Fast Girl, currently on DVD release, is an independent film about Alex Johnstone, a young woman with a quest to enter the male-dominated sport of auto-racing. Mircea Monroe, who appeared in the Fox television series Drive, plays the lead role and Justin Guarini, of American Idol fame, plays her love interest. In this interview for varaces, director Daniel Zirilli discusses his latest film.
Tico Romao: A film about auto racing seems to be a departure from your previous work. What attracted you to the auto-racing dimension of the story and how did the original idea come about?
Daniel Zirilli: I never want to be limited to one genre of film, and certainly, the types of films I have done only scratch the surface of my interests. I'm drawn to action & drama, and Fast Girl has both. The idea of a female racecar film came from one of my best friends, Tim Elwell - he had an eye on what Danica Patrick was doing and he thought it would make a great film. Of course we could not get the rights to her life story, so I came up with the title and we developed the story along and handed it Glase Lomond to write the screenplay, and it was produced by Matador Motion Pictures, in association with my company, Popart Film Factory.
TR: Several of your films have strong female leads. Like the sport itself, auto racing films tend to be male orientated, apart from a few such as Jonathan Kaplan's Heart Like a Wheel. Where you influenced by it or any other films when coming up with the story?
DZ: I love showing strong women on film who are "driving" the plot, with the story revolving around their actions. I have not seen Heart Like a Wheel - though I will rent it, thanks for the tip. If anything, the female influence in my work might come from my close relationship with all the women in my life.... My mom, my sister, my wife, and my daughter. Girls can kick ass. In film they need to be shown more often as strong & independent - not just as the "girlfriend" or "wife", because women are so much more than just a part of a man's life. Danica Patrick is a prime example. I was very careful not to trade on the sexiness of Merica as Alex in Fast Girl. In fact, I toned it down. No "producer" on this film forced the "boob shot" which has happened in the past, where they literally "require" it. This story is actually a wholesome, family film, with classic struggles and good core values. Mercia is a fine looking girl, she has been in Maxim magazine etc, but her character in Fast Girl was not using her sex appeal to get ahead. She succeeds by her hard work, talent, and determination.
TR: You have extensive experience producing and directing music videos for some major artists. Given your background, are there any connections between automobiles and music that you have pursued in your work?
DZ: Obviously in music videos - cars are everywhere. I have literally shot hundreds of cars in my videos - from low-riders to Bentleys. I think the best auto sequence I've shot, outside of what we did in Fast Girl, was a Ferrari on 35mm film on the 7 mile bridge in the Florida Keys surrounded by water, from street level and with a chase helicopter. Amazing. I would love to do more car films, but I need a real budget to do everything I visualize, and do it safe. Another great director of photography I've worked with...on 15 music videos and the Rolling Stones "Voodoo Lounge"... is Ericson Core. He shot The Fast & the Furious, and other big budget studio films. On Fast & The Furious - they had the budget and Ericson had the talent to get everything they wanted in the can, and whatever they could not shoot - they did with CG. Some of his racing sequences are incredible. On indie films, and with our approach to Fast Girl - we need to be more down to earth, so we focused on the story, and the emotional connection to our characters, set against the exciting backdrop of the track. Music can help the audience "feel" a scene or a moment, even if it's very low in the background, almost subconscious. Nicholas O'Toole was the composer, and we were fortunate to have some great pop songs by Kate Voegele on the soundtrack.
TR: Did Mircea Monroe and Justin Guarini bring any previous driving experience to their roles?
DZ: No. They did a great job getting towed around on a process trailer! (haha). But I must say - Mercia and Justin were very professional, committed to their roles, and a pleasure to work with. Also, Dwier Brown played Alex's uncle - and he is an amazing actor. This strays a bit from your question, but even though I have directed 14 films, and 250 music videos, I have only worked with SAG actors on two films. So really, I feel like my feature film career is just starting. I have a ton of experience making films, and now I am finally getting to work with actors who make my films better not worse. I don't mean that as a snub to non-union actors, as there are some actors in my films (such as in Clash) that have all the talent in the world... but I love working with SAG actors, and Mercia, Justin and Dwier are fantastic.
