Thursday, November 2, 2017

Rebecca Miller on "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits"

What was going on in your life before Personal Velocity?

REBECCA MILLER: I had basically given up, at least for the time being, the idea of making films, because it was so hard for me to get my films made at that point. I had made one film, called Angela, which had won the Filmmaker's Prize at Sundance, They've discontinued the Filmmaker's Prize; all the filmmakers voted on their favorite films, the ones in competition.

Angela did well with some critics and things, but it didn't make money. It was a very uncommercial film. And then I had written The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was something I would make later, and I wrote another film that collapsed in pre-production. So I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn't want to just wait and wait to make films and tell stories. All I did all day was write these screenplays that nobody seemed to want. So I decided to write short stories.

My friend Gary Winick called me. He was making this series of films for the Independent Film Channel. He had come to them with this idea that he would make ten films a year for a million dollars, but what they ended up giving everybody was a $250,000 budget.

He asked did I have anything, did I want to make a film on mini-DV for that much money? And none of the films that I had already written were really right for that, because I figured (and I was right about this), that you'd have to tailor a script for that medium and for that budget; you shouldn't just take one of your script and try and turn it into that kind of shoot.

I was sick of writing screenplays that no one was going to make, I said, "If you want to look at the stories that I'm writing, I could maybe do something out of one of them." So I gave him a few stories from the collection and he read them and he really liked them. He ended up giving them to Caroline Kaplan, who was running InDigEnt with him, and they ended up green lighting the film. It was also Gary's idea to use three stories at once and make a trilogy, and when he said that my mind took off.

The thing that's great about Gary is that he really insisted that I feel completely free. At first I was sort of checking with him and saying, "I'm doing this, I'm doing that," and he was like, "Look, do whatever. The point is that we want to get filmmakers who have experience and who we believe in to feel free."

And so I wrote the script for Personal Velocity in about two months. It took me about two years to write the book, and I knew what everybody in those stories was feeling and I knew the characters from top to bottom, so writing the screenplay was mostly about finding the form and the structure.

How did you decide which of the three stories to use?

REBECCA MILLER: I chose the ones that were the most dynamic in terms of action, where there was conflict that was externalized, because some of them were very interior. And also where I thought that there was a good clash; like I thought there was a very good clash between Delia, which is a story about a working-class woman struggling with an abusive marriage, and Greta, which is about an upper-middle class woman struggling with the clash between her own ambition and a marriage which is feeling increasingly stultifying, and finally her ambition propels her out of her own marriage.

They both involve crisis, but of a different order.

And then, class-wise, Paula is kind of a floater, because she's an artist, she's from that class although she doesn't really produce anything, but she's in-between the two classes.

At what point in the process did you decide to use narration?

REBECCA MILLER: I always knew I was going to. The narration was built into it.

Early on Gary had said that he loved the way the narrator spoke in the stories and that it would be a pity to lose that. And I also thought that with the three stories, I thought it would be a good thing to link them together. And it also gives you a lot more freedom, because we're jumping back and forth through time constantly. And the narrations also carries a lot of the humor. It's a sympathetic third voice.

In the end there was a whole debate about whether or not to make it a male or female voice. I always knew that it was meant to be a male voice, but then there were some people who saw it and said, "You can't make it a male voice; it's about women."

But I just ended up really liking the male voice, because I thought it differentiated itself from the other voices. Otherwise, it was just another's woman's voice, it was like a soup of women's voices, and I thought it was good to have the male voice.

Also, I thought it was kind of optimistic to have a male voice, it seemed to be sympathetic and unjudgmental of this of these women while some of there struggles were against men, and it was my overriding view, my own point of view, which is that it's very possible to have sympathetic males in your movies.

How did your background in acting help the writing process?

REBECCA MILLER: I think there's a really big advantage to have been an actor when you're the director, because you have more of a sense of what the actors might need and help them keep it all natural.

In a way, the film isn't naturalistic at all. It's like a poem, in a way. But the way that it's happening and the way that it's shot leads you to believe that it's naturalistic. It's a funny combination.

