Interview with Danilo Herrera Fonseca

I recently got the chance to interview Danilo Herrera Fonseca, the creator and director of the web series Lambert Hall (Devin was a writer for the series and recently reflected on that experience). Over Skype, we discussed the development of the series, the difficulties of shooting with a cast and crew made up entirely of students, and what it was like to be put in the place of director for the very first time. 

Had you ever made a series before, or was all of this new to you?

It was something completely new. I had only worked with short films before when I was in college. [Danilo studied Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont.] It was the first time I had an idea that was actually long-form, something that can continue from episode to episode. The whole idea came to me quite unexpectedly. I wasn’t actually interested in long-form; I had always been more inclined to short films and feature films. I’m from Brazil, and I was with Devin at Middlebury College. My first year, I was living in a first year-only residence hall, and it was quite an old building and had a dirty old basement that had lots of rumors about it. Kids would go down there to smoke, or there were rumors kids would go down there for sex. It was a sketchy, weird place. For me, it was a perfect world for my imagination, thinking of the encounters and conversations people could have down there. I knew about this place, but it was only when it was Christmas that all the students went back to their homes. Some students, mostly the international students, stayed on campus, and I was one of them. And I was in that big residence hall all by myself, with only one or two additional students. Wandering around this basement, I started wondering. This place is so scary when there’s no one here. I started asking myself ‘what if, what if.’ That’s when I came up with the idea, ‘what if students are stuck in an abandoned building like this?’ At first it was just a sketch on my note pad. 

What motivated you to make this idea into a full web series?

It first started as a proposal for an independent project. I wanted to develop it with a professor as an independent scholar. I applied, but I didn’t get it. After I had applied, I already developed some of the ideas I wanted to deal with in the show. I was so excited, I decided I would make it whether it was a class or not. It was only when it became a side project that things started rolling. I moved from the class idea to a side project. I had so many ideas that I had to make it into a series. A short film wouldn’t be enough; there was so much to explore. I was most interested in the characters we were coming up with, and I needed more time to develop that. As an international student, I thought I had a very outside perspective on things about American culture and things I was witnessing for the first time. All of those topics and concepts were very interesting to me. I wanted to further develop this topic that I found very interesting. 

How did you gather all of the people that helped make it possible? 

When I understood the scope of the project, I knew that I would never be able to do it on my own. The first student I reached out to was Devin because I knew him, he was a friend, he’s incredible, he’s a film and TV enthusiast, so I couldn’t think of anyone better to work on this project with me. I reached out to him and Briana [Garrett], the other writer, and also to the production designer. They were all students at Middlebury that I knew. I asked them what they thought about the project. I mentioned I was going to apply to two campus funds, and if we got the funds that meant we had a green light because we could not do it without the funds. That money was only to make the show possible. Nobody got paid. I applied to these two funds, and we got both. That marked the beginning of the project. At that moment, we knew that we got the money, we have the talent, we can make this happen. We started writing right away. 

How did you go about developing the plot and the concept? 

This was a very enjoyable process, for me at least, and I think also for Devin and Briana because we were drawing from our own experiences as college students. There were a lot of topics that were part of our lectures and conversations and just dining hall chats. There were a lot of topics that we wanted to address and we kind of had an idea of what those topics were. But the big challenge for us was to create characters that were realistic and could be some of our colleagues, someone you could find in your classroom or could be your friend. The way that we approached this in the writers room was I proposed a bunch of questions, like: what are some of the topics that we think are important for us to talk about? From that conversation, our mission was: we wanted the show to expose these topics but we also wanted the show to be entertaining. The other main question was: what would you do if you got stuck in a basement? So we started wondering all of the things that could happen given these circumstances. So these two questions helped us turn our ideas into a storyline. We started to understand which ideas made sense and which ideas went with each other. It was easier to understand where the story was going. 

Did you have many deleted scenes that you didn’t end up actually using in the series? 

There were quite a few actually. In most cases, it was just because of logistics. We didn’t have the time and the resources to shoot those scenes. We wanted to include in the show one character that was gay, but because of time we couldn’t afford it. We had a whole scene in a restaurant and wine spilling, it was a great scene, but we didn’t have the resources and the time, and also one of the actors travelled to Latin America, so he wasn’t there anymore, so it was just impossible. There were a lot of scenes we had to change. We had a bold and audacious set design planned, but it wasn’t ready on time. The whole production got delayed just because it was too bold. We had to change so many locations. We changed locations for more than 50 scenes just because they were supposed to be shot on the set, but because it was not ready yet we had to move to other spots on campus. We even had to do some rewrites while we were already filming to adapt. 

Where was the series filmed?

