Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jay Lender and Micah Wright on "They're Watching"

What was your filmmaking background before making They're Watching?

MICAH: I worked on a bunch of movie sets in college, and we've both worked in animation and videogames for years as writers and designers. Jay worked for years as a storyboarder and director on SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for writing the script?

MICAH: My wife watches a ton of reality TV and I watch with her. We were watching House Hunters International one day and it suddenly struck me as a terrible idea for an American to just pick up and move to a place where she didn't speak the language and wasn't familiar with the customs, and then be expected to completely renovate a house in 6 months--something which is almost impossible here in the USA, where Americans understand what's going on. Yet, there's always a happy ending. 

So I wondered, what if there weren't a happy ending? What if when the crew came back to film the follow-up sequence 6 months later the locals hated the American interloper? That was the genesis of the story.

JAY: Micah called me up and we got started right away. We spent a week watching relevant movies like the original versions of The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs... also Deliverance, and any John Carpenter movies we could get our hands on. We let those ideas percolate while we discussed characters, major story beats. Then we started outlining. 

We generally make a really tight outline first to nail down the story before we start falling in love with dialog. That involves a lot of back and forth, then multiple passes at the document, combing through to make sure that all our big moments were set up properly, that our characters had solid arcs, and that we were supporting our themes of Ugly Americanism, Narcissistic Selfie Culture and Voyeurism. 

Then we break the outline up into assignments and each of us goes into his corner to write. When we're done, we give each other notes, combine the documents, and go through it line by line over and over again until it feels like a single piece.

We read everything aloud as we work to make sure it flows properly, and that the dialog sounds right coming out of a human mouth.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your distribution plan for recouping your costs?

JAY: Simply put, we used talent and an idea to attract money, and then used that money to attract more money. Micah had met our producer, Mark Lágrimas, at a Writers Guild event, and the two of them had been talking for years about getting a project off the ground. 

When the idea for They're Watching came up, Mark was able to get Micah into the room with our (now) Executive Producer, Rico Garcia. The idea, and our passion for it, got Rico to commit a portion of the budget--and Rico's involvement gave others the confidence to get on board.

Most of our investors had never been involved in an entertainment industry business, so we had more than a few meetings to explain how the business worked. We made charts to explain the investment/return cycle. It was an education for everybody. And the facts were changing day to day, and have continued to change since we entered principal photography, particularly where Video On Demand is concerned.

MICAH: We would have loved studio distribution, but that's extremely difficult to get, especially with no big names, either in front of or behind the camera, so we eventually went with Amplify/GoDigital, a boutique distributor.

For a fee they handled PR and distribution. They placed us in select theaters across the country to help us secure the top pricing tier for the various digital distribution outlets--iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube and VoD from every cable and satellite outlet in the country. We'll be at the top tier for 3 months at least, before moving down the ladder to a lower price, to DVD and BluRay distribution, and Netflix.

There are a lot of opportunities for us to make money, and because the movie will always be available, we'll always be making a little money somewhere...

What was your process for casting the film?

MICAH: Casting was 100% traditional. We had no studio to demand a major star, and no particular interest in getting one, since it would interfere with the conceit that this was all “real." We were free to simply choose the best people for the roles and we did exactly that in every case.

Carrie Genzel came in and wowed us with the deep humanity behind her character, which could have easily come across as a one-note foil. Mia Faith was literally the only person we saw among dozens who intuited the naïve quality we wanted from Sarah. Dave Alpay had a room full of cynical Hollywood types in actual tears, behind their little bowls of M&Ms and cheetos, with his Afghanistan monologue--by far the most emotionally demanding moment in the movie. And Dimitri Diatchenko brought an charming kind of desperation to his Vladimir, seeing past the easy used car salesman smarm.

JAY: The best part of the process was allowing ourselves to be surprised. We used Shaggy from Scooby Doo as the template for our joker, because it's an easy go-to character. You always know what Shaggy would say in any given situation. And we saw a dozen excellent Shaggys... but then Kris Lemche came in and did a completely unexpected "annoying motormouth" take on the character, and highly improvisational. It wasn't at all what we were envisioning, but every second of it worked, and we knew it would keep us on our toes. 

After that, there was no other way to see the character. It was a great early reminder that the actors are your collaborators, not your tools, and you'd be crazy to not to let them bring everything they've got to the party.

How did you find your locations and how much did you have to create?

MICAH: Our amazing production company in Romania, Alien Film, started scouting locations long before we arrived for pre-production. They sent us several rounds of photos, which we would review, and use to point them in the right direction.

When we got to Romania, we spent a week or so driving around Romania, choosing from the remaining locations to get everything planned down to the camera angles. We filmed in Bucharest, in a gorgeous medieval fortress city in Transylvania called Sibiu, and in a former Soviet era resort which provided us with the "house" (an abandoned restaurant), and all our forest locations. 

We built a barn and the "kiln hut" from scratch on location. The barn was weathered for the "before" sequence, then painted for the "after".

JAY: The "before" version of the house was pretty much as we found it, with a some new window treatments and some vines thrown over the roof. The place was abandoned, like the house it portrayed, and it was in such terrible shape that we actually had to remove some garbage from it before we started filming. 