I think that acting was a very necessary step for me. I had a weird, long apprenticeship, in that I was a painter for quite a while and then at a certain point realized that I wanted to make films.

I acted for about five years while I was writing my first screenplays and still painting for some of that time -- it was like a bridge. Without the acting I don't know that I would have been able to successfully make that leap -- when I was a painter I was so far away from the mindset of being a filmmaker and being more sociable like that and thinking about what it's like to be on a set where there are so many people. I just learned all sorts of things, just how it works, what a film set's like.

One of the problems with being a director is that you never get to go on sets -- even if you go to film school, you don't usually get to be on sets when you're coming up. You learn when you get on your own set, but it was nice to just understand certain things, to have been around directors. For writing it probably helps, too.

You're writing to shoot, and that's what's important to remember. And I really remembered it with Personal Velocity. That screenplay was really tailored, it was absolutely tailored to the medium. I don't think I even cut any scenes out; there was no waste in that thing.

You shot what you wrote.

REBECCA MILLER: I shot what I wrote and I kept what I shot. Which is really unusual. Usually you end up realizing that there are internal repetitions that you didn't notice. But this was all done in a spirit of such economy, so I was very conscious of not wanting to shoot anything extra.

We had no overtime, so we had to finish our days, and we had no extra days. So there was no leeway at all. If you weren't making your day, you had to start cutting scenes. And there was on occasion where I did have to cut a scene, which was completely unnecessary and I think in the end I would have cut it anyway afterwards.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

REBECCA MILLER: I'm sure I did. I'm usually kind of tweaking things until they get said. But I do really believe very, very strongly in having a very, very strong script, then you can throw it out. The thing is to have a really strong script and if you are the director then to fool yourself into thinking that you didn't really write it and that it's somebody else's. Then you can be totally irreverent with it and throw it out.

It's a blueprint, it's only a blueprint, but at the same time, if you're really well prepared, then you can always change everything. It's when you're not prepared, I think, that things get really scary.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Chris Kentis on "Open Water"

Why did you decide to do a digital feature?

CHRIS KENTIS: That was the whole reason we wanted to do the film. We were really excited about the technology that was out there, and truthfully, kind of inspired by the Dogme 95 films. We just wanted to get out there and experiment with this new technology.

Right after we made our first feature, Grind, which was made in much more of a traditional way -- we had a crew and shot on 35mm and all -- our daughter was born. So we were excited about trying to make a movie in a very different way. The idea of working without a crew, the idea of being able to take our time (which meant working on weekends and vacation times), being able to include our families. Also the idea of collaborating with actors in a certain kind of way.

We were really anxious to try to make a movie in a different way, to try to stretch and challenge ourselves creatively.

You said that being able to take your time was important. Why? What's the advantage of taking your time?

CHRIS KENTIS: The first advantage of taking our time was that I was able to work full time and help finance the film. Another advantage is that movies tend to be rushed, especially if you look at the things coming out of Hollywood today and the schedules.

Ironically, two of my favorite filmmakers were not very prolific: Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. I think there's a lot to be said for taking the time to get it right, and I think most films don't really have that advantage. It's a process of refinement.

How tough was it to keep the ending the way you wanted it?

CHRIS KENTIS: Not tough at all, because that was the whole point of the project. To not have to answer to anyone. None of the choices were made because they were the most commercial choices; they were made because this was the film we wanted to make.

Because the film was based on a true story, that was going to be the ending from the get-go, from day one. Now the specifics of what happened to her evolved during the course of the process, but there never was going to be any other ending.

To the credit of Lions Gate, and all the distributors that were interested in the film at Sundance, it was never questioned.

I'd say that the majority of people really responded to and loved the ending, and yet there's this perception out there that you always have to have a happy ending. It's interesting how that happens.

In the 70s, I think it was more common for the main character to end up dead, even in a romantic comedy often the main character would end up with a tumor and die. That's the other extreme.

The whole impetuous behind this story was when I read about the true incident, it deeply affected me, and so it was to try to capture that. To have the audience have the same kind of emotional response that I had when I read the story. You can't help but ask, 'What if that were me and Laura? What if it were us?'

