Joss Whedon’s supernatural romance, In Your Eyes, has turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. First, it’s really, really good. The tale of two very different people, an ex-con played by Cloverfield‘s Michael Stahl-David and Ruby Sparks‘ Zoe Kazan, who live on completely different sides of the country (New Mexico and New Hampshire, respectively), and share a psychic connection that allows the other person to feel their senses, is undeniably heartfelt and earnest in a sophisticated, knowing way.
And then there’s the way the movie’s being distributed. In a pre-recorded, post-film message, Whedon announced that Sunday’s premiere was also its international release, and that everyone could, for the low price of $5, rent the movie on Vimeo for 72 hours. It’s becoming increasingly common for movies to be released on home media platforms (Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was available online first), but this kind of festival tie-in is almost unheard of, and spectacularly cool.
We got a chance to speak to director Brin Hill about what it was like working for Whedon and his ultra-low-budget production arm Bellwether Pictures, finding the right actors to play these roles, and releasing the film is such an unconventional way.
SSN: How did you get involved in the project initially?
Hill: It stems from interactions with [Bellwether producers] Kai Cole and Michael Roiff. For them, the vision at Bellwether was to take Joss’s voice and my naturalistic aesthetic and see what happens when you mix those up. It stems from me being smart enough to accept an invitation to a cocktail party or two.
SSN: Was there any trepidation on your part?
Hill: No. Working in this industry, where you face a lot of rejection, I was fired up because someone wanted to work with me! There’s always trepidation in terms of being a good steward with people’s work. Coming in on something someone else has written, you want to service it as best you can. I tried to be smart in terms of interacting with Joss—like what beat is important in this scene; what do you want to make sure I get here in this moment? I didn’t have time to stop and be worried about anything.
SSN: This is a fairly ambitious movie to shoot, I’m assuming, very quickly and without much money.
Hill: Those assumptions are very accurate! Half the shoot was in New Hampshire, and half was in Los Angeles for New Mexico. That is a testament to Michael and Kai, in terms of figuring out how [to do] it on a shoestring budget. We ended up in New Hampshire [because] we were chasing snow. We started out in Connecticut, but there was no snow, so we moved to Ohio, but there was no snow … and we kept moving north. Eventually we were in New Hampshire, which was great because there was a train we could get for $500 and a pack of bubblegum. Having gone to NYU film school, you learn how to make things on a shoestring budget. You’ve just got to figure out how to do it.
SSN: The other thing that is very complicated about this movie is its tone. It’s very earnest and free of cynicism. How hard was it to find that balance?
Hill: As a guy known for his cynical one-liners, it was pretty hard. Joss’s tone is so fun and his voice is so clever, and I was interested in making a movie that was an enjoyable experience. In terms of tone, it was about skirting the line of telling a love story in a really earnest way. That’s not at all what I’m known for, but I was excited to try and do that. And Joss’s writing keeps things light and from feeling sappy and heavy. I like to think we didn’t go down that road.
SSN: How hard was it to cast these leads? And was it a conscious decision to stay away from the Joss Whedon players?
Hill: I think for Joss it was. Joss and Kai really loved Zoe … they eschewed the normal casting routes, but he was like, ‘Zoe is really interesting, have you thought about her?’ And she just seemed right. She is super quirky and gives you a lot of different options, and as a director that was really exciting. Michael Stahl-David auditioned. I had obviously seen Cloverfield but he was Dylan in my mind. He had that mix of charisma and earnestness and believability, for a role that is very much a cowboy.
SSN: What was your creative relationship like with Joss? Was it ongoing?
Hill: Yes, it was ongoing. Joss is super busy, obviously, and has a million things going on. He was super-involved in casting, and then he was watching dailies. He wasn’t on set because he was in the middle of other craziness but he was in the editing room. It’s a testament to how great the pace is because he was involved in that.
SSN: When did this whole idea come up? Was it something you guys were always scheming?
Hill: I don’t know if we were scheming. Originally we were all throwing out ideas of how to do things in different ways. This is the spirit of Bellwether, going back to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which is, in a lot of ways, the thing that birthed Bellwether; he’s always looking to connect with his audience in a meaningful way. Roiff has been viewing the independent film market as a little bit broken lately, [that] there are these great movies that haven’t been able to get the audiences they need. So we were looking for a way to get it out in a meaningful way, and that’s where this birthed from, and it was made tangible by this great announcement the other day.
SSN: Have you gotten any indication of how it’s doing?
Hill: I haven’t been privy to that stuff, but we had a screening last night and people were like, ‘Is everyone going to be mad?’ But nope, it was sold out; they all seemed pretty happy to me. But in terms of fan response on social media, it seems like people are consuming it and it’s out there. I assume it’s working, I just haven’t had that conversation yet.
SSN: You designed this movie to be seen in a theater and that’s how people will see it at Tribeca. Are you disappointed that the main conduit will be computers?
Hill: No. I was trying to make a movie that people will enjoy. This is an opportunity to cast the widest possible net. And I’m super excited about that. That doesn’t mean I won’t do a studio movie yet or do an indie that goes a more traditional route.