Xackery Irving has been producing and directing film and television for 15 years. He produced and directed 70 hours of documentary programming for such series as the Emmy Award-winning Trauma: Life in the ER (TLC), The First 48 (A&E), Paramedics (TLC), Extreme Evidence (Court TV) and Dallas SWAT (A&E). His first feature film, American Chain Gang, is a documentary that has earned several awards and competed in international film festivals.
His recent feature, Nothing Without You, is a psychological thriller that will be screening at this year's Sarasota Film Festival on Saturday, April 6 and Sunday, April 7. It's a cinematically gorgeous film to watch and I was rivited with Irving's mastery behind the camera. The dynamic script is layered with clever plot twists along with fascinating depth to his characters. The film centers around Jennifer Stidger (Emily Fradenburgh), a psychiatric patient who is accused of killing the wife of a man she's been stalking. Without any support from authorities to help her prove her innocence, she finds herself turning to her appointed psychiatrist, Charlie Branham (Keith McGill), for help. Throughout this suspenseful story of betrayal, we find out for ourselves what is truth or merely her own hallucinated fantasy. I recently spoke with Irving about his work on this film, especially on the mechanics behind the camera and the writing process that created his characters. He also shared insights on the festival experience for filmmakers like himself, as well as the distribution paths they consider today versus years ago.
Robin Punsalan: How long have you been writing, directing and producing films? When did you realize this was a craft you would dedicate yourself to?
Xackery Irving: After film school at NYU, I started putting together a documentary called American Chain Gang. That really got me started. The film did well in the festival circuit, playing at SXSW (a finalist for Best Documentary Feature), Atlanta, Nantucket and the Human Rights Film Festival at Lincoln Center. After its run, I started working on a few scripts and began shooting and producing documentary television.All along, I had this idea for a film about a woman who stalked men, but was likeable and a little misunderstood. The concept was a psychological thriller driven by an interesting character who kept the audience guessing about her intentions and her sanity. Through her perspective, the story could play with an audience’s sense of reality and lend itself to some fun plot twists. I knew it would be an enjoyable film to make, but the script had to be just right. That basic idea stuck with me for years and eventually became Nothing Without You.
Robin: What or who are your influences? Other filmmakers' work that inspired you?
Xackery: I really like to watch as many films as possible. Particularly ones that push the limits of storytelling. For this script, my writing partner, Rick Santos, watched every psych-thriller we could get our hands on. Memento, The Machinist and Pi were good to study since they were independent films in the same genre that were done extremely well. Also watched and re-watched a lot of Alfred Hitchcock, René Clément and Brian DiPalma films.
We knew our budget would be low since this would be our first narrative film, so it was good to watch every independent film we could. We looked for films made on tight budgets that pulled off a good story with great production value.
Robin: Tell me about the producing and directing of such shows as Trauma: Life in the ER and The First 48. Could you explain that temperament shift in camera work as opposed to this film? It seems like they are two entirely different animals.
Xackery: For both these shows, you had to always be ready to go and stay sharp since you were always "on call." Sometimes you would be up for days on end to follow the course of the story. It was great training since you had to get into position quickly, define your story and do it efficiently. There were never any second takes.
On one shoot, our crew followed paramedics in Oklahoma City. An F-5 tornado ripped through the area and we had to be prepared for whatever the medics encountered. The medic I followed treated a few dozen badly injured patients by himself in an area that was reduced mostly to rubble. He saved many lives almost single-handedly and I will never forget the experience of documenting the work he did that day. There were some truly unforgettable experiences doing this work.
Narrative filmmaking is a different animal, but the same principles apply. You have a limited time to engage with your subjects, get your coverage and tell your story the best way you can. In both arenas you have to think quickly on your feet.
Robin: When I saw the trailer for Nothing Without You, I had to ask what sparked this script. Your lead character, Jennifer Stidger, is executed with such compelling depth. What was the writing experience like while fleshing out her character and the plot?
Xackery: Jennifer Stidger was a challenge to bring to life, but worth all the effort. We wanted the audience to relate to a protagonist whose behavior makes you question her sanity and even fear in her actions. The key to it was to focus on the dynamic with her psychological landscape and emotional perspective, allowing us to empathize with her and see her vulnerability and strength.
The main goal in creating this character was to bring to life a female lead character that went beyond the role of a love interest or a passive figure seen through a perspective of male characters around her. In so many psych-thrillers the female characters, even if they are front and center in the story, are often defined through their relationship to the male characters. Our goal was to allow Jennifer to be a fully dimensional lead character that was deeply flawed, relatable and one step ahead of everyone else around her.Robin: This is a beautiful film to watch. Everything you shot in the lighting, composition and color palette is gorgeous. When writing, do you visualize the frames in your head? Or do you allow yourself to be open to the surprises of discovery while on the set? Or both?
Xackery: I decided to operate the camera on this film. This helped our production team move fast and keep a small footprint. We needed to with a 188-scene film scheduled for four weeks of principal photography. Though we had a pretty decent lighting package, many times we used mostly available light. This was the advantage of shooting on a Red Digital camera. I could see right away what we had and know what we needed to light and what we could shoot naturally.
After blocking and set dressing, we would cover the scene. Then we would do a take or two where I moved the camera into position based on the rhythm of the actors’ performances. This ended up being some of our best material and eventually we became less reliant on the shot list. Some of that training from documentary television production definitely came in handy then.
Robin: I don’t believe many (myself included) fully understand the process a filmmaker goes through to have their work chosen for festivals, picked up for distribution, etc. So, what’s it like? What have you experienced? It seems arduous in self-marketing, getting the funding ...
Xackery: Like most things these days, it is changing rapidly. With my documentary American Chain Gang, we were able to find major distribution early on. Now distributors are tightening their belts and becoming more selective. The market is tough for them, so without name talent in your film, it is getting more difficult to make a deal.
Talking to other filmmakers, it seems the idea of finding a smaller distributor, an aggregator (who takes less of a commission) or even a do-it-yourself approach seems to be the way to go. There are a lot of ways to get your film out there and connect with an audience. Whichever distribution path a filmmaker decides to take, the key seems to be using social media to engage with your audience early on. We put together a Facebook and have been lucky enough to connect with users across the globe who enjoy our genre film. We are at nearly 23,000 "likes" and that is without most of them seeing the film. Since computers and mobile devices are the platform that most people are seeing films these days, connecting with your potential audience in this way seems to be the key.
In the new landscape however, a good film festival is even more important than ever. The Sarasota Film Festival has developed a great reputation for being one of the top independent film festivals in North America. For the filmmakers like us, being invited to screen our films helps us to connect directly with people who like independently-produced films. Nothing beats showing your film to a receptive audience.
Robin: Have you been to Sarasota before? Besides your own screening, what other events at our festival are you looking forward to?
Xackery: Yes, I have enjoyed visiting Sarasota and Longboat Key a few times. Remember the great beaches, friendly people and having a great dinner at Euphemia Haye. The producer and co-writer is a native Floridian who has been to the Sarasota area many times. Friends, family and members of the cast and crew will be joining us. I think we are all looking forward to meeting as many people and seeing as many films as we can.
- To purchase tickets for Nothing Without You and others, visit sarasotafilmfestival.com.