Matt Toronto is the producer, writer and director behind the newly released coming-of-age teen drama feature Face 2 Face on Netflix. The film won the Jury Award for Innovation at the Edmonton International Film Festival for being shot entirely on a GoPro Hero 4. Talk Nerdy got the chance to talk with Matt about how he got into filmmaking, how the film came together, and what he nerds out about. Keep reading to see what he has to say.
How did you initially get into filmmaking?
Becoming a filmmaker was not a huge leap. I was an actor for years in New York City before I went back to school to get an MFA in directing for theatre. After that, I began teaching at Penn State and became very active as a freelance director in theatres all over the country. I had just directed a brand new musical that we premiered at Penn State. Then we showcased a workshop version of it in New York City. A major production company saw it and decided to produce it, but they hired another director with a lot more credits than I had.
I was convinced that the reason I wasn’t considered was 1) I didn’t have a contract with the writer (rookie mistake) and 2) they had never seen my other work. I told Jordan [Toronto, Matt’s wife], “I wish I could put my directing work in a box and send it to them, so they could see it.” She said, “Honey, that’s called a movie.” (Of course this was before streaming had become such a big thing). Not long after, my brother and I started work on our first screenplay, The Pact. From there, it all happened very quickly. We raised the money much more easily than we expected and suddenly we were making a movie. There was a very steep learning curve. I was the idiot in the corner of the coffee shop with my nose in a book called, So You Want To Make Movies. Jordan starred in that film and also worked on the story with us. Not long after that, she and I started writing together too. Now it’s pretty much a family affair.
The idea for the film came when I was away from the family directing a play at the University of Utah. Jordan was back in Pennsylvania with our three kids and we would FaceTime just about every night. On one occasion, I remarked, “If we were talking about something interesting, this could be a movie.” She said something to the effect of, “Well, why don’t you go write it!” I was only rehearsing by night, so my days were free, and I began to sketch out some characters and story ideas. I had to ask myself who would be communicating like this and why? As a professor of theatre I was working with a lot of young people and seeing how they interact digitally, so that made a lot of sense to me. A lot of my students were also struggling with, or had struggled with, many of the issues that come up in the movie.
At the same time, Penn State was reeling from the sexual abuse scandal with the football coaching staff, so the issue of sexual abuse was very present in my mind. That’s when I reached out to my brother, Aaron, because of his long experience as a therapist treating victims of abuse and because we love writing together. After some more creative discussion, we decided that the video chat convention still served the story very well, so we stuck with it and began to create a script. Besides the factors I already mentioned, a cousin of ours suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father in much the same way that Madison does. Hearing that news had quite an emotional impact on both of us. She was like a sister to us and we were not much older than Teel at the time. In many ways, Face 2 Face is in honor of our cousin.
Why did you choose to film only on Go Pro cameras?
With the whole movie taking place over video chat we wanted to emulate the laptop/phone look. We considered many different cameras and looked at a lot of different projects that used a similar convention. A lot of them looked too “produced” and some others were visually flat and uninteresting. We wanted to thread the needle, where we could create visually compelling images without sacrificing the authenticity. That meant the actors needed to be able to hold the cameras to capture that very specific camera motion you see when you are holding a phone or computer during a video chat. Once we decided on that, we knew we need a light camera rig. We considered using an iPhone, inspired by the Sundance favorite Tangerine. But our DP, Kris Carrillo, found that we could emulate the iPhone look using a GoPro. They were virtually indistinguishable from each other. Ultimately the GoPro gave us more control over settings and some other logistical elements so we went with that and it worked really well!
The story also tackles some very deep and socially relevant topics. What reaction have you received to these storylines?
We have had some extremely positive responses especially from young people. It really seems to speak to them on a visceral level. I think the audience takes away not only a greater awareness of the issues, but a belief in the power of friendship. That is what the film is really about. With true friends and genuine love we can face any challenges that come our way. I think that is what Teel and Madison learn throughout the film. On multiple occasions young audience members, high schoolers, have come up to me or members of the cast and crew, in tears and thanked us for the story. They often share stories of their own struggles, or friends who are facing these issues. That makes me happy in many respects, but it also reminds me how prevalent these problems are. Around the world, one in five women will face rape, sexual assault or incest in their lifetime, and that must change!
