Written and posted by Natalie Hulla

From the time Spring semester came to a close to the middle of Fall semester this year, Ohio University Film Assistant Professor Rafal Sokolowski has been working deep inside the rough and tough world of tow truck drivers and independent film production. Sokolowski recently wrapped principal photography for 22 Chaser, a drama about a desperate tow truck driver who risks everything to become an accident chaser while trying to piece together his broken family. This is the 22nd feature film to be developed and financed for production under CFC Features. Filming took place in Toronto, Canada.

Collaborating with the producer of the 2015 Sundance winner The Witch, Rafal Sokolowski (Three MothersSeventh DayLightchasers) directed 22 Chaser, a film based on a screenplay by Jeremy Boxen (KilljoysLost Girl). The film stars Brian J. Smith (Sense8Red Faction: Origins, SGU Stargate Universe), Raoul Trujilla (SicarioRiddickCowboys and Aliens), Aaron Ashmore (KilljoysRegression), Kaniehtiio Horn (What Would Sal DoHemlock GroveDefiance), and John Kapelos (‘Carl the Janitor’ in The Breakfast Club). It was produced by Don Carmody (ShadowhuntersResident Evil franchise, Chicago), Daniel Bekerman (The WitchBang Bang BabyEdwin Boyd) and Aeschylus Poulos (Sleeping GiantMolly MaxwellPicture Day); co-produced by Brendan Carmody (13 EerieHome Again); and executive produced by Justine Whyte (CubeNurse.Fighter.BoyRhymes for Young Ghouls).

Brian J. Smith (Ben) at his Jackrabbit truck. Photo by Ramona Diaconescu.

Brian J. Smith (Ben) at his Jackrabbit truck. Photo by Ramona Diaconescu.

BRINGING THE STORY TO LIFE

“Since my departure to Toronto in early May, I’d been working pretty much every day with Jeremy Boxen, the writer,” says Sokolowski. “Jeremy has been very open to my input and my ideas - it was very refreshing to see how a confident writer works quickly and efficiently transforming and strengthening the story - this was his ‘baby’ - but he was really trusting and open to changes. It allowed us to make brave strides and develop the story at a great pace. This creative freedom was one of the joys of collaborating with him on developing the shooting script, and in the end yielded a great blueprint for the film.”

Bringing the story to life was an opportunity for Sokolowski to tackle much more challenging production elements. Since the story is set inside the competitive world of tow truck drivers and chasers, production called for higher-end technology, large cast, filming with multiple cameras, a fleet of tow trucks and other picture vehicles, and sophisticated stunt sequences in order to capture the more thrilling car chases and accidents that were all part of the world of the story.

“How often as a director do you sit in the back seat of the speeding camera truck with monitors and sound system inside, and with remotely controlled camera head on its back watching as behind you, there’s this incredible chase sequence unfolding. Two operators hang from the truck on harnesses trying to capture the stunt, while you’re inside there kind of like inside the cockpit of a plane, directing the action?” says Sokolowski. “I could get used to that for sure.”

Sokolowski credits being able to tackle these challenges to the creative producers, the director of photography and his team, as well as all the department heads who worked tightly together, making sure everything was in place before the cameras rolled.

“This allowed me to film some pretty dangerous and otherwise challenging sequences in a safe and controlled way," says Sokolowski. “The producers equipped me with a very experienced team in all these areas and that’s been a treat to learn from them the workflow and their ‘tricks’. I got to work with a great stunt coordinator, great stunt drivers and performers, specialists in how to design action sequences, and how to work a large set,” says Sokolowski. “This production required a really large team and consequently complicated multilayered set - directing many people and complex elements has its challenges. But because I had these people who guided me through the process, it became less of a daunting experience.”

Rafal Sokolowski directing the steady-cam sequence. Photo by Ramona Diaconsecu.

Rafal Sokolowski directing the steady-cam sequence. Photo by Ramona Diaconsecu.

CAPTURING BEN'S STORY

Despite the physically engaging action elements of the film, Sokolowski is hesitant to categorize it as an action film. The story is an intimate character study of Ben, a new father who is thrust into this testosterone-driven world in order to care for his wife and son. What attracted Sokolowski to Ben’s story was the human element of the script that lies in the heart of it.

“It captures a remarkable moment in his life when he trades his personal values for financial success and stability for his family," says Sokolowski. "Thematically, it speaks about the crisis of masculinity in the modern world. Who can’t relate to that? I certainly could. It was my personal entry point into the story.”