Our hope was that when people watch the movie is that, hopefully if the audience is with the movie, they'll ask themselves, 'What if that were me? What would I do in that situation?' and experience it that way.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Michael Williams on "The Atoning"

From time to time, I re-visit with filmmakers I've interviewed before, to see how their early experiences have had an impact on their new work. Today we talk with "Ozland" director Michael Williams.

What was the key thing you took from Ozland that helped you create The Atoning?

MICHAEL: OzLand was such a long, magical experience. However, I learned a lot about everything from writing, production, editing, and ultimately distribution. I was able to see what worked, what didn’t, and what should be done differently with The Atoning.

With OzLand I learned that it was better to seek distribution before you begin your festival tours and screenings if possible. Many distributors want to pick up films as soon as they’re finished.

Plus, I realized that festivals and awards were great to get a distributors attention, however, they’re even better to help build your audience once you already have a distribution deal. This allows you to use that time leading up to the release to really promote the film and have a release that is not too distant in the future. I realized that the turnaround time for a film between production, to completion, to distribution should be more streamlined. 

Additionally, I learned about how to better market a film and how to make a more marketable film. While OzLand was successful enough, I realized what held it back from wider appeal and success. I made sure to keep those things in mind while my team and me were making creative decisions on The Atoning.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

MICHAEL: I can’t recall when the idea first came to me.

After OzLand, I had several concepts floating in my head. I wrote/developed a couple of them, however, they weren’t going to be made in the near future. I kept trying to think of a simple but compelling horror film. At some point, I had a revelation and had what I thought was the perfect concept for a horror film. I can’t say what the premise is since it is a huge spoiler in the film, however, I knew it would be a unique way to explore the horror genre. However, it wasn’t until just a few months before we went into production that I had to turn that premise into script and begin the pre-production process. 

What was your process for getting the script ready to shoot?

MICHAEL: I write best when I can gather my ideas over a long gestation period, then dive right into the script, and complete the first draft in a short amount of time. I like to feel fully dedicated to a script until the first draft is finished. Then, it is much easier for me to be able to see the film and know what needs to be changed.

Much like with OzLand, I wrote The Atoning quite fast. I believe the first draft was finished somewhere between a week or two. It was such a swift process that I can’t recall the details clearly.

Michael LaCour, our executive producer, came to me wanting to make a film and asked what ideas I had for a “simple” horror film. I pitched him the premise in May of 2016, I think. That lead to us seeing the opportunity to shoot the film and set a deadline to shoot by August 2016. 

What was your casting process and did that have any impact on the final shooting script?

MICHAEL: We cast the film through Actor’s Access. After a round of video auditions, we narrowed down our selections and held live auditions in West Point, MS. The casting process was quite difficult because of the amazing submissions we had. The talent from the region is quite impressive, and we had amazing talent from which to choose. While a few of the casting choices were obvious for us, it was down to several options for many of the key roles. Ultimately, we had to go with our gut. 

How did you handle the movie’s special effects?

MICHAEL: From the onset, we intended to do everything practically. I love practical effects. They're more efficient and better suited for the style of films that I make.

I wanted the film and its effects/scares to be grounded in reality in order to match the aesthetic of the film even when the story goes into unreal directions. Grounding the film in practical effects makes the experience more believable and compelling.

We used a mixture of FX Makeup (lead by Casey Heflin), camera tricks, on-set movie magic, and complex sound design to bring the various elements in the film to life. It wasn’t until post-production that we had the opportunity to add in a few digital effects. These were mostly used to clean up shots or add a few accents to our fully practical creatures/demons. 

How much (if at all) did the movie change in the editing? 

MICHAEL: Going into the film, I wanted to make a steady paced, 90-minute feature. I wrote the film that way and hoped it would retain the same pace and length after production. Luckily, the film came in at 89 minutes.

Our shooting script went through more changes during production than it did during editing. Since the film was written and being tweaked right up until production, we kept the script a bit fluid and made changes when needed on set. Some scenes were scaled down and refined quite a bit on the fly during production.

In post production, a few scenes were trimmed and altered to better serve the story, however, the film’s vision and core story stayed the same from script to final cut. Everything we changed was done to refine and better sell the core vision. 

