I had the privilege of attending a private screening, the other week, of Los Angeles Overnight, an extraordinarily good new low-budget film. Unfortunately, chances are you won’t get the same opportunity.
Los Angeles Overnight is the first feature film from Australian director Michael Chrisoulakis, who has been making short films for the last decade or so whilst supporting himself working in the spectacle industry in an array of production jobs (he is editing MasterChef at the moment). It was shot in Los Angeles over a nine-month period, with post-production in Australia.
A project like this requires enormous personal commitment from all involved – many of whom would have been working for love rather than money – with the whole thing taking over two and a half years to complete. Like most films made on a shoestring budget, it has yet to secure theatrical or home release. Never mind – with this as a first feature, it seems highly likely that Chrisoulakis will be making bigger-budget films soon.
In terms of narrative, the film is firmly set in the classic LA noir mould. Its story follows Priscilla (Arielle Brachfeld), an actress struggling for a break who pays the bills as a waitress-cum-Marilyn Monroe impersonator in a low-rent diner. She chances upon – and takes – an opportunity to steal some money from some minor gangsters, rapidly advancing her career in the process, before all hell breaks loose.
The film shares elements with Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent work, The Neon Demon (2016), in terms of narrative – Refn’s film follows a model who will stop at nothing to make it to the top – but differs notably in its stylistic approach to Los Angeles. Even though both films unfold around familiar LA sites – warehouses, factories, dodgy strip malls, diners – Refn (as he did in his masterpiece, Drive, before it), produces a hypnotically overblown vision of the city.
There’s something tragedic in Refn’s version of Los Angeles, in his combination of ad-style glossy images of the city with deathly-slow camera motions. It is a glamorously dissolute, plastique-city, the epitome of the postmodern metropolis described by anthropologist Marc Auge as the “non-place.”
Chrisoulakis’ approach to Los Angeles is radically different from Refn’s (which, after all, has become something of a cliché, at least since Blade Runner). Los Angeles Overnight manages to capture, with a compulsive authenticity, the vivid but banal strangeness of Los Angeles – at least as it appears to a non-Angeleno.
The bright, headache-inducing Southern Californian light, the grit-filled, mildly nauseating air, the unglamorous suburban housing, the unkempt and rubbish-strewn roads of the less ritzy neighbourhoods, are all embodied in the film’s (non-neon) version of LA’s sprawl. There is something banal about the film’s vision of the city’s concrete lots, its rundown warehouses and strip malls, completely different from Hollywood’s usual puritannical – and gloriously envisioned – self-critiques of LA.
So what makes Chrisoulakis’ genre-film so great compared with the myriad other shoestring genre films produced every year? Chrisoulakis, like many filmmakers who came of age in the era of home video, is a cine-phile, loving everything from the Italian horror films of Mario Bava to David Lynch, and his sheer pleasure in cinema is evident in virtually every frame.
All the cinematic elements that are perfectible regardless of budget are, here, first-rate. Guy Jackson’s script is extremely well-written, deftly combining moments of intense metaphysical introspection with outbreaks of absurd comedy and violence.
The acting by key cast members is effortlessly believable; low-budget horror favourite Brachfeld is great, but the film also includes a stunning turn by legendary Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) as a crackpot Hollywood hypnotherapist, and an utterly charming performance by long-time character actor Lin Shaye (There’s Something About Mary) as a loopy matriarch-gangster.
Stefan Colson’s cinematography is low-key but stylish, with the dynamics of every shot carefully-considered. Like every good shoestring-budget film, it makes the most of the latest production technologies, including several shots by drone that would have been impossible at this level five years ago. Michael Lira’s atmospheric electronic score is likewise worth commending – it effectively supports Chrisoulakis’s vision of the city without becoming heavy-handed.
Problems – inevitable in any production – are here minimal, and are tied to budget constraints. Some of the supporting cast aren’t great actors – an indie producer can usually find a few great actors willing to work for nothing or little, but it can be difficult filling out the subsidiary roles. The special effects in some of the violent scenes are at times rather bodgie, momentarily negating the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
This is a minor – and basically irrelevant – criticism, but whilst the script, camerawork, score and central performances are as good as one would find in any large budget Hollywood production (better than in some), the effects are only good relative to the size of the production. There was another problem concerning the mixing of the sound.
But the real problem, with a film like Los Angeles Overnight, is that few people will get to see it.
Film festivals offer one of the only possibilities for exhibition of films without distribution deals like this one, and many of the films that screen at festivals never, ultimately, secure theatrical release or home distribution.
This doesn’t necessarily matter. Many – maybe most – of the films made on shoestring budgets aren’t worth seeing. They are often constellations of poorly executed elements of film-making, poorly written and acted, technically flawed and, most significantly, iremmediably dull to watch.
In contrast, it is unusual to see a Hollywood film - low, medium or high budget – that is technically imprecise, or that is difficult to watch: the worst will usually involve a trite or twee story, wooden performances, and a brash, heavy-handed tone.
In any case, Chrisoulakis’ film is better than most recently-released films – of any budget – and it’s worth keeping your eyes on festival schedules to catch it when (and if) it next pops up.