Turning his idiosyncratic eye to the realm of childish imagination, REVERSE Director Johan Stahl – who previously took joyfully strange swipe at the North Korean regime in self-initiated brand video DEAR LEADER – unleashes the disturbing ramifications of a young boy’s fantasies wreaked upon the real world in his Newport Beach Film Fest trailer Play: The Power of Ideas. DN asked Johan to explain how he struck the balance between comedy, gore and WTFness for this deliciously dark flight of fantasy.

I instantly connected with the script from ad agency Garage Team Mazda since I know what it feels like to be bickering with the ex-love of your life, and I also know what it feels like to be a little boy who retracts into an imaginary world to ignore bickering parents. So I’ve been on both sides of the fence here. Regarding the initial script, we had quite a few developing rounds and back-and-forths with the team from Garage Team Mazda. We spent a lot of time on finding the right balance of how directly to link between the kid’s playing and what went down in the real world.

I knew right away that Django was the one for this. We saw a bunch of very talented kids and played around with them at callbacks but Django had that ability to just…play and be absorbed in his own world, which was exactly what I wanted from the kid in this story. Actually, the whole casting process was one heck of a day. It’s rare that you get to spend a full day with puking bikini girls, wall-headbanging guys, kids playing, parents bickering, and surfers screaming on the floor pretending to have their lower leg being eaten by a shark.

One of the things I really loved about this project was the ability to push the limits a bit and allow it to be dark and unpleasant at times.

My main focus was to get Django to forget we were shooting. I’d spend some time with him during shoot breaks, walking around and playing at the diner so he got very comfortable and took ownership of the location. That made him relax when we shot his scenes. I then did some very long takes where I talked him through all his reaction shots and he was so responsive and natural in almost every single take we did.

I re-watched Kramer vs Kramer only to discover what a timeless masterpiece it is and then I also looked through early Peter Jackson gore. I wanted it to have an early ‘70s sensibility (a period I absolutely love) but with a contemporary feel.

After considering NYC, we decided to shoot everything in LA over two long days. We had several locations – downtown, beach, boardwalk, house with a pool, and our restaurant, which we shot at the mythic Pink Motel – but we decided to stay away from its iconic pink and blue theme, which was kind of funny. We had to move and shoot fast. REVERSE, who represents me in the US and produced this film, managed to get an A-list crew on board and supported the script and creative fully.

I like that most people would think, “WTF did I just watch?” after watching it the first time.

One of the things I really loved about this project was the ability to push the limits a bit and allow it to be dark and unpleasant at times. I like that most people would think, “WTF did I just watch?” after watching it the first time and then connect the dots better when they re-watch it. It was also fun to find a balance in getting an honest laugh during something so over-the-top as when the mother’s new, hunky surfer boyfriend screams, “Fucking shark!” when he’s bleeding to death on Venice Beach.

Play: The Power of Ideas is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.

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