Director James Moran talks to INFLUX Magazine

by Nav Qateel

James Moran has worked his way steadily up the filmmaking career ladder, as 2nd Director under the likes of legendary auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. As 1st Director, Moran has worked on the huge TV hits Heroes and Prison Break, and on films like The Stepfather and Paranormal Activity 2,3 & 4, to name only a few. James Moran graciously agreed to talk to us about his debut movie, Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story, a film based on the popular web-series, Marble Hornets.

Nav Qateel: What got you into filmmaking?

James Moran: I was in my Sophomore year of college at the University of Florida when I had my first experience on a movie set. My friend from the Orlando area randomly met Dennis Quaid (he was in Florida shooting a movie) and he kindly invited my buddy John to the set and I tagged along.

The night we visited they were shooting a traveling carnival scene in an abandoned strip mall surrounded by a big wall for privacy. As we walked up, security opened a gate to let us on set and as I saw the bright lights and the film cameras being set up I had the “Aha!” moment. I met a bunch of the local Orlando film crew and they welcomed me into their small community. They allowed me to sit back and learn as they worked. After a few nights of visiting the set, I called my mom to tell her I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. When I told her “I think I want to be in the movie business,” her reply was, “It’s about time you figured that out.” And then I was off.

NQ: Did working on three films from the Paranormal Activity franchise have any bearing on why your debut movie was a found-footage horror?

JM: The “PA” Paranormal Activity Franchise was a great opportunity for me and several of the other crew that worked on the sequels. It was an amazingly collaborative set to be a part of, the producers and directors allowed me to help in the creative process and help define the “rules” of the Paranormal universe and “how” we should proceed with the found-footage genre. I never saw myself as a “horror” guy, but I definitely learned a lot about it being a part of those movies. As much as I wasn’t looking for my directorial debut to be a found-footage movie, it seemed to be a natural fit after 3 years of being on the PA franchise. With that pedigree, I definitely had a leg up on getting the spot to direct Always Watching.

NQ: How did you come to direct Always Watching, and were you already familiar with the Marble Hornets web series?

JM: I first heard of the Marble Hornets web series in a meeting with Producer John Zaozirny. He showed me the presentation they put together to pitch the series as a feature film and something about it just clicked with me. I went in head first as I put together my take on the movie. When I prepped to meet with the team at Mosaic I just expanded what I had learned by watching several entries of the web series. I even “branded” myself with the symbol from the series to help nail the presentation. After a few meetings and the presentation, I was lucky enough to land the project as its director.

NQ: How difficult did you find making the transition from being Assistant Director to helming your own movie?

JM: Being a 1st Assistant Director, it’s my job to control the set, know what everyone is doing and keep things moving. It’s also a very managerial position, but it has it’s own gratification. As Director, I was able to take the set experience of being an AD and allow my creative side to come out and tell a story. It’s great to feel comfortable on a set as it allowed me to focus on the story I was trying to tell rather than “how” am I going to get this on the screen.

NQ: You had a great cast to work with. Did it help having their experience with this sort of project, where everything is supposed to appear unscripted?

JM: For the size of the movie we made, we were so lucky to get the cast and crew we got. We were looking for a cast that was experienced, yet not so recognizable that it would take the viewer out of the found-footage experience we were going for. We worked hard to find the balance of “unscripted” yet still keeping it “structured” with the cast as we went along.

NQ: Speaking of scripts, did you encourage any improv, or was everyone reading directly from Ian Shorr’s script?

JM: With found footage genre, you can’t be too locked into a hard version of the script. Luckily, Ian, was very collaborative and never too precious of the script. It was our blueprint to make sure we hit the points we needed to tell the story, but it also allowed us to keep the conversation, mood and story, natural. On set, as we dove deeper into the story, the scene and the surroundings, sometimes a line, expression or mood would come up that we would have never thought of in the script stage of the process.

NQ: How long was the shoot and what scene was filmed first?

