Posted on Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Dances with Films’ ‘Foil’ Creators & Stars on Their Indie Filmmaking Journey

Zach Green and Devin O’Rourke are the incredibly talented creators of the indie film Foil, which premiered at the Dances with Films film festival on June 30.

Foil is a captivating blend of Texas indie sensibilities and sci-fi elements, born out of Zach and Devin’s mutual love for buddy comedies and sci-fi films. The film follows two best friends who find a piece of foil with potential alien origins while camping in the California desert, causing a rift between the two. It explores themes of friendship, loyalty, and the blurred lines between reality and the supernatural.

Zach and Devin were involved in every part of the making of this film as both of them wrote, produced and starred in it, Zach directed it, and Devin was the editor. From the initial concept of two individuals in a desert airstream trailer stumbling upon a strange piece of foil to the culmination of over a year of collaboration, script development, and the production process, their dedication and creative synergy shine through every frame.

PH: Can you share a bit about your professional background? How did you get into the industry?

Devin O’Rourke: I went to film school at The University of Texas at Austin and spent my last semester interning in LA. I went back to Austin briefly to graduate, then realized I needed to get back out to Hollywood. I had learned Final Cut and Avid at UT, had received some positive encouragement from an editing professor, so I thought maybe I should look for editing jobs. I found my first job on Craigslist, editing a trailer for a horror film starring Tom Sizemore, may he rest in peace, which led to me getting hired by a small post house and eventually other trailer houses, studios, networks, etc.

During these early years, I acted in some short films, which led to a manager and auditions for sitcoms and stuff like that. That experience was pretty much sitting in casting rooms with a bunch of guys that looked like me, reading one line for “Frat Boy #2” or whatever, and really having no idea what was going on. It all seemed pretty absurd, even at that age. I decided then that I would have to write my own material. So, I’ve been writing and acting in parallel to my editing career for the last 13 years.

My goal was always to make a feature film, and I’m really proud that we’ve finally done that.

Zach Green: I initially was drawn to stage acting as a kid, doing plays and musical theater in middle and high school in Austin and returning to do summer stock through college. Our high school also offered a film class, and I found myself more challenged and intrigued by the process of writing and directing as my focus going forward. I also enjoyed the opportunity to write my own roles into projects. I went to study Film Production at Dodge College at Chapman University. They basically put a camera in your hand upon arrival and are super production-heavy, thrusting you into many positions on student sets to learn the ropes. I learned how to prep for more robust productions and how to handle larger crews on set there. In the meantime, I never stopped acting, and managed to find some luck and success via my Austin roots. Indie filmmaker Bryan Poyser cast me in Lovers of Hate, which premiered at Sundance in 2010, and then cast me again in Love & Air Sex, which premiered at SXSW in 2013. It’s been via the connections forged at film school and on those productions that most of my work and collaborators have since come from.

Separately, I did also have a span where I pursued editing. I grew up using Final Cut Pro and became certified after spending a semester in New York at The Edit Center at Final Frame Studios in 2011. I also spent a summer enrolled at Moviola in Hollywood becoming Avid ACSR certified in 2012. While this didn’t ultimately end up becoming my career path, I still highly value the skills learned in that field. It has been a huge advantage when approaching coverage considerations for a scene, and in understanding the editorial process throughout the post. This allowed me to be a better, clearer collaborator with Devin as he underwent that process for Foil.

PH: Can you talk about some of your previous production experiences?

Devin O’Rourke: All of the short films that I had made or been a part of were basically no budget, two people talking in a room. The most recent one Zach and I did together was sort of like a test run for Foil. It was like ok we work well together on and off screen, what would it look like to expand to a feature?

As an editor, I’ve mostly worked on trailer and promo campaigns for Movies and TV. Foil was my first feature, and I don’t think I would have been ready for the challenge without all those years of post experience which not only improved my editing and sound design chops, but taught me how to manage media, projects, workflows, etc.

