After an eight-year hiatus, Nebraska native Charles Hood debuts his second feature Night Owls in SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight section. He tells Tiffany Pritchard about his return to action.

Centring on a one-night stand that takes a turn for the unexpected, the comedy drama stars The Mindy Project’s Adam Pally and up-and-coming Rosa Salazar of Insurgent and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials fame. Notable cameos also include Parenthood’s Peter Krause and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale. 

The writer-director opens up about the ins and outs of independent film-making. Preferred Content co-represents the world with Haven, the LA-based production management company that represents the director and produced and financed the film.

How would you compare Night Owls to your first film Freezer Burn?
I suppose you could say they are both comedy dramas, but this film is more of what I would consider my first film. It’s hard to believe I made Freezer Burn with just $40,000. It was something I felt I had to do immediately after graduating from University Of Southern California’s [USC] film school. Looking back I would have waited. It was one of those productions where actors were also boom operators, where producers were also assistant directors and where there were never more than three people behind the camera. I don’t wish it upon anyone, but it was a fantastic learning experience.

Why did it take eight years to make your second feature?
It’s hard to believe it’s taken that long. Myself and my writing and producing partner Seth Goldsmith [with whom Hood attended USC] shopped around several different scripts to Hollywood execs – known to some as the water bottle tour – but nobody seemed to like them. I kept looking at all these PDFs of unproduced scripts on my desktop, and it was incredibly frustrating. So Seth and I decided to do it on our own. 

How did you come up with the concept for Night Owls?
There are elements of both Kevin [Pally] and Madeline [Salazar] that Seth and I could relate to. Suicide is a dark subject, but I think everyone has at one point thought about it – I know I certainly have. Uncomfortable one-night stands is another topic I think most people have experienced at one time or another, so that was the initial scenario we wanted to work with. It just happened that it could be shot in one location, which of course helped with our budget.  

Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar had natural chemistry together. How did the casting come together?
I know this sounds funny, but it really was one of those things that magically came to fruition. My agent knew Adam Pally, who was on our wish list for the role of Kevin. She sent him the script, and within days he came on board. He then suggested Rosa [with whom he worked on the film Search Party] and a similar thing happened. It really worked out – I think Adam’s comedic flair brought the best out of Rosa’s more dramatic background. 

On the supporting side, Peter Krause and Tony Hale were equally as impressive. Were they more challenging to cast?
At the start of production, we had still not cast the roles of Dr Newman [Hale] or Will [Krause]. Miraculously in the first [out of three] weeks, we saw a film poster with Tony Hale and we immediately thought, ‘Perfect!’ One of the film’s financiers, Haven Entertainment made a phone call and he was in. 

Peter Krause was more difficult but that was more because of an error on our part. Rosa knew him from Parenthood and sent him an email. When he didn’t get back, we gave up on the idea and started looking for someone else. She realised she had his wrong email. Once that was sorted, we were pleasantly surprised how enthusiastic he was about the project and subsequently how easy-going he was to work with. 

Because this is a dialogue-driven film, were you able to find time for rehearsals?
Even though this budget was more substantial than Freezer Burn, it was still under $1m, making for a tight three-week schedule that included 12 night shoots. So rehearsals were mainly done during camera and lighting set-ups. And because the schedule was so rigorous, there was no extra fluff. We didn’t veer far from the script; it was more about getting the shot and moving on to the next scene. 

How was the financing set up?
It’s always a struggle. I’ve been lucky to earn money working as a writer-producer in reality television so that, in addition to my wife’s support, allowed me to put forward a portion of the budget up front. Haven Entertainment stepped in and helped secure our final funding. 

Would you say comedy is your forte?
It’s definitely something that comes more naturally to me. Though the scripts that Seth and I shopped around were more mainstream ‘studio’ comedies, and they just didn’t seem to work. Thanks to the years of rejection, I realised that capturing an ‘indie spirit’ with comedy and drama is what I want to do.

Have certain directors influenced your style of film-making?
Certainly. I did a degree in critical studies, and I fell in love with directors like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Have you seen The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek? I think he’s one of the most accomplished, yet underrated, writers of all time. In more recent years, I have become a Woody Allen film addict, as well as a big fan of Alexander Payne. They wonderfully capture comedy and emotion and have helped define a new genre in film-making.  

What’s next? 
I can’t say too much, but I will say I hope Seth and I, along with the family of [mostly] USC crewmembers we have worked together with since Freezer Burn, will be back in production soon. We have a couple scripts we’re working on that are in the vein of a comedy drama, but with a sci-fi twist.