Director David Brooks Talks ‘ATM’

How he put together the low-budget, single location thriller, why stockbrokers deserve this kind of treatment, and what's coming next.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


If a movie is starkly named ATM, you can be it’s not a whimsical comedy about the quirky characters who withdraw money. It is a high concept thriller set in the familiar everyday location. Stockbroker David (Brian Geraghty) and his two office friends (Josh Peck and Alice Eve) stop at an ATM in an isolated parking lot when a killer appears outside trapping them in the freezing bank. We got a chance to talk with director David Brooks by phone in anticipation of ATM’s theatrical release on April 6, after a month on VOD. Some spoilers follow, but none that aren’t already given away in the trailer.


CraveOnline: What is your ATM pin?

David Brooks: Yes, let me think about that. I’ll get back to you.


Come on, it’s for the movie.

Yeah, exactly. Someone’s birthday I’m sure.


Is there something glorious about a simple high concept premise in one location?

Yeah, absolutely. I think particularly for me as I was looking for my first feature, I think to do something contained and with three characters in a really intimate situation was really exciting. Insomuch as it’s limiting in the surface, it’s actually very freeing I think as a director. So you’re forced to find ways to be creative in a visual sense I guess, but just as far as what you do with those characters and in working with the actors. So that was absolutely really exciting to me.


We’ve had Phone Booth, Buried and ATM. What is the next level of this concept?

It’s a good question. I don't know. Who knows how interesting or perhaps silly they’re going to get. I think people do seem to enjoy these sort of contained stories for whatever reason. With ATM obviously, part of also what drew me to it was I think it’s a fear of what happens to them is maybe a bit more extreme than most people have felt, but I think we’ve all been there late at night at the ATM when you’re sort of looking over your shoulder. So there’s a very relatable sort of core of this film which I think is always something that people connect to. So maybe that’s part of it.


May I suggest Snakes in an ATM?

That’s the sequel, man. You ruined it. Now everyone knows.


I imagine the script comes up with a lot of the beats of what happens as this night progresses. Did you add any on the set?

Not as many on the set. I worked with Chris [Sparling] on the script for a little bit. It was really just a process of going through and just having another mind going through the beats and thinking well, would they really do this at this point? Do we need to address this issue here? The script was basically finished when I came on but we did some work in that realm, so I think we did most of it before we got to set. By the time we got there, it was really just about working with the actors to make those beats feel real and feel organic for them, particularly just with the actors from a blocking perspective. The biggest challenge for them is you’re in this same space every day. So it’s finding ways to either do things differently or feel like you’re doing things differently. That was a challenge.


Would no bank let you use their location or a working ATM?

We had talked about [shooting] it on a stage in a green screen and all the rest of it. I always wanted to shoot in a real parking lot, a real location and then build the vestibule just because we had a 20 day shoot. It was definitely tight so I felt we had to build our set almost like a giant prop you could manipulate to be as efficient as possible. We had all of our lighting built in, the walls fly, all the camera mounts in the ceilings. Everything we needed to do to really be efficient in telling the story, so yes, we certainly were not allowed to use either a bank or indeed a parka company. We wanted to use a specific kind of parka and they said no. We said, “Why? The parka’s keeping the killer alive, that’s not bad.” But yes, we built it from scratch.


How did you light the parking lot?

Well, we had kind of a crane rig that was up there pretty much the whole time so we could control it. Again just for efficiency’s sake, control it from above, down below and were pretty quick with our adjustments there. We weren’t dealing with throwing around 18Ks and things like that. It was again all designed to be as efficient as possible in shooting.


Did you have to shoot in order because once certain things happen, you couldn’t go back?

I wanted to do it anyway just for the actors really, to put them in the best position. I thought particularly with something like that to not shoot it in order would really do it a disservice. To go on the journey from start to finish just made the most sense. So yes, both from a practical and creative perspective, we shot in order. With the exception we had which was a much welcome sort of thing, we split the opening office stuff between midway through the shoot and the end. After being cooped up in the ATM for 10 days we were very happy to get out for a day and go to a nice warm office.


How did you escalate the cold makeup visually?

