Justin Dec’s ‘Boats’: A Hilarious Take on a Nothing-to-Laugh-About Subject

There’s the merciless money-making machine underneath the Hollywood sign, standing proud and tall, the symbol of the blooming industry of the moving pictures. Even though show-business has always been just that—business—at its core, it seems that our generation of filmloving movie-goers has been blessed to witness a new era of film production. Every other days our newsfeeds are littered with new information about upcoming sequels, remakes and reboots. Call them what you like, it’s just words that cloak a not even carefully disguised thirst for money. “We don’t have a movie”, says the big producer in Justin Dec’s Boats, wonderfully played by the ever-charming Parks & Rec hero Jim O’Heir, “We have a fucking franchise.” That’s his comment on a dim-witted, profit-driven pitch for a blockbuster involving boats that talk and want to race, and maybe even have to fight sea weeds. Ok, you have the poster, you have the nice title design, you have plans for making one hundred million dollars on the very first weekend, you even have the intention of finishing the project by Christmas, says one naïve assistant. But what’s the story of the film?

It’s not difficult to imagine such conversations going on behind closed doors in studios. Justin Dec’s Boats is a sharp satire of what the Hollywood system has become. Intelligently written, full of welcome and amusing references to other films, well acted and, we believe, conceived with noble, honest intentions, this is one hell of a film that has the courage to ask the right questions. In a world where countless intelligence-insulting excuses for movies are fed to the mindless consumer society on a yearly basis, the story has become the least important part of the filmmaking process. It’s not always the case, thankfully, as this little film proves (among many others!), but how many times have we watched films with no substance, nicely packaged and passionately advertised but hollow and just plain silly? On the playground governed by the unsentimental rules of supply and demand, genuine, honest and meaningful projects are often buried in dirt, for reasons as wrong-minded as they are harmful for the future of film as art. You can’t put subtle criticism of consumerism in this picture, Mike, people don’t want to be bothered with it as they enjoy the spectacle of a Bentley running into a glass tower in Dubai. Your main villain can’t look like this, Bob, how on earth are we going to produce toys shaped like that?

Just as Justin Dec’s film is exaggerating to make a point, so are we. But the point is still valid and worth listening to. So thank you, Mr. Dec, for making a smart, hilarious film about a subject that’s nothing to laugh about.

I’ve seen Boats, obviously, but also Jennifer Lawrence Is Coming. The two shorts have a few things in common: they are well-written comedies and they’re both starring Taylor Miller, Denver Milord and Clancy McLain. How and why did you choose to work with these particular actors?
I met Taylor years ago when we were working together as production assistants in Miami, FL. We were very similar. I was determined to become a director and he was equally determined to become an actor. Both of our aspirations clicked when we decided to make an independent pilot called Rolling together. It was the first thing either of us did. We both trusted each other and rolled the dice. It was an amazing experience and the beginning of a long partnership. Denver’s one of Taylor’s closest friends and a great actor. When Taylor first moved to Los Angeles, he and Denver became roommates. In fact, their apartment was the apartment we filmed in for Jennifer Lawrence is Coming. Clancy is someone I recognized right away from a bunch of commercials, specifically the Dos XX Most Interesting Man In the World campaign. She came in to audition and nailed it. I mean nailed it. She was a perfect combo: talented, beautiful, and most of all, approachable. She just instantly got along with everyone in the room. That’s so important when you’re working on set. You want to surround yourself with people who not only want to be there, but love the process as much as you do. That’s a big reason why I keep working with the same team. I already know they have the talent, we trust each other, and we have a lot of fun working together.

You’re specialty, as far as I can see, are comedies. With these two projects, you proved you have a real talent for making people laugh, as they’re both highly amusing, each in their own special way. What can we expect from you in the future, genre-wise?
I love comedy, specifically dry, fast paced deadpan comedy. The beautiful thing about it is that you can mix it with any genre. As long as you can deliver the laughs, you can take your audience anywhere. If you ask me, that’s why Marvel has been so successful. They know the key to making their tentpole blockbusters work is adding levity. That’s the direction I want to go with my career. I want to take genre concepts and marry them to fast paced, witty comedy.

