The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO

October 14, 2012 at 9:39 pm

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas


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:


Talk about the decision to create a short film before attempting the feature version of The Tolltaker.  What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of such an approach?  What advice would you give to people considering similar options for their projects?

That’s a biggie. I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice to others for something I haven’t yet succeeded at myself. I’m certainly not the first person to make a short film with an eye toward finding backing for the feature-length version. It’s an approach that worked for George Lucas and the Cohen Brothers, among others. So maybe it will work for me.

Now, there are people who have made feature-length films for less – considerably less – than what I spent on Tolltaker. However, I just didn’t think that micro-budget approach would work for the story, so I decided to concentrate my resources on creating the best quality snapshot of the overall story that I could manage.

The question was whether to do an actual trailer for the film or a fully realized story that could stand on its own. I decided that, ultimately, making a stand-alone movie would have more impact. People embrace a full story more heartily than just the fragments they’re enticed by in a trailer.

And my goal for the short film is for as many people to see it – and like it – as possible. I want people to fall in love with the story like I did, to root for it as “the little movie that could” (to quote my co-producer Lavinia).

In these days of social media, the way people do that is by watching videos online, posting the link on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and talking about it in chats. That’s how I’d like to develop a following for Tolltaker. I’d love for people to want to read the screenplay for the feature after seeing the short, and I would like to use the number of viewings on Vimeo and “Likes” on Facebook as proof to potential backers that an audience exists for the feature-length film.

That’s not to say I’m not entering the film into festivals as well. Nothing imparts respectability upon a film like those little film festival laurels you can put on the poster or the website.

The Tolltaker has several distinct styles.  What inspired that approach and how did you go about planning each unique look?

Well, for the live-action stuff centered on Bobby’s life in Philadelphia, I guess I wanted to render it mostly in the honey-drenched glow of nostalgia. This is a story being told from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood. Like Stand By Me, or Frank Darabont adapting a Stephen King story such as Green Mile.

The animated scenes are broken into two distinct styles. We come across the first after Bobby turns and fires his toy gun at the camera in what we called the James Bond shot (you’ll know it when you see it).

This animation is more playful and “cartoonish” in the Hanna-Barbera sense. This is Bobby at play, a young kid lost in his own imagination. It shouldn’t be surprising that it resembles the cartoons that Bobby no doubt loves watching on TV.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

The second style is altogether different: more sinister and creepy, and looks more like the kind of “adult” animation you would expect to see in a Ralph Bakshi film. It should be noted that this animated world is beyond Bobby’s control. It sneaks up on him like a traumatic memory bubbling up out of the unconscious and seizes control of his mind through the force of sheer horror.

The third distinct style can be found in the Vietcong tunnel scenes with Bobby’s dad and his fellow GI Gary. This is grainy and washed out, a nod to the gritty, hyper-realistic style of certain Tony Scott films, for instance. However, thanks to the work of our VFX guy Mike Enright and Sound Designer Rodney Whittenberg, these sequences cross the line altogether from realism to a kind of feverish nightmare world. It wasn’t planned exactly that way, but was instead one of those unexpected syntheses you’re occasionally rewarded with when you take any project from planning to execution.

I guess you can also say there is another style on display when Gary tells his story to Bobby’s family, and Bobby enters a sort of temporary psychosis to block out what Gary is saying. I’ve always been fascinated by surrealism and expressionism, and that’s exactly what this scene is.

The word “surrealism” literally means something that exists “on top of” realism, or realism taken a step upward, beyond the dimensions of reality that we’re familiar with. I like to think that’s what I was attempting with this scene: starting with reality and crossing the line at a certain key moment to something trippy and fantastic.

One director who I think is truly an expert at this approach is the late British director Lindsay Anderson. His movies If… and Oh, What A Lucky Man made a real impact on me, and I would encourage people to seek them out and watch them.

What challenges did you face planning and executing the live action elements vs the animated sequences?

They both had their challenges. Or, rather, the execution had its challenges. I saw the movie very clearly in my head before shooting it, so the imagining part was easy.

The “doing” part was another story entirely. As I said, for the Vietcong tunnel scenes, we built a 60-foot long set out of old pallets in a warehouse. The audacity of that can be credited to my co-producer Lavinia DeCastro. When we were discussing how to do these scenes, she said, “We’re going to have to build it.” And that was that. She can be very determined.

It was actually Dan Buck who oversaw construction of the tunnel. He was an absolutely invaluable motivating force behind this project, who oversaw the logistics of actually getting stuff done. He proved himself to be an absolutely killer Line Producer.

