Interview with Director Josh Davidson of 'Dead iSland'

Interview with Director Josh Davidson of ‘Dead iSland’: A Feature Film Shot Entirely on iPhones

Josh Davidson is an actor, director and overall one-man-band filmmaker whose newest movie is sure to make waves in the indie film community. That's because his movie – DEAD iSLAND – was shot entirely on Apple iPhone's.

Yes, a film shot on a phone. And it’s a feature.

Awhile ago I blogged about the iPhone DSLR project, made possible by the upgrade to Apple’s latest iPhone 4 that allows it to record HD video at surprisingly crisp quality. Back then, I asked if this was the future, but little did I know how poignant that question would turn out to be. As far as I know, Davidson is the first filmmaker to use iPhones to shoot a feature length dramatic script – a script that is serviced by the unique production techniques:

Dead iSland follows a pair of twin high-schoolers, Kelsey (Emily Fondersmith) and Devon (Charlie Dreizen), who have a propensity to film everything on their phones. When their family moves to an obscure island before the beginning of the school year, Kelsey and Devon are left angered and annoyed. Forced to adapt to a new school, the twins happen upon a girl named Tracy (Leah Fondersmith) whose odd demeanor and unwelcome advances at Devon only enforce the twins feelings that something isn’t right.DEAD iSLAND Poster When they return home, two masked killers terrorize the family, stealing one of the twins’ phone and embracing the idea of filming their victims’ anguish. From there the story digs deep into the mystery surrounding the circumstances as the audience is subjected to be both maniacal voyeurs and unsuspecting victims.

When I first met Josh Davidson, on the set of Ghosts Don’t Exist, I knew him as an actor. For this project, however, Davidson took a step behind the camera – er, phones – for 8 shooting days in Kent Island, MD. He kept the project small, using only 4 crew members on the busiest days, and financed the project himself. A self-starter in every sense, Davidson has always stayed busy as long as I’ve known him whether he’s acting or posting his short films to YouTube under his Be More Films banner. Davidson is no less busy now, currently editing Dead iSland which is his feature film directorial debut. He kindly took time away from cutting the film to answer some questions that I had – many of them under the umbrella of, “how is it that you make a film with phones?”

Evan Luzi: When was the choice made to shoot the movie on the iPhone and what factors contributed to solidifying that?

Josh Davidson: Actually the story came about because I wanted to make a movie with the iPhones. As soon as I heard that the new iPhone 4g was High Def video, I made the decision to make a movie with one. I thought it would be cool to be able to make a film with a phone that is so small it can literally be put anywhere. My original thought wasn’t to make a horror film, wasn’t even to make it incorporating the phones, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, just that I definitely wanted to make a movie with the phones.

The phones came out and I still hadn’t come up with a story I thought would fit making on the phones. Then I moved to Kent Island, MD to an old farmhouse. This inspired me with an idea for a story, which turned out to be a horror movie that was from the point-of-view of 2 twins. I wrote a 2-page summary of the general idea of the story and sent it off to CS Johnson, a horror novelist with whom I have collaborated on several projects… Instant Message, Vengeance with a Smile, Playthings [a novel with a film in development]. I told her I wanted to start filming the next weekend, so she took my 2 pages and in a day turned it into 18, then I took that and turned it into a 42-page script in 5 days. Ryan Thomas was instrumental in guiding me along making sure we incorporated all the right elements at the right times. I knew we only had a limited amount of time before someone else made the “first” serious iPhone movie, so we made the decision to move forward and as we have gone along I have added about 30 pages to the script.

E.L.: How many iPhones did you have to shoot on?

J.D.: As soon as I decided to make the movie, I sold my 3GS for a 4G and talked one of our producers/Asst Director BR McDonald into selling his 3GS and getting a 4G. Those are the 2 phones we used… I’ve been walking around with a pink sticky cover on my phone for 3 weeks now… I hope BR appreciates that he got the blue iPhone! BTW, we’ll be selling the iPhone covers that are featured in the movie as well as other Dead iSland and Be More Films & Veteran Artist Program iPhone covers on the Be More Films and Dead iSland websites. They will all be designed by Jason Kamps of Woof Designs who designed them for me so that we wouldn’t see the Apple logo.

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E.L.: What was the shooting process like with using the iPhone? Were the setups using natural light or was it augmented? How much footage would you be able to capture at one time? Did you utilize any accessories? Was sound also captured with the phone?

J.D.:  Filming with the iPhone was interesting. The reason I went with a POV style story was because I wanted to shoot this movie fast and have as few lighting setups as possible and I wanted to incorporate the phones into the story… having the movie actually come from the phones that are part of the movie enabled us to get away with all the things that makes it difficult to shoot a movie on the phones.

We used natural lighting as often as possible. When we did use lighting setups it was almost always just to accentuate lighting that was already there. We had 2 big outside lighting setups, one was the pool area and the other was the side yard, even then we made the movie using only a couple of 500W lights and a soft box. Scott Maccubbin, our chief (and only) lighting technician came out a few times before we started shooting so that we could test all of the different scenes out. I am sure my neighbors (of maybe a week or two at the time) really loved me shining big fake moonlight into their windows at 11pm on a Thursday night. But, probably not as much as they loved me when we were breaking windows out of cars and having our twins screaming at 2am when we were filming. BR and I both got the 32GB versions of the phones and we both still have nearly all of the footage on our phones.

