“I Thought to Myself, ‘Sh*t, Okay, Now I Have to Write This Movie”: Daniel Antebi on Tribeca 2022 Premiere God’s Time
Set in the fall of 2020, Daniel Antebi’s feature debut, God’s Time, is a New York comedy about two best friends in recovery—Dev (Ben Groh) and Luca (Dion Costelloe)—who grow concerned when, at a meeting, the woman they’re infatuated with reveals her plan to murder her ex-boyfriend. Surely she wouldn’t go through with it, right? Even though her ex did kick her out of their apartment and kidnapped her little dog?
Thanks in large part to the chemistry shared by its three leads—Liz Caribel Sierra as Regina, the woman of Dev and Luca’s dreams, more than holds her own as the straight man—God’s Time (as in, “the person will die in God’s time”) is a scrappy film about a friendship being tried and the difficulties involved in staying clean. In its consistent breaking of the fourth wall and kinetic energy, it’s also a very funny feature meant to disorient, complete with apartment break-ins, mistaken identities, relapses and bottles of urine being thrown in a moment of extreme road rage, maintaining a consistent tone throughout the constant hysteria.
A few days before the film made its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival, I spoke with Antebi, a former 25 New Face of Independent Film, about shelved plans for another feature he was prepping when the pandemic hit, the speed with which God’s Time came together as a result, and the creative ways in which his team stole locations.
Filmmaker: The last time we spoke, you had mentioned an idea for a feature you were hoping to go into production on starring two actors from a short of yours, IRL. Those two actors, Dion Costelloe and Ben Groh, had undeniable chemistry in the short, and it’s further on display in God’s Time. How did you first meet Ben and Dion? What lead to you all working together?
Antebi: I first met Ben in recovery after seeing him around for a few years. We would talk here and there, and then, in the fall of 2019, he told me about his artistic passion. That’s what he kept saying: “I have this artistic passion.” In certain ways, Ben is not like his character [in God’s Time], but all of his wardrobe in the movie is his, so he looked very much like he does in the movie. He’s a very eccentric guy who can talk a mile-a-minute at encyclopedic depths, and I was really confused and bewildered (but interested) in finding out just what his artistic passion was.
One day when I overheard him retelling his story (I think it was the third time he had brought it up) at a [recovery] meeting, I went up to him and asked, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but what’s your thing? What’s your artistic passion?” I was expecting him to respond with “Oh, I’m a painter” or “a novelist,” but he tells me, “I’m an actor.” I think, on the spot, I said to him:, “Well, I’m going to write a movie for you.” Ben and I have different versions of this story, but from what I recall, he rolled his eyes at me and was like, “Yeah, sure, good for you. You’re gonna write me a movie.” Then, come January of 2020, I wrote and filmed a monologue with Ben where he’s in a meeting and sharing how he can’t cry. We never released the monologue; I’m still sitting on it and am waiting to release it post-God’s Time. Ben is great in it. Soon after shooting that, the pandemic arrived and Ben kept telling me, “You’ve got to meet Dion. If you think I am a good actor, then you have to meet Dion.” I think I had seen Dion in a few meetings maybe, but I officially met him over Zoom.
Filmmaker: Did Ben and Dion also meet each other through recovery meetings?
Antebi: Yeah, and they’ve [since] become best friends. They’ve been really close for a little while and have traveled to places like Mexico together. They’re a bit of an odd pairing IRL [in real life]. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be buddies!” Dion turned out to be really special and had his own swagger and charisma. Basically, the way IRL originated was via my interviewing them about what was on their minds and what was currently going on in the zeitgeist. We started doing exercises where I would say, “OK, we each have 90 seconds to write down three times we’ve each kept a secret from a best friend,” then we would [share] it. Scenes from that exercise eventually wound up in God’s Time, funny enough, each having been born from an exercise I learned when I attended the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive. From there, I made IRL with Ben and Dion and things grew into God’s Time.
Filmmaker: Was IRL an unexpected, unofficial chemistry read for God’s Time? Or were you still planning on shooting On the Mat [Antebi’s script that had participated in the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive in 2020 and was to be his feature debut prior to the pandemic nixing those plans]?