The warehouse itself was an interesting place. Aside from being home to a few businesses, it also provided rehearsal space to some very loud death-metal bands, as well as a location for some rather elaborate S&M parties.

In the movie, when Bobby ventures into the mouth of the Tolltaker tunnel, he winds up in a maze of subterranean passages. These were actually not beneath the streets of Northeast Philly, but Girard College, a private school for underprivileged boys in North Philadelphia. The school’s often been used as a movie location, for films like James Franco’s Annapolis, among others. I remember watching television one time and getting a shock of recognition when I realized the commercial I was watching was shot in the same tunnel where Bobby has his final confrontation with the Tolltaker.

As for the animation, as I said, it was overseen by Lavinia. I storyboarded pretty much the entire film, and handed the storyboards for the animated scenes to her to realize. We chose rotoscoping as the method of animation because it’s based on live-action footage that you shoot before the animation process begins. Since Lavinia was still a student at the time, she felt this was safely within her capacities.

Her “lieutenant,” as it were, was a guy named Jake Hoisington, a highly-regarded fellow student at the Institute, whose participation in the project Lavinia thought of as something of a coup. At one point, we shot a little “behind the scenes” feature with Jake, where he explains the rotoscoping process from one of the animation bays at the school.

What was it like on set?  Was it difficult ensuring that the live action would fit with the animation?

This was a pretty ambitious project, with multiple locations. We only had the budget for seven days of shooting, so we had to be pretty organized. Again, much of the credit goes to Dan Buck for that.

It was important for me to make sure I had professionals do the shooting, lighting and sound, and I was willing to pay for it. Fortunately, I found Mike Brand, the Director of Photography, who was about as pro as you can get. He brought along a whole stable of capable professionals to serve as gaffer, sound recorder and such.

The scene in the diner with the waitress at the beginning of the film was shot in a small café in downtown Royersford, Pa. I have to say that the town of Royersford bent over backwards to help us. They even had the police shut down a street so that we could shoot the scene where five-year-old Bobby is walking home with his Paw-Paw.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What wound up being the biggest stressor in terms of getting the thing done was the fact that the lead actor, Cullen Clancey – who plays Bobby – was about to move to Zurich, Switzerland, where his father had gotten a new job. I mean, it was down to the wire – on the last day of shooting, Cullen and his mom had to go home and finish packing afterwards, because they were leaving, literally, the next day.

As for getting the live action to match the animation, that wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the rotoscoping process. Since rotoscoping begins with live-action footage, the animator has a pretty solid base to work from.

Can you elaborate on the animation process?

The process, as I said, is called Rotoscoping, and it dates to 1917. Basically, what it involves is shooting live action and then drawing over top of it. In past eras, what took place was that each frame of movie footage would be projected onto a pane of glass, and an animator would painstakingly draw the animated scene on the opposite side of the glass. These days, like most things, the process is digital, and instead of panes of glass, the animators draw on what are called Wacom tablets. Instead of pens, they’ll use a stylus whose markings will register on-screen in whatever animation software is being used.

In America, the filmmaker most associated with rotoscoping is without a doubt Ralph Bakshi. He has developed a large cult following for trippy, adult-oriented cartoons like Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and an early, animated version of Lord of the Rings. Other directors who have done rotoscoped films include Richard Linklater whose A Scanner Darkly, as I said, shares a member of the animation crew with Tolltaker: Monique Ligons.

When it comes to animation and live action, do you prefer one over the other?

I can’t say that I do. Each has its appropriate time and place. I’ve always been a fan of animation, and I’m gratified that, for example, the old Warner Bros. cartoons are highly regarded as the meticulous works of art that they are. I’m also happy that the last generation or so has seen the development of animation beyond being just being a gimmick for kids (in some people’s eyes) to becoming a fresh way to explore more grown-up ideas and themes.

Of course, these days, the line between animation and live action is growing ever more indistinct. Many – if not most – big-budget Hollywood movies have some sort of motion-capture going on, where the actors are shot against a green screen, and some kind of computer graphics are inserted into the scene.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What’s your favorite moment in the film?

Not an easy question to answer. You don’t want to tell any of your children that he/she is your favorite. That being said, I do find myself most affected emotionally by the end, after Bobby has his confrontation with the Tolltaker.

Over the years, I’ve become a huge devotee of people like Joseph Campbell and – especially – Carl Jung. Rather late to the party, I know. But still, when I read what they had to say, it just makes sense to me, from a storytelling perspective as well as many others.

