That cult classic, shot in 13 days, opened doors for Spielberg, who followed with “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “1941” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He became a billionaire Hollywood legend with three Oscars.
Now a native La Mesan is hoping his first feature — a sci-fi movie shot in San Diego — will be his own ticket to fame.
On Friday, Butler’s older brother Daniel, “Friend’s” visual effects supervisor, said the 50-minute film has been accepted at next month’s Oceanside International Film Festival.
“This will be the first time their festival screenings will stream completely online,” Daniel Butler said. “They are working on getting their site updated with the entire schedule.”
Brian Butler wrote “Friend,” a disturbing black-and-white project featuring veteran San Diego actor Nick Young as a half-crazed, cigar-chomping General Gore. He’s balanced — or put off balance — by another San Diegan: Alexandra “Alex” Slade, 26, who portrays millennial filmmaker Diane Keaton. (Yes, the same as the “Annie Hall” actress.)
Young is white and Slade is black, which offered potential for sexual and racial tension. None of that happens. A more basic conflict is explored: sanity vs. insanity.
“The story was influenced [by] fear of isolation and solitude accompanied by growth and corruption,” Daniel N. Butler wrote Times of San Diego. “It’s a post-apocalyptic war film filled with grotesque military humor.”
He pitched it as a movie carrying a “strong message that our planet needs.”
“In 2020, we seem to be living the events that lead up to where the story begins in ‘Friend of the World,’” Daniel said. “I think your audience will appreciate this prophetic cinema escape during these uncertain times.”
Only 10 or so San Diegans have seen “Friend,” said Brian, 30, a San Diego State alum now living with his wife in Los Angeles.
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Actor Young, 61, lives in the Mission Bay area, retired after a firefighting career. But he’s been doing theater for decades, starting as a Tucson grade-schooler and continuing as a drama major at Pima Community College.
During days off as a firefighter, he worked in the acting “hot spots” of Tucson and Phoenix, appearing in commercials and many roles in TV series and feature films. He was last seen locally in 2019 with the Charles Peters-directed “Return Engagements” at Scripps Ranch Theatre.
“Currently I am booked to do a film next month entitled ‘I Brake for Caterpillars’ in which I play a police chief of a SWAT unit,” Young says.
He said he had “so much fun” making “Friend of the World” where some exterior scenes were shot at Sunset Cliffs and a bridge at the Tierrasanta entrance to Mission Trails Regional Park. But the bulk was filmed at Gray Area Multimedia, an underground studio in downtown San Diego.
This interview was conducted earlier this week via email:
Times of San Diego: Tell us about your San Diego connections.
Brian Butler: I was born and raised in La Mesa. We were a movie loving family. As a kid, I looked up to my older brother Dan as he started out making stop motion movies with our Jurassic Park toys. His editing skills evolved from there, and when I was old enough to try more than just recording my little movies straight to VHS tape, he introduced me to editing software, opening the door to lots of fun and insanity.
I became fully immersed in acting while completing a theatre major at SDSU, after which I was able to perform in plays at local theaters such as New Village Arts and ion Theatre as well as some local feature films like South of 8 and Thane of East County (aka “Blood Will Have Blood”).
I also worked as a performer at Legoland and Legoland hotel, and around this time began directing narrative shorts with my first two films “Hatred” and “The Phantom Hour.”
My wife and I moved to L.A. a few years ago so that I could pursue a career in the film industry while maintaining our friendships and networks in San Diego. My second feature film “Fruitful Mold” was shot in San Diego last year, with some B-roll done up here in L.A.
Tell me about the leads — Nick and Alexandra. How were they cast?
I did not meet Nick before seeing his audition video. He was suggested to me by our co-producer Luke Pensabene, who had met Nick when he auditioned for another project.
I believe I told Nick before his video audition that his character was a mix between Sterling Hayden and Beetlejuice. I knew within 3 seconds of him speaking the lines that he was perfect for this role.
With Alex, it was an unusual story – the role was originally written for a young man. Nick was the first to be cast, and he rehearsed the script with a couple local actors who eventually dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. We finally had a great actor in the role, but seeing the story on its feet we were realizing something wasn’t working enough dynamically.
Months later, it hit me that the stakes would be higher and the dynamic more interesting if the lead character, who would represent the remaining 50% of the human race alongside this eccentric macho-man, was a young woman.
I had known Alex for a few years, but hadn’t seen her in a while. One day we bumped into each other at one of the least appealing places to have a bump-into – at the gym. I was looking for someone you could care about and root for, and here was this person so kind and charming it was natural to consider her for the role, and that’s when the movie started working. Like Nick, she nailed the audition and I knew immediately we were finally good to go.