What was your key take away from making The Atoning?

MICHAEL: I learned so much from making The Atoning. It is crazy how much you grow as a filmmaker from project to project. However, the major take away from this film was that six months from starting the script to final cut is way too fast with the amount of resources we had. Also, one year from production to release is also a bit too swift.

Everyone on the team could’ve used a bit more time, however, I am proud of what everyone accomplished in that short amount of time. In a way, it was exciting, and scary, to just go with your gut in order to meet the deadlines.

In the end, it all worked out beautifully for The Atoning, but for my next film, I plan to make it a bit more comfortable of a process by budgeting in more time for every aspect of the process. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Kenneth Lonergan on "You Can Count on Me"

What was going with life and your career before You Can Count on Me?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Before that I had been making a living as a screenwriters probably for about five years. I was making a living writing screenplays, doing pretty well, but my main interest was playwriting, which I was doing mostly with the Naked Angels theater company. I had just had my first big break in playwriting, with my play This Is Our Youth. It was very well received and it bumped me several levels up instantly, which is very unusual. So I had just become a sort of off-Broadway playwright with some cache, and I was already basically a Hollywood screenwriter of comedies.

Where did the idea for You Can Count on Me come from?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It came from an assignment that my theater company had given. We were doing an evening of short plays based on the subject of faith and I was poking around for something to write on that topic and I had the idea of this brother and sister. I wrote a ten-minute scene with these characters, which basically was the first step in writing the screenplay. But whenever I say that, I then read that "He adapted it from his own his play." But it was, honestly twelve pages long and it was never meant to be a full-length play. As soon as I thought of it as a larger piece it was immediately a screenplay.

And that scene is still pretty much in tact, right, as the first scene where Terry and Sammy meet in the restaurant?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It's that plus the scene at the end. Literally. Minus the note of hope that he expresses when he tries to tell her that he's not going back into the toilet, he actually liked being in Alaska and maybe there's something there for him. Although some people have interpreted the movie as him going back into the depths, and other people have noticed that he actually was a tiny bit of a step up from where he started.

What was it about those twelve pages that made you think you had the beginnings of a feature script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I loved the characters, a lot, and I thought the scene was really very good. And when it was performed it was performed really nicely and I just thought there was something very moving about the situation. I guess I liked the idea of how crazy she was about him, and the whole dynamic of her having more faith in him than he had in himself. Even though she's a little misguided about him, just liking him that much brought him up a little bit.

And I liked the idea that they were at such cross-purposes, but also that they liked each other so much. And also the idea that they had had this shared tragedy and her reaction was a sort of blind faith and his reaction was more closer to mine, which is that it has no meaning but you have to piece together your own feelings about things like that, because none of the available systems really did if for him. He feels that is less deluded and less involved in fantasy.

Just the kind of double-sidedness of her having faith in this bum, just because she liked him, and then him kind of living up to it a little bit more than he might have if she didn't have that faith. I just liked that whole dynamic. I liked her taking care of him and him disappointing her -- all the dynamics between them. I just liked the people a lot.

Once you had the story, how did you proceed? Do you write an outline?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I almost never do an outline. I've done outlines for assignments, and even then I think I've only done them twice. I have nothing against them, I just don't usually work that way.

For You Can Count on Me, I split the lunch scene up, because I knew that the last part of the scene would be the last part of the movie.

I had, at one point, a whole different ending. Originally the last scene was going to be the scene with her and the little boy at the kitchen table. But then, once it was all written, I realized that it really should really end with the brother and the sister. So I made that adjustment.

Their affection for each other is the main thing that creates the tension, because if he's not her favorite person in the world, there's no conflict when he starts to endanger her kid, because that's a pretty clear choice.

So I realized that there has to be a series of disappointments that he creates that involve the kid. I didn't really bother to think what they were at first, I just knew that there should be about three of them and that they escalate. So I didn't know that he was going to take the kid to see his rat-bastard father at the end; but as it developed, she had a husband who was gone and that turned into another element. It all sort of folded into itself in a way.

Were you always planning on directing this script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it.

