Graham Mason spoke with Solzy at the Movies about Inspector Ike, which will screen during the Rooftop Films Summer Series.
The screening, which serves as the physical premiere, takes place on Saturday night.
What was the genesis behind the screenplay for Inspector Ike?
Graham Mason: Ike is someone that I was a big fan of on the comedy scene out here in Brooklyn. We had worked together on a few projects and at some point in maybe early 2019, I just had the thought that he would be very funny as a kind of silly, absurd detective character. He has a quality that reminded me of Leslie Nielsen and I really, really love those Naked Gun movies because he has a very killer kind of deadpan. He can go very, very absurd but play it very, very straight at the same time. Ike and I started meeting and talking about what we could do and we sort of talked about a web series project—trying to do it as a web series. To try out the material, we did it as live show. There was a sort of improvised kind of whodunit Agatha Christie live show that we did at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre here in Brooklyn.
A producer came to the live show and reached out afterwards and sort of said, Hey, I think that there could be a movie here. I hadn’t really thought of it as a movie. The producer, Ian Bell, said, “We’ll talk to Ike. See if you guys can come up with something.” Ike and I had a conversation and Ike suggested that I take a look at Columbo, the old Peter Falk TV show. I had seen Columbo when I was a kid and I sort of remembered the vibe of it. I got a DVD and I watched it and I was really struck that they were movies. I didn’t actually remember that they were TV movies. I just really liked the kind of humbleness of this idea of a TV movie. I kind of reached out to Ike and I just said, Let’s just do this. Let’s just make a fake Colombo where you’re the detective character. That was the genesis.
What was the writing process like?
Graham Mason: Ike and I would just meet at a diner once every couple weeks. I’d go off and I’d do some writing and then I’d show it to Ike. He would make notes and we’d talk it through. There’s a lot of sort of bits in the movie that are kind of based on bits that Ike does in his stand up set. The voice of the character is very much inspired by the voice of Ike’s comedic persona. It was kind of unique because it was just sort of gathering this material and kind of working it into the script and then working it into this sort of murder mystery plot.
On the set, a lot of the writing happened because a decent amount of the movie was actually improvised. There’s a lot of scenes in the movie where the actors are improvising with each other. I really feel like the movie’s never really totally done being written until you’re sort of hitting export at the very end of the edit. That was very much the case with this movie, for sure.
When I was watching the film the other day, I felt the satire was on point.
Graham Mason: Thanks.
It really did feel like I was watching this long-lost TV movie that was created in the 1970s!
Graham Mason: Oh, that’s great. I love to hear that. That’s awesome.
I also liked how the music also helps to sell the film’s tone.
Graham Mason: Yeah. The music is composed by this guy named Simon Hanes, who lives here in Brooklyn. He has a band called Tredici Bacci and the sort of premise of the band is that they’re sort of like an orchestra. It’s a 13-person band and they’re all music school kids. They do Ennio Morricone music—they can do this kind of 70s orchestral, almost like library music and soundtrack music. That’s their specialty. Simon just pulled—It was sort of miraculous the way the score came together because this is a very, very low-budget movie. I think the production value of the score is really, really high and adds a lot for sure.
I loved Ike’s performance in the film. When you’re filming a comedy of this nature, how do you control yourself from laughing behind the camera?
Graham Mason: I’m actually kind of bad at that. That’s sometimes a problem during sound mix is that it’ll be a good take but the issue is that I’m laughing. You can hear me laughing in the take. I don’t have tips for that one exactly other than, I guess, just get a good sound mixer who can isolate giggling and bring it down in the mix. There actually are shots in the movie where I think you can kind of hear me laughing.
I might have to rewatch the film again!
Graham Mason: That’s an easter egg.
Sometimes, especially in the summer with the AC running, the AC is competing with the sound from the TV. I’ll have to max up the volume some days.
Graham Mason: Same here, same here.
Period films are some of the most challenging films to make. What was the most challenging part in recreating the 1970s on a screen?
Graham Mason: I think a big challenge was getting the costumes right. We had a really good costume designer named Nell Simon. She just kind of thrifted the hell out of the movie. We didn’t have a big budget for really any department head on the movie so Nell just kind of hit the thrift stores and just found a lot of cool 70s clothes and found the right turtlenecks, burgundy blazers, and things. There was a lot of talk about what Ike should wear. When we found that kind of powdered gray suit, it really felt like a kind of breakthrough for the character.
Though I guess the way to answer the question, what was the hardest part? I mean, it was really just kind of create a lens for the movie, this kind of 70 style. The lighting—we’d look at old movies and kind of think about, okay, so how is this lit? We would kind of try to recreate that. We shot it digitally but we did a lot of stuff in post-production to sort of make it look like it was shot on 16 millimeter film.
Pretty much all of my work, including my short films, is very stylized and has a kind of look to it. The look of the movie comes sort of with the idea. I’m thinking about how it’s going to look when I’m thinking just of the genesis of the idea. Watching that old episode of Colombo that sort of sparked it, it was just like, I think we could get these lenses, I think we could get these costumes, I think we could light it this way, and mix it in a certain way. That just kind of became the project. That was just a big part of the project.