The only accessory we used was a shoulder mount that I built for $20 that allowed me to house both an iPhone (to keep the shots more stable when I or the twins would be filming) and my Canon Mark 5D II. I recorded the movie with the 5D at the same time in order to be able to take stills as well as record in even higher definition in case I wanted to edit together a better resolution version.

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With sound, we basically have 3-5 options for sound on every shot. We used my Zoom H4N to record all audio. Sometimes we had a boom mic plugged into it and sometimes we also had a wireless lav on someone. Since this was POV, when someone was talking far away in the shot, it was impossible to get the boom mic in there, so the wireless was sometimes necessary. We also have the audio from my 5D and from the phone itself. The phones audio is pretty good, but usually only for the person holding it as the microphone faced them. The trailer actually only has audio from the Zoom’s mic and the iPhone.

E.L.: Were all on the crew onboard with the concept of the film or were many of them skeptical?

J.D.: I kept a very tight lid on this movie and the methods we were using. I felt like George Lucas at times… only hopefully with better dialogue! I only discussed crew positions with people I had worked with and trusted. Once I had them on board with the idea of the movie and felt they were definitely available, only then did I tell them about the iPhone part of it. Every single person lit up at the thought of it and the enthusiasm and excitement has carried through to this day. I’m not sure everyone thought it could look as good as it actually does, but everyone was excited about the potential.

E.L.: What were some of the major hurdles of using a phone as a camera? I imagine monitoring takes must have been one of them.

J.D.: Monitoring wasn’t really that much of a problem, I had the rig in my hands about 95% of the movie and we had instant playbacks when I didn’t… for instance when we threw it out the window of the top of my house. I think the biggest hurdle was probably coming up with the story itself. In order to be able to make a watchable feature film with a pair of camera phones it really had to be the perfect story and I think that’s what we have. If we hadn’t incorporated the phones, or if we had used the phones as a normal video camera, then we would have had a hard time overcoming the automatic iris adjustments (I think using a custom made matte box may help but certainly can’t eliminate it). Also the large Depth of Field is something that we’ve fought to get away from with shooting digital films…  Paranormal Activity was able to be very popular and overcame looking like video because the lesser quality camera was part of the movie… which is why Dead iSland is able to get away with it… because the movie is made with the iPhone, which is part of the movie.

E.L.: What did you see, as the filmmaker, the advantages of using the phone both in terms of story and for production?

J.D.: Well, I am a big proponent of using natural light… probably because I don’t like waiting for lighting setups. haha. I really like shooting fast and we were definitely able to do that. We finished our last big day of filming this past Saturday and we literally filmed parts of about 12 different scenes in about 9.5 hours.

The ability to shoot basically anywhere is a huge plus. To name just a few things we could have not done easily with a regular camera: I had doggie cam (view from my dog’s collar), a scene shot from under a closet door, we threw a phone out of a top floor window, onto the roof where it slid down into the garden bed below (we did this 3 times), we shot in the pool… and I’m sure many other places… obviously I took it off the rig and didn’t put my 5D through most of this.

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E.L.: The workflow for this project must have also been unique considering the capture format. Was it as simple as opening the iMovie app? Or was the process fairly unchanged once the footage was ingested?

J.D.: Funny you say this. The workflow for the footage on my iPhone was exactly the same as shooting on my 5D… and I mean exactly the same. Download from the phone onto my hard drive,convert to Pro res 422, import into FCP, render, cut cut cut, color correct, export to H.264 Quicktime.

E.L.: The way movies are made, especially independently financed films, is rapidly changing. First HD, then RED, then DSLR, and now you have supplied one of the first serious features made on an iPhone. Where do you see the landscape of filmmaking going, especially in the low-budget realm?

J.D.: Something that really bothers me is hearing people who say they want to make films, but that’s all they ever do… is talk about it. Three of the biggest reasons given by them for why they don’t actually make films? 1. Lack of money. 2. Lack of good actors. 3. Lack of equipment.

Well, I just made a feature film with a $300 phone, 2 central crew members, a handful of actors and with an amount of money that any person on the planet can make by selling a couple of things on Ebay or getting an extra job for a week. I think that’s a big thing to take away from this experience, anyone with a story and a vision can make a movie that people can enjoy. I think, much like watching You Tube, we will be inundated with a lot of movies that aren’t very good, but our current technology will hopefully allow some very talented artists to get their movies seen and made.

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E.L.: I have followed your work pretty closely on YouTube and Twitter. One thing that I’ve gathered is that no matter what, you like to stay working; you’re very prolific in that sense. Whether you’re acting or directing or editing, you are always doing something. What advice do you have to young filmmakers who might find it difficult to start projects?