Antebi: Around March or April of 2020, On the Mat was really starting to come together. Killer Films was attached as executive producers and the team at Rathaus, [Alexandra Byer and Madeleine Askwith] who’ve had a bunch of films at Sundance, were going to produce it. We even had the DP of The Florida Project [Alexis Zabe] attached to shoot it and Casting Double (lome Oggenfuss and Geraldine Barón), who had just cast Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, was going to cast it. We had a really nuts team coming together, then the pandemic happened. Soft [Antebi’s short film which would be the basis for On the Mat] had been shot and was going to premiere in-person at SXSW 2020, but of course, in-person screenings were eventually canceled. I then received a call from Killer Films and my producers telling me, “Sorry, but your sexual assault, weird coming-of-age film with kids rolling around and making out with each other isn’t going to [get made] during a global pandemic. Let’s shelve it for now and see what happens.”
I think my body or my soul or whatever was still committed to making my first feature that year, some way. We were out to Harry Styles for the lead role in On the Mat. I think he eventually read it and his agent told us, “Well, you have a new fan.” I don’t know if that’s true—you never know with agents. Harry passed on the film, but it was cool to think that Harry Styles read my script and that he was a fan. He just didn’t want to play a pedophile, which is understandable.
Filmmaker: So then On the Mat gets shelved and you still feel like you have to make a feature this year or else.
Antebi: Sort of. Admittedly, I wasn’t even thinking about making anything once the pandemic hit. I had a friend who told me in April of 2020, “The pandemic is going to breed all sorts of new art,” and I was like, “Oh fuck off, the world is ending. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then my friend, the documentary filmmaker Lance Oppenheim (Some Kind of Heaven), texted me: “I’m doing this thing with Sugar23 called Shelter Shorts. You should do something with it.” I asked Ben if he wanted to make something and he said, “Yes, I’ll bring Dion.” We wrote IRL in a few days and shot it over Zoom. It was very messy. It wasn’t a super polished short, which is what I liked about it and what I liked about working with those two actors.
I sent IRL to Josh Peters, an executive producer on Robert Eggers’s film, The Lighthouse (who would become an executive producer on God’s Time) just to send it to him. Immediately after watching it, Josh called and asked, “Well, what do you want to do with this?” I said, “I’m writing a feature with those guys.” Admittedly, I had nothing at the time, but Peter asked, “What’s it called?” I said, “it’s called God’s Time,” which was a name I had for a short film or an idea at one point in my life. Josh then asked what the film was about and I said, “these two idiots who are trying to stop a murder.” Keep in mind that I’m riffing on the phone here, because I once heard a woman share a story about wanting to kill her ex, so I was [using that on the call]. I told Josh, “We’ve got those two guys [from the short attached], who are budding actors in New York.” I told him that we were going to shoot this summer, the summer of 2020, during COVID [laughs]. Josh then said “Whatever you need, I’m here to executive produce.” That’s when I thought to myself, “Shit, OK. Now I have to write this movie.”
Now we’re in May of 2020 and there’s no script for the film, nothing to read and no one’s involved. We had just made IRL and now here I am in my bedroom on the phone, essentially bullshitting that I have a movie. I sent Josh a treatment and told him, “We’re going to make this thing for $50k.” (If you’ve seen the film, you know we didn’t shoot it for just $50k.) He said “Great, I can get you that.” That’s when I admitted that I hadn’t actually written a script yet and that Josh was just going to have to sell the project to investors based on the treatment. Once Josh tried doing that, he came back to me and said, “OK dude, now I need a script.” [laughs]
I wrote the script in June of 2020 with the help of Ben and Dion; we co-wrote the story together, then I wrote the actual script in two weeks and sent it to Josh. At that point in [pre-production], the project just consisted of me, Josh, Ben, Dion, my friend Reid Hannaford (who had produced all of my short films), and Andrew Hutcheson (who had just been an associate producer on Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse) of the production company, Voyager. We were like, “OK, maybe we can now increase the budget from $50,000 to $100,000,” and Josh kept coming back to us saying that potential investors wanted the movie to be made for more money, because they didn’t believe they would get their money back if it was just going to be a rinky-dink project that we shot ourselves. We kept trying to get if off the ground and the budget kept going up and up.
