The cast and crew of First Date spoke with Solzy at the Movies before the film premiered during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Co-director Manuel Crosby, producer/actor Brandon Kraus and stars Tyson Brown and Shelby Duclos joined over Zoom to discuss the film. First Date premiered during Sundance in the Next section and since went on to be acquired by Magnet Releasing. The film opens in theaters and VOD this weekend.
Crosby co-directs and co-wrote the script with Darren Knapp. As I wrote in my review in January: “Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp use First Date to pay homage to the great filmmakers of the 1990s and 2000s. I’m looking at this film and it reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Kevin Smith, and more. They are the filmmakers who made their films outside the system and still found a way to make it big.”
How thrilling is it to get into Sundance?
Manuel Crosby: Pretty thrilling.
Shelby Duclos: It’s extremely thrilling.
Manuel Crosby: Yeah.
Tyson Brown: Crazy.
Shelby Duclos: Yeah, unbelievable.
Manuel, how did you and Darren Knapp first come up with the idea for First Date?
Manuel Crosby: I was actually at Darren’s house in Valley Springs, the town where we grew up, both of us. I was having car problems, actually, with my used car. I was just kind of talking to Darren about how it sucks how you buy a used car, you don’t really know who had it before you and how well they treated it, what they put it through, and you have no idea of the history. And then that sparked the idea—that’d be a cool movie. What if a high school kid bought a used car to take his crush out on a first date but that car had the sketchiest back story you ever heard of. We started throwing ideas back and forth, came up with funny ideas for scenes or interesting stuff that could happen. By the end of that breakfast, we actually had the outline for the story. That never really happens when you’re trying to write stuff. Usually, it’s a lot more kind of soul searching and staring into the blank page. But we were like, Wow, this is weird, we should make this movie. That’s how that happened.
Can you talk about the writing process?
Manuel Crosby: After that, we started to work on the script. Like I said, we had these story beats already in place. We fleshed out the characters. We really wanted to give every character, including the minor characters, just kind of their own life, their own concerns, worries and quirks—just things they were most focused on within this larger story and to create the sense that there was this even bigger story and the movie was just showing you one small part of it—that was really important to us.
We also really enjoy movies that we’re not sure what’s going to happen next either because you don’t really know for sure what genre you’re supposed to be in. Things kind of get reversed. You’re not sure how characters interconnect in the beginning. Those are all elements of the writing process. I live a couple hours away from Valley Springs so we get on the phone in the morning, talked things over, we’d screenshare, I typed the script, and we throw lines back and forth, that sort of thing. I kind of revised it and cleaned it up. We did that for the majority of 2017 until we got a draft that we were really happy with.
When did you all go into principal photography?
Manuel Crosby: We started the bulk of our shooting in September 2018. We actually shot the very first scene first several months before because we wanted a proof of concept basically but we had already decided to make the movie so we thought let’s shoot something we can use. The first scene was relatively confined in scale and in number of people involved. We shot that, cut it together, did a sound design, and I kind of did it up to the quality of the finished film and used that as a fundraising tool, basically. Brandon used that to help raise the remainder of the budget as we were going. We continued to shoot starting in September of that year, after we had our whole cast together, still raising the budget as for going, shooting around things we didn’t have yet so we’re starting with the easier scenes first because we just had this feeling it was gonna work out. We’re like, yeah, if it doesn’t, we’ll find a way anyway. We shot pretty heavily through January 2019 and then sort of tapered off from there, getting pickups and so forth.
Our schedule was also kind of spread out because of the nature of the shoot. Everybody involved had other jobs or professional commitments that we were working around to try to get this massive cast all in the same place for the scenes that they needed to be and for Darren and I working around our day jobs as well just to make the film. A little unconventional but in the end, it was actually very beneficial. It helped us really see what we were getting as we were shooting and I was putting the first cut together.
Tyson, this is your feature debut. What was it about the script drew you in?