Did that change the way you wrote it?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Completely. I had been aware of what professional screenwriting was like in Hollywood many years before I got into it. I got into only to make money, because I knew there was no creative protection.

This was the first screenplay that I ever wrote the way I would have written a play, meaning putting my heart and soul into it. Every other job I'd done, including the spec script for Analyze This, I definitely did as good a job as I could, but I wrote knowing that the script would be destroyed. And I wouldn't have written You Can Count On Me if I'd known it would be destroyed; I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it, and I knew the only way to protect it was to direct it.

The only reason it occurred to me to direct it was that I have two friends -- one at my professional caste level and one much fancier than me -- and they both had very little trouble directing their first movie. I realized that it probably wouldn't be that hard for me to do it, either. So that's what I set out to do.

I knew that if it was an independent movie that I would have a fairly good chance of controlling the material and I also knew that I wouldn't do it if I couldn't control the material.

Did you think about budget concerns at all while you were writing?

KENNETH LONERGAN: No, I didn't. There's no call for anything expensive in the story anyway. I might have thought about it a little bit, in the periphery of my mind, but not really. I knew it would be cheap.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

KENNETH LONERGAN: The only thing I changed in production was I did a little bit of cutting and re-wrote the last scene a little bit, because I felt it wasn't clear what his feeling was about going away.

How do you know when a script is done?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It feels right. I always feel that the ending must be at least as good as the rest of the movie. If the ending isn't great I feel like it's not a successful endeavor. I feel that if I have the right ending than that's a big help. And then I feel that if there's nothing else that I can work on and improve, then I basically leave it alone. You can always futz around with it, but unfortunately there's a certain point when I start rewriting it that I start making it worse. Thankfully, I think I've learned to identify that point and then I leave it alone.

When you get out of the groove of it, I really think it's dangerous to mess around with it too much. I tend to rewrite myself a lot as I'm going, but not endlessly. I find that a lot of writers are either too ready to rewrite stuff, which is dangerous because they just get lost instantly. I know I do. New writers are way too eager to take other people's comments and show it to everyone and get all the feedback they can get.

The feeding frenzy in the movie culture now to have everyone dive and anyone can give a note, I just find it repellant and very bad for the scripts and for the audience, ultimately.

The other thing that writers can do is not be self-critical enough. I think you have to be very much on your own side but be very unflinching about noticing when something's no good. You have to be able to step away and step back, but basically trusting your own opinion and hoping that if you like it somebody else will.

I think the rewrite frenzy is just appalling. It's shocking; I'm still shocked at 43 at how cavalierly people think it's okay to just chatter away about something someone's worked on for two years and the assumptions behind it. Personally, if I'm writing a screenplay for somebody else, I would get it to where I think it's good, but I wouldn't go one step beyond that, because I know it's going to be ripped to pieces no matter what.

Basically, you sell it, you get hired, and they first try to get you to destroy it. Then you don't destroy it enough and then they fire you and get someone else to do it. That's never not happened to me, except when I was the last destroyer on Gangs of New York. But that was a little different, because even though there were script changes that I would not have done if I was making the decisions, in the end I feel there was an artist making the movie and making the decisions and getting other people to help him shape what he wanted. It's a little different when it's a rotating committee of people who don't know how to do anything, which is what it usually is.

Did you learn anything writing You Can Count on Me that you still use today?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, but I didn't learn it enough. In the editing, the first cut, I thought every scene was very good but the whole thing dragged. The problem was that every scene had a beginning, a middle and an end. So I chopped the beginnings and, more particularly, the endings of every scene, and suddenly the story propelled itself from one scene to next much better. That's because it didn't have 200 little soft resolves. So I've been trying to think about writing in sequences instead of scenes, but the truth is I haven't really applied that, because it's very hard for me to judge that on the page. It's something I know can be dealt with in the editing, so I can't say I actually have the faith to write a really short scene.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Actress/Writer Susan Coyne on “Slings & Arrows”

How did Slings & Arrows come about?