It was just a discussion both in terms of makeup and in terms of the other effects as far as glass frosting and whatever else we were doing. It was cold when we were shooting so that helps. We were in Winnipeg in September/October so that’s right not before it plummets there and goes to minus 50 but it’s chilly. It was just a discussion with the makeup guys as to how we do it and at what points we do it. There seemed to be natural breaks in the script that made sense for that.


Speaking of the office, David’s a stockbroker so he deserves this, right?

Yes, exactly. [Laughs] There can’t be that much sympathy I guess.


Was that an important distinction, that he has a job we’re all sort of skeptical about right now?

Yeah, absolutely. I thought that was a great sort of fabric that Chris had put in there deliberately. There’s sort of the moral questions that surround who’s guilty, who’s not? Certainly the character David’s guilt towards that situation impacts on where he goes in the story and relates to things that happen later. So yeah, that was definitely an interesting fabric to play with.


As your first film, what were the surprises you couldn’t have learned ahead of time?

For the most part, you try and get as many of the surprises out of the way I guess in prep as you can. So in designing the ATM and going through the process with the location and the actors and everything, there were I guess not surprises as much but steps there that I’d never been through before so it’s all a learning experience. As far as shooting the film, I guess we’ve seen it in the trailer, when we sat down with the AD and we’d allotted basically a week to shoot the water stuff. I was sort of thinking, “Really? It’s only this many pages in the script. How are we going to shoot everything else?” Then of course you get to that point and you realize why you needed that much time and you’re very thankful to your AD for saying we really need to allot the amount of time for that.


So you staffed up with a lot of experienced people.

Yeah, I tried to certainly. We had a great crew in Canada. My DP, Bengt Jonsson, we’d worked together before. He shot the short film that sort of got me this film. So there was obviously a trust and an experience level there which was great. Again I got very lucky with a great crew.


As a first film, is this the sort of story that was easier to get going as a way to just make your first movie?

Listen, I think it’s obviously a tough time at the moment for the industry and getting anything made is a challenge. Certainly something that is predominantly in one location makes it I think easier from a financing perspective. That drives the budget down to a degree but we also obviously have some set pieces that made it more complicated. Ultimately I was just drawn to the script and we found a way to go and get it made. I was certainly conscious that doing something contained gives me a better shot of it actually going.


What are you doing next?

Reading lots of scripts to try to find my next thing. I’m developing a couple things that are longer term plays I guess, books and articles, things like that. Really just reading a lot, taking meetings and trying to find it. So I’m not sure I guess is the answer right now, but hopefully I’ll know soon.


What was your background before you made a short?

I grew up in London but I moved to L.A. when I was 11 and just always loved film. Ended up going to NYU film school and just had a pretty amazing time in New York covering film, and likewise studying film I went to a great high school. We had a pretty amazing film theory program where one of our professors taught at AFI and the other taught at SU grad school. So I was doing grad level theory stuff when I was in high school which I think was really the greatest education I could’ve had, really studying film in that way. Then going off to film school, obviously you get to learn more of the practical side. I was just again lucky in that I came out of film school after making a couple shorts that maybe didn’t work as well, sort of getting a grasp of how to make a good short and was able to do that as my last film coming out.


When did you graduate NYU?

May of ’09.


So recently.

Very recently. I pretty much went from I finished my short that I did in July of ’09 and was finished by September and Peter Safran, one of the producers on ATM had seen it because we’d known each other for a long time. It all came together incredibly quickly for me. I sent the short out to some managers and was fortunate to get repped. It was a very quick turnaround between graduating and shooting.


Did you have a plan in case you didn’t get a film going that soon?

No, just to keep hustling I guess. Ultimately for me it was just about trying to find the material. Truthfully when I started sending my short out to managers, even more than trying to get repped, it was about trying to get in touch with material and trying to meet young writers and do whatever I could to get out there and meet people. I was just fortunate that I ended up getting repped. It was always just going to be a process of trying to find that piece of material to then go and try to make.


Did you ever have to work a day job?

Not since high school, no. I rock climb and I worked in my local climbing gym when I was in middle school and high school, but not since then. I was fortunate to skip that given how quickly everything moved.