I bring this up because I realized, mostly after the film was shot, that there are plenty of archetypal forces at play in Tolltaker. The whole idea of a hero journeying into the underworld to meet his dead father, for example. Odysseus did it, and so did Aeneas. Also, the concept of the underworld, this subterranean place, being a representation of the unconscious, and the appearance of the Tolltaker being what Jung might call “emergent content” filtering up from way down deep in the psyche – I love playing with ideas like that.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part TWO | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

What’s next for The Tolltaker?

Well, the goal remains what it’s always been – to get the feature-length film made. As I said, I want to build an audience for it any way I can, so I can show a potential producer that there are people who would go out and see this. It’s available for anyone to watch online, for free, on Vimeo.

What’s next for you?

In a non-Tolltaker sense, you mean? Well, I’ll continue running Reel Stuff Entertainment with my business partner Jesper Olsson, for one thing. We’re based in Center City Philadelphia, and have produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-700 web videos since 2006, for clients like the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, AOL, Lexis-Nexis and many more.

I also want to continue developing series for the web and television. We have one TV series in the marketplace right now called Europe After Dark, which is about nightlife in Europe. We shot it in places like Ibiza, Amsterdam and Prague, and have a lot of material up on our YouTube channel.

I also have the opportunity to develop a web series about the supernatural for James Franco’s web TV channel Rabbit TV. I’m really looking forward to that.

But it will always be making movies that remains my chief ambition. I have no shortage of ideas. My computer is filled with story treatments that could keep me busy for years to come if I could come up with the resources to get them made.

We’ll just have to see what the future holds.


Special thanks to Steve Janas for the interview.

Tolltaker will screen at the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia Oct. 18, 2012.  It has been nominated for several awards including Best Short Film, Best Director, Best Actor and more.

Visit Steve Janas’ Blog Here.

Follow The Tolltaker on Facebook here.

Check out James Sneddon’s novel here.

Read more Independent Film Interviews here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE

October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

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:


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.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Interview Steve Janas

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.

You can buy the novel on Amazon here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

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.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

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.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas


Visit Steve Janas’ Blog Here.

Follow The Tolltaker on Facebook here.

Check out James Sneddon’s novel here.

Read more Independent Film Interviews here.

The Tale of The Tolltaker Short Film Part ONE | Independent Film Interview Steve Janas

Suggest Me Movies, Louisiana Film Prize PLUS More Indie Projects & Short Films

March 20, 2012 at 11:49 pm

The Post Independent Film Blog

Have you watched a short film today?

CAN’T DECIDE WHAT TO WATCH? is here to help.  If IMDB and StumbleUpon had a child, Suggest Me Movie would probably be it.  The site allows to hit one big suggest button and a random movie will pop up.  In addition, the site offers reviews, trailers and more for the films.  While it sounds overwhelming, you can also customize your search.

Check out the site here.


If you are plan to shoot a short film if you’re there.  The inaugural Louisiana Film Prize is currently looking for entries but there is a catch.  The film must be shot in the Shreveport-Bossier area.  The prize? 50,000 dollars.

Check out the official site:


Check out this sweet animated short film written and directed by Wes Ball and produced by Oddball Animation.

RUIN from OddBall Animation on Vimeo.


This is a crazy (in a good way) experimental short film from director Andrew Thomas Huang.  It won the Special Jury Prize for Experimental Shorts at this year’s SLAMDANCE.

SOLIPSIST from Andrew Huang on Vimeo.

Check out for more.


Here is a trailer for The Arriviste, an independent feature film written and directed by Pascal Santschi.  The Arriviste was shot on 35mm gorilla style in New York city for less than $10,000!  In order to accomplish this, Pascal was a crew of ONE handling many principal crew positions on his own.

The filmmaker took on the duties of writer, director, producer, cinematographer, audio, production assistant, editor, composer, foley artist and more.  All while handling equipment hauling duties, scheduling and all facets of post production including ADR and marketing.

Such a one man show requires a ton of dedication and effort.

“There is a great comfort in knowing that everything is in your control but also an absurd amount of stress and doubt that you cannot let it take over.  I believe that I did have my hands in too many pots but in the end, I’m very glad it all turned out.”

In order to save money, the director used out of date negative film left over from other productions.

“I had no guarantee that the film wasn’t damaged or even that each individual roll would perform as expected.  But knowing that 35 mm film was good enough for some of the most beautiful films ever made, I knew that  I could trust it for my story.”

The Arriviste is scheduled to be released on March 28th.

Check out the official site here for more.


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