SUSAN COYNE: Well, I hadn't really set out to be a writer. But, I hit my late thirties, and I had two children and I couldn't travel across the country in the same way. And, famously, the parts thin out a bit as you get older. So I sort of hit my mid-life crisis and thought, "I'm just going to sit down and start writing," without really knowing where it was going to lead me. And then I got hooked up with somebody who said, "You know, I have a friend who works at Stratford and loves hearing your stories. Would you like to come up with a proposal for a TV series about Stratford?"

So I said, "Sure. I can do that." And then I came up with the premise for the series, basically, although at that time it was a half-hour comedy. We shopped it around and we got wonderful producers, Rhombus Media, involved and they put me together with Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, which was really kind of brilliant.

That was an interesting choice.

SUSAN COYNE: He was not the first person you'd think of pairing us with, but it was really great because Mark is so smart and really thinks outside the box constantly. He's worked a little bit in theater and so he knew something of this world as well. He said right away, "This isn't a half-hour, this is an hour, because there's too much good material here."

I think that was one of the most important things that happened, because we thought, “We're doing Shakespeare, we don't want this to be just punch lines and then cut to a commercial. We want to be brave about this and tackle what it's like to do these big plays.”

I'd never seen something like this done very well. I'd often seen actors made fun of, and it's easy. It's easy to satirize actors. I think we do it to a degree in the show. It's also easy to sentimentalize. But between those two extremes I've never seen anybody try to really show what it's like, and that in some ways it certainly matters to the people who do it and it might even mean something to those of us who watch. It might have some value, it might have some weight to it, it might not be a silly thing to do with your life. And that these people might have some passion that has some dignity to it.

Even as I say that I'm always cautious not to give it more weight than it's worth, but I think that when theater works well, everybody recognizes that there's something very powerful about it, transforming and ineffable and not silly at all. It's rare, but when you see it, there's nothing like it. You feel a little bit wrung out afterwards and your heart's beating faster and you feel chemically altered in some way.

It's that we wanted to get at: What is that thing that happens and how do people achieve that? We wanted to show people the kinds of conversations that go on in rehearsals as well as how terrifying it is and the ridiculous things we do to get ourselves where we have to be. All of that.

I always think that when there's a great deal of passion, then there's got to be some kind of dramatic or comic story. Or both.

How did Bob Martin get involved?

SUSAN COYNE: Bob was invited to join Mark and I after we had been wrestling with the series for a couple of years (in the midst of doing other projects- in my case, co-founding a theatre company and writing my first book). Neither Mark nor I had written a TV series before, but Bob had. His experience was the key to making us into a fully functioning writing team.

When you started the project, did you think it would only be for one season?

SUSAN COYNE: Exactly. Mark and I worked for a couple of years, because we were both doing other things. And it took a long time to figure out how this was going to go. We had six episodes in mind, we knew the play was Hamlet, we came up with the idea of the ghost and that our character was going to be a sort of Hamlet figure who was haunted almost in the same way that I was haunted by my theater school teachers. The ones who said those wonderful things and those terrible things, and you're always trying to prove something to them even if they're dead.

It turns out that three is a good number for a writing team, because we could always gang up on the other person and persuade them. The three-legged writing team is quite stable, actually. If you can't quite see something, one of the other two can explain it to you. And also Bob had real experience writing television in a way that Mark and I didn't. And he also has an amazing comic sensibility and a really delightful wit.

So when that came together the work started to go faster and we decided that six episodes would be really satisfying to tackle Hamlet. And that really was the plan until we finished it and watched it. The network said, would you like to go another year? And we looked at each other and I said, "Well, I think we should do a trilogy. If we're going to another one we should do three and we should do youth, middle-age and old age." That made sense to us and felt like it would be a satisfying arc.

We had the idea that, each season, we wanted to watch our characters through the filter of the play -- not in the way that you could draw straight lines between the stories and the play, but in a sort of general way being influenced by Shakespearean themes.

One of my favorite scenes in the series -- and one that really lays Shakespeare out and explains what's he's doing -- is the scene in the first season when the director, Geoffrey, explains to the actress playing Ophelia exactly what her "nonsense rhymes" actually mean. Did you find that there were scenes you created based on things you'd actually experienced?