On your website, I found that your favorite directors were Edgar Wright and Matthew Vaughn. What exactly about their work do you find attractive?
I think they’re the best directors out there right now. They’re both constantly pushing boundaries and seamlessly mixing genres. Kingsman was my favorite movie last year. I show it to everyone. In that movie, Matthew Vaughn did something amazing. He took very big, relevant social commentary and blended it into one of the funnest spy films you’ll ever see. Not only is the movie a blast, but for audience members who have never thought about global warming or economic disparity, they walk away with those seeds planted. Brilliant. His movies are so tight too. There isn’t an ounce of fat on them. The same goes for Edgar Wright’s films. They move so fast and are packed with so much information that every time you watch them, you’ll find something new. That’s a director who loves what he does because it’s obvious he’s thought about every scene backwards and forwards then backwards again. I also love how they’re both always finding new ways to transition between scenes. That takes a lot of planning. It’s clear that they’ve already edited the whole movie in their heads which is exactly how I work. I edit most of my projects so I meticulously plan out every shot and transition. Which is probably why they’re my favorite directors. Once you go through that process yourself, you see the amount of skill and talent that filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Matthew Vaughn have. Even if you’re not a fan of the content, you have to respect the form.

I’ve read that you’re studiously working on your first feature, Nobody’s Home, a film described as a “genre bending comedy.” At what phase of production is the film at this moment?
For the past year and a half, I had been raising money for a road trip dramedy that I co-wrote with actress Clancy McLain. It was going to be a starring vehicle for her and my long time collaborator Taylor Miller. I was fortunate enough to raise a third of the budget but then I hit a wall. The problem was that I had over-written the film. There were too many locations. I could probably do it if I shot the movie handheld but that’s not my style at all. For me, the camera needs to live on a dolly and those set ups take time. So I started thinking about an idea that could take place at one location that I could shoot with the money I’ve already raised. It took some time but I finally cracked it. Nobody’s Home is exactly the type of movie I’ve always wanted to make and a perfect blend of genres. Right now, I’m halfway through the script and it’s practically writing itself. As soon as that’s done, I’m planning on raising just a little more money and then jumping right into production.

What has your work on short films taught you and to what degree did it prepare you for working on the feature film?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust my instincts. Since I plan all of my shots in pre-production, I’m designing something that lives exclusively in my mind. It isn’t until I see it cut together that I know if it worked or not. Short films are a great testing ground for that. Filmmaking is such a learn by doing process. You can’t be afraid to try things. It’s the only way to grow and find your style.

Boats was absolutely delightful. How did you come up with the idea?
Shortly after Cars & Cars 2 came out, I started seeing billboards for Planes. I figured the next natural step is probably going to be Boats. I could see the billboard and the tagline right away, “Get ready to set sail!.” It’s not that I wanted to send up Disney or Pixar. I love Pixar. I wanted this idea to be a satire of the machine itself so when I sat down to write it, I knew I wanted to see a meeting where no one was interested in the story. They would just be talking about the brand and ways to make more money. I also knew I wanted one guy in the room to be the naive idealist, sort of the voice of reason begging them to shut down the franchise monster and just focus on making one good movie at a time. Once I figured out the rest of the characters and their relationships with one another, it sort of wrote itself.

How did you manage to cast Jim O’Heir and what was it like to work with him?
My very first job in Los Angeles was working on Parks & Recreation. Every single person on that show was so down to earth and approachable. You can feel that positive energy when you watch it. Just a great group of people making something they really, truly loved. While working there, from time to time I would share some of my ideas with Jim and then, one day, I wrote something that he really responded to and we just did it. That was Talking Carl Talks Too Much. We had a blast working together and now he’s officially part of the gang (whether he likes it or not!). When I wrote Boats, I had no one else in mind for The Boss. He brought his perfect combo of jolly enthusiasm and sharp deadpan to the role. Nailed it.