It was a combination of mainly two buildings, one of which is the one that actually gave birth to this project, the one that I was living in as a freshman. We shot a lot of the sequences there. We also shot in the basement of another building on campus. We had several locations. They were all on campus. The basement itself is actually a combination of buildings. We had this elaborate plan with maps combining different buildings because the entrance of one building connects with the other building. Just to make sure it would make sense for characters to be walking around in different buildings with different architectures, but really it’s supposed to be the same building. 

Did other students walk in while you were filming? 

That happened a lot. The basement is where students go to do their laundry. We had so many scenes where we would be shooting a scary scene and someone would walk into the frame and stare at us like what is going on here? And also there were problems with washing machines because sometimes the washing machine has cycles, so we had to wait until the washing machine cycle stopped to start rolling. There were some funny moments trying to work around. It was shot all throughout the academic year. We started shooting in the fall around October or November, and we finished shooting in May of the spring semester. 

What was the filming process like? 

For me, it was very fulfilling because even though I had done some short films before, helping out with sound or as a student producer, it was the first time I was directing something for a solid period of time. It was very reaffirming to me because it made sense that the path that I chose was actually making sense to me. That’s what I wanted to do. At the same time, it was very fulfilling because I was lucky to work with a very talented group of student actors. We spent between two and three weeks casting and I think all of the actors on the show were incredibly talented and really elevated the show to a whole other level, bringing suggestions. Working with actors on set was very fun in that sense because I knew some of the actors from before, even though I wasn’t super good friends with any of them. It was a very enjoyable relationship working with them. At the same time, it was also very stressful because we were all full-time students. Students at Middlebury love extracurricular activities, so they’re in five or six different clubs. The actors, they were either on athletic teams or they were working, in addition to classes and homework and all that. So it was very difficult to manage time. Sometimes we only had 15 minutes to shoot a scene, because that’s the break between an actor’s class and their lunch time because they had to go on and do other stuff. That part was very stressful. Sometimes we had to get on set, get everything ready, the actors would just come in, we’d shoot the scene for 15 minutes, and I only had one or two takes so we had to make it right the first time, because this was our reality. We didn’t have a normal 12-hour shooting day. So we had to work around that. The actors were very prompt, and the crew was incredibly talented. All these people made it very easy, especially my producer and first assistant director Sam Kann, who was my right arm. Saying she was my right arm is very very underrated, she was my right and left arm. It was truly a headache to manage time between the crew and the cast and a range of locations and all that, and Sam was always there. It would be very difficult to imagine this whole show without someone there to help with the logistics. 

Were there any personal struggles you dealt with as a director? Was it uncomfortable to direct your friends? 

I tend to separate friendship from the process. We’re friends, but whenever I got on set I was always trying to be very professional. We’re all doing this because we believe in this. So I’m going to try to do this as professionally as possible. Directing my friends was good in a way because I knew them and knew how to transmit a message because I knew them personally. I had taken classes on directing before this. That was definitely something that helped me a lot, just to have a framework that I could apply to an actual project. I’m learning about the theory of directing. It was the first time that I was actually in the shoes of the director. I was scared, I was afraid before I started the project, especially because it was a project of a big scope. There were so many episodes and scenes and so many characters. [Before Lambert Hall,] I had only worked with two characters in a scene. [With Lambert Hall,] sometimes that meant five actors with five different intentions and goals. So I was very scared and one of the things that helped me was the fact that I worked for so many months on this script. The fact that I was also a writer helped me a lot because the work that I did as a writer, coming up with character biographies and why they’re saying these lines, that made me a lot more prepared to jump into the director part because I knew these characters and I knew this story from my heart. Also those actors were in a similar situation because they had acted before, but we were all there as students. We knew that the nature of this project was to fulfil something within the academic realm. Eventually I think it went beyond that. But at the time, that was how I felt it. 

What was something that surprised you, that you didn’t expect as you were making this? Something that the directing classes might not have taught you? 

There were many things I learned in class of how to deal with actors or how to talk to actors that made a lot of sense. I tried to apply that, but there’s a lot that you just learn on the go because it’s mostly a trial and error system, especially when it comes to how you converse with actors. I think there’s a lot you can learn from books, but the actual learning comes from the experience. 

Do you feel like you’ve started to develop your own personal style? 

The experience definitely helped shed some light on some of the things that I like and there are definitely things that interest me a lot, stories and mostly a worldview. So when I think of my style or my voice, I usually think not of aesthetics or genre. There are types of stories, there’s a certain worldview that I want to add to my movies. But I am very interested in exploring other genres. Right now I’m working on a project in Portuguese. It’s a historical drama, which is something very different because it takes a lot of research, so the process and the style is a bit different. But the themes are actually pretty similar. We’re from the generation Y, and I feel like we were born with globalization so there’s a lot about diverse voices and this whole dilemma between me coming from this secluded place in the countryside in Brazil and getting in touch with the world and the circumstances that come with this are always going to be something that interests me and this dilemma is always going to be in my work and this confrontation of different people and also this dilemma of coming from a secluded place and connecting to the world at large. 

