“Rapid Eye Movement” is a new film by director Peter Bishai that was filmed in Times Square, Manhattan. A Tentmaker Pictures and We Are Films collaboration, the movie stars François Arnaud and is a suspenseful thriller film that chronicles a publicity-seeking radio DJ who is driven to the edge of insanity when he attempts to break the eleven-day world record for staying awake…under the threat of a deranged caller who will kill him if he falls asleep.
Director Peter Bishai recently discussed working on this film and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you decide to enter the film industry and why did the role of ‘director’ so appeal to you?
Peter Bishai (PB): I’ve wanted to be a film director since I was 12 years old. I just fell in love with movies, especially classic ones from Hollywood’s golden age; it was a kind of obsession when I was a teenager. I love the fact that directing combines storytelling with travel, working with people, technology, exploring cultures and so many other facets, all in one job. I just had to do it. After graduating from film school, I spent a few years working as a script consultant but then I knew the only way forward for me was to embrace independent filmmaking.
MM: How did you get involved with “Rapid Eye Movement” and what about it most appealed to you?
PB: It started when I read about a real radio DJ in the 1950s named Peter Tripp. He did the original sleep deprivation marathon in Times Square and nearly lost his mind in the process. I immediately knew that would make a great movie. What is so intriguing to me about the story is that it takes a problem we all deal with daily, sleep deprivation, and pushes it to the extreme; just how far can it be taken, especially when your life depends on it. I saw it as a metaphor for life, pushing our lives to the limits of human endurance in service of something bigger than ourselves. And the Times Square setting gives it a kind of urban epic feel which I love.
MM: How did you manage to get this filmed in Times Square? Was the permit acquisition a total nightmare?
PB: This was the biggest surprise to me; that our plan actually worked! I came up with a technical strategy to shoot the film in the most unobtrusive way possible and when that was presented to the New York City gatekeepers, they understood what we were doing and gave us complete permission to shoot in Times Square. They even closed a lane of traffic for us! No one has ever done what we did, which was to build a set in Times Square and film for several weeks. The key to making it work was to mount the radio booth on a flatbed truck that could be moved in and out every day, incorporate all the lighting into the set itself and use a complete handheld shooting style. Keeping everything self-contained on the flatbed is what convinced the city to give us the permits. As a result, our indie film had thousands of extras every day and that authentic New York energy that you can’t fake in a studio. We were very fortunate for sure.
MM: How did you get the casting for this project sorted out?
PB: Someone had recommended François Arnaud to us and it was clear he had everything needed to play the lead. We met to discuss the role and he was simultaneously daunted and excited to take on the challenge. Imagine having to perform such a roller coaster of emotion in the middle of thousands of people in Times Square. He was willing to do it, knowing how difficult it would be. Our casting director, Jennifer Peralta-Ajemian, dipped into New York’s vast pool of amazing talent to find the rest of the cast.
MM: What was the filming process and time like and what’s your favorite part of the movie and why?
PB: We shot the entire movie in 23 days, half of which were overnight shoots. A key part of the process was figuring out how to physically stage each scene inside the booth. It was such a tight space and that meant designing the movement of the actors, the camera, and me within the limited space, almost like a dance. I wanted every scene to be filmed differently – different angles, a variety of camera movement, and use of visual effects – all to keep it visually interesting while going on this emotional and intense journey. My favorite scene in the film is when the DJ, Rick Weider, interviews a grieving mother on the air. At this point in the story, Rick has gone 10 days without sleep and has become quite unstable mentally. This turns out to be simultaneously hilarious and horrifying as the interview descends into chaos. I am always trying to find humor in tense situations, which is true to life.
MM: What other films have you made?
PB: My first feature is a quirky comedy adventure called “The Dueling Accountant”. It’s the story of a lonely accountant who is thrown into a world of intrigue and romance when he reluctantly agrees to fight a sword duel. After that, I made “Colors of Heaven”, which is an epic true-life story set in South Africa during the apartheid years. It’s the story of Muntu Ndebele, South Africa’s once most famous teen movie star, who, in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Student Uprising, is separated from the love of his life, becomes a fugitive, and struggles for years to survive apartheid and find redemption.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
PB: My goal has always been to tell human stories on a large, global canvas. I hope to have the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world and make films that are visually exciting and emotionally stirring.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
PB: In “Rapid Eye Movement”, Rick Weider tries to break the world record to stay awake in order to raise money for SMA research. Spinal Muscular Atrophy is the number one genetic killer of children and we hope our film sheds a little bit of light on this important issue. Go to www.curesma.org to find out more.
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