Zach Green: As I mentioned above, the first feature set I ever set foot on was Bryan Poyser’s Lovers of Hate, which was filmed in Park City, UT in 2009. My acting role in the film was rather small, but I got to have scenes with the likes of Alex Karpovsky as well as future co-star in Foil, Chris Doubek, whose kindness and willingness to improv and goof always stuck with me. Since I was young and eager and already physically there on set, Poyser also hired me as an assistant camera for his DP, David Lowery, who has since gone on to do some insanely huge projects. I learned a lot really fast. And then for the film to get into Sundance the next year was all pretty surreal. It was hard to fathom just how lucky all of this was on my first ever professional project in front of or behind the camera, and I’ll always look back on it fondly and with awe.

Mark and Jay Duplass were old film school buddies of Bryan’s, and were Executive Producers on the project, so I got to meet them at Sundance and was particularly drawn to Jay. After a couple ballsy conversations and emails, he ended up hiring me on as his personal/production assistant in 2010. I helped him as he underwent production on a small documentary about a local LA musician, Kevin Gant, called Kevin, as well as tried my best to help organize Jay’s daily life and needs, basic assistant stuff, through that summer, gleaning what I could from him in that time.

Meanwhile at school Chapman threw many projects at me in all corners of production, and I also spent a summer PAing at the Sundance Directors Lab. Once again, another ‘film camp’ experience that greatly shaped how I’d prefer a set to feel on projects of my own going forward, and plenty of experience from the crew side of things on how to execute a scene.

After the labs, Poyser hired me again for his next feature, with a more robust budget and crew, Love & Air Sex. I got to act alongside Zach Cregger, Michael Stahl-David, as well as other future Foil co-stars Brian McGuire and Ashley Rae Spillers. Another unforgettable experience. Bryan was always pretty open to questions about his writing and directing philosophy throughout both projects, and I think I’ve tried to emulate his family-like approach to cast and crew morale ever since.

After college, I took a break from filmmaking in general, opting to “live” a little and working as a furniture fabricator at The Haas Brothers studio here in LA for most of that time, but I ultimately couldn’t escape the bug and had to come back to filmmaking and acting, and did so right around the time I met Foil co-creator Devin O’Rourke, via an old college buddy.

Devin and I hit it off quickly and started going to acting workshops together. Soon after, we filmed our first short, Right On, mere weeks before lockdown in 2020. We had so much fun that it quickly led to our feature endeavor with Foil, which we’ve been working on ever since!

PH: How did indie film Foil come about?

Devin O’Rourke: Our mutual friend had a piece of land in the desert with a vintage airstream trailer that we could potentially use as a location. So I thought about what we could write around that. I had the basic idea of two friends discovering an unusual piece of foil in the desert, arguing over its value and what to do with it. But that concept was more like Linklater’s “Tape”, playing out in almost real time, like a play. And it wasn’t funny at all. It was very serious.

Zach and I had recently reconnected, going to acting workshops together and eventually making the short film.

When I brought him the basic idea of Foil, he was enthusiastic about it and we realized we were both into sci-fi and were students of real life paranormal cases as well. So we thought what if we brought our comedic, dialogue driven style to the Sci-Fi genre? And from there we began developing it together.

Zach Green: Devin and I connected over our shared Texan backgrounds, our love of Wilco, and our approach to indie filmmaking. After some time spent together attending acting workshops, we soon decided to shoot our first short together, Right On, in 2020. We walked away feeling like we ought to do that again, but this time to try going bigger. What if we tried a feature? Devin eventually approached me with another seemingly simple idea: What if two guys in the desert come across mysterious wreckage from a potential UFO crash? We soon came to realize we had even more in common: we were both sci-fi buffs that loved UFO lore. I was instantly hooked on the idea. Even better, the same mutual friend who introduced us was offering up his dad’s airstream trailer and some land in Joshua Tree to shoot on. With those parameters in place, we were off to the races to start writing. A feature-length script draft came around by early 2021, and we were suddenly figuring out how to really take this on by the end of that year. And, now, a couple years later, here we are.

