IAR Exclusive Interview: Director Nick Tomnay talks 'The Perfect Host'

Thursday, 30 June 2011 11:28 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Exclusive Interview: Director Nick Tomnay talks 'The Perfect Host'

It's summer movie season, when seasoned studios trot out mega-budget, epic-scale stories of super-powered mutants, extraterrestrial robots-in-disguise, and intergalactic highway cops.  While veteran directors like Matthew Vaughn, Michael Bay, and Martin Campbell helm – with varying degrees of success – stories that span continents and even galaxies, Australian director Nick Tomnay is flexing a completely different set of muscles.  His feature directorial debut, The Perfect Host, takes place almost exclusively in one location, yet is no less a thriller for it.  In fact, Tomnay makes the scale of his story a unique asset.

The Perfect Host begins with John Taylor, a criminal played by Clayne Crawford, who seeks refuge from the law in the impeccably decorated home of total stranger Warwick Wilson, an intellectual played with gusto by David Hyde Pierce.  As Warwick prepares a dinner party and John attempts to stay safe, it becomes apparent that neither man is what he seems, and the two are suddenly embroiled in a competition of wits and wills that resolutely refuses to take the expected turns.  Tomnay wrote and directed the film based on his own 2001 short film The Host.  After a Sundance debut last year, The Perfect Host is on the verge of its theatrical release, and Tomnay graciously spoke with us about his first feature film.

What was the process going from a short film to a feature film version?

Nick Tomnay: Well, it was difficult and time-consuming and lengthy and there were lots of failures [laughs].  I think the short worked quite well on its own and so the notion of making it into a feature film, I had to sort of find a way to make it justifiable because otherwise it's a 25-minute movie.  I suppose because of that, that's why the film feels the way it does.  It moves quite quickly and there are a lot of things going on it because the essential story is covered fairly quickly and I didn't want to keep making the same point again and again.  I wanted to include some more things.

Was the whole decade spent working on adapting it to feature film length?

Tomnay: No, we shot the short in 2000, right.  I cut it, did the post-production in 2001.  In 2002 it ran in the festivals and then in 2003 I started thinking about making it into a feature film.  I started writing it in 2004 and I finished writing it in 2006, but then it was just a matter of...We had two production companies involved and it didn't go ahead with those production companies.  There were amendments here and changes here.  The big delay I think was the fact that I was a first-time feature filmmaker.  I think filmmaking, anyway, it's difficult to get anything going but especially as a first time film director.  It's difficult to convince people to give you money.

And how did you eventually convince people to give you the money?

Tomnay: Well you know what happened was, my manager called me up and said, 'I'm sick of this.  We'll find some investors and my husband and I will put some money into it and we'll just make it ourselves.'  So that's what we did.

And was your co-writer on The Host, Krishna Jones, was there involvement there in adapting the short?

Tomnay: Yes, he worked with me on the first draft of the feature script.

Is everything that happens in The Perfect Host already in the short, or was The Host more self-contained?

Tomnay: Yeah, it was pretty much self-contained in the house.  25 minutes.  You know, if you look at the two of them, The Host looks sort of like a haiku of the feature.

Was that part of the appeal of making it a feature?  Taking the action outside and expanding the story?

Tomnay: You know, what it was, when people were watching the short film, The Host, a lot of people had said to me, 'And then what happens?  What happens now?"  They seemed to be enjoying the idea of it and the journey these two men were having.  So I started thinking about how I could expand that.  And what it enabled me to do is, I had a lot of fun writing Warwick, you know, I got back into being Warwick again and I sort of just expanded things out and tried things here and there.  It was an organic process.  I think because it took a couple years to write, I went down various avenues and some things didn't work out and some things did.  Honestly, it's a bit of a blur, those years.  I don't know how it all came to be in the end.  That was the script we ended up with.

Speaking of Warwick, were there any specific inspirations or influences for you in creating that character?  He's such a unique beast.

Tomnay: Not the character, no.  I think that when I was writing the short, the humor started to present itself and then that humor was accentuated by the actor who played him in the short film, a guy called Graeme Rhodes.  And so Graeme and I found this tone, this character in the short, which was quite specific.  And then, because I had made that short and Warwick was born in that short, when I was writing the feature I knew Warwick very well.  But I wouldn't say I was specifically thinking about anybody else.

David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford have such different styles, was that something you were looking for in casting or was it something you just found with those two particular actors?

