Having packed his bags and swapped Houston for Hollywood, TJ Marine spent years working in B2B sales – “working in a cubicle all day … it’s the most unnatural thing in the world” – in order to save up enough money and realise his writing and directorial dreams.
The result was three short films, which he combined, extended and smoothed over to create his feature length debut, At Night Comes Wolves. A dark, supernatural thriller, it embraces contemporary themes of #MeToo and emotional abuse.
We sat down with TJ to discuss his movie, lockdown, the state of cinema and what he has lined up next …
The film deals with domestic abuse, misogyny and dangerous cults. All three are pretty dark, thematically, individually … What made you decide to combine all three?
When I moved to California I made a bunch of short films. Because, as a director, kone of the dreams is that you make a short film, and then a producer finds it and you’re like a diamond in the rough. So, I made these three short films. But, at the back of my mind I’m thinking, “What if I turn these into a feature?”
And I loved the idea of that, and I kind of tried to ignore it for a few weeks but it grew on me, like a seed. I went out to some of my cast and my crew from the other films, and I said, “I think I’m gonna turn this into a feature, would you guys be interested to reprise your role?” So those themes, they existed in the shorts.
How tough was it to ensure that these separate shorts, then, interacted with each other in a coherent way?
To me, it was just intuition. I mean, I’ve always loved movies. I’ve been making videos since I was nine. And I was telling stories before that. So, to me, it was just kind of like, you know, going with my storytelling gut. And, as a writer, I had the advantage of also being the director.
So, I can write something that I also know how it’s going to be shot. I know that camera angle; I know the edit point.
I also think there’s enough thematic elements that cross over the films.
There was a lot of collaboration involved. I had a lot of conversations with my composer and he understood that it was previously three short films and that the movie would have a non-liner narrative. We kind of coaxed the music in a way to create cues as to which narrative we’re in. Every time there’s a music cue, it’s either a high tension moment or something with the storyline is about to do something.
I also worked with our cinematographer to smooth out those transitions as well as we could. Hopefully, the audience soon realise that the first fifteen minutes are pretty straightforward. But it’s gonna get wild! So, hopefully, people are along for the ride!
There’s a lot of really personal and intimate moments in the film – as well as the broader elements of the supernatural – how hard was it to cast actors you could get to do both?
Whenever I look at the movie, there’s a lot of moments where I can point to that I can tell people “That right there, that moment right there, that’s the future of my career. That’s how I’m going to make movies.” They’re going to have that level of captivation. And they’re going to have that level of coherence.
It was really important for me to make sure I was casting people who were credible in their word and committed and I knew I was getting that from Gabi [Alves, who plays Leah]. And she had a level of commitment to the character that I trusted because she had already played that role in the previous short film where there were no twists and no supernatural elements. It was just a drama about a woman being manipulated by her husband.
In addition to writing and directing this movie, you also produced it. How hard was it to keep all those plates spinning?
Well, I think it started with being okay with a few years getting taken off my life! So, this movie probably results in me dying or younger man, I don’t know.
But there was not really fundraising for the movie. I did it, I guess you’d say, the old fashioned way. I don’t come from money. I had a day job, I was working in a cubicle, as a consultant, doing business to business sales at a financial consulting firm.
I did it for five years and it gave me the ability to save money. And while I was saving money, I was building up credit. I was also able to take out a pretty small bank loan, too.
At the low budget stage, whenever you’re making a movie for like, $35,000, it’s tough to get somebody to be as passionate about it as you except for, say, an actor, because they were really great. But there was a lot of jobs where I could have gone to a film school and asked a person to take care of X for me. But whenever you do that, you have no guarantee that it’s going to be done right.
I guess me deciding to undertake so many different aspects of the process was having that passion ingrained. I think just the dedication of knowing that this was all on me, and it was my baby, kept me going and able to do all those jobs.
The poster artwork for the film is pretty trippy, almost reminiscent of The Neon Demon or Mandy. Who would you say are your film-making influences?
I think that Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs went through my brain a lot. I love Quentin Tarantino but I know that’s such a film student answer to give.
There’s a lot of Stanley Kubrick in there, I think. And that has to do with the fact that the film has kind of a chilling, unnerving vibe to it – all visuals aside, because we know Stanley Kubrick is like kind of the king of unnerving visuals.
And then, you know, when you’re a young guy like me, whose favorite movie is Jaws, there’s always Spielberg. One of my favorite shots of all time is from Saving Private Ryan, where they talk about making the sticky bomb. The scene has seven or eight, or maybe like six focal points where he bounces from subject to subject. It’s little moments like that that I hope I channel; where I’m not afraid to move the camera and have a long shot or show different things.
The tagline for the movie is “Fear not … change is coming.” What kind of change would you like to see in the movie industry?
I wish studios would go back to making independent movies and giving the small time filmmakers a legit budget. The 90s … we kind of see that as, like, the godsend time of the Hollywood industry where studios were putting legit money into making movie after movie after movie with young director after young director. I would love that to happen.
We also need to look at diversity. I mean, you’re mentioning change in Hollywood and, you know, naturally it’s going to come to mind.
You know, you look at a young white guy like me, what does diversity mean? It’s really easy to have an ignorant opinion. And a lot of people do. And I kind of cringe when they do it. Because if you’re not down with diversity, I question how much you love cinema. Because having a more diverse spectrum means that we’re going to get to see new characters. The cinema doesn’t change. Cinema is the same. But the characters that we see are new.
So, diversity means new stories. And it means new cinema.
Full Review of At Night Comes Wolves – Click Here