The sealed-room drama is as old as theatre. The road trip and cinema grew up together. So what happens when you combine the claustrophobia of one, with the perpetual movement of the other? That's what Bryan Bockbrader was asking himself when he started writing Vanish.
When I call him at his L.A. home, there's a moment of confusion, since Skype shows up on his phone as a Palmdale number, in Northern Los Angeles County. "We shot out there," explained the writer/director/actor, "so I was like, who is that from Palmdale? Did we pay all the hotels out there?"
That's the indie director's fear, right there. For his debut feature, he and a tiny crew went on an insane road trip. Jack (Austin Abke), Shane (Adam Guthrie) and Max (Bockbrader) are low-life criminals who kidnap Emma (Maiara Walsh, Cory in the House), the estranged daughter of a Mexican drug lord. They want a $5 million ransom, but soon find themselves on the run from the cartel, and one angry father. But here's the catch: The whole film is set inside their van, and the camera never leaves its interior once. Bockbrader said, "I always had this idea of doing a road movie inside a vehicle, and the turning point would be a cop pulling them over. Because everybody gets scared when they see those lights."
Austin Chronicle: So, the obvious question. What kind of maniac decides to film an entire movie in a van?
Bryan Bockbrader: It was not a fun shoot, but the van thing goes back to the beginning. I had been out here for 10 years. I came out to be an actor, and of course I wanted to do film – that's why everybody really comes out to L.A. – and got stuck on the commercial circuit. It got tedious. It got like a 9-5 job, waiting all day in L.A. traffic to go to these things, just to chew in to a burger bun. I did not get many results, a few callbacks, mostly car stuff. Actually, there's a little thing in the movie about a car-insurance commercial, and I'd done a commercial for the General back in the day, one of those things you see at 3am on bad television.
That had been my claim to fame up until two years ago, but at least seven of those years I'd been writing scripts. I think a lot of people liked the writing, but I didn't really know anybody out here. We didn't know what we were doing, we had to learn the lingo to talk to agents, just so they'd give us the time of day. Hell, we outright lied to some of them. We didn't have any money, but we knew if we got somebody attached, we'd get it done.
I had a quarter-life crisis back in 2012. My father passed away at 55 of a heart attack, and I didn't see it coming, no one did. It just hit me. I'd been out here for nearly a decade, and I needed to do what I planned to do. So I just locked myself in a room for three months and I just wrote. I wrote three scripts, and the last one was Vanish. I told Austin, if you've got a couple of hundred dollars in your bank account, and I've got a couple of hundred dollars in my bank account, let's just play these characters, let's just rent a van, go to the desert with a few friends, and shoot this thing.
AC: You wrote the core roles for you and Austin, but what about the rest of the cast?
BB: There was this character, a cartel boss, that we just knew only one guy could really play. We're like, you know what? Let's just throw it Danny Trejo's way and see what happens. He's not with a bigger agency, so we'll at least get it past the assistant. The agent was like, well, he's got offers a mile high right now, but we'll take a look at it and get back to you.
AC: Probably helps that Danny is a notorious workaholic.
BB: And he's in the restaurant business. He's got a taco chain opening here in March called Trejo's Tacos, and I'll definitely be down there for those. But she got back to us, he said yes, and as soon as that happened, it ballooned into something bigger than it was, and it gave me the motivation to go out and find the money, and take charge of this thing. Get a nice camera, not do a found-footage thing.
It goes back to your original question, why some maniac would shoot inside a van. Because I had never seen it before. I really do try to write things I haven't seen before. I'd seen movies that have tried to do it. I'd seen Locke, but that's a character-driven drama, and I just hadn't seen that action-thriller inside a van before. One thing I'd learned is to embrace my limitations. I realized, how cool would it be to film some cool stuff in this 8' by 4' space. I'd never seen a bloody battle to the death in a space like that, or for that matter, a shoot-out, as ridiculous as it may sound. So I thought that If I could pull that off at all, in any form, that I had done what I had set out to do.
AC: How did Maiara come on board?
BB: We started looking for actresses after Danny got attached. We had seen Zombieland, which was the Amazon pilot they had there for a second. So we looked her up, saw her resume and whatnot, saw that she was half-Latin, and that she spoke Spanish. We met her for the first time, and she is a trouper. She's amazing. She showed up on set the first day, and the first scene we shot was the ransom video, and we had her bound and gagged, and we had the pea soup in her mouth, and it was so sweaty in that van. For the record, the AC did not work for the entire shoot. The desert was 115 degrees, there was record heat. To have her bound and gagged and all messed up with all these prostheses on and these three strangers, and just be so professional. We couldn't really afford a script supervisor, and she was pretty much that. She knew when the gag needed to be on, which hand the gun needed to be in, she knew all that because of her years on set.
I think the reason she picked this project was I think she wanted to be rid of the Disney image once and for all. She's been stuck in the Disney/ABC Family thing for a long time, and she wanted to get out of that, and she finally had a script come across and go, wow, this is a bad-ass chick. These are the kind of roles I want to get now.
AC: Talking of action heroines, I chatted with Joe Lynch about Everly, in which he restricts the action to a single apartment. He said that shooting to that edict was a learning curve. What did you learn inside the van?
The No. 1 thing is the casting. The characters have to be vibrant, and if you have bad actors in the van for an hour and 20 minutes, and they're not interacting, and no one can relate to them, then I feel a movie like that will fall flat. If there were technical aspects that I couldn't do by being restrained, then I felt we could focus on the characters and the story.
Vanish (MPI Home Video) is on released on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 24.
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