JM: We actually shot the whole movie in 16 days and had only one additional day of photography. If I remember correctly, the first scene we shot was the scene where Leonard led our News team (Milo, Charlie and Sara) into the first abandoned home. We shot at an abandoned Naval housing development down in San Pedro that’s now part of a private school. We didn’t have to do much to the houses to give them the abandoned and vandalized look. We just had to show up.

James Moran on location - Photo by Bonnie Osborne
James Moran on location – Photo by Bonnie Osborne

NQ: I enjoyed the fact that several shots would only show legs, or there’d be heads chopped off at the top, adding to the sense of realism. Was it difficult to find the right balance between being realistic, and ensuring enough of the action was still in the frame?

JM: I tried hard not to have too many static or handheld sequences right up against each other. That was one of the key elements I learned on the Paranormal franchise. However, I didn’t want to force us into a style (static or hand-held) if the scene didn’t feel right.

At the very beginning of shooting a found footage movie, the biggest questions you ask yourself is “Why are they (the leads) filming?” Ian’s script did a great job of getting that out of the way by making them reporters for a news team. It allowed us to move on to the other important areas and not have to spend too much time asking, “why are we seeing this scene”? Not to mention, some of my favorite scenes were where the shot looked askew. We worked hard to frame it that way.

NQ: How many different cameras/rigs were used while filming, and what sort of obstacles did this present?

JM: To mix up the look of the film we actually used several different cameras. I didn’t want to just shoot it all on one camera and sort it out in post. They all naturally have their own look and it’s hard to replicate those looks if you don’t have time and money.

We used a RED Scarlet for the News footage, because it gave those scenes a clean news footage feel. We used 2 Canon M cameras for Milo’s “handycam” because it gave us the flexibility to have Chris Marquette (Milo) operate in several scenes and really get into the scene. We used a Canon handycam for the Wittlocke family footage because it felt more like a home video style. And, as if those weren’t enough, we also added the GoPros (thanks to GoPro themselves) once we were on the road, they allowed us to rig the cameras in the car and get in areas that would usually be too tight for a traditional film camera. It was quite a pain keeping track of all the cameras, but it helped vary the look and feel of the film.

NQ: One of my favorite scenes was when Charlie looks through Milo’s camera and sees The Operator for the first time. It was the tipping point that finally bound them together. What was your favorite scene and why?

JM: The scene where Charlie finally sees The Operator was definitely a fun one to shoot. My favorite scene was when Milo was setting up his camera and projector in his living room and for a brief moment, The Operator could be seen on Milo’s shirt, but he was unaware. That was one shot I came up with early in pre-production, with the help of my wife, and it was fun to actually see it come to life on the set.

NQ: Do you have any plans to direct another movie in the near future?

JM: I have been attached to a great script by Richard Hobley that’s hitting the town currently. It’s a traditional narrative film and we’re working hard to get it up and running to shoot later this year. Who knows what will happen, but I really like the script and I hope to prep it soon.

NQ: Which filmmakers would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?

JM: I was a child of the late 70s-80s, so as a kid. I was strongly influenced by Star Wars, Indiana Jones, ET, etc. Those films will always be with me and a part of my work. I even did a little Easter Egg in Always Watching when the news crew is at the hospital to visit Rose Wittlocke, listen closely. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing directors and I’ve definitely been able to see what I like or don’t like through the years.

Paul Thomas Anderson is an amazing filmmaker and I’d be lucky to be able to tell stories like him. I also love how JJ Abrams has been able to take the films I loved and grew up on and take them into the next generation, while keeping the feeling of the old favorites yet keeping them modern.

No matter what tricks we try to put into movies, it all comes down to the story. If there’s not a great story at the heart of the movie, it all falls apart. Ian’s script for Always Watching gave the found-footage genre movie something that’s usually overlooked, a story.

NQ: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, James Moran.

You can read the review for Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story here.

Interview Date: 03/05/15