Nathan Adloff on “Cock N’ Bull” and “Angel Dust”

Danny Rhodes and Nathan Adloff star in Adloff’s “Cock N’ Bull.” Courtesy of Nathan Adloff.

Danny Rhodes and Nathan Adloff star in Adloff’s “Cock N’ Bull.” Courtesy of Nathan Adloff.

Two shorts set to screen at this year’s Reeling Film Festival, kicking off Thursday, November 7th, are directed by Chicago-based filmmaker Nathan Adloff, who earned acclaim for his 2012 debut feature, “Nate & Margaret.” Before his move to LA at the end of the month, Adloff will be attending screenings of his films at The Logan Theatre. His comedy, “Cock N’ Bull,” spins a dark yarn about prank callers who suddenly find themselves in over their heads, while his drama, “Angel Dust,” explores the claustrophobic life of a man whose depression sends him on a downward spiral (viewers can rest assured that the following article is spoiler-free). Both films provide stellar showcases for Danny Rhodes, an excellent Windy City actor who has collaborated with Adloff on several previous projects.

Adloff spoke with Indie Outlook about venturing outside his comfort zone, learning from past missteps and working with close friends.

Q: How did you first meet Danny?

A: I was in a very brief scene in Frank V. Ross’s film, “Audrey the Trainwreck,” and we met on that set. We became friends shortly after, and I asked him to be in my short, “I Love You This Much.” When you make a film in four hours, like I did with these last two shorts, it’s easier to work with friends.

Q: Where did the concept for “Cock N’ Bull” come from?

A: It came from an NPR interview I heard that recounted a true story about a guy who was flipping through the phone book and calling random women. Most of them would hang up right away, of course, but one woman talked to him for a long time and ended up marrying him. I knew that I wanted to make a short within a few weeks, and my mind was absorbing whatever it could for ideas. That one stuck, but my take on the story is very different.

The bulk of the film is very silly. Most of the people on the other end of the line are just our friends. It was all improvised, and we just told our friends that we were going to prank call them. Only one prank call was real, and you can probably guess which one it is. [laughs] My writing partner, Justin Palmer, was the first and last person our characters call, and we had written certain cues that led to the final sequence.

Q: Danny’s facial expressions in that scene are priceless, as they morph from hilarity to horror.

A: I love that scene. I think we did two takes because I wanted to get the timing right for the moment when we cut off Justin. We told him that Danny was going to call him pretending to be a woman, and I asked him to pull inspiration from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in “Happiness.” The cue for Justin’s creepy rant was Danny’s line, “Do you like it?” That was the only preparation we had.

Q: This short makes a fitting companion piece with “I Love You This Much” since they both explore playful behavior that could potentially have dangerous consequences.

A: I feel like every movie I make, whether it’s a short or my next feature, I couldn’t have done without the experience of my previous one, and learning about what works and what doesn’t. We went a bit too far with certain jokes in “I Love You This Much,” and that was a big learning experience for us. The reactions it got depended on the people I showed it to. My friends thought it was hilarious, but other people were offended by it. People like Sarah Silverman can get away with the same stuff that’s looked down on in a tiny short by a director who doesn’t yet have an established career.

Danny Rhodes stars in Nathan Adloff’s “Angel Dust.” Courtesy of Nathan Adloff.

Danny Rhodes stars in Nathan Adloff’s “Angel Dust.” Courtesy of Nathan Adloff.

Q: I was struck by the work of your frequent cinematographer, Brian Levin, in “Angel Dust,” in how disorienting and unsettling it is.

A: When I explained the premise to Brian, he told me that he wanted to try that sort of style where you’re really close to action, the camera is drifting around and you don’t get a full sense of the character’s surroundings, which in this case is Danny’s apartment. That sounded like a perfect fit. We wanted the camera to be uncomfortably close, especially during the final scene.

Q: That scene was, frankly, hard to watch.

A: I’m glad to hear that, and that’s generally been the feedback we’ve received. We’re experimenting outside the realm of comedy, and I was worried about being seen as funny. But that’s more my problem, since I know Danny and we’re always laughing together. After the first take or two, I remember thinking, “Danny is really on today. He’s really bringing it.” It was the first time I had seen that side of him. The last scene was done in one take because of all the mess created by my delicious mixture of powdered milk, vanilla and chocolate protein powder. We were laughing a lot during the shoot, and when we shot that last scene, Brian and I were in the room with Danny. I had to have my ears closed and look away. I couldn’t watch the scene when we filmed it because I knew that I would ruin the take. I’m very proud of him for not breaking character.

Q: How did you come up with this premise?

A: I got the idea from a reality TV show about a woman’s strange methods for coping with [tragedy]. It was so over-the-top that I was questioning whether it was real or not.

Q: Allison Torem is very touching in her cameo as Danny’s concerned sister.

A: I’ve wanted to work with her for a while. She’s extremely talented and I thought she would be believable as his sister. If there’s any comedic moment in the film, it’s when she comments on his T-shirt. I thought she would be good at walking that fine line of comedy and drama. She asked questions to understand their relationship as brother and sister, and I told her that they met for lunch once or twice a week, but they respect each other’s privacy. It had almost been a week, and she was wondering why her brother hadn’t returned her calls. I co-wrote the film with my friend, Scott Miller, who plays the friend that chats with Danny on the web cam. We came up with subtle details that would have added meaning to audiences upon second viewing. We also used his condo for our location.

Q: What’s up next for you?

A: I would definitely like to direct a feature that’s dark and dramatic. My next film is called “Miles.” It’s based on my experiences in junior high when I was the only boy on the girls’ volleyball team. In the film, the character joins the team to try and get a scholarship to a film school in Chicago. After his father passes away unexpectedly, he finds out that the man had bought his mistress a $50,000 sports car and left the bill to the family. His college fund is gone. The story is heavily fictionalized, and I wrote the script with Justin Palmer. My hope is to shoot the film at my old high school in Athens, Illinois. Justin and I went there on a research trip and asked the volleyball coach and players what they would think about a boy joining their all-girls team. Their response was, “Awesome! We would kick everyone’s butt!” [laughs]

Cock N’ Bull” screens at 7pm Friday, November 8th, as part of the “Crazy, Stupid, Love” shorts anthology. “Angel Dust” screens at 6:45pm Sunday, November 10th prior to Marçal Forés’s “Animals.” For tickets and other festival info, click here.

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