A Roundtable Discussion With the Team Behind Sundance’s ‘First Date’

The creative team behind 'First Date' breaks down how a romantic night devolves into an action packed crime drama in this feature debut.

First Date Sundance Interview
Tyson Brown as Mike and Shelby Duclos as Kelsey in First Date. First Date

What is the worst first date that you have ever gone on? Chances are if it didn’t involve an old beat-up car, a pair of cops, a criminal gang and a vengeful cat lady, your worst experience has nothing on the new feature film First Date, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically on July 2.

Written and directed by longtime friends and collaborators Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, the coming-of-age dark comedy follows an uncanny day in the life of Mike (Tyson Brown), a shy high-school student who finally summons up the courage to ask out his badass neighbor, Kelsey (Shelby Duclos). There is, however, only one problem: Mike does not have a car, which he considers a key element for a successful first date.

Desperate and strapped for cash, Mike is conned into buying a clunky ’65 Chrysler, which sets off a surreal series of events. After being targeted by the police and a group of eccentric criminals, Mike and his unwitting date, Shelby, find themselves in the middle of a death-defying showdown that makes any other first date seem like a walk in the park.

“[The film] had so many of the elements that we really enjoyed in movies we love and would watch at Darren’s house on movie nights,” Crosby tells Observer. “It had an unpredictable series of events, it took a series of twists and turns, it had elements of so many different genres, and it had the opportunity for colorful characters that were almost borderline cartoons.”

In an exclusive roundtable interview with Observer at Sundance, Crosby, Brown, Duclos, and actor-producer Brandon Kraus discuss the unique experience of shooting a film while working their regular day jobs, the opportunity to work exclusively with local talent in Northern California, and the dizzying shootout sequence that marks the climax of the film. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

First Date Sundance
Tyson Brown as Mike in First Date. First Date

Observer: Brandon, Tyson and Shelby, how did you each first hear about and get involved in this incredible project?

Tyson Brown: I saw the project on a casting website and I was really excited to do it because before then, I just did extra work. This was my first speaking role ever and I was just excited and pretty nervous as well. Manuel has a story about my audition tape. (Everyone laughs.)

Manuel Crosby: He sent in his audition video, and I opened it up and he’s like, “Hi, my name’s Tyson Brown. I’m sorry if I mess this up. I’ve never done an audition before; I’m new at this. I’m just going to see how it goes.” And I was laughing so hard at that. That’s when I knew he was the character before he even said a line of dialogue.

Brown: The script alone—the roller-coaster of events that take place—was also what attracted me to the film. I grew up watching action movies, and I was like, “Oh, I finally get to do that.” (Laughs.)

Shelby Duclos: I read the script and it just has so much going on where, as an actor, it’s really appealing because you get to do so many different things. I got to do action, a little bit of comedy, romance—there’s just so much to this movie that we get to do and get to play with. But also, [I was attracted to] Kelsey being strong and a badass. When I met Manuel and Darren, they were awesome, and I just thought this would be a great group to get my feet wet with. (Eds. note: Brown and Duclos both made their feature film debuts with this project.)

Brandon Kraus: I’d worked with Manuel, and he had shared his goal of making a feature film and I saw the potential to join as a producer on the business side of things first. I knew Manuel’s character. He’s very strong, he was committed, and he was gonna finish this project. He’s super passionate about the art and craft of it, and he sets a high bar for himself. That’s a guy that I want to partner with from a producer’s perspective.

I also love to act, so when he said, “There’s this character [named] Chet. Do you want to check it out?” I was like, “Of course.” He wrote it as this vulnerable jock, which is a little bit untraditional and it has that very comedic beat with a Nic Cage line. I was like, “I love this and I have to play this role.”

Manuel, you managed to assemble a talented ensemble to play these really quirky and endearing characters. Why was it so important to you and Darren to hire local, up-and-coming talent for this film?

Crosby: There were a couple of reasons why it was so important for us to choose a local cast, with the first being practical. Darren and I were both working our day jobs while making the movie, and we thought, Well, if we kind of do this like a bunch of short films and spread out the schedule, we can keep our jobs and we can make the movie at the same time. It turned out that many of the actors were in the same situation as well, so it kind of worked out.

We’ve also always really believed in our local arts community and giving people a shot to get on a bigger stage and do something cool. There’s a high barrier of entry to get into Hollywood for actors, and a lot of that comes down to a lack of visibility and opportunity to audition and show what you can do. We knew we could find the talent here, so we wanted to provide that platform for everybody.

Tyson and Shelby, both of your characters are so unique in the sense that one character’s weaknesses are off-set by the other character’s strengths. How did you go about building your characters from the ground up?

Duclos: I knew, reading the script, that Kelsey is very strong, sassy and fearless. That’s something that I immediately incorporated for her. Sometimes, I was too sassy and Manuel would be like, “Let’s try it a little nicer.” (Duclos and Crosby laugh.) I was thinking Uma Thurman in Kill Bill—just a very strong woman. Uma’s fighting skills are on another level, but she was always an inspiration. I wanted Kelsey to be strong but also a little bit vulnerable. We see a little glimpse of that in [Kelsey]. We don’t know too much of her backstory, but she definitely has one.

