"When you don’t have a lot of time or money, you have to get creative with what you have"
Tim Earnheart has been a creative director/leader and UI/UX designer for almost 20 years. In the last 5 years Tim has written, produced and directed 7 short films, receiving a handful of awards -- including Best Thriller, Best Horror and Best Director with "Safe" at the New York Film Awards.
In "Safe", three masked intruders break into a Woman's home to retrieve an item from her safe. But what they get is much more than they bargained for.
Tell us about your background. Did you always know you want to be a filmmaker?
In the 3rd grade I started writing stories. Then I bought some scripts about 10 years later and learned how to write a screenplay. I gave up after a while when things weren’t going anywhere and I had to get a real job in my mid-20s.
Filmmaking was always so expensive too. In the mid-90s I made an 11-min short on 16mm that was one continuous take. Let’s just say it was a good exercise, but nothing special. Then I decided to go into tech and worked my way up to a Creative Director at a few different agencies around the Seattle area. At that time, I had a few opportunities to make some corporate videos for Microsoft in their studios. Every time I’d go into Microsoft Studios I would feel in my element -- I’d get the filmmaking bug back – even though I was trying to avoid it to live a “responsible” life.
But I soon realized I wasn’t fulfilled because my days consisted of meetings for 12hrs and nothing creative in the least bit. I decided to take a step back in my career as a Creative Director and focus on writing feature scripts. I did that for a few years and had managers and an agent in LA for a while. I had three specs optioned (a comedy, sci-fi and an action/thriller) and then nothing happened with the projects.
The turning point for me was 5 years ago a producer named Darren Brandl, who I still stay in contact with, was going off to be the COO at Crypt TV and leave producing. He told me if I really wanted to produce and direct to make some shorts. Corporate stuff at Microsoft wouldn’t cut it in Hollywood. I kind of balked at it and he said, “If you don’t bet on yourself, why should anyone else bet on you?” That was my big turning point into producing and directing because I knew he was right. So, I started making horror/thriller shorts.
And no, I don’t have any formal education. I’ve always studied movies -- the shots, the edits, the stunts, the practical and VFX shots – to see how the filmmakers put the pieces together. So to make short story very long, yes, I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve just taken the long road to get there.
What made you decide to go into film?
This will sound cliché, but when I was a kid and saw the STAR WARS movies, JAWS and HALLOWEEN (1978 version) I realized I wanted to make movies and entertain people. All those movies I mentioned are so different and bring the viewer up and down on different emotional levels. I really like taking an audience on a rollercoaster ride.
But I always liked the directing angle because it was translating the words on paper to the screen. And I also liked producing because I like the business and marketing side of things as well.
Do you have a filmmaking role model? Who is your biggest influence?
I really love the work of David Fincher and Jon Chu – their work is so prolific. David Fincher can make a movie like the SOCIAL NETWORK one year and then make THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO the next. Jon Chu can make GI JOE and NOW YOU SEE ME sequels as well as probably the most entertaining flight safety video in history for Virgin America. James Wan and Fede Alvarez are also a couple others I really admire.
My biggest influences growing up were directors Sam Firstenberg and Stephen Hopkins – along with Hopkins’ longtime DP Peter Levy. Hopkins and Levy did some amazing camera work with the Australian film DANGEROUS GAME and later with PREDATOR 2. It wasn’t like I didn’t like the Spielbergs or anything, but Sam Firstenberg for instance had to make action films on so little money for Cannon Films in the 80s, it was amazing what he did with so little. When you don’t have a lot of time or money you have to get creative with what you have.
‘SAFE’, which you’ve written, directed, and produced, has won multiple awards and earned you the BEST DIRECTOR title at our festival earlier this year. Tell us about this film. What inspired you to write and make ‘SAFE’?
My life had literally been turned upside down on multiple levels personally and professionally. The idea came about when I asked myself, “If I could turn back time and change things would I make things better or worse?” And then I laughed and thought I’d probably just make things worse. So that’s where the idea of SAFE started from.
I also like to twist the plots in my movies around. In SAFE (spoiler alert!), the masked intruders are actually the good guys trying to save the girl from being killed – that’s why they’re there. The audience doesn’t realize that until the end, but I like to have those kinds of plot twists in my work. I think it keeps an audience on its toes and hopefully they don’t see the ending or twists coming if I’ve done my job right.
I wanted to make SAFE on a budget as well -- so I knew I had to have a contained thriller. To save on prop costs, I wanted to use props I’d used in some of my earlier movies but didn’t get much screen time– like the drill or barbwired baseball bat props. The only things I needed were a cool looking egg timer, masks and a safe – I had the rest (prop gun and knife and stacks of movie money).