Where in San Diego did you shoot and when?
We began rehearsals and pre-production meetings at Gray Area Multimedia (owned and ran by co-producer Luke Pensabene) in downtown San Diego sometime around August 2016. Casting, scheduling and rewrites brought us all the way to May 13, 2017, as our start date, when everything fell into place and everyone was ready to go. We came back a few months later for a day of pickups.
How long in post-production?
Only a couple days after wrapping in late May, I was in a moving truck headed for L.A. I had the rough cut finished a few months later, but my wife and I were simultaneously planning our wedding and looking for work in a new town – so it took quite some time to get the thing polished enough to show to some of the crew.
During this time, we suffered a devastating familial crisis and it was just a deeply heartbreaking time for us in many ways. My brother Dan remained keen on making sure the visual effects were as strong as possible, and with my complete lack of knowledge in that department, I could only try to suggest how much we could pull them back for subtlety and believability.
That was a tricky balance to find, but I am incredibly fortunate to have a brother as skilled and patient as he is. With the insanity of life events and some perfectionism on a minimal budget, our two-man crew completed the final touches in 2019.
Since the first trailer was up three years ago, why delay in promoting now? What were your distribution plans?
We began promoting with trailers, posters, images only a few months after wrapping. We had no idea how far the setbacks would push our release, though we’re glad there was some initial promotion and that we saved the bulk of it for its release year. We’ve talked to a couple distributors, but want to try a festival run first. It was submitted to several festivals and has been selected to screen later this year.
How has the pandemic changed your plans for distribution? When can public see it and how?
We are lucky that some festivals have considered COVID-safe precautions for smaller in-person gatherings as well as distribution-friendly online screenings through a secure platform. It will be screening later this year and the exact dates will be announced as soon as we receive them!
What was film’s budget? Did you pay SAG-AFTRA scales? How was film financed?
Being that this was my first budgeted film longer than 15 minutes (I was not ready to jump in the deep end), my original intention was just to use the few resources available to make something that felt big. The script was based around the Gray Area studio space, expected runtime was a little over half the length of an average feature, and the principal characters could be counted on one hand.
Though it was a shoestring budget, the cast and crew were paid daily rates over the course of the 10-day shoot, financed by my uncle Kerry Rossall (who was able to provide great input from his several years working in Hollywood as a stunt coordinator, going all the way back to a speaking role and stunt work in “Apocalypse Now.”)
Who is the film meant for — what kinds of audiences?
Lovers of sci-fi / body horror, dark comedy and absurdist theatre. It’s basically a two-person play on film with several practical and visual effects. Beckett and Sartre meet John Carpenter and David Cronenberg.
At 50 minutes, was this film meant for a streaming service — an hour show including commercials?
Based on the script, we originally estimated the runtime between 50 and 70 minutes. We erred towards a tighter viewing for the sake of pacing. It’s structured like a “Black Mirror” or “Twilight Zone” episode – something compact that, with the right audience, could unlock for them a creepy and thought-provoking experience in a series of 10-minute sections that answer questions while building tension.
In this day and age I think it would fit nicely within a streaming service – whether self-contained, part of an anthology series, or expanded into multiple episodes of a larger story.
Why black-and-white? Any specific homages besides “Alien” (with scary stuff popping out of bodies)? is Nick wearing a “wife-beater” tank top a reference to any of these movies?
I’m not sure exactly where the tank top came from outside of practicality, but I do know the original concept stemmed from an anxiety over the state of the world in 2016 (when it was written), as well as a combination of “Dr. Strangelove,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the absurdist theatre mentioned earlier.
The black and white was intended to emphasize the classical nature of Gore’s worldview as well as the “Twilight Zone” quality. Diane’s filmmaking represents her more modern perspective, while much of this film takes place in Gore’s world, and is represented by the monochromatic American macho-man aesthetic he embraces. By the end, you can see how their filmic influences represent the vast differences between these characters.
With reference to millennials, the time frame is now. But you mix in cassette tapes. Why the mixed time periods?
The use of tape recorder was a late addition to the script – a direct reference to Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” as well as the use of it by Kurt Russell’s character in “The Thing.” Though many other choices in the film’s look were made to reflect a timeless quality, this addition made the exposition more interesting, revealed more of Gore’s character, and supported the timelessness we were aiming for.
What kind of camera equipment was used in making of this film?
The Sony a7S was used by our insanely talented DP Ray Gallardo. He was able to master the crucial lighting required for the classic black and white photography as well as a modern Lana Del Rey video look for key scenes. The distinctive cinematic styles are crucial to this project and Ray nailed them all.
