I caught up with professor turned film-maker Matthew Toronto to chat "the modern mythology" of the "human medium" of film, the nature of art and movies, cinematic influences, issues our youth face like suicide, belonging, and sexual violence, film-making and his new film (co-written with his brother Aaron and executive produced by Matt's wife, stand-up comedian Jordan Toronto) Face 2 Face, innovatively filmed using GoPro cameras (as described in the interview below) for a cell phone / Instant Message perspective. Face 2 Face can be viewed now on Netflix.

Matt received his BFA in musical theatre from The University of Michigan and his MFA in directing from Penn State University and later was a theatre professor for eight years at the university. He also danced alongside the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Currently he teaches at the Los Angeles branch of New York Film Academy.

Face 2 Face tells the story of awkward high schooler Teel (Daniel Amerman) and his coming to terms with himself as he reconnects with his childhood friend Madison (Daniela Bobadilla). Over a series of video chats Teel reaches out to Madison, but finds that behind the veneer of popularity and a seemingly perfect life, she hides a disturbing secret.

The cell phone / IM perspective is a really interesting way of exploring the teenagers' lives and really lends itself to a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel. In the process, Matt really allows for the deep exposition of not just problems like becoming and finding one's place – things that every teenager faces – but also much more pernicious problems like bullying and sexual violence.

In the process of exploring these issues, the film also gives us a look at what a deep and profound friendship really is – transcending the usual tropes of this kind of movie not just through its innovative perspective through the cell phone / IM view, but also through something more – the narrative itself, which enthralls, delights, and does keep you thinking.

I highly recommend giving Face 2 Face a watch on Netflix, because of its unique filming and direction, but also because of how deeply it has effected many who have watched it – as evidenced by Matt’s interview below, and also the narrative which is deftly balanced between all kinds of degrees of tense with the issues the film probes and the softer moments inherent in the kind of friendship of the main characters – really brought to life by Amerman and Bobadilla.

Check Matt's website out, and find him on Facebook and Twitter too – he has quite a lot in the works beyond Face 2 Face – and enjoy the interview below: a very thoughtful and deep look into the processes of a passionate and skilled creative that I know we'll be seeing more great work from.

Hello Matt and welcome to The 405! I wanted to start – if I may – by inquiring about your history. What got you into film-making from being a professor?

Becoming a filmmaker was not a huge leap. I was an actor for years in New York City before I went back to school to get an MFA in directing for theatre. After that I began teaching at Penn State and became very active as a freelance director in theatres all over the country.

I guess the common thread between my theatre work and my film work is directing. I love to direct. I love to shape a story. I love to work with actors. I love to move an audience. The artistic muscles I use when directing a play or directing a film are very much the same for me. It's all about crafting a story in such a way that the audience can experience it on an emotional, intellectual and hopefully also a visceral level. The only difference is the medium - the tools at my disposal.

That being said, when I jumped into film, there was a VERY steep learning curve. I had to master a whole new cinematic language as well as a whole new layer of technology. But the purpose of the endeavor is very much the same. I suppose it's a lot like the difference between painting and sculpting (I don't really do either). The skill set is very different, but the purpose is to render something that compels people.

Many of the same principles carried over from my theatre work into my film work. But on my first feature, The Pact, I watched a lot of movies and started reading as many book as I could get my hands on. I was the idiot in the corner of the coffee shop with my nose in a book called "So You Want To Make Movies." The other real challenge was learning to produce as well. In the independent film world, you have to wear a lot of hats, so I had to learn a lot more about the business than I had really expected. It was daunting, but exhilarating.

I also do a lot more writing than I used to, but that's really because I have stories I want to tell. The writing is a natural extension of my directing work. I read a lot of books on that too, but mostly I would reverse engineer great movies to figure out what made a great script. I'm very methodical. Once I get an idea, I do a lot of work to create complete characters and create a strong sense of structure and imagery. Once those pieces of the story are in my head, I just watch the movie and write it down. So the script is just my directorial vision on paper.

There is one other story I should share about what pushed me into film… I had just directed a brand new musical that we premiered at Penn State. Then we showcased a workshop version of it in New York City. A major production company saw it and decided to produce it... but they hired another director with a lot more credits than I had. I was convinced that the reason I wasn't considered was 1- I didn't have a contract with the writer (rookie mistake) and 2- They had never seen my other work. I told my wife, "I wish I could put my directing work in a box and send it to them, so they could see it." She said "Honey… that's called a movie." (Of course this was before streaming had become such a big thing).

Not long after, my brother and I started work on our first screenplay.

Quite the story there – and quite the processes to – I for one appreciate that methodical approach: I'm much the same way. Thank you for the wisdom! Favorite films and directors? As far as the ones you would consider most influential on you as an artist.

