Merriam-Webster defines film noir as: a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and forbidding background music. We say, “Just watch Brian Padian’s, ‘The Big Black Dark.’” Shadows in the dark, train sounds in the distance, a man who wakes up in the woods not knowing who he is with only a single business card to lead him … what more do you need? Shot on a budget of $5k (an amount usually carried in a bag made up of unmarked $10s and $20s in the 1940’s) Padian takes you down that road yet still leaves you with more questions. Give it a watch and keep a look out for his other works and projects.
“Don’t fret it Mary, the darkness comes for everyone.” The Big Dark Black
Bridgeliner: First, before anything else, what does Portland mean to you? To your filmmaking?
Brian Padian: Portland is the perfect place to make films. The community here is very driven and dedicated in service of the art and craft of filmmaking and most locations, vendors, and services are open-hearted and supportive. Obviously there is not the same volume of projects shooting here as there is at major filmmaking hubs but there are lots of original voices and abundant talent on both sides of the camera. Plus there are many varied landscapes to shoot at just a short drive away. It is definitely the best place for me to be as a filmmaker, without reservation.
Bridgeliner: Was your short movie The Big Black Dark filmed in Portland – and, if so, where?
Brian Padian: We shot for 5 days in and around Portland. The opening and closing scenes were filmed at a friend’s property in Sherwood (technically a friend’s parents’ property). The motel scenes were filmed at a motor lodge on Interstate. The bar scenes were shot at Moloko on Mississippi Avenue. The scene with the secretary was shot in my basement at the time on SE 41st Avenue. And all the driving scenes were in a truck in a garage in outer SE Portland, except for a few moments of the truck moving which we shot at Mt. Tabor Park.
Bridgeliner: For those who haven’t seen the film, can you give a quick synopsis?
Brian Padian: A man wakes up in the woods with no memory, just a business card with someone’s name on it. In the course of the film he encounters several people who help him return to himself. It’s a mildly preposterous setup frankly but it’s a film noir so some things are possible narratively that wouldn’t be in other genres. It’s a different world, hinging on coincidence, improbability, and hard shadows in the lighting scheme.
Bridgeliner: What didn’t you do in The Big Black Dark? The entire film feels as if it was done by one person, because it’s so tight. The writing, the lighting, the casting. Okay, maybe not all the acting, obviously, but the casting!
Brian Padian: I didn’t do the sound or music or editing or the camera. The images and stylized look of the film were essential to a noir and because of this it was important to me that we shot it on Super 16. I worked with my long-time collaborator Scott Ballard, a Portland-based cinematographer (and filmmaker in his own right) to get the right look for the movie. He also operated the camera. Edward P. Davee (another talented Portland filmmaker) did the production sound and helped me record the voiceover. Megan Lybrand was associate producer, helping us with details on set and production needs. Score was by composer Jesse Jones. And my long-time editor Evonne Moritz put it all together. And of course the cast: Matt Sipes, Christine Calfas, Joey Bloom, Lanie Hoyo, Todd Tschida, Mike Barber, and the deep timbred voice of Andrew Feinberg as narrator. All were vital collaborators to help me realize the project.
Bridgeliner: You looked low budget in the face and said, “F. Off.” You worked magic with very little funds. Can you share how much it cost to make the film?
Brian Padian: The whole project was made for around $5000, nearly all of which was due to the cost of film stock and corresponding costs like processing, transferring, shipping. I was very fortunate to receive a project grant from the Regional Arts + Culture Council to cover the costs of the project. It would not have been possible to make it otherwise. Working at very low budgets forces you to isolate the moments or images that are necessary prior to the shoot and also helps you find solutions on set because you have no other options. I really like working like this on some level, because it compels innovation. On the other hand filmmaking with reduced budgets can really be a tremendous drag!
Bridgeliner: Let’s talk about some of the crazy-cool things you did in the film. For instance, how the hell did you come up with the concept of changing the background photos in the truck scene to make it look as if the truck was being driven. It so shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it was so much more interesting than seeing real terrain.
Brian Padian: Russ Blake let us borrow his vintage truck. I had wanted to do rear projection, so the vehicle looks like it’s moving when it clearly is on a set – I was thinking the artifice of it all would fit perfectly with this genre and the overall style of the film – but I didn’t have time to film the background footage or access to filmed footage so I instead thought maybe stills could work. The driving stills were all taken in the middle of nowhere in Western Washington and they seemed to fit with the world of the film. That said, I wasn’t sure how it would really look until we got the footage back. On set we had people occasionally rock the truck to make it feel like it was moving on a road. And of course the actors helped sell it as well.
Bridgeliner: This might seem like a stupid question… but the egg in the scene that was part of Robert’s lunch? The wax paper? I couldn’t stop looking at them. I kept feeling as if I was looking at a Johannes Vermeer painting. It made sense that they were part of his lunch, but they also seemed placed there with purpose. Were they? And, if so, why?
Brian Padian: I liked the idea of an unhinged man with a shotgun bringing a bag lunch to a possible killing, and having as a result to manage the delicateness of peeling an egg. We did not have a props department or art direction on this project so I just brought those items from home and Scott lit them.
Bridgeliner: What’s a mistake you thought you made in the movie that turned out to be a blessing?
