The River Interview
By Susan Clarke
Webvee Guide was very blessed to be able to hand out an award at this year’s (and very first) Bilbao web festival – the Special Mention of Honour – and we are extremely excited to announce that the winner of this fantastic award went to a series who would soon win many other distinguished awards and make you think twice about a simple game of cards – The River, written, edited and produced by Matt Longmire.
Often described as a combination of “Saw” & “Twelve Angry Men,” The River is the story of five people who have been abducted into an underground game of No Limits Texas Hold’em Poker where the winner will receive $1,000,000 but the losers will die. They must play for their lives and who comes out on top plays out in a wonderfully intricate twist in just nine episodes.
I was lucky enough to be able to interview Matt as part of his prize for winning the award and this is what he had to say:
The River is a very specific story with a wonderful twist, how did you come up with the idea?
It was early in my real film career and I had made several short films & written a few small projects but I knew it was time to make something feature-length. Being on a limited budget, I had to come up with something I could pull off that had a strong concept but minimal production cost. All I had was my American Express card. The idea of five guys with nothing to lose killing each other over a game of poker for a big cash prize felt like something exciting but very easy to sell to a distributor while staying under my credit limit.
Your characters are very well rounded and each stand out – are they based on anyone you know?
Actually, I noticed bits and pieces of myself in all of the characters later but I didn’t start out intentionally modeling them after anyone. I just tried to make them distinct from each other to serve various purposes of the story. I have to give a lot of credit to the actors since most of the idiosyncrasies came out as we worked together to develop their characters.
What made you take your work to the web?
The River was originally filmed & produced as a feature film back in 2009 but due to production and post-production issues (all completely my fault), it sat on a shelf for five years while I became a better editor and audio technology improved. Back then, YouTube wasn’t the same thing it is now and over five years, web series really took off. My friend Liz Ellis (creator of WRECKED), inspired me with her series (and her prodding at me to just get The River finished) to look into what was happening in web series. The sort of episodic nature of The River fit perfectly since someone could die pretty much each episode. Since I wrote it with flashbacks as breaks in the film version, it was already designed to break up into the nine episodes it became. I also had let go of the idea of trying to sell it and was more interested in getting it out there, possibly even as a marketing effort to gain interest in doing a season 2.
Did it specifically appeal to you to have an (almost) one location series?
That was one of the first things I decided. I had to keep costs low so filming in one place was key. Even the flashbacks are at the same house with the garage being used as the “Game Room.” It was where I was living at the time in Pasadena, California. I only rented one location for a few hours (the creepy exterior at the end) but that’s a different story.
The music and the tension really draw you in, did you have this idea from the start or did it come through the edit?
Thank you! The music was originally just placeholder music I wrote and recorded while I was editing and I left it in for the first focus group viewing back in 2009. After almost every review sheet came back with compliments on the music, I decided to keep it in and write more so that each episode had a different song. I wanted something simple and sort of rhythmic to sound as beautiful, yet stressful as possible.
How did you find your cast and crew? And how long did it take to film?
I found the crew on Mandy.com which is great down in L.A. I had a DP, 2nd Camera, & Sound Mixer. The makeup artist was a friend of mine from New York who flew in. I found the cast after posting a listing on Actors Access and then held auditions. Everyone was great and it wasn’t the best filming conditions. Mid-summer in L.A. is not great inside a plastic-lined garage but everybody held it together and took on the challenge. I’ve always been incredibly flattered by how into the project everyone was, especially since I couldn’t pay the actors other than in food really. If I were to do it again, I’d wait until I had a bigger budget, not for more production value but to pay the actors & crew more. That’s my only regret as a filmmaker.
We filmed the whole project over 6 days. I’m proud to say we stayed on budget and on schedule but it was pretty intense. I wouldn’t do that to a cast and crew again. It was manageable but I do feel bad putting them through what we had. I think that experience raised my standards for what I’m willing to do to a cast & crew although no one was really upset about it. Everyone was incredibly committed and professional.
If you had to sum up your series in just one word what would it be?
From the perspective of the majority of the characters, I’d say “desperate.”
The River is exceptionally riveting, it will hold you in its grasp until the very last second and keep you guessing until the credits. A special mention to the cast who bring so much life into this finely tuned show,
The Host: Michael Jaworski
Player 1: Don Danielson
Player 2: Justin Ipock
Player 3: Oto Brezina
Player 4: Alexius Zellner
Player 5: Matt Ryan
Player 2’s Wife: Monika Casey
Player 2’s Brother: Ben Whitehair
Player 5’s Parents: Debra Olson-Tolar & Kevin Flood
and of course to the rest of the Northwest Films Crew. You can find more of their work, and the series itself, on their website: http://northwestfilms.com as well as, of course, on YouTube and please do tell all your friends about this amazing web series. It is living proof that great talent does not mean big budget, just big ideas and a lot of hard work.
We are exceptionally proud to have awarded The River with the ‘Webvee Guide Mention of Honour’ and we look forward to seeing what comes next from such a talented team.