Writing is Fun: Josh Stolberg on Conception, The Factory and To Catch a Thief

At the American Film Market, Double Dutch International asked me to moderate a panel for their film Conception with actors Jonathan Silverman, Pamela Adlon and writer/director Josh Stolberg. The ensemble comedy about nine couples in various situations of conceiving a baby is already on Netflix and Showtime, and during the panel we got to talk about microbudget filmmaking and new exhibition streams. Stolberg is also a screenwriter on the big studio films like The Factory, which he describes as Night at the Museum in the Hasbro toy factory, and the To Catch a Thief remake. After hanging out at AFM we did a formal interview exclusive to CraveOnline about Stolberg’s latest projects.

CraveOnline: You get a lot of work as a screenwriter. How much did it take you out of that world to write and direct Conception?

Josh Stolberg: Well, every time you stop to do one of these smaller budget films, you are taking yourself out of the big budget commercial studio world. It’s not just for the amount of time that you’re writing and directing. It’s also that you’re not seen in that world which can also hurt things. I’m just so passionate about having the opportunity to do a different kind of storytelling that it’s just worth it. Conception from start to finish probably took me a year.

You said on the panel that if you’d had more time, you might have gotten some of the couples together to add connections between them. Did you also think it might be refreshing that there aren’t those “A-ha” moments of so-and-so is so-and-so’s daughter?

100% and it’s one of those things where sometimes the things you have to struggle with wind up helping you in the end. For me it was less about the potential of creating it so every couple was interrelated and this person’s this person’s sister and everything. From a filmmaking standpoint, when you’re doing the transitions, to be able to just create transitions that might be more satisfying. Those are the kinds of things that a lot of time you need two actors in the same room to be able to play with those. At the end of the day, when all is said and done I’m really happy with the way it turned out. Those issues actually wound up becoming strengths for the movie I think.

Technically each story happens in a bedroom, or a car in the one story, but unless you’re thinking about it you don’t really notice. Did you do anything directorially or writing-wise to not make each story seem so contained?

Yeah, when you’re shooting something in that short amount of time and you’ve got to get that amount of material done, you’re limited to what you can do. Everything from when you open a space up and you’re shooting outside, there’s a lot more lighting that has to be done, so it’s just a lot more time consuming. So we were really, really limited to our locations. For me, one thing that we tried to do was for each couple to create a slightly different look for them. They were subtle things but they were all things we tried to do, whether one couple was something that we handheld, one couple had a little bit more movement. We tried to create a different look so that you didn’t feel like you were in a claustrophobic environment because the camera was always doing something different for each couple. That was just something subconscious that we wound up doing. The other aspect was that you’ve got great actors to help carry you through some of these scenes. I feel like if we didn’t have the strength of performance that we do, I think it might be more problematic, the fact that we were trapped in these small areas.

Did you have to find nine different houses to use?

[Laughs] Yes, we actually had 10 different locations for 10 days, nine couples and then the David Arquette wraparound scene. So we had 10 different locations. Every morning we had to go to a different place. When you’re working on this kind of a budget, everything was friends. One scene was shot inside my house in my bedroom, the Alan Tudyk/Jennifer Jostyn scene. Then the blind date was shot in our garage guest room so those two scenes were both done in our house. The Connie Britton/Jason Mantzoukas scene was shot in our next-door neighbor’s house. They were kind enough to give it to us. Johnny Silverman and Jen Finnigan was our other next-door neighbor on our other side of the street, so it was really one of the things where we begged, borrowed and stole locations and asked for favors from friends. The sense of camaraderie and a family spirit when you’re making this kind of a film on this kind of a budget, everybody comes together and goes above and beyond to help out.

Did you use a real ‘80s VHS camcorder for the sex tape scenes?

[Laughs] You know what we did is I wanted the actors to be able to shoot their own stuff, so Gregory [Smith] and Julie [Bowen] both held the camera during that section, but we did not shoot on a real Hi-8. We wound up shooting on a 5D for those sections. That’s a Canon 5D which is the still camera that shoots video. Then we put it through a “futzer” on the computer to make it look like it was old and frazzled. Our DP Noah [Rosenthal] wound up coming up with a good look for that. We just put it through a system that created the grains and granules and waviness to give it a Hi-8 look. I was concerned that if we shot on Hi-8 we wouldn’t have as much control over the image, so we shot on 5D and then we were able to turn it into anything we wanted it to be.