Tomnay: Well, I think that the characters are quite different and I found that when I was thinking about them, there were in a different place.  Warwick is more eloquent and verbose in his language and John's sort of much more direct, simple, and economical in the way he speaks and his attitudes.  All that was sort of inherent.  And then, once Clayne was involved, it was Clayne's character and Clayne became John, so he became Clayne.  I didn't initially think that he would be from the South.  Clayne is from Alabama and there was this certain Southern charm that Clayne brought, particularly in the beginning of the movie, where he's doing his best to ingratiate himself.  I thought that worked pretty well.  And that was just Clayne sort of putting that spin on it.  But I mean, certainly, I was looking to put two different characters in a room, absolutely.

There's this subtle tension that happens with this Southern element playing against this erudite intellectual, even before you know what's really happening with them.

Tomnay: It's a little bit like red and blue America, isn't it [laughs]? Yeah, these men really shouldn't have anything to do with each other. In any other circumstance, you wouldn't put them in a room together.

And since they are in one room pretty much the entire time, is it difficult as a director to keep that interesting?

Tomnay: Yeah, I had to do a little planning.  Once we found the location I spent two days alone just doing blocking in my head, also on paper, just planning the shoot, making sure that I wasn't visually repeating myself.  I wanted to keep it fresh.

There's one specific instance where Warwick crawls onto the table.  Was that something that came up in the blocking or with David Hyde Pierce?

Tomnay: That was in the short.

It's such a striking moment.

Tomnay: It's kind of carnal.  There's a thing about Warwick, he can just turn and become quite carnal.  Which is off-putting because he presents himself, as you said before, as this sort of erudite, Connecticut guy, but then's got this other...like when's eating.  It's id, bestial. 

Was that irreconcilable difference in Warwick always there?

Tomnay: Warwick is a very unique mixture of things.  Obviously, David had done an amazing job and performed Warwick brilliantly, I think, and it's David Hyde Pierce's version of Warwick.  The actor who played him in the short, Graeme, did Graeme's version, but the thing I think that they have in common is that, in the script Warwick has a very particular tone, he presents himself very specifically.  If you look at the performance from David and from Graeme, they are different but there are similarities there and I think that's because Warwick has a very unique mixture of sort of camp, violent, and polite.

Did Pierce see Graeme's performance?

Tomnay: Yes, he did.  I think he watched it once, but I know that he made a lot of different choices and I know that he wasn't in any way trying to emulate that performance.  Besides the fact that I was able to show him a version of the film and, visually, how I would put it together and how the end product would feel, because it does feel similar, he was able to see a version of what we were going to do and I think it was an extra bit of security there.  And also, he was able to see how another actor had tackled the role and what he liked about it.  You'd have to speak with David about that, but he did see it.

So many films with big narrative turns can feel arbitrary twisty and the audience is left rudderless.  Was that ever a concern or did you have it all very much mapped out?

Tomnay: I guess, the premise of the movie and the tone, there's a lot of audaciousness and boldness and ridiculousness, to some degree, and I was thinking about what happen in this movie and I thought that [the revelations] were in keeping with the spirit of the film.  In a way, I was concerned about the credulity to some degree, but...it's so brazen, it wasn't a timid attempt at a reveal, it was quite an extreme one, so from that point of view, I thought that was the spirit of the rest of the film.  I never wanted to overly explain Warwick in particular.  I thought the idea that he would remain sort of enigmatic was more powerful.

What's next for you?  Working on anything right now?

Tomnay: Yeah, I've got a thriller that I'm working on with another writer.  We're working on a thriller; it's a fish out of water story.

I can't wait to see it.

Tomnay: Me too.  Hopefully it's going to be good.  It's probably more conventional than The Perfect Host, but hopefully it'll be a good one.

I understand that it's early, but so far, has this film made the process of finding financing and getting people on board and getting people to pay attention any easier?

Tomnay: Well, I'm not ready to deliver the script yet.  I been giving myself a deadline of the film's release to have the script ready, so my hope is that when the film comes out on July 1st, around that time I'll have the script ready to go.  A kind of, you gotta strike while the iron is hot sort of thing.

One last thing, I know that the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year.  Was that your first Sundance experience and what was that like, having your first feature there?

Tomnay: Yeah, it was awesome. it was awesome.   I'm Australian, right, my parents live in Australia and when my father found out he rang me up and said, 'You know it's more difficult to get into Sundance than it is to get into, like Harvard or something?'  So that a great experience.  Having never been to the festival, to go there with a movie and to have that whole whirlwind, adrenalized experience is certainly one I'll never forget.

The Perfect Host debuts in theaters tomorrow, on Friday, July 1st.

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