PH: How would you describe your creative approach?

Devin O’Rourke: My approach is to have a good plan, but stay adaptable and open to discovery. At every stage of Foil, we discovered something new that we hadn’t anticipated.

Zach Green: I think the simplest way to put this is that I deeply believe it takes a village to execute a film properly. I would never describe myself as an auteur. When I hire a key cast or crew member, I want to hear from them first on their area of expertise, rather than tell them everything I want or how I want it before they have a chance to contribute. I want to trust the expert as much as possible, and truly am hoping they bring something to the table that I haven’t considered or even thought about. That, in a nutshell, is how I like to approach collaborating.

Coming up in theater and improv, I think it’s a similar vibe, where you all lean on each other. There’s no single force guiding the ship, you’re all rowing together. I really like that approach, and cheerleading the strengths of everyone involved. I think people do their best work when they feel most supported, even, or especially, when they're being asked to do something challenging.

Luckily, Devin shares this philosophy as well, and it really showed throughout our experience writing and editing the film. At no point were either of us writing or editing in the same room together. There was no hovering over each other’s shoulder, nitpicking every frame of every word. We liked to give each other the freedom to take stabs at whole scenes or segments of the film, to allow the other to surprise us with punch lines or new concepts or surprising ideas. That trust, I think, provided the space for us to come up with some of our best ideas.

PH: What are some of the challenges of writing, producing, and starring in a project?

Devin O’Rourke: The practical challenge of writing is that when you write something, that means you have to figure out how to shoot it. And with a low budget and a short schedule, you’ve got to be mindful of that. “Character A falls into a giant hole” is one line in a script, but it’s hours of lighting, set design, VFX. It’s the balance of pushing for cool production value but still being mindful of the limitations.

The producing challenge was finding the right collaborators and allowing them to shine. From pre-production all the way through post, we were fortunate to make some great personnel decisions, and we found so many talented people that I hope to continue to work with in the future.

The acting challenge was that on our tight schedule, we usually only had a few takes of each set up, sometimes one. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where I’m talking at a bar. It’s a four page scene and we had run out of time, and the bar owner was standing impatiently behind the camera, trying to wrap us up. On top of that, I had just thrown up from chugging fake beer over and over again in the previous scene. We had to nail my coverage in one take. That was a challenge.

Zach Green: There’s no denying that it’s generally very taxing to wear that many hats throughout a film’s life. It doesn’t leave you with many opportunities to recharge. I’ve heard plenty of times that it’s a director’s job to shield an actor from the awareness of everyday project stresses so they can focus on the acting, and then it’s a producer’s job to shield the director from those same stresses so they can focus on directing. When you wear all those hats, you leave yourself unshielded to a lot of those things that you probably should be shielded from. Luckily, we had an amazing cast and crew, and while there was always plenty to fret about within all those jobs day to day, it wasn’t nearly as fraught as it could have been. That helped keep things from getting too daunting or exhausting. The cast and crew we had are largely to thank for that. But yes, hopefully in the future, we won’t have to wear nearly as many hats to get something made as we had to wear this time around.

PH: How did you navigate these challenges?

Devin O’Rourke: You just have to keep moving forward. You have to believe that you’ll get to the finish line. That’s something that’s great about Zach. He’s always moving forward, staying positive, and looking for solutions. I try to embrace that too.

You also have to learn to adapt and accept some of the cards you’re dealt. Like when we had a hailstorm arrive on us out of nowhere in the middle of shooting. Alright, how do we make this make sense in the story? Instead of viewing it as an obstacle, how can we use it to our advantage?