There’s never a dull moment in SAFE. The plot twists constantly, as well as the position of power, and the concept of time. We watched it several times and were very impressed with the perfect Thriller-Sci-Fi-Action balance you’ve created in this short. Do you have a preferred genre as a director? As a writer? What do you like most about working within this genre?
I love the thriller genre, mainly because it straddles the line of action and horror – you can have the best of both worlds. SAFE was a movie people were telling me not to make because it was crossing too many genres – including sci-fi. So even though I knew I had an entertaining script and eventually an entertaining movie, I didn’t think anyone would like it or know what to make of it because it crossed so many genres. But I knew SAFE was a home invasion thriller at heart – with action, horror and sci-fi elements. So my goal was to have SAFE firmly rooted as a thriller and have all these other genres add to it so I could hopefully catch the audience off guard by the mid-point and at the end so I could surprise them.
I honestly didn’t think it would get into any festivals – let alone win all the awards its won. It’s been an amazing ride with this movie. I’m very grateful for everything that’s come my way because of SAFE.
One of SAFE’s greatest assets is its fantastic, spot on cinematography, which was skillfully utilized to reinvent your one shooting location and maintain tension throughout the whole piece. Tell us about your work process with Director of Photography Matt Fleming.
Matt is quite simply AWESOME to work with. He has such a good eye and it so technically savvy – I’m so impressed when I’m around him. I learn something new from him on every shoot. Matt owns his RED camera, lenses, lights, gimbal, jib, dolly, -- everything! So he knows his equipment inside and out.
Months before we shot SAFE, we secured the mansion to shoot it in. Matt and I go out there one afternoon and we take about 100 pictures and video for reference. He can see what he’s dealing with for lighting and I can re-work the script for the location and to create a shot list with actual location pics. It’ll also give me time to ask Matt how long it will take to move the camera from one piece of equipment to another, so we can be as efficient as possible when we shoot.
But I trust Matt and he trusts me as well. With me, if I can’t see it in my head, I can’t shoot the scene. So even if we have to change a shot up, I have to know how it will fit into the edit or else it’s a waste of everyone’s time to shoot something that won’t ever be used. And doing a different set up every 15mins isn’t the easiest thing to plan out.
And in post – since I do the edit, sound mix, VFX and color grading myself – I bring Matt in to give me his two cents since he’s a pro in those areas as well. He’s a great sounding board when I may have a difficult time with a VFX shot for instance (there’s about 60 VFX shots in SAFE).
Matt is such an amazing collaborator to work with and so much fun to be around – he’s a plethora of knowledge and someone I can always learn from.
The props, makeup design, and SFX work on this film are above and beyond, and were key in creating the world of your film. Who designed the masks the attackers are wearing? What was the work process with your designers?
So many people ask me this question about the masks, and they’re quite surprised with the answer. I went hunting around Amazon for some masks. Nothing was standing out. The masks had to be original since they’ll be on camera a lot. I usually use artists who specialize in making these masks because I like to support their efforts and you know you’re going to get something original and unique.
I happened to search Facebook and came upon Ryan Meyer (@MadMaskMan75). He had unique looking masks, so I picked a few designs he had on hand and had him paint them all with a white base, so they looked like they went together as a set. It was such an easy process working with Ryan. These masks are so durable as well – you couldn’t break them! There were a couple shots where I think Ayuba and Joe get shot in the head and they jerk their heads back and their masks flew off across the room. No damage to the masks.
And also, the drill and barbwired baseball bat were made by Slaughterhouse Props (https://www.slaughterprops.com/). The knife used was actually a prop I bought that was used in GI JOE 2: RETALIATION by one of the ninjas. The egg timer (there were 3 used in the movie) were the cheapest props – I think $6 each on Amazon.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in ‘SAFE’?
The shoot is such a blur. We were shooting so fast. There were some happy “accidents” (or trailer moments as I call them) – like the hallway fight scene where Nadine flings the bat into the camera (it was supposed to fly past the camera). Or when she falls to the floor and loses the gun and it flies past the camera. What you don’t see after the gun flies past the camera is it bounced down the hardwood stairs – hitting almost every stair on the way down and breaking apart the gun. Nadine was skillful enough to put the gun back together later, because I didn’t have a backup gun and we needed it for the final day of shooting. I thought about buying another gun on Amazon a week before the shoot and decided not to because what could happen to this gun? Lesson learned: Always have key backup props.
But the timer breaking against the table leg was actually a comedy show. It was just Matt, Nadine and I on the first day of shooting and we were trying to slide this broken up timer against the table leg to break open… we kept missing the table leg, or it wouldn’t break open right. We all took turns sliding this egg timer across the floor to hit the table leg and break open. I think we did 10 takes – because it would either slide past the table leg and break open or it wouldn’t break open right when it hit. It was pretty hilarious. There were many comedic moments like that while shooting SAFE. It was one of the most fun and relaxing shoots I’ve done.
