Neon Lights, currently available on digital and On Demand, is a psychological thriller that dives deep into family trauma and mental health. Dana Abraham not only stars in the movie but also wrote the script, and his feature film debut is a testament to the power of collaboration with trusted artists. Rouzbeh Heydari, who helped craft the story, also directed the film about a man piecing his life back together during an unusual retreat with his estranged siblings.
Abraham’s character Clay Amani is haunted by the demons of his past, and Neon Lights serves an intimate portrait of his mental state as he tries to sort through the broken bonds of his childhood and fully immerse himself in the present before losing his company. The cast is equally intimate, with only a few characters in a scene at a time. Brit MacRae, Erika Swayze, René Escobar Jr., Brenna Coates, Stephen Tracey, Lauren Howe, and Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) each play a member of Clay’s family or an important figure in his recovery.
Screen Rant spoke to Heydari about the casting and pre-production process for Neon Lights, which had to be thorough in order to ensure a smooth two weeks of actual filming. He also shared what it was like to collaborate with co-writer and star Dana Abraham, as well as working alongside an actor like Kim Coates as producer.
Screen Rant: I ‘m fascinated by the title of Neon Lights, and Dana mentioned you played a big role in connecting those lights to each character and Clay’s mental state. Can you talk a little bit more about the process of getting from the first draft to the final product, and how the title inspired the path you took?
Rouzbeh Heydari: Yeah, I definitely drew a lot of inspiration from that title to visually get to where we were. Because, for me, it made perfect sense that we all categorize people, things, memories, and projections of others with sounds and sights and colors. I really do think color is something that we associate with characteristic tics, traits, memories, and events. While we’re exploring the depths of someone’s mind, I really thought that would be something that we can lean into and create some cool symbolism and metaphors with.
I know there was a lot of preparation done before the actual filming, especially through Zoom. What was that experience like, and how did it affect the process?
Rouzbeh Heydari: It was great. I think none of us had never done that. Every time I worked on a project, I got to meet someone and feel their energy, and how the room would shift as they would walk in or out of it. Those are all intangible things that you can catch on to. But this was different.
We weren’t allowed to see anyone at the time; it was right at the beginning, and no one knew anything about this pandemic. Everything was taped and sent in, and we got an overwhelming amount of auditions sent to us – there were thousands of tapes. I combed through them with Dana tirelessly, just going through everyone. It was at the end of one day, and there was one more tape left. Dana was like, “I’m so tired, man. My eyes are burning.” But I was like, “We have to watch this one. It’s there, we have to watch it.”
We watched it, and Lauren Howe was on that tape. As soon as I saw her, I was like, “That’s it. That’s the character.” I’m so glad we watched that tape.
The different dynamics Clay experiences with each character are so fascinating. First, there’s the pain and the struggle with his siblings, but with his sister-in-law Clarissa, it’s a different situation and he’s almost a different person. Can you talk a little bit about building each dynamic and working with those actors?
Rouzbeh Heydari: Absolutely. Once we had our pool of actors, we did chemistry reads with everyone. In the chemistry reads, we were able to even go a little bit further and see what would work on screen and what wouldn’t. And once we picked our cast, I asked everyone to be involved as much as we can be in pre-production and in prep. I need to work with everyone as much as possible on their characters, especially with Britt [MacRae, who plays Clarissa] and Dana.
I remember we would spend nights in parks together with paper scripts, going through scenes because we couldn’t be inside. It was really at a time when even apartment buildings weren’t letting people in that didn’t live there – this is what we were up against. They were all so gracious with their time and energy, and we would literally be rehearsing scenes outdoors, ordering pizzas to the park bench, and really developing that chemistry and developing that dynamic. And it really worked.
As you’re getting it on its feet, did you ever have to really have discussions of where each character is and the state of Clay’s mind in that moment?
Rouzbeh Heydari: That’s my job. Yeah, I have to let them know, “You’re coming from here, and you’re going here.” One of my jobs on set is to remind them where they’re coming from and where they’re going after the scene, so I did my best to do that.