Eventually, Samantha Racanelli of Endeavor Content told me, “You have to meet [co-founders] Michael Covino, Kyle Marvin, and [Head of Development and Production] Emily Kortoweg at Watch This Ready.” Ironically, at the same time, Josh told me that I should meet up with Michael, Kyle, and Emily as well, so I had two people both recommending them to me [laughs]. So both Josh and Sam[antha] put me in touch with the team at Watch This Ready, and that was great. Mike and Emily read the script (I believe Kyle read it too, but Mike and Emily were the only two people I was interfacing with). We met on Zoom and they had a million script notes, which I took and then delivered a new draft to them in a day-and-a-half [laughs]. I think they thought, “What the fuck?” We [decided to meet] in person in Central Park. In Central Park, they told me me various things about the industry, and I was like, “Guys, what are we doing here?,” and they told me that they ultimately wanted to make the movie with me. They then called Topic [Studios] and the [New York private equity firm] Raven Capital Management and, thanks to their charismatic selves, somehow convinced Topic to make this movie with two unknowns and me. [In 2019 Topic signed a first-look deal with Covino and Marvin.] By October of 2020, we were shooting the movie. From conception to filming [start date] was approximately a hundred days.
Filmmaker: And as God’s Time was shot while COVID-19 was still at its apex, did you adjust the story accordingly, i.e. writing into the script the recurring [recovery] meetings within an interior space where not many people are needed? Was the script written to adhere to current safety protocol restrictions?
Antebi: It was, and it was important to me not to write a sad, drab “COVID movie.” I had been speaking with some executives and inquired, “I bet everybody’s writing a ‘pandemic/end of the world movie’ right now, yeah?” After they [confirmed as much], I said, “Well, I don’t want to do that. I think everyone is actually going to want to be uplifted.” COVID was in my mind in the sense that the world was providing me with a lot of negativity and I wanted to inject and project some buoyancy back [into it]. At the time, I had no idea what was going to happen, and all of our [production] meetings took place on Zoom, and we made allusions to Zoom [recovery] meetings in the script. Thinking back, what’s funny now is that when people attend [recovery] meetings in person, they will usually wear masks until it’s their time to speak [to the group], at which point [they will pull their masks down below their mouths]. That’s how it [is in our film too], but we had no idea it was going to be that way [in real life].
The whole time I was writing the script, COVID was definitely on [our minds]. I even wrote that the character of Dev “bikes through the empty streets of Soho and into Chinatown” in a scene early in the film, and so on. Still, I think the only time COVID is mentioned in the film is via the pharmaceutical ad shown at the end of the movie (which isn’t even a part of the narrative but rather a kind of concluding treat for the viewer).
Filmmaker: Knowing that you had those desolate Manhattan streets at your disposal in the fall of 2020, were you able to steal many locations? There’s a quick scene which takes place at, if my eyes do not deceive me, the 168th street subway station.
Antebi: We actually painted the “1” on those subway signs.
Filmmaker: Oh, so it’s not 168th street? It’s 68th street station?
Antebi: It is, yeah. We were shooting on the Upper West Side (I don’t even remember how this all worked out) and we needed the [geographical] location to double for 168th street, so we shot on 68th street and painted a “1” in front of it. It was funny and it turned out to be a good solve. A producer or whomever told me that we wouldn’t have the money to paint the ‘1’ on those subway signs, and I responded, “Well, someone’s going to look closely and see that the characters are at 68th street and it won’t make any sense in the story.” So, I’m happy you noticed that it says “168th Street” on the signs.
Even though we were filming at the height of COVID in October of 2020, there were still some people hanging out in the streets. It wasn’t completely [desolate]. Most of the locations that aren’t interiors in the film were stolen, but we had permits for certain things. When Ben bikes through the city early in the film, we had one block to use, but we were shooting—
Filmmaker: Back and forth, this way and that way.
Antebi: Yes. We had a pickup truck with a Steadicam on the back of it, filming Ben, then we also had a follow car [accompanying it].
Filmmaker: I was curious about the implementation of the breaking of the fourth wall in the film. Typically the character of Dev is falling back on this device, glancing at or speaking to the viewer directly as a comedic aside, but occasionally it opens up to include other characters speaking directly to us. It becomes very natural and less stylized as the film progresses. How did you take to incorporating that into the story, where the breaking is coming from multiple characters, not just in moments of comedy but even at the big, confrontational standoff that concludes the film?
Antebi: When it comes to Dev, conceptually, he thinks he’s essentially living in a blockbuster, in “Dev’s world.” When you see the title card, that’s supposed to be something Dev created (and indeed, it’s Ben’s handwriting that you’re reading). The way I spoke about it with Ben was that if Dev was doing some nefarious things and his best friend is giving him resistance or isn’t there for him, who really is? Well, the audience is and they’re standing in as his new friends. Whenever he’s speaking directly to the camera, I wanted it to feel like…I remember attending a performing arts camp when I was a teenager, the French Wood Festival of Performing Arts. There was this one play or musical (I can’t remember which) being performed where the MC would come into the audience and talk with us. He had black hair that was kind of long and curly and I was totally enamored by him. I think I even had a crush on him, for sure. I just loved how he just came into the audience and spoke directly to us. That’s what I remembered for this film.