What were some of the challenges you faced in the process of making this film?
First off, 100 set ups in 2.5 days. It’s a lot. But the only way we can achieve that is having a contained movie at one location and having a rock-solid shot list. I have the edit in my head before we shoot, so I know exactly what I need from the shots. Matt Fleming and I pre-lit and pre-dressed all the locations in the house the first day.
Funny thing was, the first day of shooting, Matt and I shot about 25% of the movie by ourselves with Nadine. We shot all the opening, inserts of the timer breaking, and all the singles of Nadine in front of the safe, her shooting the gun, and her close ups. We did it all in 5 hours. The next day, Matt’s teenage sons and two of their friends came to help as our crew.
Another challenge was, the morning of Day 2 of shooting, we were supposed to use a gimbal to shoot about 2/3 of the movie. A piece of the gimbal broke and we couldn’t use it, so I had to rework the shot list for either shoulder mount or dolly shots. Ben Lathwell – our camera operator who was 17 years old – did an awesome job with the shoulder mount and dolly shots. I think the movie turned out better because we didn’t have the gimbal at our disposal.
For post, my sound mix has about 250 layers of sound, so it’s pretty big for a 7:45 short. Plus, there were no practical effects in SAFE – all VFX in post. All the gunshot wounds, blood, gun shots, smoke, FaceTime shots on the phone were all done in post.
SAFE - Trailer
What would you like your viewers to take from it?
Be careful what you wish for – because if you could re-do something in life, would you actually make things better or worse?
Can you give a word of advice to aspiring filmmakers around the world?
Make sure your script is the best it can be before you shoot, have a rock-solid shot list and trust your vision and instincts. One of my first projects I remember my DP and an actor telling me I didn’t need to get certain shots, even though I knew I did. When I went to edit the movie, sure enough, I needed the shots and we had to go back for re-shoots. So trust your gut.
Also, don’t over-shoot. My first couple shorts I really over shot – I did maybe 8-9 takes when I only needed 2-3. When you’re trying to get 100 set ups in 3 days, know exactly what you need and how the pieces will fit together in the edit. My shot lists are my bible when I’m shooting because we shoot so much out of order.
We hear that you’ve just completed another project. Tell us about your new dramedy that’s about to hit the festival circuit, THE DIVORCE.
I was one of the Executive Producers on it with writer/director Lindsy Campbell. I had the easy part – she did the real work. THE DIVORCE is a dramedy/black comedy starring Navid Negahban and Laura Niemi about a woman who gets revenge on her ex-husband to get the family house back that he got in the divorce.
I was just finishing up post on SAFE when I heard Lindsy wrote a short script and was going to direct it too. I’d met Lindsy a year before through Nadine and I loved her previous comedy short she wrote and directed called THE BRAZILIAN, so I was curious to read the new one – THE DIVORCE. It was a really funny and entertaining script -- I could see the movie on the page. That’s when you know you’re reading something good.
Since I knew my evolution as a filmmaker in the horror/thriller genres, I saw THE DIVORCE as a natural progression for Lindsy in her filmmaking career to go from a straight-up comedy to a dramedy/black comedy. I wanted to support her because I not only believed in the script but her talent as well. She’s quite the gifted filmmaker and actress. The movie turned out quite good, so I’m really excited to see where this film takes her and her career.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m working on finalizing a script for a new female-driven short called RICOCHET that I’m producing and directing as well. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a little bit in the SAFE world, but different. I’m hoping to have a good mix of practical effects to compliment the VFX on this one.
I also have a female-driven feature I’m trying to get off the ground that mixes genres as well – a thriller at heart, but with elements of action/sci-fi/horror.
What haven’t you done yet in film that you aspire to do?
I would love to make a movie like I SAW THE DEVIL or REVENGE. They’re great mixes of action, thriller and horror genres. I know Adam Wingard is working on a remake of I SAW THE DEVIL, so I can’t wait for it. But the mix of genres is what I love. I also have a love for musicals, believe it or not. But there’s an ongoing theme with my shorts and my feature scripts: they’ve always had strong female leads or female-driven -- which was a hard sell until a few years ago. But I’m happy to see the landscape change in Hollywood for the better.
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
I’d say David Fincher or Jason Blum. They both seem like fascinating people on many levels and their body of work crosses multiple genres as well.
Please share with us where people can find you on social media, so I readers could keep track of your career.
Personal site: http://timearnheart.com
Instagram & Twitter: @timearnheart