At just 23-years-old, Colton Van Til has already written, produced, and directed two feature length films and has big plans to conquer the entertainment world. In 2018, he and his partner Sophie Hoefle founded Cloudstar Pictures to commit to their creative passions and prioritize their shared vision of filmmaking.
After being invited to an intimate screening of his upcoming acid-horror movie This is How it Starts, we had a chance to speak with him about his career goals and overall love of film.
What inspired you to get into film?
I made some short films with my brothers back when I was very, very young – like kindergarten. We were just goofing around with a DV camera. That was when I first started making little shorts, but I didn’t take it that seriously and I didn’t make anything again until, I think, it was junior year of high school when I took it more seriously and when I started getting some of my friends together who were acting in school plays.
I had a mentor who was my English teacher but was the advisor for the film club at my high school. I was talking about maybe wanting to do a short film or something and he was just like, “Just go fucking do it. Make a short.” And just gave me that initial push and turned what was kind of my obsession with watching movies into an obsession of making them. I think that was a key stage of just jumping into it really early on in high school and I just haven’t stopped.
How did you come up with the concept for This is How It Starts?
I was watching a lot of 1950s melodramas at the time. I was deep into Douglas Sirk, which I was originally exposed to via a film studies class in school, and just kind of kept watching those like All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, stuff like that. Then at the same time I was also watching a lot of Gaspar Noé’s work – which he did films like Climax and Enter the Void. Two very different styles, but it was just the timing of quarantine too. So, I had a lot of time on my hands.
I’d watch these types of movies back to back and, specifically after watching Climax, was thinking about what would be the most interesting group of people to have a dinner party and have an LSD spike into their drinks. I wondered what would happen if that took place with a 1950s, suburban, nuclear family. Then everything else just kind of snowballed from there.
You wrote and shot it during quarantine?
Yeah. That was kind of how this project came about so quickly. A lot of my friends weren’t actively working on too much and were looking for projects to be on. We assembled a writers room to write the script, I got in touch with my writing partner that I had been paired up with in class, Ashley Tropea, and we wrote the whole thing via Zoom meetings.
We were doing pre-production throughout the late winter, early spring of 2021. All of our pre-production, auditions, rehearsals were all remote – which was pretty interesting. Then we shot it as things were starting to calm down. We got really lucky in terms of COVID surges because we quarantined people, we bubbled people and then just kept in a little pod in rural Louisiana and shot the thing.
Obviously it’s super different from shooting during non-quarantine times. Is there anything you would take away from that experience of shooting during the height of COVID and bring it to now when there are less regulations?
What it forced us to do was spend a lot of time with the crew and cast because everyone was in one contained bubble. Sometimes when you’re on a set, after you wrap you’ll go back home or with other friends. But when you’re in this COVID bubble, the only people you’re seeing are the crew and the cast. So I think it just made a great atmosphere. Even on days where people weren’t actively in scenes, actors that weren’t filming that day would still be around and still be part of the whole process, by monitor, watching it. I think it just cultivated a familiar atmosphere and brought everyone closer together. That’s something going forward that I’d love to keep that energy and get everyone there in a shared space throughout all production. I think it just made such a more connected team.
Was it a team effort to label the film a psychedelic horror?
Psychedelic horror, acid horror. It’s really a mash of two genres. There’s a few movies that fit that overlapping acid horror, psychedelic horror subgenre. But we’re really kind of blending two different things. That was probably the writers and I who came up with how to categorize it, and the producers. I had this idea for it all and then we were trying to fit a good label on it. I think we came up with that when we were first pitching it, getting financing for it. We had this concept and it was like, “Well, how do we sell it? How do we put this crazy idea into a sentence?”
Is that an area you plan to stick with or do you see yourself venturing into comedy, or even romance?
I definitely have no interest in doing horror immediately after. I think I found that what I like best is being between genres. I don’t want to say that I’ll never do a horror again, but at least what’s exciting me right now is I’m working on a romance-drama script with Sophie, I’m polishing up a neo-western thriller that I’m writing with another friend – I find myself more, I get obsessed with one genre and I want to make the best possible film I can in that genre and then I’m like, “Okay, what’s next? What can I tackle after this?”
Who would be your dream collaboration?
I would love to direct Ethan Hawke at some point. That would be the dream. If I could put Ethan Hawke in a period romance, that would be cool. I’d like that. I think he’d have a good energy for that.
The biggest thing I’ve learned with collaborators is talent is key, but you also have to vibe with them. Just from interviews I’ve seen, I think that Ethan Hawke is the right amount of pretentiousness mixed with self-awareness that I think I could cope with.
At 23, you’ve already developed this impressive résumé. At what point do you say you’ve made it or consider yourself successful?
I don’t know if there’s any clear marker for success. I’m hesitant to ever label festival wins or awards as success, I think that it’s more once you feel like you’ve reached the height of your talents maybe. I feel it’s more-so on the craft, not necessarily the awards you get, would be when I feel like I’ve made it. I still don’t feel like I’ve made the best possible film I can make, I still feel like I have a lot of growth to do and a lot more that I can learn – so there’s definitely no clear marker to it. I guess maybe once I can get a film financed and produced a little bit easier or quicker, that might be a good sign that I’m on the right track.
I’m also curious, who is your favorite filmmaker?
That is the hardest question you could possibly ask. As soon as you say that, I’m thinking of 50 different ones.
I would probably say a mix between – safe bet, Stanley Kubrick, that covers a lot of my bases. Then, Wong Kar-wai and Sofia Coppola. For more current director, probably Paul Thomas Anderson. It all varies depending on what I’m currently into. If you asked me a month ago, I could’ve rattled off ten different directors that would have been totally different.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
My next feature project will either be the neo-western script that I’m working on – it’s called Blood & Dust and it’s an adaptation of Crime and Punishment set during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. That I’ve been writing with Alex Falcon over the past year and a half now. We were writing it straight for about eight months and then took some time off and just recently reapproached it and are doing a pretty hefty rewrite on it. So, either that, or the script that I’m writing with Sophie right now is an adaptation of a classic Danish novel called Niels Lyhne and that is the romance-drama script. We’re working through the first draft right now, we’re in touch with a Danish producer about it, and we’re actually planning to go to Denmark to do research, location scout, and work on another draft of the script in March. Either one of those two projects will hopefully be my next feature length film.
When and where will everyone be able to see This is How it Starts?
That is the big question. Right now, we are in a phase that probably many indie film producers are well-acquainted with where we are waiting to hear back from festivals that we submitted to, a couple sales agents that we’ve been in discussion with, so it’s a lot of people checking out the film and trying to find a good home for it. That was something that on my first feature we kind of rushed through this stage and went to the first festival that accepted us and screened it. This time around, we’re being a lot more purposeful and patient with where we want to take the film and make sure that we, for lack of a better word, don’t get screwed over and taken advantage of because that definitely happened on our first project.
We’ll obviously keep everyone updated, but I would say sometime in the next five or six months we’ll hopefully have a big festival premiere and distribution lined up.