Q & A with Writer-Director Nick Tomnay

Stars David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford in “The Perfect Host”

Stars David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford in “The Perfect Host”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Nick Tomnay about his psychological thriller “The Perfect Host”, starring David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford, which had its world premiere Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Produced by Stacey Testro and Mark Victor, “The Perfect Host” was written and directed by Nick Tomnay and executive produced by Martin Zoland. Starring are David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Nathaniel Parker, Meghan Perry and Helen Reddy.

The Story: In “The Perfect Host” a criminal on the run cons his way into the wrong dinner party where the host is anything but ordinary.

John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) has just robbed a Los Angeles bank. He planned and executed it perfectly. It comes as a shock to him when he discovers the robbery is all over the news and he’s been identified as the robber. Injured during the crime and now in a car known to the cops, John ditches the vehicle and needs to hide out somewhere.

Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce) is in the middle of preparing the dinner party he’s hosting that evening and is surprised when the intercom at his Los Angeles home buzzes. The man on the intercom screen introduces himself as John, a friend of a friend, Julia, whom he’s just seen in Australia. Actually, John’s just read a postcard from Julia to Warwick that was in the mailbox out front. He says Julia told him that when he returned to L.A. he absolutely had to look up Warwick. John explains he’s in need of a big favor and hopes John will help him.

Warwick, who prides himself on being a perfect host, at first says he’s too busy, but then decides to take a chance and invites John in. As the night progresses neither man can conceal his true nature and what was assumed earlier is unexpectedly turned upside down. Nick Tomnay, a native of Sydney, Australia, attended art school in the early 90s. After graduating he worked as an assistant editor and then as an editor, cutting commercials, documentaries, and music videos while pursuing his goal to become a filmmaker.

In 2001, Tomnay wrote and directed the short film “The Host”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won several awards in 2002, including the Seattle International Film Festival’s Golden Space Needle Award, the Australian Film Institute’s Best Short Fiction Film Award and Best Short Film from Australia’s Inside Film Awards.

Continuing to pursue his passion for filmmaking, Tomnay moved to New York to work as a commercial editor at Wildchild editorial. In 2006, he was selected to direct an episode of Bryan Brown’s “Too Twisted” series entitled “Jailbreak”.

“The Perfect Host” is Tomnay’s feature film debut.

“The Perfect Host’s” Meghan Perry

“The Perfect Host’s” Meghan Perry

Q: You originally directed a short version of this movie called “The Host” How did the feature version come about?
A: The reaction I got to the short from a lot of people was that they wanted the film to go on when it finished. A lot of people said, “I want to know what happens now?” So I started thinking about that myself. It just sort of seemed that the character of Warwick Wilson was a very rich one in my mind so I thought I’d try to develop it into feature length and see if that was actually going to work. He’s pretty specific in the way he behaves and acts. So when I got into the process he kind of just untangled stuff in my mind and that’s how it began. After I’d written the first draft it took a while to refine it and get it to a place where it was working.
Q: When did you make the short film?
A: That was in 2001 and it played festivals in 2002. I started writing the feature in 2003 and basically between 2003 and 2008, when we shot the film, was the long process of making your first feature film.
Q: And now it’s having its world premiere at Sundance. That’s got to be exciting.
A: It’s amazing. I’ve never been to the festival. The section that we’re in, which is the Midnight screening section, seems to be just right. The movie is shocking in certain places and surprising and the Midnight section at Sundance is kind of known for that type of content. The thing I’m really excited about is sitting in a theater with an audience because so far it’s just been the colorist and the composer and myself and the producers who’ve seen it. I actually haven’t had a real live audience interact with the movie yet so that’s something I’m really looking forward to.
Q: Are you looking to get a distribution deal spring-boarding off of Sundance?
A: That’s the plan at this stage, yes. I know the producers are speaking to some people in L.A. now, but that’s certainly one of the options. There’s an opportunity here at Sundance, particularly if the film does all right. (Note: It was very well received at its two sold-out performances.) If there’s some attention on it then I think it’s a great opportunity to.
Q: Coming back to making the film, how did you finance its production?
A: I had a couple of different production companies involved through those years from 2003 to 2008 -- two of them, actually. The first one wanted me to change it and move it to something quite different and I wasn’t prepared to do that so that fell through. The second one, as these things go, just didn’t materialize. And then finally my manager (Stacey Testro) called me up and said, "Look, let’s just do this ourselves." So I agreed and that’s how we did it.
Q: The film looks great. What sort of budget did you have to work with?
A: It’s under a million.
Q: Did you have David Hyde Pierce in mind to play the lead from the start?
A: I didn’t have any particular actor in mind when I wrote it. I just wrote it from my mind. And then it was a matter of thinking of an actor who could do everything that Warwick does and do it convincingly. We drew up a wish list. The most important thing is that the character is quite complex and had to do a lot of scenes in the movie. One of the most important things he has to do is that when we first meet him he has to appear harmless, congenial and friendly.

I think that with any actor with their past work they bring that with them to whatever role they’re doing. Forget the fact that David’s a brilliant actor, but the connotations that he has were absolutely essential for the role. What happened is that Stacey, my manager, was watching “Frasier” one night. He was on (our) list and she said, “I really think we should look at David Hyde Pierce again.”
Q: When and where did you shoot?
A: We shot in the fall of 2008 in L.A. for about three weeks.
Q: As you look back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges?
A: We didn’t have much time and I think that probably that was the hardest thing. I wanted the film to have a particular feel, as well, going after this sort of L.A. gothic feel for the film. It was something that you had to work to get and so the production designer (Ricardo Jattan), the DP (John Brawley) and myself needed time and planning to get this working.