“The family dynamics within the story, the young couple who come to Toronto from a small town in Ontario and try to make it and look after their little son and making stupid decisions along the way, is tonally very much naturalistic,” says Sokolowski. “I’ve treated it like that and it’s shot with these long, single shots, with very intimate photography. The acting captures intimacy between these characters. It’s very different from the world of the chasers that surround Ben outside of his family sphere, which feels stylistically almost like a different film: gritty and vulgar - this was my idea to design friction between his two worlds that are drastically opposite and to ‘ask’ Ben to negotiate the rough and violent world of chasing accidents with the fragile and private world at home.”

The balance of adrenaline with a tender look into Ben’s family relationships allowed Sokolowski to create a hybrid story, one that marks a significant departure from his previous work that has echoes of human drama and neo-neo-realism.

“I saw a potential for me to spread wings in that new territory and gain a fantastic, new learning experience of working with elements of action film. I saw a chance to preserve the kind of human story I love and know how to tell, while putting on a completely new skin on top, and creating an exciting hybrid.” says Sokolowski.

The environment of the story is built upon masculinity and toughness. Sokolowski and the creative team behind the film prioritized authenticity in order to tell such a gritty, naturalistic story. Sokolowski recalls researching the world of these tow truck drivers and chasers who fought to secure territory along highways that statistically had the most accidents.

“It’s an intense world,” says Sokolowski. “They’re like birds of prey, they’re like scavengers, constantly cruising the roads, hoping to ‘spot’ a human misfortune. Once they hear on the scanners that there is an accident somewhere, they shift gears and they become these crazy, reckless chasers breaking laws to be the first on the scene to hoist the car. I’ve spent a few nights cruising the highways with real chasers - it’s intense to arrive at the scene of a real horrific accident, where real lives are broken, or ended - the research for a film quickly turns into a real life experience.”

DROPPING THE MASK

Sokolowski applied this style of authenticity into his casting and directing decisions. Despite the tough guys who inhabit this world, Sokolowski and his team made sure that every one of the characters in the story dropped the mask at some point to reveal deeper emotions and their real human dimension behind it.

“They appear exotic and far-fetched. They are eccentric and bordering on exaggeration, but after a moment of observing them closely, we realize they are very real," says Sokolowski. "It becomes apparent that they are the product of their extreme environment that shaped their extreme personalities, attitudes and behaviors." 

Rafal Sokolowski directing the drone shot. Photo by Ramona Diaconescu.

Rafal Sokolowski directing the drone shot. Photo by Ramona Diaconescu.

Sokolowski spent a long time working with the L.A. Casting Director Tineka Becker reviewing her lists and watching demo reels trying to cast Ben, the lead character. When he saw the work of Brian J. Smith, Sokolowski knew immediately that they had found him.

“Casting Brian was really the best casting decision I’ve done in my career, hands down,” says Sokolowski. “There’s something about him that’s so innocent and so transparent – he is absolutely open and available for the camera to ‘see and capture’ what goes on inside his mind and soul. Then I found that he has theater training and in fact won the Tony Award for his role as the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie and is a graduate of Juliard. I started seeing more of his stuff and it just dawned on me, ‘this is the guy, this is the guy’… Within the first day, he got such a strong sense of the character that he and I dropped the character conversation almost entirely. Whenever he would come out, he would be the Ben that I wanted him to be. He just got it. It was strange, it was like he lived in my head and he really understood how I wanted Ben to think and feel, and operate.”

Sokolowski credits Smith’s performance to not only his training but to his work ethic.

“Brian would almost never leave the set. He’s not the kind of guy who, during his break, would go back to his trailer and relax. He would hang out with the crew very often in his tow truck listening to music, pondering the scene we were about to shoot. Once we were ready with lighting for the next set-up, he would be there ready to go. He said, ‘I want to breathe this set’.”

Smith and Sokolowski were able to connect deeply on their backgrounds in theater and acting. Sokolowski says that his style of directing prioritizes hands-on rehearsals with his performers and that this proved to be beneficial for the entire cast of actors.

“I’ve paired up with a DP [Cabot McNenly] who’s really got my back with cinematography, who understands what I’m going for and is incredibly patient with me going for these long blocking sessions,” says Sokolowski. “My own practice as an actor and my training comes in handy, but for me, to peel the layers of the human soul in each character and to get to the bottom and move them and inspire them, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Now that principal photography has wrapped, Sokolowski anticipates that the film will be in post-production until Spring 2016.

The film features cinematography by Cabot McNenly, production design by Adam William Wilson, costume design by Bonnie Sutherland, and editing by Kye Meechan.

22 Chaser is produced through the Canadian Film Centre’s CFC Features program. Development at CFC Features is supported by the Government of Ontario, and production support and financing is supported by The Movie Network, a division of Bell Media, and Corus Entertainment’s Movie Central.