There’s a speech in God’s Time that’s actually been cut from the movie where Dev tells the audience at the beginning, “I don’t know when you’re watching this, but if you’re watching this and COVID is still happening, I’m so sorry. And I just want to give you a good time.” The moment got cut for reasons of timing and other things, but that was the kind of energy and motivation I wanted Ben to have. Ben posts on TikTok a lot and he’s phenomenal at it, excelling at performing as different characters and doing different types of stand up. That was his motivation for the [breaking of the fourth wall in the film].
For dramatic effect, the breaking of the fourth wall was going to be like every other relationship in the movie. There’s going to be a specific dynamic and a kind of tension to it. Dev occasionally loses the audience and, since the audience is always “in the camera,” we become interested in other things, like what Luca and Regina are discussing in the hallway in one scene. It’s Regina who is aware of everything that’s going on and she eventually takes control of the movie and asks the audience, “What are you doing here? What’s your role in all of this?”
Filmmaker: As the movie progresses and becomes about Regina, I wanted to ask about Liz Caribel Sierra and the excellent performance she gives. The movie starts by being about her character and concludes by being with her. What was the casting process like for the role and how did you work on growing the character with your chosen actress?
Antebi: Oh, we were out to every Latinx lady and her mother. When you’re making a movie for a studio where they’re going to drop the kind of money that they dropped on God’s Time, then they’re going to want a star in the role. But Alexa Demie [Euphoria] is doing whatever and Gina Rodriguez [Jane the Virgin] is directing [television] now, so everyone’s booked or doesn’t want COVID or are like, “Who are these two schmucks that I have to play the ‘B character’ to?’” It’s totally understandable.
Now we’re one week out from shooting and have our table read on Sunday over Zoom. It’s Saturday night and the studio is coming to the table read tomorrow, as are all of our investors and producers and cinematographers, and we still haven’t cast Regina. Everyone’s going to be there and we don’t have our Regina and we’re losing our minds! The casting director [Emily Fleischer] then emails me saying that she’s been sending out tapes for a little while and, even though we’ve been reaching out to A-listers, the five women on these tapes are her favorite and the first three, she knows for sure, are available.
Filmmaker: How did that go?
Antebi: I watched the first few and most just weren’t what I was looking for. But then I got to the fifth tape and it’s Liz’s and I start calling everyone like, “I think we’ve found her.” And everyone’s like, “Whoa, slow down. We still don’t have an answer from this woman from Orange is the New Black” or whatever, and I respond, “I don’t think you understand. This woman actually exists and we found her.” Liz then had to learn her lines for the entire movie in one day. I believe she had the script with her for the table-read but was basically offbook. The script calls for her to cry three or four times, and Liz cried during the table-read every single time, right on cue. What’s also great was that Liz is actually from Washington Heights [like her character, Regina] and is Latina and has this real New York edge to her. When she and I were having early conversations about her character, about being kicked out of their apartment and wanting to murder someone who’s taken their dog from them, Liz, with zero sardonicism, goes, “Yeah, motherfucker should die.” She was real! She was totally in it, which you need playing against characters like Dev and Luca, especially Dev, who’s kind of always playing it for the irony.
During the table read, everyone is texting me or Emily asking, “Who is this? Why aren’t we casting her?” So, obviously another discussion was had about bringing on another unknown. I then built Liz a professional website so that we could pitch her to the studio. She had a website already, but I built her a new one for the studio. And while this is a tiny movie, we quickly shot chemistry reads in my backyard on a shitty camera just so we could prove that Liz could really do this. We eventually cast her, and yeah, I could talk a ton about her performance and how we needed someone who could bring gravitas and sincerity to the world of the film. The movie hinges on believing that this woman will carry out what she says she’s going to. If you don’t think she’ll do it, then Ben and Dion sound very myopic.
After we gave Liz the role, I said, “OK cool, now I want you to take every single line in the script and we’ll talk about how you would actually say it.” I wanted to know what I was getting wrong with the character or what sounded inauthentic. We went half-and-half in choosing the character’s wardrobe (which is kind of how it was for everyone and their character). Liz is a powerhouse and was a pleasure to work with. For much of the time on set, my direction to her was just about going a little further. She’s like her character in a lot of ways. I mean, they’re very different, but I think they have a lot in common, and I could talk about Liz forever.