The universal inevitabilities of starting a new relationship are captured strikingly by Director Colby Day in his one-shot film Lead/Follow. Day’s short began life as a play he created as a graduate fresh out of NYU and when he moved to LA to pursue filmmaking, it made logical sense to translate it for his first creative venture on the West coast. What makes Lead/Follow so gripping is how Day differentiates it from the play, turning the story into a dance. The couple in question, played by Della Saba and Sam Nelson Harris, venture through the stages of a relationship beginning with infatuation and obsession before the inevitable reveal of personal baggage. It’s broad in concept but Day and his actors make it feel personal. DN is proud to Premiere Lead/Follow on our pages today and are joined by Day for a conversation below where he walks us through the process of translating his intimate story from stage to screen.
I read that you were working in theatre before moving to LA to write for film, what motivated you to take that decision?
I’d always wanted to write and direct film, but during my time at NYU for undergrad I kind of fell in with the downtown theater scene. Theater was cheaper and faster to make than movies, so I wrote and produced scrappy off-off-broadway plays for a few years. In 2016 I got my first promising lead in LA, a friend had passed a play of mine along to a young manager who wanted to read more of my work. Once I had a reason to go, it felt like time to finally try the west coast out, so I went back and forth for a few months of basically not living in either place before deciding to take the plunge.
I wanted the whole thing to feel like a dance, even when our characters weren’t moving.
Lead/Follow was initially conceived and performed as a one-act play, what triggered you to think about adapting it for the screen?
I knew I also wanted to prove that I could direct. I talked with my manager about wanting to write something visual and uniquely “my voice” and a few weeks later he sent me an email saying, “I found you your film” and attached my play which he’d downloaded off of my website. He was right! I really wanted to make a film that would showcase my ambitions and some technical skill, and this felt like a great story and idea to try something challenging and original.
How does the film differ from the original play? Were there some elements that you thought would work on screen and some less so?
On stage you’re mainly paying attention to stage picture and dialogue, so the flow from one moment to the next in the characters’ relationship was easy to achieve with a simple move from here to there. When thinking about how this story could be conveyed on screen it became clear to me that the push and pull of falling in love already felt like a dance, and so I decided that had to be a new component for the film version. The whole thing had to become a dance. The story itself didn’t have to change but I wanted to use all the tools I could that were available in the new medium.
Any time something can’t be expressed through words it’s expressed here through movement.
What was your approach to the characters’ movements and choreography?
I wanted the whole thing to feel like a dance, even when our characters weren’t moving. Genna Moroni who choreographed it came up with dance that felt natural, flowing, and a little bit ‘un-polished’ so that it could hopefully have the kind of sticky uncomfortable feel of not knowing what to do with your feelings. Setting the choreography felt like setting the numbers in a musical, any time something can’t be expressed through words it’s expressed here through movement.
How long were you in production and rehearsing/blocking for? And also, how many takes did you capture?
We approached rehearsal like doing a play, so we had a few hours together of table work where the actors and I mapped out what was happening throughout the script emotionally for them. Then we added the choreography with Genna over the course of three movement rehearsals, each of those was a few hours long. Our final pre-shoot day we had about an hour to walk through it all with camera and lighting and everyone together in the space. So for rehearsal I think that puts us around 12 hours total. We had a single day to actually shoot. On the day we had a few false starts or abandoned takes but ended up with eight complete takes from beginning to end.
Our lighting was kind of our secret weapon in painting the picture.
I wanted to ask about the evolution of lighting and colour through the film, how did you look to play with those parts of the form?
Yes! The lighting for this was extremely important to me and our Cinematographer Arlene Muller because more than anything else the light was creating our ‘locations’. We cut the script into ‘scenes’ early on in prep and I wrote out my thoughts on what I’d describe the ‘look’ of each to be. Some of those ideas translated directly to what we have now “white void” or “red and sexy” some of them were more abstract “sparkly disco ball feel?”. We found a space that had a lightbox pre-rigged overhead that let us change the color throughout. Everything about the film was designed to feel like a magic trick. It should all transition from unnatural to natural. Our lighting was kind of our secret weapon in painting the picture. We start in a heightened world and land in an authentic, naturalistic scene at the end.
If possible, it would be great to hear a little bit about Spaceman, the upcoming film with Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan, what can you tell us about your involvement on that project?
Spaceman is my first produced feature as a screenwriter! And what a debut! I can’t say a lot more about it other than that Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan are in it and there’s space! I’d met the producer a few years earlier and when he sent me the book the film is adapted from, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar, I really fell in love. The novel is complicated, funny, sincere, self-aware, and tiptoes into the profound in this way that I really hope we’ve captured even a sliver of with the screenplay and now film. It’s still in post production but should be on Netflix in 2023! Eek!
Amazing, and do you have anything else lined up for the future?
I have an original feature film I wrote In the Blink of an Eye which was just announced and is going into production in 2023 with Andrew Stanton (Wall-E), directing which will be with Searchlight Pictures. That one is a really personal film to me and I can’t wait to see it come to life.
I have another short film PERKS I co-directed which will be hitting festivals in 2023. This year I started my own production company, Not Impossible Productions, and we’re gearing up for what will hopefully be our first feature film soon. We’re interested in making films that are ART, rather than films that are CONTENT, and it’s been really exciting to start to scale up and work with friends. It’s going to be a busy and exciting 2023.