Who or what influenced you as you made this work? 

I watched Lost. I watched all of the seasons. I considered this show to be a happy encounter of Lost and The Breakfast Club. In a way, the idea of five students being stuck in the same place together, but at the same time that comes with the horror of being isolated in a scary place. The Breakfast Club and Lost worked as good references for me. [They weren’t] exactly inspirations because the idea for the show didn’t come from these two pieces of content, but [they were] actually good references because we thought the way they developed Lost, especially in the first season, was magnificent and the whole idea behind The Breakfast Club was great, even though it was a little outdated. It was just a reference because we wanted to make it more modern. I am also a huge fan of Martin Scorsese. He works as a true inspiration for me. He’s an outsider living in a big city where there were a lot of movies being made and shown. He’s just in love with movies and someone who just truly believed in his role as a director in the world. That’s what he came here to this world for. So I sympathize a lot with his history, and I think his movies are spectacular. I think the level of character development he brings to his movies is incredible.

How do you map out hours of plot and character development? Your characters are just stuck in the basement, so how do you create development and keep it interesting? 

We spent a lot of time talking about that when we were writing the episodes. This was one of our big concerns. When it comes to storyline, they’re just stuck in the basement. So sometimes it gets down to the conversations. The dialogue was one of the ways we could show who these people are. At first they’re desperate and they’re trying to break out, but it gets to a point when they have tried everything and now they’re just spending time together. So we wanted to be very careful with dialogue. Because it was so important for us to get to know these people. It was not just five students who got stuck in a basement. It was Emily, who was African-American with a specific family background, and Laura, who’s a feminist but fails to see the intersectionality between gender and race. So we wanted to show all these elements. So we came up with flashbacks, which would do two things. First, give a clue of why they went down to the basement of an abandoned building. Second, give an opportunity for us to show the rapport of those characters and who they are and what are some of the struggles they have in college because all of these characters have a sort of agenda. Laura is against this dating app, she’s a feminist, she’s an activist, but she also needs to work on her ability to see beyond feminism and see other things that get intertwined with feminism, so how do we do that? The way that we found was to give these characters flashbacks so that we could keep the main storyline with the five characters trying to escape but also learn about who they are and what struggles they have in college. 

How long did it take to make the series from start to finish? 

We got the money between April and May of 2017. We started writing in June of the same year. Then production started in late October of the same year, and we wrapped principal photography at the end of May 2018. After that, I had to go back to campus to do some pickup shoots because we were doing the post-production. The post-production was the part that took me the longest time because I wasn’t on campus anymore. I had graduated. Because this whole series was only made by students, nobody got paid. Once I graduated, I just didn’t have the money to pay anyone else to do post-production, and it was difficult for me to carry on with the post production because I was not at Middlebury anymore, I was in Los Angeles. The show kind of stayed in standby mode for some time. I needed to find facilities. I didn’t have the machine power to edit one hour and a half of footage. So the post-production lasted from that time until recently when we actually wrapped up the whole thing and released the episode. It was like three years. 

Episodes one through five have already been released. When will the rest of the episodes be released? 

Yes, initially it was supposed to be 10 episodes of six minutes each. It turned out that it was impossible to keep it at six minutes. Each episode has an average of nine minutes. So we decided to release the first five episodes into season one and turn the second five episodes into a season two so we could give five episodes back to the actors and the audience so people could enjoy it as quickly as possible, and now we’re working on the post-production on season two, which is coming soon. 

What are your plans for the future? What’s next for you? 

The next step for me is to keep producing work. Right now, I’m working as a writer, so I’m working on this period drama and a few other projects with some colleagues and a few on my own. The goal is to work full-time as a director, just try to gradually move from writing and directing my projects and eventually keep going as a director. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience? 

When I came up with Lambert Hall, we were hoping that [it] would be a thrilling, exciting show, but also it could work as a way to bring these important topics to the table. And then just seeing this show getting released during a global pandemic, it’s kind of weird. It was not our initial goal because we wanted this show to be released week by week so students could watch and talk about it, so it could be like a dining hall conversation and we could address all these important topics, but unfortunately it couldn’t happen. But it’s still good and quite ironic because Lambert Hall is about people in confinement, and we live in a period of global confinement. This puts families for a long period of time together in the same place. They evoke the same idea of coexistence. Houses, universities, in the workplace. We are different people, but we need to turn our differences into the backbones of our progress as a society. 

Season one of Lambert Hall is now available for streaming on YouTube.

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