J.D.: To borrow a phrase from Nike… just do it. You are right, I am always doing something related to film and more than not I’m doing 2-5 things. I didn’t find out about this whole movie thing until about 5 years ago when I was 29, so I have a lot of making up to do! I just love anything and everything to do with making movies. I’m usually always acting in a movie whether it’s mine or someone elses. I always have something that I am editing, I’m always in pre or post production on something, and I also really enjoy producing, directing, and writing.

My advice is to listen to yourself, if you are always talking about making movies, but you don’t actually do it, then get up and just do it. Start small. This is my first feature, but I’ve made 12 short films, several promotional videos, several commercials, and I’ve acted in over 30 movies (always observing and learning). So, make a 1-5 minute short. It most likely won’t be great, but learn from it and make another one and another one. If it is something you are meant to do you will get better. If you don’t want to start with your own film, then work on someone else’s. There are tons of opportunities out there to work with other filmmakers. Just because you start out getting coffee or lugging heavy things around doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot on a set!

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E.L.: Why do you think low budget films are particularly attracted to the horror genre? And why are you, as a filmmaker, attracted to it?

J.D.: I think there are a multitude of reasons for this. Horror sells. Sometimes the worse it is, the more people will want to see it. Thus, it’s an easy genre for an indie filmmaker to do. Blood is cheap, if you have a lot of blood and flash it on the screen it can have a big affect on the viewer. With indie horror you can get away with bad acting, bad dialogue, and cheap sets, especially if you have some kind of unique angle, creature, or killer. With all of the other genres it really is much much harder on the indie level. Comedies and dramas require very good actors, very good writing, and usually high-priced sets. Action films require stunts and high-priced sets and are really hard to coordinate on an indie level.

To be honest, I’m not necessarily drawn to any genre. Horror is what sells, horror is something I can do cheaply, and horror really leant itself to being able to use the iPhones, so that’s why this film is a horror. I can’t wait to do a comedy (I have a script), a drama (again, I have a script) and believe it or not I plan to make a musical (working on the script/songs) and of course I have a couple of horror movies just waiting to be made.

E.L.: Would you ever shoot a movie in the same way again?

J.D.: Sure, for the right amount of money! My main motivation for doing it on a phone was to show it could be done. I could have done nearly the same thing with any small video camera and it could have looked as good or better. So, unless someone came to me and wanted to give me money to make a movie on a phone, then I think I’ll be going with my 5D on the next one.

E.L.: Where does Dead Island stand now in the post-process?

J.D.: Right now I am editing the movie. The rough cut is standing at around 80 minutes, my goal is to have it right at the 75 minute range. We have a couple of pickup shots left, but are waiting for a cast member to get back from California and one other person to be available. We still have to film the last 2 minutes of the movie. But as soon as I shoot it (next week) I’ll be able to drop it into the timeline and it could be finished the next day. My goal is to have the film ready to be shopped around by the latter half of October.

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E.L.: When the film is released, do you think it will be best watched on a big screen or on a phone?

J.D.: That’s a good question. If Open Water and Paranormal Activity can be successful in theaters I think this film could be also. Of course it will look its best on a phone or iPad sized screen because you can’t see some imperfections at that size. However, I am really proud of this story that we have captured and I hope that, no matter what it is viewed on, the viewer will get lost in the story and the action and the medium won’t matter.

E.L.: Lastly, is there anything you would like to add that I haven’t already asked you about?

J.D.: I just really am grateful to my cast and crew who have really put their heart and souls into this project… and my girlfriend who has let us keep her house looking like my movie set for going on 3 weeks now and has dealt with me being nearly completely mentally absent for the past month and probably the better part of the next one. I’m lucky to have a great set photographer who captured some amazing images (Al Ragonton of Alika Photography), a good friend in R. Todd Broadwater (of Nevermore Films and lead artist of Oblivion and Fallout 3) who makes some great posters, and the support of the Veteran Artist Program… an incredible non-profit organization who really has a great mission to get military veterans who are artists back into the arts. Over half of our main cast and crew are military veterans and we are very proud of that!

Official Information


Plot Synopsis:

Dead Island centers around Kelsey (Emily Fondersmith) and Devon (Charlie Dreizen), 17-year old twins. Their parents have decided to up and move their whole family to an island thousands of miles from their childhood home, right before their senior year in high school. Needless to say the twins aren’t too happy about this move. Tensions are high in their normally tight knit family. This tension is not helped by the twin’s newfound hobby of recording everything about their lives with their camera phones, which are otherwise useless on the island where cell reception is non-existent.

The twins settle into their new high school where they are befriended by one odd girl, Tracy. Tracy is immediately smitten with Devon who is a little put off by Tracy’s advances. After a reluctant trip to the beach with Tracy, the twins return home to a not so friendly welcome. A pair of masked killers invade their house and terrorize the family throughout the night. The killers embrace the fact that the twins film everything after they bust in and take one of the phones, which sets up the rest of the movie to be filmed from both the killer’s perspective and their victim’s.

Just when you think the movie is over and you are wanting more, that’s what you get. Many twists and turns lie in the last several minutes of the movie that will hopefully leave you blown away.

For more on Dead iSland visit the film on the web, Facebook, and IMDB

Photographs courtesy of Josh Davidson and Al Ragonton of Alika Photography