SUSAN COYNE: There were. But some of them are so disguised that they take on a difference resonance. For example, Geoffrey reminds me of a director I worked with early on who directed me in The Glass Menagerie. He was a refugee from the Second World War, a Holocaust survivor. His family perished and he escaped to Winnipeg. He talked to me about how theater had saved his life, and it meant so much to me, the way he talked about it. It was a life force for him.

I guess there's an element where I've worked with really great directors for whom theater has saved their life. And that passion for its humanity -- for the idea of theater being a place where we can be very human with each other -- is something that I've retained and I always aspire to in the theater. The idea that it's about people communicating; there's no tricks, there's no cinema, it's just us. We're all in the same room breathing together, and if it all works out, we'll all end up having the same heart-rate at the end of the show.

Were you saddled with handling the female point of view on the show and the female characters or was that shared?
SUSAN COYNE: Oh it was definitely shared. Martha Burns, who plays Ellen, is one of my closest friends. We've known each other a long time, we grew up in Winnipeg together, so I loved coming up with storylines for her, like Ellen getting audited. But we all wrote the Ellen character and we all wrote the Anna character.

I loved aspects of Anna, but the boys, actually, I think loved Anna even more. They loved putting her in these terrible situations. The scene where she had to have sex, Mark wanted it to be really explicit and hardcore, and I finally said, "Look, guys, it's me playing the part. So let's just re-think this, shall we?"

And that's when Bob said, "Well, we could do it in the dark." I said "That sounds very good."

Do you have any special or favorite moments from the series?

SUSAN COYNE: I loved everything to do with Bill Hutt in the third season. I was in a production of King Lear with him, at Stratford in the young company, and he is a hero of mine. He's gone now, and his Lear was never filmed. So to get the little bit that we get of him, doing the great speeches, that I feel proudest of, actually.

That is the most important thing to me about the series: that we got him. We always wanted him; we wanted him in the second season and he wasn't available. But we got him in the third season. And then within 18 months he had died. So it was amazing. He was such a wonderful guy and he threw himself into it. I loved that.

Other than that, there was a tiny moment, backstage in the second season, between Geoffrey and Ellen, where they're watching Romeo and Juliet. And Ellen says, "I hate this play." I must say, watching Romeo and Juliet as a middle-aged person, you watch it and you think, "I hate this play." I mean, I love it of course, but you're in such a different headspace from the first time you played it, you can't help thinking, "What, are you nuts?"

What did you take away from the Slings & Arrows experience?

SUSAN COYNE: I learned a lot from working with two other people whose sensibilities were similar to mine, but who also pushed me ways into places I otherwise never would have gone. Although we fought a lot at the beginning, we got into a place where it was much easier to say, "Here's a sketch of the scene, but you should write it because you have that voice down better." It became very respectful -- and although there were still fights, they were good fights; not pulling in different directions, but creative fights -- where you just knew that the other person, it was just their thing and they could write it better. And you knew that when it came time to take over another scene, they would say, "You should have a go at that."

I think that's hard to replicate, when you have developed a working relationship like that with people.

As for the acting, that was more intimidating. Film is socially so different from theater. You don't have an audience; the only person who's actually watching your performance is the director, because everyone else is watching other things, like how your scarf is tied. So I found that a bit intimidating.

But there was a very collegial feeling, and we had so many theater actors coming onto the set, and so it felt much more about the work than it usually does. That was very freeing for me, because I've always felt that I'm very uptight on the set and never felt very free. And so to be with this wonderful team, on a series that you created yourself, playing this lovely character was wonderful. I adored playing Anna.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cat Hostick on "The Meaning of Life"

What was your filmmaking background before making "The Meaning of Life"?

CAT: I grew up in the arts. I was a painter from a young age, and studied art in Amsterdam, Berlin and Spain throughout high school. At this time, I was also acting and pursued that once I moved to Toronto, Canada.

I was always interested in storytelling – directing, acting, writing and so I began dabbling behind the camera. In University, I got lucky with a part time job at Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Canada as a publicity assistant, working on all of the Marvel movies. Shortly after this, I began working more and more behind the camera, joined the Director’s Guild of Canada and started directing professionally as a full time job a year or two later.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for getting the script ready to shoot?

