‘Daddio’ Is the First Grounded Drama to Use ‘Mandalorian’ Technology
Sep 18, 2023
The Big Picture
Christy Hall’s feature directorial debut, Daddio, takes place almost entirely in a moving vehicle with just two characters played by Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn. While at TIFF 2023, Hall revisited her collaboration with her actors who also produced the film. On top of that, Hall explained why she opted to film on a soundstage with the drive footage projected around the actors, a similar technology used on big-budget franchise productions like The Mandalorian.
Making a first feature is a feat in and of itself no matter what, but Christy Hall opted to roll with an especially challenging scenario for her first go-around behind the lens as a director. Her feature debut, Daddio, takes place almost entirely in a moving vehicle focusing on just two characters.
Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn both produce and headline the film. Johnson plays a woman taking a New York City cab from JFK to Hell’s Kitchen and Penn is her driver. What may seem like surface-level chitchat with a stranger becomes anything but as their small talk evolves into a conversation about far weightier topics bound to make a lasting impression well beyond their flat-rate drive.
In celebration of Daddio’s international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hall visited the Collider media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL to explain how she went about sustaining a two-hander in a single location for a feature-length film. Check out the video interview at the top of this article to hear all about her choice to make Daddio a film instead of a play, her collaboration with Johnson and Penn, why she turned to Volume technology to film the movie and loads more! You can also read the full conversation in transcript form below.
Image via Photagonist at the at Collider TIFF Media Studio
PERRI NEMIROFF: Before I get into filmmaking specifics, I have a couple of silly personal questions inspired the film. Can you share a memorable cab experience or maybe a memorable encounter you’ve had with a stranger that’s stuck with you?
CHRISTY HALL: Oh, I could rattle on and on. Anyone who’s spent much time in New York has gotten in a cab and engaged with a cabbie just like Sean Penn’s character. It’s just a very specific person that only a place like New York City can provide. It’s kind of my love letter to all the cabbies, the quintessential cabbies of New York City. And yes, I’ve had endless profound, lively conversations with perfect strangers, or imperfect strangers [laughs], I should say, all over New York and all over the world. I feel like we’re losing the art of what it means to just talk to each other, especially talking to someone who maybe doesn’t see the world exactly the way that you do. And so the movie is just kind of getting in there and getting under the hood of what that can feel like.
His line about her not looking at her phone has been ingrained in my brain ever since seeing the film. Now, sadly not a cab, but every Uber I get into, I’m always thinking, “Should I be sitting here with this thing right in my face blocking my view or put it down?”
HALL: That’s kind of the spirit of this film. It’s an exploration of what could happen if we really decide to put our phone down and actually engage with the world because if you talk to someone long enough, they will reveal their humanity to you and I think that that reminds us that we’re all very infinitely connected, and I think that’s kind of the medicine that we need right now.
One more sillier question because his plant in his car stuck out to me.
For you, what is the most random thing you have in your car, a personal touch that you put on it that makes it purely you?
HALL: Oh, I’m so glad you highlighted the plant. Fun fact, it’s a money plant! You know how he goes on and on about the credit cards and money and all this stuff? It’s a money plant that he’s watering each day for good fortune. It’s just a fun little Easter egg.
I love that. Now I want a money plant in my car.
HALL: [Laughs] I know, as I’m talking, I’m like, “I think I need to put a plant in my car.” I think LA could handle it. Like a little succulent could handle it, I think.
So what’s your version of the plant? Do you have something in your car?
HALL: The cutest thing I probably have in my car is, I have a puppy, her name is Monty, and I’ve got a little dog hammock in the back seat so that when I drive around she is cradled in the back and it’s really cute.
Very risky to bring that up – I’ll veer down the puppy path and not about your movie!
HALL: Yeah, we just start talking about puppies! [Laughs]
Image via TIFF
Movie talk right now. I know this idea originally started as a play. Do you remember the moment or specific thing that signaled to you this story is best served in the feature film format instead?
HALL: It happened very organically. I think this would have been beautiful on stage. I wanted to do a theater in the round, black box, and then have the cab slightly turning. And you don’t notice it at first, but wherever you’re sitting, you get to see him from her perspective or vice versa, and that’s kind of the thematics of the front seat/back seat spirit of the film. So I think it would have played really beautifully on stage. But I will say, it was very organic the way that it happened. I’m so excited that it’s a movie because we can get really granular and we can really get up close and personal, and it invites an intimacy that any character-driven chamber piece, it’s like it’s the power of the piece, so I’m really glad we can really get in there.
Now that I’ve seen the movie though, I still want more. Maybe a stage edition is something that the future could hold?