Brian Padian: I have made voluminous mistakes across all my projects and this one was no exception. This film was one of my first substantial undertakings and I still labored under the misgiving that a script and a film are iterations of each other. Across several projects however I’ve come to see the script as a mere starting point and the film as the actual thing. When you’re in the dark writing and creating a world, you operate solely with sentences (and across long patches of isolation, generally with no other input, unless you write with a partner) so words and putting them together – their construction, their multivalent meanings, their crispness and cleverness – all become vital to you and you can mistake the screenplay for the finished work. Once you start directing though certain bits, parts of scenes, or whole passages can feel contrived, extraneous, or otherwise unnecessary. You realize you can solve a narrative problem sometimes with an actor’s look instead of a paragraph of dialogue. You start to serve the film instead of the screenplay. Point being, if I were to make this now I would definitely find a way to shave some of the dialogue down and make a 10-12 minute film instead of a 21 minute one. Put more bluntly, I fell in love with my own dialogue a little bit and let certain scenes run longer than they could have. That said, all mistakes are blessings for future projects. Occasionally for the project at hand but always for future ones.
Bridgeliner: Are you a writer first and then a filmmaker or a filmmaker first? Some of your lines were teeth-sinking, Faulknerian good: “That means you’re not an accountant. That’s a good thing.” “You’ll forgive my appearance. I’ve been sobbing.” “The tears of a cuckold.” “Arm pat this baboon.”
Brian Padian: My background and training is as a screenwriter but my goal was always to be a filmmaker. I attended the American Film Institute and received a degree in Screenwriting and spent several years in Los Angeles afterward working in and around the film industry while attempting to sell screenplays with no substantial motion. I came to learn that despite talent or hard work or even luck and connections it’s hard enough just to get someone to read your screenplay down there, much less buy it and make it. I do love the act of writing though and watching an idea begin to form and reveal itself on the page. I had a lot of fun writing this one.
Bridgeliner: You’re married to writer Margaret Malone, who was a Pen/Hemingway finalist for her story collection: People Like You. She writes for numerous literary journals and has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, as well. She’s amazing in her own right. Did you meet in Portland? If so, where? And how has she influenced your work?
Brian Padian: Margaret and I met in college at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. I was an aspiring filmmaker and she was a philosophy major. She came with me to Los Angeles after college and worked a series of random jobs, took improv classes, and was kind of finding her own way forward. She began taking writing classes, first at UCLA extension and then with writer Lisa Glatt, and from that point on she began to write seriously and hasn’t stopped. Margaret influences me in countless ways but one of the most immediate is that she is the first reader for all my scripts, drafts, and ideas. She acts as a sort of bellwether to help me determine if a project is on the right course or not or if it has merit at all. She also is a fantastic writer and exceedingly compassionate human being, without whom I probably would still be single and lying curled on some dirty apartment floor whining about how no one appreciates me and how one day I’ll get my act together and finally direct something. She single-handedly is responsible for helping me transform from being an aspirational filmmaker to an actual one by her sustained encouragement and support across the years. She was also a caregiver to me during my brain tumor experience in 2005 and is mother to our children. It is not an exaggeration to say I owe everything to her and her alone.
Bridgeliner: What’s your favorite restaurant in Portland and why? What do you order?
Brian Padian: Dots Cafe in SE Clinton for the atmosphere and the wallpaper. I usually always get spicy fries with tofu dipping sauce.
Bridgeliner: Want to share a little more Portland faves with us? Favorite bar? Favorite brewery? Favorite shop? Favorite anything?
Brian Padian: Favorite bar is Lutz Tavern in Woodstock. Favorite brewery is Gigantic. Favorite cupcake shop is my sister’s amazing outfit Unicorn Bakeshop on SE Gladstone. Very delicious and creative options there. My favorite basketball league is Portland Reign, where my son plays. An outstanding organization.
Bridgeliner: What’s next for you?
Brian Padian: I just finished an 8 episode webseries set in a dollhouse (and made due to quarantine constrictions) titled Man of La Mansion. That’s out to festivals right now and recently world premiered at Local Sightings in Seattle. I am also in post-production on Season 2 of my webseries MICROAGGRESSIONS, about coded bias in bureaucracy and I am preparing to finish shooting the second half of my feature Sister/Brother, which got interrupted in March 2020 by Covid and has just been on the back burner since, waiting to reassemble itself. After that I have several projects written and ready to shoot – a short, 2 features, and a TV pilot – but the missing piece, as always, is financing. I am really hoping in the near future to peel away from the grants & crowdfunding model of financing and move up to the groveling to investors model but we’ll see how it goes. If there are accessible levels beyond that I’ll report back. What I really need, and have needed for some time, is a dedicated producer to help me find financing and fully realize these projects. I have produced or co-produced everything I’ve made to date but I am really not built to deal with SAG or insurance providers or crew parking or craft services or the like and those concerns, while vital to the production of the project, divert my attention from narrative and directorial considerations.
Bridgeliner: And finally – is there anything else you’d like to say? A question we haven’t asked you that you wish we had?
Brian Padian: Thank you for letting me talk about The Big Black Dark. Please check out northernflickerfilms.com for more info about my upcoming projects.