Oooh, that's a big question. That's like when my kids ask me what my favorite color is, or favorite song.  It depends so much on the context in my life. I love a lot of movies and a lot of directors.

It's not always just that these movies are good, it's also the personal resonance they have in my life at the moment I see them. I think back to the feelings I had in the theatre.  With that in mind, here are some of the highlights… Ghostbusters - I saw it at a friend's birthday party with all of my other friends – I was delighted from start to finish and I can remember the theatre, the night, the smell, the laughter… I even remember that the previews were so long that the whole audience began chanting together for the movie to start!

Then there is The Shawshank Redemption and Schindler’s List and the whimsy of Amelie. Speaking of whimsy, I love the over-the-top style of Strictly Ballroom. I was a dancer in my younger years, so this spoke to me in a special way.

I saw the movie Contact (with Jodie Foster) at a very specific time in my relationship with my wife before we were married. That movie didn't get a lot of attention, but it touched us both on a very personal and spiritual level. (I'm noticing a lot of these films came from the 1990s and early 2000s, which makes sense because that's when I was really deciding who I am.)

Now that I'm a father, I see a lot of films through my kids' eyes… Inside Out just about wrecked me (in a good way) because we had just moved our three kids across the country to California… the movie was basically about my daughter. I also love Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It was so fun and inventive. I found myself wishing I had directed it, which for me is the best kind of compliment.

Tangerine also made a huge impact on me recently, not only because I loved the characters, but I saw it on my first trip to Sundance while I was gearing up to direct Face 2 Face. The fact that it was shot entirely on iPhones inspired me to believe our film could work too.

But my favorite movie of all time is The Matrix (the first one). It blew my mind. I came out of the theatre a different person. There is never a time I would say no to watching it again.

Daniela Bobadilla as Madison in a still from FACE 2 FACE.

Fascinating and true way of breaking that down. That answer was very insightful on how films, I think, affect us all. What makes a great film?

A great film tells us the truth about ourselves. It reveals our humanity and creates new meaning in relationship to our own experiences.

I like to think of film as modern mythology. A lot of people think of myths as "false" or not true, but I think of myths as hyper-truth, or metaphoric truth. Great films are mythic in that they present stories that become metaphors for bigger truths, higher truths, than what pedestrian reality might reveal.

I think it is human nature to want to know and be known (this is why social media has become so important to us). Films allow us the opportunity to know someone else and their experience (whether fictional or real), and generate new insight into ourselves. We also have an opportunity to watch a film and recognize ourselves on the screen, and realize that someone else might know us in a way we didn't expect.

Great films are the ones that help me know something or someone, or many someones, in a new way – not just intellectually, but emotionally, spiritually and sometimes even physically. They say film is a visual medium, and I think that is true to an extent, but for me it makes much more sense to call it a human medium. To me great film is any story, no matter the genre, no matter the subject, that puts me in touch with my humanity in a compelling and unexpected way.

"The human medium of film" – I absolutely agree with that summation.

Getting into Face 2 Face, I'm curious what the inspiration and impetus was for 1- the story and 2- the unusual filming perspective the story takes (as an IM and video chat). Did the story come before the decision on the film's perspective? Or was it the other way around? I'm wondering if we could get an idea of your creative decision-making process there. 

The idea for the film came when I was away from the family directing a play at the University of Utah. My wife was back in Pennsylvania with our three kids and we would FaceTime just about every night.

On one occasion I remarked, "If we were talking about something interesting, this could be a movie." She said something to the effect of "Well, why don't you go write it!" I was only rehearsing by night, so my days were free, and I began to sketch out some characters and story ideas.  I had to ask myself, who would be communicating like this and why? As a professor of theatre I was working with a lot of young people and seeing how they interact digitally, so that made a lot of sense to me.

An example of the innovative POV of the film: L-R Daniela Bobadilla as Madison and Daniel Amerman as Teel in a still from FACE 2 FACE.

A lot of my students were also struggling with or had struggled with many of the issues that come up in the movie. At the same time Penn State was reeling from the sexual abuse scandal with the football coaching staff, so the issue of sexual abuse was very present in my mind.

That's when I reached out to my brother Aaron because of his long experience as a therapist treating victims of abuse... and because we love writing together. After some more creative discussion we decided that the video chat convention still served the story very well, so we stuck with it and began to create a script.

Besides the factors I already mentioned, a close cousin of ours suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father in much the same way that Madison does. My brother and I were very close with her when we were young and hearing the news had quite an emotional impact on both of us. She was like a sister to us. We were not much older than Teel at the time. In many ways Face 2 Face is in honor of our cousin.

Very sorry about your cousin – abuse, it seems, is far too common in the world. I hope films like Face 2 Face can offer a catharsis to people who have suffered it and perhaps even shed further light on the problem itself.

What were some of the challenges in filming and making Face 2 Face? Do you expect audiences will see more of this film perspective as technology changes and evolves?