HALL: I will say, my cast is not opposed to it. Sean, when he read the piece, he said, “This made me want to be on stage again.” So I’m not gonna say no.
I want to talk about getting this off the ground because not only is it an ambitious film, but also, you’re a first-time feature filmmaker. When you first decided you wanted to make the movie, what did you think was step one to getting yourself a green light, and now having done it, would you give another aspiring filmmaker that tip or did you find something more effective along the way?
HALL: That’s an excellent question. I feel like success in this industry is a moving target. It’s not a perfect science, so you kind of have to trust yourself and trust that the partners will arrive. It wasn’t necessarily a checklist. It’s more of a leap of faith. This script landed on the lap of Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who’s an incredible producer – The Irishman, Joker, the list goes on and on. It landed on the lap of Ro Donnelly and Dakota Johnson, who are producing partners, and they were like, “Not only do we want to join you as producers, but Dakota wants to be the woman in the back seat.” And then, music to my ears, Dakota said, “Do you mind if I slip the script to my good old friend Sean Penn?” And I just said, “Well, we would be so lucky.” He read it right away, and once cast was solidified, that made it easier to find financing.
But I just have to say to all you storytellers out there, do the work and write from your heart, create from your heart and just really trust that the people who are meant to champion you will arrive, and they’ll arrive right on time even if it takes longer than you thought.
This is why I love coming to film festivals and doing interviews. I do hear that elsewhere as well, but on these particular days, it’s basically being showered in those sentiments.
I want to go back to your cast because Sean is also a producer on the film, right?
HALL: Yes, Projected Picture Works.
When you’re working with two leads who are also producing, do you notice any change in the collaboration given that they have that added involvement in the production overall?
HALL: It actually just makes it feel like a family. Everyone has taken such ownership of it, I feel like when you’re gonna be in front of the camera and then you’re also really integral behind the camera as well. So I honestly just felt so endlessly protected by them. There was no improvising in this film. They really delivered the play because they’re both theater people. Sean’s been on Broadway. He worked with Sam Shepherd for many years, originating a lot of his work in San Francisco. Dakota did theater before she became the glorious movie star that she is. So we just kind of treated it like a play, and they’re word-perfect, so on screen and off screen, they just – look, this being my first feature, I’ve raised my hand for a few of my scripts and I, a lot of times, was told no. I really needed people to surround me, and Sean and Dakota, they put their faith in me, they put their faith in this script, and they said, “No, Christy is the one to direct this and we’re gonna help her push this boulder up the mountain.”
One of my favorite things in the world is hearing about very well-known actors with big platforms using those platforms to support films that maybe wouldn’t get made otherwise.
Hall: That’s it. That’s right.
The more I hear about that, the better.
Image via Photagonist at the at Collider TIFF Media Studio
I want to know about your collaboration with them as an actor’s director, too. Clearly, they are pros, they have wonderful chemistry together, but can you specify something about each of their processes that is unique to them and maybe calls for something different from you as an actor’s director?
HALL: I feel like they took just such incredible ownership of these characters. Sean really wanted to rehearse because I think that’s part of his process. It was really fun. He invited Dakota and I to his house, and we did table work like you do in theater. You kind of read through it, you talk about the intention of each moment, the emotion, and all of it, and then it was like, “Great, let’s kind of get it up on its feet a little bit.” We didn’t want to over-rehearse, but it was fun. We talked about the fact that most of their performance they are connecting in the rearview mirror and not necessarily face-to-face. So Sean was like, “Maybe we should get the feeling of what that would even be like. They’re not across from each other. Their eyelines are up here, right? And so Sean, in his living room, set up a chair and had a pole and put a handmirror and duct taped it to the pole, and then had Dakota sitting behind him so they could kind of mark through the play, just kind of connecting in the makeshift rearview mirror. That was really fun.
It was really important to both of them because – they never have a costume change. They’re just wearing one thing the entire time so I think it would feel really unfair to dictate to them what that was. So, obviously, they worked with our amazing costume designer [Mirren Gordon-Crozier] to find their look, but they both took a lot of ownership of what they’re wearing. Dakota, she really felt very passionate that her character had those beautiful nails, for example.
I feel like they really sunk their teeth into it and really made it their own. It was exciting to me because they never adulterated the characters that are on the page, they just elevated them and just completely made them their own.
You don’t get better partners than ones that are able to do something like that.
I have to get into how you filmed this movie. It fascinates me. How did you come to the conclusion that the best way to capture this material was on a sound stage with the drive footage projected around them?