Boats successfully mocks current trends in Hollywood. As much as I liked it, and as much as I agree with what you’re saying about the way movies are made these days, something that John Carpenter told me comes to mind. He said things aren’t any different today than they were back in the old days, that people tend to romanticize the past. Do you really think Hollywood has become more money-thirsty than before?
As a writer and child of the 80’s, I tend to romanticize everything. John Carpenter’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive so he’s probably right. Since I’m still pretty young in this business, it wouldn’t be fair of me to say something like that but I will say as a movie fan, I’m exhausted by the remake and franchise overload. I get that they’re safe bets and it’s a business, but why not roll the dice on a slate of smaller, original films like they used to? Instead of a $200 million dollar “reboot,” why not make twenty of the best scripts you can find at $20 million each? In that scenario, even if only one was a hit, it would still cover the losses of the other nineteen films and then they’d have a bunch of new content to remake ten years down the road. It’s a win-win.

You spent five years at an actor’s studio, only to realize your future was behind the camera. What made you see you were meant to direct? Was there a specific turning point in your life that set you on this path?
Towards the end of my time there, I realized that I had a lot of notes and ideas whenever I was handed a script. I stopped being interested in playing in them anymore and was more interested in the execution. That’s when I left the studio and began writing my own screenplays. There was no internet then, so I’d buy scripts at Barnes & Noble and follow their format. I never owned a camera when I was young so I just focused on the writing until I got to film school.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I have a whole slate of scripts that I plan on directing and/or producing. My goal is to make Nobody’s Home at a price, sell the film, and roll that money right into the next one. Basically, once I get started, I don’t ever want to stop.

Justin grew up in Boston, MA where, as a small boy, his obsession with cinema began with a little film called Jaws. Confused by the boy’s obsession with all things movies related, his parents assumed he wanted to be an actor and enrolled him at an actor’s studio where he spent the next five years of his adolescence learning how to communicate stories through performance. It was during this time that he realized he was in the wrong place. He didn’t want to be on stage. He wanted to be behind it writing and directing. From that moment on, that’s exactly what he did.

After film school, Justin wrote, directed, and edited an autobiographical pilot called Rolling about his time working behind the scenes on a hit TV show. After a successful festival run, the pilot won best director at the New York Television Festival in 2010. Around this time, he made the move to Los Angeles where he immediately began writing and directing short films and web series. His work has had over 7 million views online.

He is now spending his days (and nights) developing his first feature, a genre bending comedy entitled Nobody’s Home. His favorite directors are Edgar Wright & Matthew Vaughn.

Boats was a Vimeo Staff Pick, has 500K views between Vimeo & YouTube, and was featured on The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Short of the Week, Ain’t It Cool News, iO9, Geek Tyrant, and many more.

Maui Film Festival
Hang on to Your Shorts Film Festival
Rockport Film Festival
Jim O’Heir
Clancy McLain
Kevin Wu
Taylor Miller
Denver Milord
Written, Directed, and Edited by Justin Dec
Produced by Terry Miller & Nicole Crespo
Director of Photography—Nathaniel Fu
Music by Jesse Wiener
Camera Operated by Martin Gradek
Gaffed by James Moran
Camera Assistants—Henry Chan & Stacy Fang
Sound Mixed by Kevin Murray
Colorist—Patrick Bellanger
Sound—Leonard Nasca
Hair & Make Up – Nonomari Yanagida
“Sail On (Theme from Boats)” Performed by Jesse Wiener (feat. Maggie Joy Anderson)
Boats Poster designed by Stacy Lefevre
Boats Logo designed by Stefanie Huynh
Director’s Website
Film’s official site
Justin Dec on Vimeo
Follow Justin Dec on Twitter
Follow (Actor) Jim O’Heir on Twitter
Actress Clancy McLain’s Instagram

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