Back in July, I featured a short film called The Tolltaker in The Post. Today we go behind the scenes with the film’s director Steve Janas. This interview will be split into two parts, the first examines the film’s origins and pre-production. The second delves deeper into production and post-production.
The story behind the Tolltaker is one of ambition but also tragedy. At the center of it all is a passionate filmmaker, determined to make a feature film version of this story for himself and as a tribute to the author who inspired it all.
But first, check out the full short film:
PART ONE: THE INSPIRATION
What is The Tolltaker about and what does it mean to you?
Well, The Tolltaker’s storyline is basically this: there’s a young boy named Bobby living in Northeast Philadelphia in 1973. His father has been MIA in Vietnam for three years and Bobby is one of the few people left in his family who still believes his father will return home safe one day. The basis for this belief is a cheap metal charm bracelet with the name of Bobby’s father inscribed on it: as long as he wears this Safekeeper (as it’s called), Bobby believes his father will be safe.
Soon after Bobby and his mother move out of his grandparents’ house and into an apartment of their own, Bobby comes upon a drainage tunnel in which he has a face-to-face encounter with the Tolltaker, a ghoul-like creature who demands the Safekeeper as its toll. Bobby runs, but it’s no use – once the Tolltaker sees something it wants, it’s relentless in its pursuit.
Now – what does The Tolltaker mean? I could probably go on for days about that. It’s a throwback to the kind of horror stories I consumed like candy when I was a kid; by people like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, with a hero who would often be some young boy about Bobby’s age, and his encounter with the supernatural becomes a coming-of-age trial for him.
In terms of movies, I can cite antecedents like Stand By Me or Pan’s Labyrinth. Both are movies about children’s lives that have been touched by some profound darkness, and the mark it has left on their souls. It may seem like a cruel interest: stories about children who endure some kind of psychological or physical trauma. But I guess the real interest is seeing how this crisis defines the person this child is already, and the person he’s going to grow into. He may be a child going into the story, but he isn’t by the end.
So, if the Tolltaker could be said to “represent” anything, it’s the cost of growing up. The cost of innocence lost, of mortality glimpsed. The toll you have to pay to proceed along the journey of Life.
Tolltaker is based on a novel by James Sneddon. Can you talk about your journey from discovering the book to creating the film?
James Sneddon was the older brother of one of my oldest friends, Steve Sneddon (who actually makes a cameo appearance in the film). They both grew up in the same Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where the film was set and shot. When they were kids, one of the things they would do for fun would be to climb inside a huge drainage tunnel nearby (the same one, in fact, we used as a location in the film) with flashlights and notebooks and write the kind of fanciful little stories a kid that age would write.
Years passed. James (or Jimmy, as his family called him) grew up and took on the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood. He got married, he had kids. But he never lost that love of writing, and so, in his mid-to-late 30’s, he resolved to actually write that novel he always wanted to. The Tolltaker was the result.
Jimmy came from a working-class background, and had no connections in the publishing industry. He really didn’t know what to do with his new book. So he entered it into a writing contest whose grand prize would be publication of the winning manuscript. Tolltaker won, and was published by Five Star publishing in 2004.
It was around this time, my friend Steve mentioned to me that his brother Jimmy had just written a book. What struck me right away was how it was being marketed by the publisher as a horror story, when I thought its greatest strength was its heart. Jim had a wonderful grasp of character and family dynamics, especially a blue-collar family in a blue-collar neighborhood. It was a really touching coming-of-age story, and I knew right away that I wanted to adapt it as a screenplay.
So, with Jim’s permission, I did. It only took about five weeks to finish – that’s how vividly I saw the finished film. Jim made one or two suggestions, but generally kept out of the process. Screenwriting was alien to him, like looking at the skeleton of a building under construction and having to imagine what the finished product would look like.