HALL: It was just kind of a necessity, honestly. We had 16 days to shoot and we were sandwiched between Thanksgiving and the holidays, which is a big busy time in New York, so the idea of trailering them in a cab with grip gear and cameras hanging off the sides, our ability to reset, we couldn’t predict the weather, we couldn’t predict anything, so that just felt really unfair to their performances, and we wouldn’t be able to utilize all the precious time that we had. So then it was like, “Okay, we need to do it on a sound stage,” but to use blue or green screen would look a little too inauthentic for my taste, and then also all that background would have had to be applied later, which would have cost a lot of money for our VFX budget, basically.
We’re utilizing brand new technology. I think that we’re the very first grounded drama to use this technology throughout the entire film. Mandalorian uses this technology, a lot of really big-budget movies, but I think that we’re the first to prove that you can be cutting-edge and it can actually be a huge gift if you have limited time and limited budget. So everything interior in the cab is shot on a sound stage and people are really surprised to hear that. We surrounded the cab with these really high-resolution LED panels, and they’re basically projecting the drive that we shot on an array car with nine cameras. It’s incredible. The backdrop and then the foreground with the actors, it’s all filtering in through the lens at the same time, so it looks real and it looks beautiful. We have these gorgeous anamorphic lenses that were de-tuned for a vintage look. So just to have all of that information be captured all at the same time, it allows it to look just magical and beautiful. I’m really proud. A lot of people are afraid of this technology, but I feel like it is the wave of the future. I could geek out about it and talk about it too long, but that’s at least a little bit.
I am curious, what do you think it is that makes people afraid of this technology, and based on your experience, what would you tell them to make them not afraid of that particular thing?
HALL: Look, I believe in shooting organically, and nature is wonderful, and when you can shoot on location, there’s nothing better, right? But again, if you have constraints of budget and time, I just feel like it actually is honoring the beauty of nature just in a way that is a little bit more conducive to a shooting schedule, right? For example, let’s say I had an eight-page sunrise scene of, like, mother/daughter sitting on a porch talking to each other. You could shoot the sunrise and then play the sunrise back. You could shoot that scene over the course of three days and the sunrise could be set and reset, and the colors will look the same, the continuity. It could also give young filmmakers the ability to hold on to scenes that maybe they couldn’t have afforded if you only have the location for one day, because they could be told, “We only have this location for five hours. We can’t chase the light, so maybe it’s not a sunrise scene, Maybe it’s something else.” But I just think that you can utilize it to allow your vision to come through, and it’s very cost-effective.
You just immediately took me back to film school where I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I heard, “Don’t set a scene during magic hour! It’s a teeny, tiny little gap! You’re not gonna be able to do it.”
HALL: So now, with this technology, set all your scenes during magic hour and it looks absolutely stunning.
Again, I am a New Yorker and many New Yorkers will be watching this movie. Is there any particular part of recreating the drive from JFK to Hell’s Kitchen that you were most worried about bringing to screen authentically where a New Yorker could watch it and know, “That’s the real deal, that is how it happens?”
HALL: That’s why we use this technology. That ride is very distinctive, and New Yorkers know that. They know that drive.
HALL: So I needed to be able to set and reset that backdrop because you know that when you first leave JFK, it’s very cement-y and industrial, and then when you exit the 495 it becomes more expansive and bright, and then as you’re entering to the city you see that skyline. And New York, the drive itself, is like the silent third character of the film and we just had to get it right. Look, I’m a very stubborn New Yorker and I just was like, “It has to feel real.” So honestly, again, not to go back to the technology, but it allowed us to honor each distinctive leg of the drive in real-time and to be very intentional about every single detail that you see.
I appreciate that attention to detail there.
I have to let you go in a minute, but I love asking this particular question. I’m sure you had long-term filmmaking goals for yourself before making Daddio, but now that you actually made it happen, is there any particular goal that you’ve had that’s been enhanced or maybe that feels more within reach to you than ever before because this film exists?
HALL: Wow, that’s a really beautiful question. You know, I’m not done with the theater space. I’m a playwright by trade, theater was my first love. I’ve always wanted to do film and television, but as a playwright, until you’ve been on or off Broadway and made a huge splash in a regional space like Steppenwolf, for example, a lot of people don’t really know that you exist. So honestly, the success of Daddio, if it also helps open doors for – I have a big library of material of straight plays and also musicals – if it allows me to be taken just even that much more seriously in the theater space, I would love to continue to play in both realms. But I would love to take this success back into the live theater space, so if anyone wants to put one of my plays on Broadway, please give me a call.
Special thanks to MARBL Restaurant for hosting Collider as well as additional sponsors Sommsation, a top wine experience brand and online shop, and Molson Coors’ Blue Moon Belgian White as the beer of choice at the Cinema Center. Additionally, Moët Hennessy featuring Belvedere Vodka featured cocktails and Tres Generaciones Tequila.
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