Zach Green: I think a lot of this project required a certain relentless tenacity, focus, and enthusiasm to survive and keep moving forward. I think the inability for this project to get lost in the shuffle of other everyday occurrences that were put on pause throughout Covid afforded us that extra focus and mental capacity to stay on track and not get discouraged. There wasn’t much else for us to turn toward or distract ourselves with when times got tough or complicated. We could only keep pushing forward, which at the time sounded more appealing than confronting our boredom or trauma surrounding the terrible pandemic among us. Even in the hard times, it felt like there was more enthusiasm surrounding this project than in nearly anything else going on during lockdown, and so in a very weird way I have that time to thank for giving me the gumption to not find a reason to give up on this. That, and it’s also VERY helpful to have a co-creator and collaborator like Devin, who was just as unwilling to walk away from this as I was. A ‘I won’t blink if you won’t blink’ mentality, that I believe egged both of us on further than we would have gotten by ourselves.

PH: Can you talk about your collaborative approach to writing — which involved utilizing your acting and improv backgrounds to record improvisations of scenes and extracting the best bits to shape the final dialogue?

Devin O’Rourke: We would each separately write our version of an outlined scene, compare versions and consolidate into one draft. Then we’d get together, hit record on a voice memo, sometimes video, and read our draft as written, then try some improv, still hitting the same beats, and then rewrite again with that stuff in mind.

Eventually we brought Brian and Chris in for the first table read. We were writing with them in mind, but hearing them read the lines for the first time helped us lock in on their characters more.

Zach Green: Our writing and performing process is about openness, trust, and giving each other freedom to explore ideas. We wrote this during lockdown, and as a result we were never in the same room looking over each other’s shoulders writing it. It was much more ‘let’s both separately take a whack at this chunk’, no expectations, let the other person surprise you with jokes and concepts, see how they respond, and then pick our favorite pieces between the two versions. At no point was any of this ego-driven; we just wanted the best version of each scene. We both also value improv sessions to help inform the writing. We’d meet up in my backyard and just improv through the beats of a scene multiple times, recording the audio, and using our favorite deliveries to ultimately inform the script. And then while shooting we also remained open to discovery of new lines or choices on the day.

PH: What sort of prep went into this project? How did you plan each scene?

Devin O’Rourke: While our writing and performance style can be sort of loose, we knew that with our budget and schedule so tight we had to be extremely prepared. A lot of the pre-production involved Zach huddling with our DP, Jordan Black, to create storyboards and shot lists, and our AD, Soslan Zangiev, to figure out our shooting schedule. Our producer, Jill V. Dae did an incredible job handling a lot of the logistics of our set, our lodging, catering, etc, which really made it easy for the cast and crew to succeed.

Zach Green: Due to our shoestring budget, and because we were going to be on location in the absolutely brutal desert, we really had no room to shoot beyond the exact amount of days it would take for us to get it all. We believed this so much that we actually ended up delaying shooting the bulk of our film, everything but Act 1, by about 4-5 months, to ensure that we were as prepared as we possibly could be. We had to know each scene inside and out before we even got to set so that we could work nimbly and efficiently, and allow as much creative discovery to come from the acting performances as possible, rather than figuring out the coverage on the day. With the extra time, we fully storyboarded each scene. We even went out to the location in Lancaster multiple times with stand-in actors, rented our camera, the Sony FX6, and lights so we could experiment its response to conditions in day and night, and photoboarded as much as we could. By the time we got to set, we had a full Film Bible, with each scene’s camera diagrams, story and photo boards scanned and printed into it. This, too, was hugely helpful, especially on days where we were short on time and had to cut coverage. It kept us fully on top of which angles were must-haves and which were cuttable. It saved us many times and helped keep us on track and on schedule.

In the end, our decision to delay the shoot was one of the best that we made, in my opinion.