Tyson Brown: Just the roller coaster of events that take place. It was like an honest adventure and just thinking back as a kid, watching movies like this or watching movies that took characters on extreme adventures. It was exciting to see like, Oh, I get to do this early on in my career already. I was just pumped to do something like that.
To have your feature debut take place at Sundance, that has to be exciting?
Tyson Brown: Oh, yeah. It’s like everyday, it’s real. Like even today, I’m just like, Oh, yeah, it’s premiering today on Sundance. That is quite the tale right there. It’s pretty cool.
I only wish that you and the rest of the cast and crew could have experienced that in Park City. There’s nothing like watching a film with that audience on the mountain.
Shelby Duclos: That would have been so fun, too.
Manuel Crosby: Yeah.
I’m in Chicago right now and Mother Nature decided to give me some of that Sundance experience with a foot of snow.
Shelby Duclos: At least you have that.
Tyson Brown: Yeah, we got five feet out here in Tahoe.
Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about shoveling any of it.
Manuel Crosby: Nice.
Shelby, this is your first big role. How did you decide it was the right time to make the leap and what did you enjoy about the script?
Shelby Duclos: When I first read this, that’s actually what made me want to take the leap is the script. When I first read it, there was just so many things that appealed to me as an actress—you get to do action stuff, you get to do a little bit of comedy for me, and then some romance. I’ve never done anything like that. When I first read it, I was just immediately like, this would be such a great project to work on. Furthermore, when I went in to do my audition and I met Manuel and Darren, they were just super excited about the project. I remember reading the script with Manuel when we were doing the audition and even just doing this audition with me reading it, he was super into the character. He was Mike—he was a pretty good Mike by the way. He was so into it and I was like, I just love the excitement in it. I was like this, everybody seems so excited. I just was really hopeful that I would actually get the role. When I did, I was just so stoked that I knew it was gonna be a good one. I believed in it from the very beginning so to be here is just unbelievable.
What was the most challenging part of the production for First Date?
Manuel Crosby: Brandon, I’d love to hear you chime in as well. The climactic sequence was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, film production wise or work wise generally. It’s funny, we never really stopped to think about if we could do it or not. It was never really a question but it was just more of really getting serious about finding the ways to make it happen and being strategic about that. Also, the management of a large number of people coming together and being very focused over the shooting period for that. When that was over, I remember the sun was coming up and we had kind of struck the set. I helped our gaffer, Cody Martin, and Rylon Bird, our key grip, strike the set. I was just sitting there on the location like, we just did that. This movie is real now.
Brandon Kraus: From my perspective, I’ll cover a few different little areas—production wise like the live set. Our five overnight back-to-back shoots for the climactic scene with dozens of cast members and crew and everything, the management of everybody in the production itself was extremely complex. I think Manuel and myself only slept one hour at night for five nights in a row, like literally one hour. He’s behind the camera—we wore so many different hats and we were so blessed that we had everybody else helping us, people volunteering to PA and the crew members just busting their ass to get scenes shot. We literally had such a little time that we did, on average, one and a half takes per angle per shot. That was ridiculous to overcome and like Manuel said, once we finished, it was like, Oh my G-d, we just did that. That was crazy.
From my perspective, raising money for your first feature film—something where you don’t have any track record, it’s extremely difficult. I learned a ton. I’m a salesperson. I sell a lot of commercial real estate and whatnot. I learned a lot about the sales process, how to pitch movies, how to get the excitement, the buzz around it, and I loved that process.
And then as an actor on the in the movie, playing Chet, I love working with Manuel. He kind of touched on it, I think, in previous interviews, to pull off comedy. I have a scene near the end that’s a very vulnerable scene that’s comedic at the same time. How do you balance that comedy and that vulnerability of—I won’t spoil it—but how do you balance all of that? He really walked me through it and helped. The characters just have to take the situation really seriously and stay in it like he says. I took that advice and I just ran with it. It was a really fun and interesting scene. I will add my sister—she’s a little pain in the butt sometimes—she was literally off camera laughing at me while I’m trying to be vulnerable having this comedic scene and that was probably the most challenging part. My sister’s laughing at me and not only that, we are in the middle of nowhere in fields with cows, and the cows are mooing, ruining takes, while I’m trying to—I won’t spoil it but I’m extremely vulnerable and cows are mooing. My sister’s laughing. It was ridiculous trying to pull that off from an actor’s standpoint. But hey, we got to take. I think it’s funny. You’ve got to check it out.