CAT: The movie originated from two things -- One is the title of the movie. What is the meaning of life? I feel like we all question it and there are only metaphysical answers in my opinion. I wanted to explore why some people get a short life, why some get a long life, and what do we make of the time we have here?

The second inspiration is music and art as a therapy to heal. Music therapy is an integrative therapy used with medical treatment that has great results, backed by science. In the movie, Finn is a musician who gets a temporary job as a therapeutic clown at a hospital playing music for sick kids, and primarily for a 9-year old leukemia patient named Sophia. Also drawing from personal experiences, I struggle with an autoimmune disease, and I haven’t had any luck with medical treatments, but arts therapy has actually helped the most.

As you know, the process is long and complex, but first and foremost, we needed a hospital to shoot in or this movie wasn’t going to happen. We ended up getting very lucky with our associate producer that made this happen. We got to use a shut down hospital for a very reasonable price. I can’t tell you how lucky this was. You can’t get a hospital set for less than $3000 per day. 

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

CAT: I wanted a musician to play this role, since the lead character was one. I was aware of the risk, in that I may get a good musician, but a bad actor and it’s a lead character that has to carry the entire movie. 

My partner and life and in biz, Russ De Jong (Director of Photography/ Executive Producer) had worked with tons of artist, everyone from Shawn Mendez to the Weeknd. We started thinking of who would fit the role best. We landed on Sony-signed, Juno nominated pop singer Tyler Shaw.  Tyler was about to go on tour with Selena Gomez and was very busy, but we got lucky and had him for 10 short days of filming a feature film. We actually did not even get to audition Tyler, I did a Skype read with him while in New York. I was freaking out, but deep down believed he was capable.

For the rest of the casting, we needed a strong cast around Tyler since he was not primarily an actor. We had one of the best child actors around – Sadie Munroe who plays 9-year old leukemia patient Sophia Hill, and we also had Sergio Di Zio (Flashpoint) who plays her father. These two actors are just brilliant. Our company North Film Co. casted half our the characters, while a well respected Canadian Casting Agency called Parasyn Casting did the other half which includes Sergio and Sadie.

Sadie wasn’t the original look I was going for. She is an adorable red haired girl with freckles, but I pictured someone else. However, Sadie’s audition was so emotional and compelling that I cast a different mom to make Sadie work.

What type of camera(s) did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

CAT: We used the Red Dragon 6k with ultra prime lenses.  I love the cinematography. My partner/DP Russ De Jong is brilliant and I have no complaints. Lots of people love Alexa, we love Red.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

CAT: Funny story, it was originally a short film that was 20 minutes. In the editing room, due to my directing, we had a lot of drawn out moments and it ended up being a 40 minute film! I brought up the idea of a feature and Russ turned it down, but then changed his mind.

We decided to go back to filming to finish it as a feature, but due to Tyler’s schedule among other actors, we had to finish on a certain date and I basically had to write the feature portion over a weekend. The entire movie was shot in 10 days on 10 hour days.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

CAT: We have had quite a few offers in Los Angeles and here in Canada. We have not signed anything, as we are deciding the best deal for us.

This was a low budget movie, and more than making money back, we just want a picture deal for another movie if we sign any agreements.  However, I will say I’ve learned that this movie has a big audience and it is easier to sell than a thriller per say.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

CAT: The smartest decision was to make the decision to finish it as a feature film. As well, make a movie with a positive message – these movies have a big audience.

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

CAT: I learnt that anything is possible; you just need to discover how to use your resources properly. 

Another major lesson I learnt as a first time feature director is that there were moments that were pivotal in the movie that I could have made stronger.

We shot this move in 10 days, on 10 hour days, and most people after watching this movie are shocked at that fact in terms of the quality overall… Because we move at such a fast pace, and I wasn’t allowed to do any reshoots, it was a challenge for me. But when you have limited time and a limited budget, you don’t have these luxuries, and they are good habits to have.

You need to do as much prep work as possible, and in the moment, know exactly what you need to cover to get your story and don’t waste time on shots or takes that you don’t really need.  This just comes with experience.