It also really let us really take a look at Act 1 and do hugely important rewrites to that section of the film in those months. We even added a scene, where Dexter and Rex bump into each other at a bar, that totally changed the trajectory of Act 1. This also made it so that our meeting up at the bar was the last scene we shot together, when we were pretty in the pocket as co-actors, which made the chemistry in that scene really solid and believable. Lastly, having Act 1 under our belts even allowed us to cut together a little teaser trailer with that footage, which we used to help bring on more investors to the film, every dollar of which was desperately needed.

Anyway, all to say, this was by far the most pre-planned I’d ever been in terms of coverage and technical approach to each scene, and given that the brutal desert conditions ended up canceling about 1.5 days of our already skin-tight shooting schedule, I think it saved our butts out there.

PH: What were some of the themes you explored in this film?

Devin O’Rourke: I’m not a big ‘what is it about’ guy. I like to leave that up to the viewer. But one thing that we talked about was the idea of ‘false projections’. What we project, what we present to the world, what we appear to be, is not always the truth. We see a spectrum of false projections from each character in Foil, and ultimately they are forced to confront reality.

Zach Green: This is one question that can be answered in many ways, and one that I, too, don’t like to answer too much for viewers. But one response that I think is simplest, incorporates the most ideas, and is truest to what we were cognitive of while writing it, is how aware we were of the many uses of the word “FOIL” and how we strived to utilize those approaches to the word in the themes of the film.

For example:

Character Foils: The main characters were designed to conflict with/press the buttons of the other. You have the tighter wound, order-obsessed Dexter/Tom versus the looser, more chaotic dynamics of Rex/Rambo. And then from there, we just made Dexter and Rex’s version of that catered more to a protagonist, Tremors’ Kevin Bacon/Fred Ward-esque, while Tom/Rambo was more like an antagonist, goofy, Pinky and the Brain style. Both pairs were certainly foils of each other, which makes them interesting to watch. To Foil/Be Foiled - Whether it be plans/schemes, dreams/aspirations, reputation, redemption, each character is unhappy with where they are and feels they must do something significant to right their course toward the future they each desire. Dexter grapples with his foiled career, Rex his foiled reputation, Tom his foiled mission and attempts to get home, and Rambo his foiled sense of self/self-worth. We were definitely aware of this use of the word and how it pertained to each character’s arc and internal conflict. Foil (aluminum) – Lastly, and most on the nose, the Foil itself lends to that idea of mirage/projections explored in the film. Foil, itself, is a shiny, reflective, layer that covers (hides) what is truly lying beneath it (even if it’s a sandwich). And we play with that in the rules of the vortex, Tom’s projections, and in how each character presents themselves versus who they really are/how they really feel inside, beneath the outer layer. Again, while there’s plenty more that one could say about the themes explored in this story, some of which I bet a viewer could present to me that I haven’t even thought about, these are definitely some that we were aware of from early script writing stages.

PH: Can you talk about any upcoming projects?

Devin O’Rourke: The acting experience on Foil was really great. I would love to find more opportunities to act and I’d like to develop another Sci-Fi script.

Zach Green: While it’s still in early stages, I am currently working on writing another feature. Think: Foil, but swap the sci-fi for more of a monster movie that incorporates some personal (yet still ultimately comical) family dynamics, and swap the desert for the beach, and you’re pretty much there. I’ve really enjoyed the response we’ve gotten from the Midnight/Fantastic community with Foil and definitely want to return to and build upon that audience with my next endeavor. While the lead characters are aged a bit older than Devin and myself, I’m confident we can find some fun parts for us in it. And I do hope Devin navigates the ship through the edit and through the music supervising process as well, if he’ll let me be so bold to request.

Beyond that? Aside from a couple less fleshed out ideas, who knows! I certainly wouldn’t mind being asked to act more going forward, on film or on stage, and I’m a trained voiceover actor as well who would love more opportunities in that field.

If nothing else, I hope that Foil serves as a calling card for the many hats we all wore in order to make it, and that folks notice what was accomplished with the little that we had, and find themselves able to see what could be accomplished were we ever afforded the opportunity to expand from here.