There is a legitimate precision and professionalism to the film’s look, which was a direct result of his talents. We were spoiled, to say the least.
Does your Charybdis production company name have any connections with others, such as this band? Why the name Charybdis?
Greek mythology was an early interest of mine and it remains one today. I took some time brainstorming production names until I came across one that felt right, but no connection to those – only Homer.
How are you both paying bills now? Your day jobs?
Since moving to LA, I have had fairly consistent work as an actor. The workflow has slowed due to state regulations, but there have been a few COVID-safe projects so far this summer. Like many full-time actors and filmmakers at this time, I am looking for additional sources of income between jobs that will hopefully be slightly aided by the distribution of these feature films, as well as the possible production of future projects.
No doubt quarantines can increase viewership, but I don’t see how: “In 2020, we seem to be living the events that lead up to where the story begins in “Friend of the World.” Can you expand on this description?
I’m not sure the wording [Daniel] chose represents my point of view entirely. Though 2020 has had some dark moments, and “Friend of the World” presents a dark end for mankind, the intentional ambiguity of the backstory Diane discovers leaves a lot to interpretation that does not exactly connect to the specific anxieties of our reality this year. Rather, I would describe it as a parallel tragedy from a (hopefully) much bleaker universe.
This film was written in 2016 and 2017 and remains a more universal story about conceptions of “good,” “evil,” “corruption” and the twisted passing of the generational torch from a fractured, wisened psyche to a self-righteous, still-developing one.
I’d say the heart of this is closer to the two central characters in “Silence of the Lambs” than to current events, but hopefully the dark comedy and exaggerated circumstances make the film palatable to audiences during this period. If new connections can be made as times change, I hope, like most movies that explore universal themes, these new contexts will strengthen the appeal and impact of the film.
Did you have Sartre’s “No Exit” in mind when making/directing “Friends”? Did the Bible verse inspire the film’s name and prop?
I can’t remember if I consciously had “No Exit” in mind prior to the first draft, but upon revisiting, Sartre and Beckett quickly came to mind, and that influenced the many rewrites to come.
The Bible verse was discovered after coming up with the title, but I felt the added context actually supported the theme of corruption in the story, which further affirmed my enthusiasm for the title.
Any sequel in mind?
There is a loose sequel that sort of stands on its own and I am finishing up writing that right now.
What was your next project?
A dark noir comedy feature called “Fruitful Mold.” The rough cut is complete and we are now moving into the later stages of finishing that one. The rest of my scripts are still just on paper.
I’ve acted in a few other films, among them the horror feature “Continuance” directed by Tony Olmos and the Stephen King adapted short story “Graduation Afternoon” directed by Rob Padilla.
Any San Diego teachers or colleagues who helped you along the filmmaker path? Mentors or role models?
From this film, I will say our co-producer Luke Pensabene continues to step far out of that comfortable “it’s perfect as is” zone on every one of our collaborations. To stop handholding/back-patting and consistently give that helpful criticism can be hard for most people, (and even harder is offering alternative ideas) but it is one of the most crucial and generous things you can do for someone.
To be that brutally honest, do your own research, and hold the project up to the highest possible standards is a rare and valuable asset, and because of that our collaborations continue to thrive immensely.
I was also attending the San Diego-based MCIT Studio for actors, with Lisa Berger, Jeffrey Ingman and Liz Shipman while working on the film. Though it is an acting-focused program (and a truly groundbreaking experience I highly recommend!), their teaching greatly informed my approach in regards to the character relationships and interactions in the script. I had to leave the class early when I moved, but I miss them all and will always value those experiences.
Was the film made to get Hollywood attention — help you land jobs with major studios or finance bigger projects?
Though it began as an experiment in what we could do with our resources, this film definitely represents our sensibilities and ambitions as filmmakers. I am so proud of the final product, as it greatly exceeded my original expectations in bringing this vision to life. I believe the film showcases the talents of everyone involved doing their absolute best work. It is a unique experience. I hope it will be appreciated by many and help the brilliant people who helped make it continue to grow and thrive in their careers.
Anything else readers should know about you or “Friend”?
As the film becomes more public, I look forward to people seeing it and for me to reveal even more about its origins. Though it’s a wild genre story, it actually comes from a very personal experience from my life.
I am thankful for how damn fun and talented my fellow collaborators are. There are still many I haven’t yet worked with, and hopefully that will change soon. We love movies and wont stop making them. I am constantly brainstorming ideas to feature the talents around me in new and creative ways. Hopefully the sci-fi is wrangled out of reality this year and locked back inside the movie screen. Can’t wait to get back to work!
Updated at 11:53 p.m. July 25, 2020