TR: How were the motorsports teams The Flying Lizard and Phenom Racing Group involved in the making of the film?
DZ: We worked with professional raceteams - Flying Lizard and Phenom Racing Group, so we were able to use their cars and drivers to do the real driving - as they know the tracks and their cars better than anyone. We also gave them the script in advance for feedback, and they had some solid ideas, most of which we incorporated. Jason Dittmer, (the Director of Photography on Fast Girl, and one of the producers of the film) also has an auto-racing background, so I took his advise very seriously. It was very collaborative, and part of my job as the director is to consider feedback from people who know more than me on a topic, and figure out how to translate that information so it comes across to the audience. One of the biggest compliments the movie has received is that it is very authentic. I did drive the Mustang a few laps in a wide shot, but kept it below 140... (That car was a rental after all!).
TR: Most of the racing scenes were shot at Willow Springs Raceway in California. What was your experience working with them during the shoot?
DZ: The entire shoot was three weeks long, and we only had the track for 4 or 5 days, so we made the most of it. We had to cheat a lot of the pit action in a parking lot, which was tricky, but the track itself had the feel we wanted: small town, family owned, accessible, and very exciting to drive. Willow Springs calls itself the fastest track in the west, and it is.
TR: Fast Girl was shot in HD but has the look of a film shot on 35mm. To what extent does HD facilitate shooting auto racing films such as this?
DZ: The DP (Jason Dittmer) and I had shot 2 or 3 previous films on 35mm, which is still my format of choice for most of my work. But you need to choose the correct format for every project, and for Fast Girl, HD was the way to go. With all those fast cars and so little time, we needed the ability to rig various small cameras all over the cars, and let them roll on entire laps. On 35mm, that would not have been possible on our budget. Sorry I keep having to note the budget, but in indie film, the budget really does affect your choices. I always strive to make the most of whatever I am working with, and HD was the best choice in order to get the coverage we needed. Jason and his crew did an amazing job mounting the HD cameras to the cars, and on the track - we shot from every angle we could think of to try to put the audience in the drivers seat. For the "drama" aspect of the film, we kept our camera moves slow and deliberate, with some long lens lock offs, so there was a classic look to them.
TR: Allumination Filmworks is distributing the DVD. What opportunities does direct-to-DVD provide independent filmmakers?
DZ: I'm a realist. Most of the films I have shot so far have been under $500,000, and the fact is - no matter what other filmmakers say - almost all the films under that budget are straight-to-dvd. I call it like it is, and I always try to do my best work no matter what the budget. For small films, there are really three viable markets: DVD, TV, and International. Now the lines between domestic dvd and tv are crossing with digital delivery, pay-per-view, video on demand, etc.... but most times you will have a domestic distributor - who takes dvd & tv in North America, and international distributor who takes the rest of the world. Aside from my own films, I have helped over 30 other films find distribution through my connections, and welcome submissions via my website: www.popartfilmfactory.com. Mar Vista is handling international on Fast Girl and doing a wonderful job, they are very supportive. Mercia Monroe and I were just in Moscow for a film festival, and Fast Girl won an award - "best sports-film debut". Kind of a vague sounding award - but the fest hosted us the whole time, we got to hang out in Red Square, and generate more awareness for the film through the screenings and award. They invited us to screen in Italy next!
TR: What are your future film projects and will they feature any significant automotive content?
DZ: I just produced and co-directed (with Jeremiah Hundley) a film in Thailand, called The Lazarus Papers, starring Danny Trejo, Bai Ling, Gary Daniels, and Tiny Lister. There are 3 or 4 other films that are close to being made - but I never can tell which will get the greenlight first: a mixed-martial arts film in Brazil - called Merciless, a ‘Sergio Leone' style western called Pistoleros, and Alcatraz Island Escape: Deathbed Confession based on new information about the escape from Alcatraz in 1962 by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. But, I would LOVE to do more car films! If we do Fast Girl 2, the next step for Alex Johnstone is to have her break out of her small town track, and race on a profession team. I would love to shoot at real auto-racing events, on tracks around the world.
Thank you! Daniel Zirilli