Driving not Knowing is a story about two young men who attempt to reconnect one year later, after a tumultuous parting. The film was a highly collaborative project amongst Benjamin R. Davis, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Jay Jadick, and Dan Mainella (the latter two star as the leads in the film). Dylan Hansen-Fliedner was kind enough to answer some of Cinedelphia’s questions about the difficulties of a small budget, working with friends, and the various themes in the film.
Cinedelphia: What was the writing and directing process like with so many of you? Was there a unified vision among you, or did any differing issues come up during writing and filming?
Dylan Hansen-Fliedner: Jay, Dane, Benjamin, and I really grew together while making DRIVING NOT KNOWING, as filmmakers and as people. We were unified in our pursuit of the same goal, but we all brought our own sensibilities to the table. Luckily, we formed a lot of those sensibilities together.
When we first got together to start planning in the West Philly apartment I shared with Jay (and that Benjamin and Dane practically moved into for the editing of the film), we knew that having a very deep, intense collaboration was the only way we could get our first feature made. No one else was going to do it for us or give us permission (read: money), so we just did it ourselves. Of course there were fights along the way, but at the end of our very long days, there was always someone to turn to if finishing the film ever began to seem impossible.
The process of navigating each other really informed the film, and the film informed how we dealt with each other. The result is a raw, intense piece of cinema that I’m very proud of having pulled off.
C: What was the filming process like? Was a lot of dialogue improvised? It felt very relaxed and natural.
DHF: We took permission to play with improv from a long line of filmmakers working with very low budgets. Since we didn’t have money to actually hire professional actors, we roped in our friends for the supporting roles while Jay and Dane took on the leading parts. This involved dragging everyone to Tunkhannock, the town where Jay, Benjamin, and our composer Charley Ruddell grew up. We did this to isolate ourselves and to take advantage of the beautiful locations we had permission to use for the film.
While everyone was held hostage in the country, we kept the cameras rolling all the time. There was nowhere else to go so we could really focus on bringing the world of the film to life. Because we knew acting off a script would produce very unnatural performances, we wrote parts with certain friends in mind and had them play heightened versions of their own personas for the most part. The boundary between art and life became very muddled.
This isn’t to say that the film was unscripted. We had a firm treatment outlining character arcs and specific scenes. This written document often included some key lines of dialogue that Jay and Dane needed to say or story beats that they needed to hit. For scenes involving more of the cast, they were able to direct in character within the scene while Benjamin and I shot everything with two cameras rolling like a documentary. The only actor that proved somewhat difficult to work with was Benjamin’s pig. We had to leave some of her scenes on the cutting room floor.
C: Can you talk about some of the prominent themes in the film? I’m particularly fond of the separation between rural country and the city—it seems both Will and Lee use the country as a means of escape, though the baggage clearly follows them both. Also, of course, the theme of driving, cars, and lack of direction play a big part in the film.
DHF: We draw a distinction between city and country mainly in form. We deliberately keep the city to mostly locked-off steady shots, while the country has a more free-wheeling handheld look. There is a difference in perception, sonically and visually, which has a real effect on the body and mind in these spaces. But ultimately, I think the film shows that they aren’t so different. Will expresses some hesitation at hanging out “with a bunch of hillbillies for the weekend”, but he finds Lee’s friends to be perceptive and articulate.
Of course Will and Lee’s baggage follows them. They are still very much the same people. It is harder to escape yourself than we are often told. In this way, DRIVING NOT KNOWING dismantles some of the narratives of rugged individualism and escape we’ve been handed down, but in a minor way. Even though Will and Lee’s problems are relatively minor problems, they feel monumental as a lived experience. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, but one of the most concrete takeaways I always have is that the people we choose to make a part of our lives are deeply important—both to our sense of self and as people in their own right.
We started thinking about making DRIVING NOT KNOWING at a very uncertain point in our lives, near the end of college and into our first year out of school. We had seen friends leave school for various reasons and had intense friendships dissolve over time. Both this pull away from our very immediate experience and the opportunity for reconnection had a compelling draw as storytellers. The film was a way to build a space to work through a lot of these worries and problems.
The lack of direction that you point to is built into the title and was a definite theme we were playing with. Building a road trip and late night, aimless driving into the film seemed like a good way to convey this visually. Road movies as a genre have historically been a way to work through similar concerns, especially for filmmakers of the 1970s (see: FIVE EASY PIECES, KINGS OF THE ROAD). A big influence, especially for me, was Kelly Reichardt’s OLD JOY, which also tackles a reunion of estranged friends, but at a very different point in their lives.
C: The deeply complex relationship between Will and Lee feels very authentic—did this come from a real experience? It certainly has aspects any friendship or relationship can relate to, though their particular connection often feels so genuinely strained, while maintaining a touching sincerity.
DHF: We all poured ourselves into the film. Jay, Dane and I studied and wrote poetry together. Jay is a musician and is currently in a band with Benjamin and Charley. While playing a musician and a poet wasn’t that far of a stretch for them, the performance has real electricity to it because Jay and Dane have a truly intimate friendship. They were freshman year roommates at school, and had a period of estrangement that only ended in the year before we seriously considered making this film together.
Jay and I were collaborating pretty intensely on a series of short films at that time and brought Dane into the fold as our lead actor and co-writer for one of them. The spark of that collaboration really pushed us forward as a unit in a lot of ways. We had all worked on some of Benjamin’s short films as well so it just felt natural for the four of us to dive into it together.
There is a little bit of all of us in Will and Lee, but the magnetic connection Jay and Dane share really bleeds through into the performance and narrative in ways that are essential to the sincerity you mention.
C: What was your experience with crowd funding this project through Kickstarter? Were you surprised with your success? Did you feel like it allowed you and your fellow filmmakers a closer connection with your audience?
DHF: I don’t think we were surprised by the support we received because our community (family and close friends) had already been so supportive during the making of the film, giving us their time, love, energy, and food.
We all have a very ambivalent relationship to crowd funding. There is no way this film could have been completed without it, and it has transformed independent filmmaking in very real, tangible ways. We’re so grateful for the doors it opened for us and for the massive support we received. But right now, it is not a reliable way to continue making movies. We can’t keep asking our friends and family for money.
Our Kickstarter campaign maybe legitimized what we had been working on for well over a year at that point by showing our commitment to finishing it, but crowd funding didn’t really expand our audience. The best way for a filmmaker to connect with an audience is by sharing their film. The festival circuit is really where we’ve had an opportunity to connect with people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of or had access to DRIVING NOT KNOWING. This PhilaMOCA screening is the first opportunity we are getting to share our film outside of a festival, and we can’t wait to bring it home. (One of the early scenes takes place in the bathroom at PhilaMOCA.)
C: What’s been one of the biggest learning experiences for you as a young, independent filmmaker?
People don’t care automatically.
C: What’s next for all of you? Do you have individual projects in the works, or are you planning on all working together again?
DHF: We’re all off gathering our own independent experiences to bring back for the next one through other projects, in and out of film. I have a script written for a new feature and mainly work as an editor and associate producer of documentaries.
Right now, we’re in the very early stages of talking about a new movie together, but with more clearly defined roles based on what we all do best. The future looks different than we may have imagined, but it looks good.
Driving Not Knowing has its Philadelphia premiere at PhilaMOCA this Sunday, December 6. Event information and ticket sales here.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is Philly born and raised, and is currently pursuing her masters in film history at Columbia University. When she’s not organizing her Criterion DVDs by spine number, she can usually be found ostensibly reading a pretentious poetry anthology in the park while introducing herself to all the dogs.