To be a fly on that wall.
Brandon Kraus: Seriously.
In watching First Date, I had the same feeling during this film that I had two years ago with The Vast of Night in 2019. I love how this film aims to be every flavor at the soft drink machine in the theater lobby. I just love that.
Manuel Crosby: Awesome. That was the goal. I love The Vast of Night by the way. I was so taken by that movie and thought it was so cool. We wanted to create a ride and there’s so many different ways you can do that. You can do that with characters, story, and with expectations as well. That’s something that the movies, Darren and I, that we really love that they do so well and inspired us to kind of put our own little mark up there next to him.
Were there any particular influences in terms of the look of First Date?
Manuel Crosby: I’m a big fan of the work that Andrzej Sekula and Guillermo Navarro did with Tarantino on his first couple film. It has a rough quality to it that’s just also has a pop feeling as well. I don’t quite know how to describe it but there was something in there that we really liked. Even looking at a lot of 90s independent movies or indie crime movies, there’s like a certain type of lighting that we tried to sort of run with and replicate a little bit. We wanted to also give it some scope so we looked at even stuff like Indiana Jones and Star Wars in terms of the camera direction and things like that. The Coen brothers and Rian Johnson, actually, as well—their kind of lens choice and camera placement—it heightens things and it brings a comedy just in kind of the spatiality of what’s on screen sometimes but can also have a darkness to it when appropriate as well. Because I was also shooting it, I was paying close attention to it as well. We did the best we could to kind of blend all those things together and then put our own little spin on it to kind of create a borderline fantasy heightened sort of feel to this story about this kid’s crazy night.
Were you shooting First Date on digital or film?
Manuel Crosby: We shot digitally but we wanted to capture the spirit, the best we could, of those movies that were shot on 35 and maybe even not so great of a film a little grainy or a little more contrast, what have you. I would have loved to have shot on 35 but it was just not an option for us for this. But that’s part of the fun, too, is you have a challenge and you figure out, well, we want to do this, how do we actually pull that off with what we are able to work with?
Robert Rodriguez was a big inspiration to both Darren and I for just using creativity to solve problems that came our way. He always just talks about how the most important thing is to start—everybody’s creative. You can use that ability—that superpower—to get past the lack of technical knowledge or other obstacles you have. Those obstacles may lead you down the road it’s never been before. He likes to say if you go off the beaten path, you’re gonna stumble but you’re also gonna stumble upon something that you never would have found if you were taking the road well traveled. It was a fun challenge.
With not being able to watch First Date tonight in Park City with a large theatrical audience, how are you going to be gauging the audience reaction?
Manuel Crosby: I guess we’ll just hope that everyone likes it. Sundance has a chat feature on their screen that people can kind of chime in and say if they like it or not. There’s even this cool like little VR world you can go in and talk to people and stuff, which is actually pretty, pretty fun. We hope—after the screening—to get in touch with some people who hopefully like it and just hear what they thought.
The distribution landscape is changing with the rise of streaming. What are you looking for in a distributor?
Manuel Crosby: Somebody who’s gonna put this movie out to the types of fans who will really enjoy it. I mean, just as a movie fan myself, it would be a dream come true if this was on Blu-ray or even in some theaters because Darren and I are cinephiles and we love to see movies like that in the way they’re meant to be seen. It might play well in the drive-in—it’s that kind of movie. That’d be so awesome to me but I think that the biggest thing is for us just to get it out there and just to have it accessible for people.