Brown: I kind of stemmed from a little bit of my middle-school, early high-school years. I was really shy, so I had to reimagine that because I’m really open now. (Laughs.) I just took from that and different characters that I’ve watched and incorporated into Mike. With the facial expressions, I was in the mirror a lot because I realized he doesn’t really say much verbally, but there’s a lot on her face. I was always working to find his little gestures. (Laughs.)

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Shelby Duclos as Kelsey in First Date. First Date

Brandon, as one of the main producers, how did you decide on that piece of junk of a car that really became a third main character in the film?

Kraus: I literally took the script that [Brown and Knapp] wrote and followed it to find the car in reality. I went on Craigslist and I was looking all the way from Santa Rosa to San Francisco for a beat-up car. It needed to still be cool, though. It couldn’t be a Honda Civic from 1996; it needed to have some class and character. When I saw this [1965 Chrysler] for sale in Santa Rosa, I went to visit it and it had this cool sound to it when they fired it up. It had chrome on it that would look great on camera, the dash and steering wheel were beautiful, and the seats were big and great for shooting inside. So, I picked it up for a good price and it gave us a ton of difficulties on set. (Everyone laughs.)

We had to replace the starter, the battery, some wiring. My sister, Lauren, did an amazing job at fine-tuning it, but some nights, we were out in the freezing cold air at 2 a.m. and we had to bang it with a hammer to get it started.

Then, there was this weird radiator hose that was hanging too low. I remember we had been working for 12-14 hours one night and we were driving the car on this dirt path, and this radiator hose hit something and ripped off, and all the water and fluid drained out. We didn’t get the shot, and then we had to fix it. It was ridiculously difficult working with it, but it added so much value and character. Now, it’s just funny to look back. (Laughs.)

Can you talk a little bit about the filming and editing of that shooting sequence near the end of the film? How long did it take you to film all of that and what were some of the biggest challenges (besides the obvious fears of paintballs and gunfire)?

Crosby: We shot that scene five days back-to-back, but the prep was occurring long before that. In the script, you have the story beats, like this character gets killed or this character is trying to help this one, but you don’t really know how that’s actually gonna lay out until you actually get to the location. Darren and I walked around in there and plotted out what we could do based on that space.

From there, the blocking had to be rehearsed with actors and I had drawn these little overhead diagrams with little dots, trying to move people around and get a rough idea. Then, you have to teach the actors the blocking, especially for the big overhead shots, so that nobody is going to the wrong spot because it becomes a safety issue at that point when you’re working with blanks and paintball dust. We rehearsed and drilled that over and over again, and I storyboarded the whole thing.

Then, we shot it and it was tough scheduling everybody to show up on the same five days and getting the call times right and feeding a bunch of people. It was definitely the biggest undertaking of the entire film, but it was so much fun. It had this energy to it because of the limited amount of ammunition that we had; there was this excitement and tension in the air of wanting to get it right the first time.

I was cutting a few things together in the morning when we would be prepping for the next day, just key special effects to see if they worked well enough or if we needed to shoot anything else. After that, it was cutting and refining the scene for another month or so and we would pick up a few character-based close-ups to enhance the drama. Once we connected with [co-editor] Zach [Passero] to continue to refine the movie, we really tightened it up, but it kept all of the character beats that we wanted.

Duclos: I don’t know about Tyson but the scene where we had to run through to get the keys, that was something that I was nervous about because the guns are shooting blanks, so it’s very loud and already scary in and of itself. I didn’t even have to act. I was just like, “Let’s run really fast, Tyson. Let’s get out of here!” (Brown and Duclos both laugh.) But it was really fun and there was so much energy in there. It felt really real.

First Date Interview
Tyson Brown as Mike in First Date. First Date

Can any of you talk a little bit about the process of getting this film to Sundance in an unprecedented year for the entertainment industry?

Crosby: Yeah, we weren’t sure what was happening with the festival world and we just submitted stuff, hoping that something would come about. We never really expected to get into Sundance. (Laughs.) I was speechless when we found out and it’s such an honor and it was so exciting to be a part of it [virtually].

Kraus: I actually submitted [the film], so I got this email with Manuel and Darren, saying, “Hey, we have a couple of questions about your submission.” I thought that was a little weird that Sundance would say that because they have so many submissions. I was on a Zoom call with Manuel and Darren when they broke the news to us, and I almost started crying. I was so shocked.

Duclos: Brandon sent out an email letting us all know, and I was so excited and speechless too. I was working my normal job that day, and I think I barely did one thing. (Laughs.) It was crazy.

What do you want people to take away from this film?

Kraus: Everybody connects with a different character, and one of the things that I’ve loved from the feedback from the fans is some people love this character, [while] some people find [them] ridiculous. I’m so glad that we have such a range of acting talent, and that’s been the most rewarding thing.

Crosby: I’d like people to have escaped from the harshness of the world right now, to have had some fun, to have reflected on how we love each other and to love others in their lives while they can. I think that’s kind of a running theme in the film because you don’t know how long you’ll have that opportunity. (Laughs.) Also, just be careful if you ever buy a sketchy used car. You always gotta check it out. (Everyone laughs.)

First Date premiered on January 31 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on July 2.

A Roundtable Discussion With the Team Behind Sundance’s ‘First Date’