But honestly, there wasn’t even much that needed to be done, or that was a handful of times. Because everyone was so intimate with their characters, and everyone was so intimate with the scripts; the actors were showing up hours early and asking me questions. Especially Britt, she would show up hours early and ask me to work with her on the day before anyone else was on set.
We were so prepped, and with the tight shooting schedule we had, we couldn’t have approached it in any other way. There was no room to think on set, we just had to get what we needed to get on the day, and I had done everything I could to make this movie happen in pre-production and prep. That was something I kept singing to Dana: “This is all done in prep. The more work I put in now, the easier the shoot’s gonna go, and the better the results are gonna be.”
I know Kim Coates said that he was only on set a few days, but he helped produce as well so the pre-production process clearly worked wonders. What was the collaborative process like?
Rouzbeh Heydari: Kim was so awesome and fun to work with. He brought this level of knowledge, wisdom and expertise that really elevated the project. Being Kim Coates, he’s so busy and so sought after; he’s working on a hundred things at once. But he put in character work with me, he was talking to Dana and I about his character and script beats leading up to the shoot, and he knew exactly what he needed to do when he got there on the day.
Obviously, it’s Kim Coates. Of course he’s going to know what to do. But he really made that character his own, and it was not challenging at all to shoot shoot his parts – or anyone’s, for that matter.
Moving on to your next project, are we doing more thrillers? What are you diving into?
Rouzbeh Heydari: I think the next one is going to be a fun macabre thriller. I’m really inspired by the literature of Edgar Allan Poe. Neon Lights tips the hat to a Poe piece as well called The Mask of the Red Death. It was a movie made in the 40s starring Vincent Price. Check it out, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
But the next movie Dana and I are doing is called Black Cat based on a story written by Poe, and it’s a modern adaptation.
What is the most rewarding thing about collaborating with Dana?
Rouzbeh Heydari: Honestly, we challenge each other and push each other to our limits creatively. And we expect nothing but the best from each other. We won’t stop until we get the best out of each other, and honestly, we’re each other’s biggest champions. That’s extremely rewarding, and so is the trust.
When you get on set, if you don’t trust your actor and your actor doesn’t trust you, it’s not going to work out well. But with the trust we have in one another, it’s smooth as butter. With such a tight shooting schedule, I think the film is made on paper. That’s my philosophy on film, and then you just gather the pieces and build the house.
But I’ll say this: I couldn’t have imagined how incredible the work of Dmitry Lopatin, our cinematographer, would be. I had never worked with him, and the visuals that he brought just blew me away. That’s something I could not imagine and shaped the film in a way that I didn’t expect. But that’s film; it’s collaborative. I think you get the best results when you work with people you trust artistically, and you are open to their ideas on the picture.
Do you ever think of adding acting to your already full repertoire?
Rouzbeh Heydari: I like to put others on screen. I like to direct. I’ve come from an editing background, so I actually partly edited this movie as well, although I had a co-editor.
Dana and I did wear quite a lot of hats together, and if the time is right, and I it feels right, I’ll put myself in a scene for why not?
Neon Lights Synopsis
Thirty-year-old tech tycoon, Clay Amani (Dana Abraham), is on the verge of a hostile takeover of Tempest Tech, all while he attempts to overcome mental health disorders and childhood traumas. Upon the advice of his therapist Dr. Mori (Brenna Coates), Clay retreats to an off-grid location for a family reunion with his misfit siblings, in order to “face his traumas, head on.” During the reunion, family secrets are revealed that ripple tidal waves through the already strained relationships between Clay and his family.
In hopes of turning this tragic encounter around Clay’s trusted advisor Denver Kane (Kim Coates) attempts to help Clay navigate and come to terms with what’s truly required to get back on track, and focus on what’s truly important, to retake control of his company. But things go very awry, and Clay is left fighting for more than just his company, when guests begin disappearing.
Check out our interview with Neon Lights stars Dana Abraham and Kim Coates, and check back soon for our interview with Brenna Coates.
More: 10 Psychological Thrillers To Watch
Neon Lights is currently available on digital and On Demand.
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