Having some stories that are raunchy and explicit and some that are very sweet, did that give you a lot more flexibility in selling the movie with different elements you could emphasize?

Well, there’s definitely a sense, especially when you’re talking about a foreign audience and they expect, I don’t want to say raunch, but they expect more openness in things like nudity, and I also felt stepping into the project, if you’re making a movie about conception and people having sex and making babies, it felt weird to me not to have any nudity and to feel like you were whitewashing it a little bit. At the same time, I didn’t want it to feel like that’s what it was about. When I was shooting the sexuality of the scenes, I was trying not to do it with the blue light slow motion creeping up the girl’s leg and make it feel like some kind of a boom shacka-lacka Showtime late night kind of scene. I wanted to create as much reality about it as I could, but starting it off I knew that I needed to have that element in there but I didn’t want to showcase it. I also had to keep in mind that there were some actors that just would not be okay with that because that’s not who they are. So it was also an opportunity to cast different kind of people by not doing too much nudity.

It’s great that there are so many different streams now for movies to play, but do we have to worry about content overload? It’s my job to watch everything and I still can’t watch everything that’s on VOD, Netflix, streaming, downloads, etc.

Oh my God, I know exactly what you’re saying. When you create this world where anybody and their mother and brother and sister and cousin can make a movie, a lot of stuff gets done. For me that’s really exciting. When I think about it, it’s more about figuring out a way to find the kinds of material that’s going to connect with you. Something like Conception is not going to connect with every single person. The kind of person that goes to see the new Rambo movie opening night or the new Van Damme movie opening night is probably not going to find a lot that they’re excited about in this movie. But, if you’re able to market it correctly and demonstrate what your film is in a short amount of time in a trailer or get the kind of reviews or get scene in film festivals, you can show people what your movie is and hopefully find the right audience for it. So yes, you’re right, there’s a ton of content but it’s all about trying to find the niche audience that your content is going to make happy.

That’s the thing. I’m both types of people, the action guy, the comedy guy and more.

No, you’re right, I’m very much the same thing. I would probably go see the Rambo movie opening night but I would also go see The Sessions opening night too. I love all of that but the truth is when you look at the demographic of society, I was listening to NPR the other day and they were saying that the average American sees four movies in a movie theater a year. That’s insane to me. Now that I have kids I don’t see as many movies but when my wife and I were dating, we would probably see five movies a week in the theater. That’s more than most Americans see in the theater all year long. When the average person is only seeing four movies in a movie theater per year, they’re only going to be seeing the ones that are on the top, top, top of their list. What we’re talking about goes beyond you and me because obviously we are film people. It’s about getting your film into the hands of the majority of the country.

When you write something like The Factory, are there limits and restrictions, things they assign you to hit for the broad appeal?

Yeah, I certainly look at things differently when I’m writing for the studio system, whether I’m writing The Factory or To Catch a Thief or any of those. Your job is to write a popcorn movie. It’s to write a movie that’s going to appeal to the broadest possible audience. They call it “four quadrant” films, and write a movie that you know will have a great poster and will have a great trailer and that’s your job. They pay you a lot of money to do that job and to do it well. So when I approach a movie like that, I come at it from a very different place than I do when I make a movie like Conception where I am purposely going toward a smaller audience but a passionate audience at the same time. Yeah, when I’m writing The Factory, it’s all about big [spectacle] and action set pieces. I love playing in that world. It’s fun to sit down and write a script that anything can happen. You’re talking about CGI and stunt work and locations. Our To Catch a Thief script, you’re all over the world. You’re in Santorini and the canals in Venice, the Tower of London. You’re crisscrossing across the globe which obviously would be absolutely impossible for a movie like Conception.

When you get an assignment like To Catch a Thief, do you start out with “Oh man, how do I do this?”