The shoot wasn’t that long and that was challenging because in order to attain that aesthetic it was difficult. But because I’d been working on the film for a long time beforehand, I’d played the film over and over in my mind for years. We were able to overcome (the lack of time) because on an intuitive level I was already there with the movie. It’s always hard to rush and not make it feel like you’re rushing.
Q: Did you shoot on film or digitally?
A: We shot on the Red camera. It’s a digital camera. It’s the latest thing. It’s not really HD, it’s its own thing. It’s an amazing camera. It’s more a computer that uses film lenses and it sort of captures media and puts it on a drive so you don’t actually go through the tape process at all. It’s all on files. If it’s done well, it has its own aesthetic. But it’s more akin to film than any other non-film format.
Q: One of the things that I felt worked really well in the film is when we see Warwick with his guests at the dinner party. Without giving too much away here, let’s just say that you were able to blend reality and imagination very effectively.
A: It was a matter of deciding where and when that would happen. It was more or less about choosing where and when they would appear and then sort of photographing Clayne and David with the guests, as they were going to appear, and with the same camera taking them out and shooting the scene again without them so I had options in the edit. I had made the decisions in the script as to when they would and wouldn’t appear. They were just characters that entered and exited like in any movie. It’s a tricky thing. It could become gimmicky and I didn’t want it to feel that way. It was a matter of deciding when it was important to see Warwick alone and how that would feel versus when he would be speaking to his guests and how that would feel and what it says about Warwick.
Q: How did you work with the actors? Did you rehearse?
A: Because of the nature of the film, it’s a little like a play. The majority of this movie takes place in one location. So Clayne and David and myself spent four or five days in a rehearsal space. We first just went through the script with all the blocking ideas and improvisations and we basically rehearsed it to the point where we felt we understood it internally. But we didn’t kill it in rehearsals. But having done that when we were shooting, particularly for the three of us, it was a lot easier and everyone felt a lot more comfortable. I think the actors felt a lot more comfortable to give a deeper or more complex performance because the fundamentals had been covered in the rehearsal.
Q: This is your first feature. Had you directed anything other than the short version of the film?
A: I directed a television episode (for Australian actor-producer) Bryan Brown. He’s an icon in Australia. He was putting together a sort of “Twilight Zone-esque” series in Australia called “Too Twisted”. They were half-hour programs. They sent out for writing submissions and they received a bunch of scripts. They accepted 14 of these scripts and picked 14 young directors from the Australian film industry to do them. I got chosen to do one. That was between “The Host” and the feature. I also directed some commercials and music videos.
Q: Did you storyboard “The Perfect Host”?
A: I shot listed and camera plotted the entire film. But more for my own piece of mind so I absolutely had the film covered. I found that when I got into production a lot of the time I didn’t even look at them. I think by doing the work beforehand I felt confident that I had the film (worked out) and so it let me be more spontaneous when I was shooting it.
Q: Did it give you more time to work with the actors?
A: Absolutely. I think one of the things I really learned is that you can plan as much as you want and you can have preconceived notions of what you’re going to do, but ultimately when you’re there on the set in the moment you have to be open to the honesty that’s in front of you. You have to be able to interact with what’s really going on rather than what you want to be happening. So from that point of view, I think, doing a lot of preparation is really useful because I was able to use it and I was able to execute what I had planned if it was appropriate or if something else was presenting itself I was able to augment it. I felt quite fresh and energized and I hope the actors felt that way, too.
Q: What was the toughest thing you have to wrestle with in production?
A: We were doing the party sequence and we had a steadicam operator who broke the camera. We were shooting nights so it was like 4 a.m. We didn’t have a camera and we had a whole party full of extras. Luckily, the grip had his own Red camera at his house, but that was like an hour and a half away. So we waited while he drove to get a new camera. Initially, we started playing music and having a party, but the energy really wasn’t there for that. That was the most nerve wracking experience on the film. But we recovered and the party, hopefully, didn’t suffer.

That’s it in terms of traumatic events that occurred. I think with any production you have things that occur. You plan everything to the last detail, but the gods don’t always shine favorably on you for whatever reason. Particularly with independent filmmaking, that’s part of the deal and you have to be quick to adjust and adapt and still make your decisions the right thing for the movie and make them feel organic with what you’ve been doing before that.
Q: Looking ahead, do you want to continue working independently or would you rather do a studio film?
A: I just want to make a good film. I don’t really mind if it’s independent or studio. I like both. I like good films. I don’t specifically have one type or another (in mind). If a film is intriguing and good, then I’m interested in it. You could say that independent films tend to be more interesting. I guess it’s more about a sensibility. I’m interested in films that have something about them that’s original and interesting.
Q: You wrote “The Perfect Host” as well as directed it. Are you open to directing something you didn’t write?
A: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve taken a long time to get here and I’m really keen to work. That’s where I’m at mentally. I love the whole process of filmmaking. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was 14. Now that I’ve actually made a feature film, I’m absolutely open to whatever is in front of it.
Q: Do you have anything in the works now?
A: I’ve got some ideas I’ve been working on. I’ve just been so inundated with “The Perfect Host” that that’s where my attention’s at. But my intention is to start to look at the other ideas I have and see what’s in front of me.