Similarly, what was the most challenging part of the production?
Graham Mason: The most challenging part was we just had to work very quickly and we had to kind of trust ourselves that we got it. We shot the movie in 10 days, which is a very fast timeline for a feature film. The script is about 90 pages so that means we’re shooting, on average, nine pages of the script a day. To do that, it just really meant we had to be very economical. We just had to kind of move—we just had to keep moving. A lot of the scenes, it was like, we would shoot maybe two takes of the script and then we were to sort of a long sort of improvised take. The assistant director would be like, you guys kind of move—we have to move on to the next shot. You can’t kind of sit here. It was a real sprint. What was hard about it was just how tiring it was and sometimes lying in bed at night at the end of the shoot, I’d be going like, G-d, did we get it? Did we actually get good stuff in the can? I feel like in general, we kind of got it but I kind of don’t ever necessarily want to do that exact thing again. I don’t want to do another movie in 10 days. I’ll take 12—give me two more days.
I can’t imagine these films that are shooting for 10-15 days.
Graham Mason: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I think though that it creates aesthetic in a way and a kind of tone. It creates this kind of ramshackled quality that, in my case, I think kind of helps the movie because the other thing I thought about was those Colombo TV movies. They’re not shooting those things for a month. They’re shooting those probably in six days. They’re shooting it in a very kind of industrial schedule, I would say. That was something that I thought about looking at Colombo and kind of thinking like, okay, they’re reusing the set so that they can just shoot out a third of the movie on this one location and then they’re using this other location for the other third of the movie. You know what I mean? That gave me some hope that it was achievable on our timeline.
How did you first get into filmmaking and who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Graham Mason: I’ve always kind of just wanted to do it. I grew up in Michigan and my dad is sort of an industrial filmmaker. He does commercials and industrial videos. He had video cameras that he could bring home and I would play with them. I went to film school. I’ve kind of always just been sort of walking in that direction and always been a big movie nerd. I have a lot of favorite filmmakers. For this one, we looked at Zucker brothers movies. We looked at The Naked Gun, Airplane!, and Police Squad, which was the TV show that was sort of before The Naked Gun. I also looked at Mel Brooks. I loved Mel Brooks movies when I was a little kid.
That was kind of fun because I’ve done a lot of sort of fancy film studies but for this project, I kind of was looking at these movies that I didn’t necessarily think about particularly critically when I first saw them. I just loved them—they’re just for fun. It was cool to look at those and just kind of think actually about how they’re constructed and how they’re shot and try to recreate that. Another filmmaker who’s one of my favorites and was someone we looked at is this Finnish guy named Aki Kaurismaki, are you familiar with that?
I can’t say that I am.
Graham Mason: Aki Kaurismaki is a Finnish filmmaker. He’s still active. He’s made probably around 30 movies. They are all these really sweet, kind of deadpan comedies and they’re very beautifully filmed. He’s been a big inspiration for me. That was someone that—me and the DP watched his movies and sort of thought about the lighting and thought about the framing for Inspector Ike.
What do you feel is the hardest part of creating a satire?
Graham Mason: I think just kind of trying to strike the right tone was challenging and trying to keep people engaged. Inspector Ike has a plot. It has an actual kind of story and character development and character arcs. Ike and I both felt like we needed to make sure that it actually had some sort of skeleton to it and it wasn’t just gags because those movies like Scary Movie 6—that maybe kind of a fun movie but there’s not really a story. You don’t kind of come out of the movie thinking about the narrative. I think the hardest part was keeping this sort of satirical spirit and keeping it kind of silly and funny and having kind of a satirical ironic perspective on the source material but then balancing that with a satisfying narrative that’s actually going to keep people engaged and keep you watching until the end.
The film previously screened during the Nashville Film Festival. Are you looking forward to having the chance to watch with an audience during the Rooftop Films Summer Series screening?
Graham Mason: Yeah, big time. I’m so excited. The New York premiere, which is our sort of physical premiere, is on Saturday and I really can’t wait to see it. We shot it in August 2019. I was still basically in post in March 2020 when the lockdown started. I did the color correction and the sound mix all remotely—it all just happened on my computer. We’ve played the sort of virtual film festival circuit, which has also happened on my computer but I have not yet seen this movie with other people. I’ve only ever seen it in my apartment so it’s going to be pretty crazy. Going to be a trip, I think.
Have a great physical premiere.
Graham Mason: Thank you.
Comedies are definitely one of those where you just have to watch with an audience. Watching at home is just not the same.
Graham Mason: Yeah, I think so, too. I love going to see comedies in the theater. I’m hoping we get a little theatrical run and I’m hoping people come up to see it.
Inspector Ike 2—is that gonna happen?
Graham Mason: I’d love to do another one, actually. Like I said previously, I don’t think I could do another one in the same way that we did this one. I don’t think I can really call in all those favors again. But if anybody wants to do it, I’m definitely down. I’ve totally thought about it and I love the idea of keeping it going. Peter Falk did those Colombo’s until 2006 so I don’t mind the idea of doing more of these for sure.
You’ll just want to do it in more than 10 days.
Graham Mason: Yeah, I just need I need 12 days for the sequel. I need two more days.