I submitted the Tolltaker to screenplay competitions. Why not start at the top, I reasoned, so one of the first was the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition, held annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Tolltaker didn’t win, but it was named a semi-finalist, meaning that out of more than 6,000 total submissions, it made the cut of the top 100. It was, of course, an honor. Validation is what every artist is looking for in his heart of hearts, validation that what he wanted to say got said, that the act of communication he undertook was successful. Of course, you can always do better. The finalists (there are ten of them, I think) win $30,000 each. Validation is great, but so is cold, hard cash. Regardless, that was enough to get me inquiries from a few Los Angeles based producers interested in looking at the screenplay, and agent-managers interested in representing me as a screenwriter.
One of the latter was a guy named Michael Lee, who did wind up representing me for a while. He knew my interest was in getting the screenplay made into a feature motion picture, and told me that the odds might be better if I made a short-film adaptation and presented myself to the film festival circuit as a writer-director.
That was in 2005. It’s been a long road getting this far, and we’re not there yet. But we do have a short film that I’m very proud of and an award-winning screenplay. We’re on our way.
Of course, the whole thing is bittersweet, because James Sneddon died unexpectedly shortly after the screenplay was finished. He never knew about it becoming a semi-finalist at the Nicholl Fellowships, and he never knew that I was going to adapt it as a short film. That’s another motivator for me to push this whole thing forward. When he died, Jim didn’t have much to leave his wife and two girls, who are struggling to get by. It would be nice if they could see some kind of payday, no matter how modest.
What was it about the book that inspired you and what challenges did you face adapting it for film?
Hands-down, the main thing that inspired me was the character of Bobby. I just loved him. He was one of those scrappy kids that literature is full of, from Tom Sawyer to Oliver Twist. Too often, when we’re shown kids in the movies and on TV, what we’re presented with are these manufactured objects that exist only to be self-consciously cute. A kid who breaks out of the pigeonhole and shows himself to be a human being – warts and all – is someone I think deserves my respect.
I was also taken with the setting. Philadelphia in the 70’s. A kid being raised by a single mother. I, too, was a kid raised in the Philadelphia area in the 70’s by a single mother. And they both happened to have the same name: Judy. Small wonder I identified with this story, isn’t it?
Finally, I suppose I’m something of a natural mystic at heart. I’ve always been taken by the idea of a larger, more fantastic world existing beyond this one, with portals back and forth tucked away in unlikely, out-of-the-way places. One of my absolute favorite books as a kid was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I also loved books like The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time. I only wish that all kids could have their inner lives enriched by wonderful stories like these.
As for the question of what challenges I faced adapting the story to film, would you like them itemized alphabetically or by degree of impossibility?
First of all, it’s a period piece, set in the early 70’s. Secondly, the main character required a talented child actor to play him. Third, there were scenes set in a war zone, as well as in a ghostly fantasy world, that would require creative solutions to realize in terms of production design.
Fortunately, I had a really good group of people who committed themselves to getting Tolltaker this far. By far, the two stand-outs are my co-producers Lavinia DeCastro and Dan Buck. Lavinia was studying animation at the time, and she oversaw that aspect of the production. And it became quite formidable.
At one point, the entire first floor of my house had been turned into an animation studio, with about a dozen animators – mostly Lavinia’s fellow students at the Art Institute of Philadelphia – working on laptops that had been set up on folding tables. Not all the animators were students, though. One – Monique Ligons – had actually worked on Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly, which, like Tolltaker, was animated by rotoscoping.
The climax of the story takes place inside a Vietcong tunnel beneath the battlegrounds of Vietnam. We shot this live-action, by building a 60-foot-long set constructed from old shipping pallets inside a drafty old warehouse in Northeast Philly.
But the biggest challenge was the same one every filmmaker faces: financing. Doing all of this was not going to be cheap, even for a short film where most of the cast and crew were donating their time.
My lucky break came when a web series I had pitched to the Discovery Channel was green-lighted. It was called Living Tomorrow, and with what I made off that, I financed Tolltaker. There were people who thought I was crazy at the time, and to date there’s little evidence to prove them wrong, I suppose.