I’ll share one more very powerful story. About a week after the film began streaming on Netflix, I received an email through our website. At first I thought it was just a compliment to the film. But as I read, I discovered it was from a 16 year old girl in the United Kingdom. She told me of how she had been planning to end her own life. But one evening she was browsing on Netflix and came across Face 2 Face. Something told her to click on it. She watched the whole thing and suddenly found a new hope. Because of our film, and Teel’s story in particular, she no longer wanted to die. She had decided to live. The power of that hit me like a ton of bricks. We had saved a life! And that alone is worth more than all of the artistic accomplishments in my life combined.
What was the casting process like? Especially considering there are very few scenes where Daniela [Bobadilla] and Daniel [Amerman] are physically in the same room, yet they still have to have believable chemistry as friends.
Casting was a very interesting process. We didn’t hold any auditions in the conventional sense. Besides getting to know their acting abilities, we really just tried to get to know them as humans. Our producer, Ian Michaels, had a relationship with a manager named Michael Abrams, who happened to represent Daniela. Daniela had just finished playing Charlie Sheen’s daughter on Anger Management and was doing a lot of other shows as well. After watching just about all the footage of her I could, I was very interested. We weren’t sure she’d be interested in us, because we were working with such a small budget. So we sent her a script. She loved it! It was time to meet. Trouble was, she was doing a movie up in Canada. That turned out to be fortuitous. We arranged a FaceTime conversation and that was perfect. We asked her about herself and her take on Madison. She asked us about the project. But most of all, we got to see exactly what the movie would look like with her on video chat. It turned out to be better than an audition could possibly be. She was enchanting and we really seemed to connect artistically. So we offered her the role.
As it happened, Dan was also represented by the same manager. So I internet-stalked Dan and watched every piece of footage I could and then we met for coffee, in person. He was a delight and his insight into the character of Teel was tremendous. We offered him the job not long after. Their great chemistry is a result of their great skill as actors, but they also happened to be friends already. I think they became even closer friends during the shoot.
Going off of that last question, what was the filming process like, since most scenes are just Daniela and Daniel talking to the camera? How long did it take?
The greatest challenge in filming Face 2 Face was how quickly we had to do it. We were working with a very limited budget. Most of it came through a grant from Penn State and I was still on faculty there at the time of the filming. Because our funds were limited, we couldn’t shoot for weeks on end. Ultimately, we shot for about eight days with a pick-up day about a month later. It was extremely fast and we had to be extremely efficient. There were instances where we shot almost twenty pages on a single day. Rehearsal was essential. The actors had to be prepared to shoot whole scenes, some were 8 or 9 minutes long, in a single take. Dan and Daniela were both up to the challenge and did a fantastic job. The other reason this was possible was because of the format of our film. Each scene only had two angles, Teel’s and Madison’s. That means we didn’t have to set up the camera for multiple shots in each scene. In the bedroom scenes, for example, we mounted a GoPro to the top of a lap top, lit the entire room and then handed the camera rig to the actors to do their thing. In fact, the actors did 99% of the camera work throughout the whole shoot. It was challenging to shoot so quickly, but absolutely exhilarating from start to finish.
The film was co-written with your brother Aaron and executive produced with your wife Jordan. What was it like working with family?
Working with family is wonderful. We have a deep sense of trust, which makes collaboration very rewarding. We are honest with each other and very demanding in terms of artistic excellence. Though we support each other, we also push each other to be better every day. Sometimes things can get a little personal behind closed doors, but on set our relationships are very professional… but lots of fun and laughs too. One key is making sure to have a very clear shared vision. That way when there are disagreements we know that everyone is after the same thing, that any argument is a result of each of us wanting the best and trying our best. The other key is to remember, no matter what happens… it’s just a movie. It also helps that we love each other and like each other.
Since our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us, we always like to ask: what is something you nerd out over?
Jordan and I both love musicals. We nerd out like crazy over them. We were both musical theatre majors at the University of Michigan and that’s where we met. Then we worked in musicals for years while we lived in New York City – we even played Danny and Sandy in Grease together… twice. The nerdiest thing we do is quote musicals to each other during conversations – a lot of really obscure ones too. Our kids find it extremely embarrassing because it often happens in public and it always entails singing.