[Laughs] It was funny because To Catch a Thief, the biggest puzzle was you’re dealing with thieves so there’s a few very intricate, big scenes that deal with stealing diamonds. It’s all about if you were going to rob the Crown Jewels, how would you do it? I wrote that with my writing partner Bobby Florsheim and there were just weeks upon weeks, we’d just sit there and pitch ideas about how you would do it. How do you get past the bulletproof glass? How do you get past the camera systems? All of these things, so it’s a totally different kind of thinking whereas when you’re writing something like The Factory it’s more about what are the best toys to come to life? How are we going to get the most humor out of these scenes? How you make the characters well rounded and emotionally satisfying even though you’re in this world of CGI games. Each script and each film has a totally different set of challenges and it’s one of the reasons I love being a writer. It’s not the same every time.

So the time since the Hitchcock movie gave you more updated security you could deal with in the remake?

Oh yeah. 100%. At the end of the day, a movie like To Catch a Thief, that’s really my favorite Hitchcock movie and one of the reasons is that for me it’s about the banter. It’s about the fun relationship between the two main characters. So we were able to still use that and embrace that, but you’re right. It’s a much higher tech world right now. One of the fun things about that particular story and that particular character is it’s about an old timer kind of guy in the newfangled world, so that was definitely something we were able to play with but writing is fun. It’s fun to come up with these new worlds and be able to write for different voices. It’s a great life to have.

With The Factory, were you able to use Transformers, G.I. Joe and Battleship in different ways than what they did in their movies?

100%. The last thing we want to do is feel like we’re just tagging along on someone else’s coattails. We were able to play with a lot of the Hasbro brands. The truth is almost every toy you’ve ever heard of is Hasbro. We pay homage to some of those bigger movies but we also created lots of toys for the movie itself and played with some of the lesser known brands that they have. Again, a story like that is all about the characters. It’s all about the human characters. If those don’t ring true and aren’t full of life then your movie is just going to be an empty CGI video game.

So who are the human characters you’ve created?

I wish I could go into it in detail but I think the studio would kill me. It’s a really nice family action comedy. I’m really proud of the movie and I can’t wait for them to start putting it together.

Will we see the Hungry Hungry Hippos in The Factory?

I think you’ll see pretty much everything in The Factory. Hungry Hungry Hippos play a little part. There’s a lot of little parts, a lot of little moving parts. We try to do them in fun, inventive ways you wouldn’t expect.

Did you have to avoid the Toy Story territory since they used so many popular toys?

Yeah, definitely Toy Story was heavily on our minds while we were writing it. We wanted to make sure we went in a different direction. The truth is that our film, our main characters are all human. If you look at something like the template of Night at the Museum with the Ben Stiller character and all of the animals around him and all the creatures that come to life around him, that would probably be a closer template than Toy Story.

Crawlspace sounds awesome. As someone who is currently stuck in an upside down mortgage, will I be satisfied by the foreclosed family’s revenge in that movie?

It is pretty creepy. There are a bunch of stories that my writing partner, Nick Taravella and I read about, about people being found in attics and crawlspaces living up there when the family wasn’t aware of it. So it’s the story about a guy who is displaced from his home, is foreclosed on and after he suffers an emotional breakdown because his kids drowned in the pool, it’s a crazy guy who’s living in the house of the new family that’s moved in. It starts off very creepy and voyeuristic and then starts to get violent. It feeds on one of our biggest fears which is that someone is watching us through the grates in our house. It’s with a company called Vuguru that’s Michael Eisner’s internet company. It’s exciting. Steven Weber, Lori Loughlin, Johnny Silverman, this amazing new actress named Raleigh Holmes, Dave Koechner is in it. It’s a horror thriller, R-rated kind of action-y thriller. It’s fun and then I start shooting another movie in about three weeks called Feels So Good which is another Vuguru project. That one is a straight up teen comedy.

Did you think of some new raunchy set pieces we’ve never seen before?

Yes, 100%. There’s some stuff in there that is pretty crazy. This is one that I did not write. Eric Finkel and David Spencer are new writers and just came up with a fantastic script and I’m a work for hire director that’s come in to take it over. I’m really excited about it. We’re just in the middle of casting right now and we start shooting in three weeks.

You can follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.

Photo Credit: Noah Rosenthal