The greatest challenge in filming Face 2 Face was how quickly we had to do it. We were working with a very limited budget. Most of it came through a grant from Penn State. I was still on faculty at the time of the filming.

Because our funds were limited we couldn't shoot for weeks on end. Ultimately, we shot for about eight days with a pick up day about a month later. It was extremely fast and we had to be extremely efficient. There were instances where we shot almost twenty pages on a single day.

Rehearsal was essential. The actors had to be prepared to shoot whole scenes, some were 8 or 9 minutes long, in a single take. Dan and Daniela were both up to the challenge and did a fantastic job.

The other reason this was possible was because of the format of our film. Each scene only had two angles, Teel's and Madison's. That means we didn't have to set up the camera for multiple shots in each scene. In the bedroom scenes, for example, we mounted a GoPro to the top of a lap top, lit the entire room and then handed the camera rig to the actors to do their thing. In fact, the actors did 99% of the camera work throughout the whole shoot. It was challenging to shoot so quickly, but absolutely exhilarating from start to finish.

I do think audiences will begin seeing more films shot in this style, partially because it is how we experience so much of our lives now. It is a language the children of the technology age really understand, and so it provides a powerful way to speak to that generation. 

The film tackles some very heavy issues, as you mentioned– particularly sexual ones that too many teenagers and people really unfortunately face. What do you hope audiences will take with them from Face 2 Face? How have the reactions been from the demographic the film is about – high schoolers?

The film touches some very heavy and pernicious issues: Daniela Bobadilla as Madison in a still from FACE 2 FACE.

We have had some extremely positive responses from high schoolers. It really seems to speak to them on a visceral level.

To me the most important thing that I hope the audience will take away is not just a greater awareness of the issues, but a belief in the power of friendship. That is what the film is really about. With true friends and genuine love we can face any challenges that come our way, and I think that is what Teel and Madison learn throughout the film.

On multiple occasions, young audience members, high schoolers, have come up to me or members of the cast and crew, in tears and thanked us for the story. They often share stories of their own struggles, or friends who are facing these issues. That makes me happy in many respects, but it also reminds me how prevalent these problems are. Around the world, one in five women will face rape, sexual assault or incest in their lifetime, and that must change!

I couldn't agree more. That message is even timelier in light of #MeToo.

I'll share one more very powerful story. About a week after the film began streaming on Netflix, I received an email through our website. At first I thought it was just a compliment to the film. But as I read I discovered it was from a 16 year old girl in the United Kingdom. She told me of how she had been planning to end her own life. But one evening she was browsing on Netflix and came across Face 2 Face. Something told her to click on it. She watched the whole thing and suddenly found a new hope. Because of our film, and Teel's story in particular, she no longer wanted to die. She had decided to live. The power of that hit me like a ton of bricks. We had saved a life. And that alone is worth more than all of the artistic accomplishments in my life combined.

That is quite the powerful story. I can relate having had a good friend who took his life with a shotgun – and also having struggled with Depression myself. That is fantastic that the film is having that sort of effect.

SPOILER: A slight issue I had with the film was at… the crescendo when Teel attempts to save Madison and Madison's tormentor barges in: there was such a rapid cut that it felt… unresolved to me – was the decision to not elaborate that confrontation made because of the film's cell phone perspective?

SPOILER: Yes, that cut was intentional. I wanted to leave the audience unresolved, wondering what happened. Did they escape? Did Madison's father catch them? Etc. I feel like the answers to those questions come in the next scene. They do make it out of there and Teel helps Madison get help. For me the turning point in that scene is when Teel tells Madison "You're my best friend." It's the last line in the scene and it's what convinces Madison to go with him.

It is also the line that encapsulates what the movie is really about. It's a quick moment, but that's when you see her make a decision to go with him and they both move toward the window. Her decision to trust her friend is what's most important in my mind.

I see. I think I'll have to watch it again – there's always something missed on first viewing, especially with such a multi-layered film.

Another example of the perspective in FACE 2 FACE.

Last, what is next for you?

I have been doing a lot of writing lately… a lot... and we have some great projects in development right now.

Aaron and I are working on a thriller with a company called New Renaissance Entertainment. We have also written the pilot for a one-hour drama series. We have even teamed up with our younger brother Dan to write a film about our Grandfather. He has an amazing story! 

My wife and I also do a lot of writing together. We have a great half-hour comedy series called Move On, about a woman being haunted by her dead ex-husband and a one-hour dramedy about a high-pressure Broadway training program at a prestigious university. We draw on our Penn State experiences for that one!

She and I are also developing a really fun comedy feature. So a few films and a few series. All of them are in varying stages of development, so I'm not sure which one is going to take off first.

We are also hashing out ideas and story lines for Face 2 Face the series. It would be an anthology of different stories all told using the video chat convention.