learned from [making this film] is how to collaborate with other artists on set. You know, being a director, or, at least, an effective one, I think, [lies in] how you manage people; how you convey your vision to other people; and also, how you harness other people [’s talents] on set. Most people there are artists themselves: the actors, the DP, the production designer, the editor, the makeup artists and so on… So, how do you collaborate with other people? How [do you] harness that creativity? Personally, on my set, I like it to be more of a zen experience: I start out, I tell everyone [that] I don’t like shouting, I don’t like anger. We’re all artists [and] I want everybody to approach this with good energy and respect one another. And I think, at least on this set, it was such a hard subject to do and it was such a tough schedule [that] I think that [setting this tone] benefitted everyone; because, if it was a tense set, a lot of things wouldn’t have gotten done; workflow wouldn’t have been as fun and collaborative. It was a very, very tough movie to do. We didn’t have a lot of time; we didn’t have a lot of money for a lot of the things that we wanted to do; [but] I think it worked out well at the end of the day and I’m happy that it worked out well.


Can you talk about your creative process in regards to how you approach a project?
From writing the story or the production itself or all of it?


All of it.
The screenwriting process is very challenging for me because getting anything on paper [is challenging]. In this movie, although I wasn’t the screenwriter, I did write the story and when you’re the director, you work very closely with the writer. That was definitely a very challenging experience.

When it came to the creative process, I had an idea of how I wanted things to look like. I had a lot of inspiration, specifically for this movie, [from] Hitchcock and Kubrick. I remember even my lookbook started out with a line that Hitchcock said [which was that] “The terror is not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it,” and that was kind of what I tried doing in this movie. For me, it’s not about the blood or the gore; it was more about tension and the build-up; [about] giving you that eerie feeling throughout the movie and then coming up with that surprise ending.

My great inspiration for the visual side, I would say, is music. I tend to listen to a lot of music and then see things in my head: the compositions, see the scenes, so I would say music is another great inspiration for my process.


How did Jason Patric get involved in your project? And what was the casting process like?
I always was a big fan of his ever since I saw, obviously, The Lost Boys [1987] and then Your Friends & Neighbors [1998]. I just love him. My producer got in touch with him and we met, we talked. He liked my vision, he liked what I had to say and then, we cast him and I was really excited to have him.

With Louisa, we had an audition. I was a big fan of hers since Martha Marcy May Marlene [2011]. She came to an audition and blew my mind, so I instantly wanted her.

And Mark Margolis was actually my neighbor in New York. I kept seeing him in the elevator. He’s a funny guy in a sarcastic way. One day, I was in the elevator with him and I just said to him, “You know, I’m a fan of yours. I’m actually a director,” and he looks at me and says, “Good for you,” and that was my first encounter with him. We just kept going a few more times: I’d see him in the building and we’d start talking. I told him about the script and he said to send it over. He liked it and hopped on board.


Was this your first experience directing young actors?
Children are always tough. I have to admit it was challenging. I get along with children so some parts of it weren’t that hard. I was very worried because we were in such a scary environment. We shot in this old fort; it goes underground; and, I thought the kids would be scared so I was preparing myself to kinda play along. A lot of them also had makeup and I thought that they would be scared: I would be scared if you put makeup [on me] and then I would look at myself and I would look deformed. And there were places that nobody wanted to go into; [places that all] the adults were scared to walk into and the children were actually fearless. They were the ones that were running first into each setup and not scared and you know, it was fun.

It was a bit challenging some of the time because, you know, children have their own way about things. So, you ask them to do something and they don’t do that correctly [but] it’s not like a seasoned actor where you can say, “Give me a bit of this. Give me a bit of that,” so you have to approach it in a more creative way. Some actors, like Jason, bring his experience and instantly he clicks into the character and instantly he can give you what you want. He doesn’t want you to go deep into every situation and talk about the emotional effects; [he just wants you to] tell him what you want and how you want it. He brings it and I give him a few takes and he nails it. With Louisa, it was kind of more we have to go deep into the character, deep into each situation and talk about it to bring out that performance. [All of] which [goes to] show that you have to be very, very patient. I would have to influence them [the kids] in a more creative way, playful way, to get what I wanted because sometimes they would do the same takeover and over again. You really have to be creative in how you bring out those different performances.


Can you share one of your favorite behind the scenes moment with me?
Yes. There are so many! One of them [was that] to get Louisa into character, I liked scaring and pranking her. There was that scene where she had to walk into a dark corridor and I wanted to sense her fear as she was walking. And you know, she [just] came from makeup and then we’re like, “Okay, act scared,” sometimes [that’s] a bit challenging. So, I used to choose dark corners and, when she wasn’t looking, I used to jump scare her. She’d get terrified and then I would start the take right after so she was still shaken up by that scare that I gave her. So, that was pretty hilarious. There’s a lot of fun things that happen when you’re shooting such long hours and [in] such crazy locations. There were bugs. There was rain. I mean, I couldn’t have picked [a better crew]. I had a lot of seasoned crew over there and they said that this was one of the toughest locations that they’d shot—especially everything that was underground. It was filled with bugs and roaches and every other insect you could imagine. We had to literally bomb it twice with pesticide to get half of them killed. People [kept] having spiders and these huge things fall on them all over the place, but it was fun! It was fun and challenging and when you’re done with it, you’re like, “Wow. Miss it.”


Reflecting on your finished film, was there anything you’d like to have done differently?
A lot. A lot. Many of my friends used to tell me that a movie is never finished, it’s abandoned. [And] that’s true. I look at it now and there are moments that I cringe; and, there are scenes that I’d like to change and reshoot; there’s a lot of things that I shot that didn’t make it into the film; there’s a lot of things that I didn’t shoot that I wish [I had]. There are always places to improve and eventually you just have to let it go and accept it.


Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk a little bit about?
Well, not necessarily because they’re all in development. I am doing a gangster movie and it takes place in both the 1940s and 80s. [It’s about] this iconic mobster here in America. And I’m working on a tv series and some other film projects that I wrote. So it’s gonna be an interesting year, but my next movie is going to be a gangster film and I’m hopefully shooting the second quarter of this year.