The "after" house was the same building, 6 days later. We had completely repainted it, inside and out, added windows, shutters, furniture, tiles, and created a 10" platform to raise the "bedroom" high enough that we could add a cellar door and pretend there was a basement. Our actors had to crouch down as they walked "down" the stairs. 

The basement itself was an unfinished apartment in Bucharest, dressed up... with a duplicate of the bedroom set at the top of the existing stairway to cover any camera angles that might catch it.

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

MICAH: We used the 5K Red Epic. Our DP, Tudor Mircea, was an Arri Alexa fan--but we thought it was important to future-proof our movie for 4K, and we also knew we'd need the extra resolution for the digital effects work we were going to do. 

In order to film some of the more complex shots without having to do very time-consuming and expensive motion tracking we needed needed total camera lockdown. We filmed those shots a touch wider, and that gave us the extra room to add a touch of camera shake and match the professional handheld look of the rest of the film.

How much did the story change in the editing process and why did you make the changes you did?

JAY: Because re-shoots were not an option we made sure our story really worked before we ever shot a frame. As such, the overall story didn't change at all in the editing process. As with any movie, we discovered that some of our scenes were extraneous, and many of them were longer than necessary. But too much footage is a better problem than too little!

MICAH: We did discover a few scenes that worked better in different locations than we had expected--one of them literally being moved to a different day of the story continuity to build the sense of dread... and maybe even indicate a suicidal tendency on the part of one of our characters. 

In another instance we were able to crop a character out of one shot (5K saves the day!) and use it before that character is even introduced. And because our film is shot in first person perspective, we were able (on two different occasions!) to change the character who was "filming” behind the camera to incredible effect. In one case we created a friendly one-on-one conversation between one character and that character's own eventual murderer! Editing is definitely where the film is made.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

JAY: There's only one smart thing anyone needs to do during production, and that's recognize a good idea when you see one. A lot of directors think they need to be autocrats and tyrants on the set, but making the shots as good as possible is more important than feeling like a king. 

We recognized early on that everyone we worked with, on both sides of the camera, was a professional, and they were really good at their jobs--better than we would be in their place--so we solicited their ideas and listened. 

Because Micah and I are two people who work as one in the writing room, we already know how to spot a better idea when it comes up, and how to back down when we're wrong.

MICAH:  The worst mistake we made was not fully vetting our food service team. Luckily it never came to violence. 

Actually, the worst mistake we made was not planning to have more cameras at play in the context of the story. We specifically chose the first-person format--and, in fact, the entire conceit of the movie--to save ourselves the trouble of having to shoot coverage, and to thereby keep the cost of production within reach. So we had a hard and fast rule that we would never cut to an angle that couldn't be explained by the presence of a camera in the context of the story. 

But it was a double-edged sword, because, with no alternate angles, we had to use scenes as they were performed, with only the ability to cut heads and tails. There were plenty of times when having a second angle would have allowed us to cut some fat from the middle of a scene, and improve the pacing of the film. If we do a sequel, we'll definitely keep that in mind, and have two or more characters in each scene toting a camera.

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

JAY: Almost every person on your crew has the ability to make or break what you're trying to accomplish at any given moment. So use every tool at your disposal to help you choose your work partners wisely. We didn't have a lot of contacts in the live-action film world, so we didn't always have reliable recommendations, and we definitely got burnt once or twice along the way.

MICAH: Luckily we have tons of contacts now, and we'll bring as much of our old gang along as possible when we launch a new project. 

A first film is a trial by fire. If you can survive, the next one should be easier.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Conversation with editor Dody Dorn

How did you get interested in film? Was editing what you always intended to do?

DODY: No. It wasn’t. I grew up in LA and my father worked in the film industry.  All of the female role models that I had were schoolteachers.  So, I just thought, I’ll be a schoolteacher.  It never occurred to me that I could do something other than that.

Aside from my father, everyone else in my family was the scientist of some sort.  When I got out of high school, I actually went to City College where I was taking math classes.  As a product of my times, I got interested in being in the workforce and not going to school.  So I started looking around for work.  And it became apparent that the film industry was a place where I could get a job without a formal education.

So, I did a lot … a lot … a lot of odd jobs in film. I was in extra, I was an assistant to props, I was a production coordinator, I did some scripts supervising, I was the location manager, a lot of things.

It sounds like a great way to learn how movies are made.

DODY: Yes it was.  It was great. I was the assistant to the producer and the assistant location manager on a movie of the week for Dick Clark productions call Elvis that was directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell.

When the film was over, they decided to make a theatrical version of the film and they brought in a different editor. The producer asked me if I was interested in staying on and working in post-production. I thought, sure. I’m curious. I’m just a curious person. So I said sure.

So I said yes to that and I self taught myself all of the things needed for being an assistant editor. From there I never looked back, because I really liked having such clearly defined skills. It was a very concrete skill set and it was marketable.

I wasn’t into film as a kid, I didn’t go see a million movies. But once I started working in film and seeing the alchemy, I fell in love with film and then I started to teach myself film history. Seeing classic movies. I’m still an avid classic film watcher. Most of the movies I watch are classics or art movies or foreign films.

I became fascinated by film and the magic of editing. And I took it from there.

You say you were self-taught as an assistant editor. How did you do that?

DODY: I called a friend and I said I’m getting this job as an assistant film editor, what do I need to know? And I learned over the phone the difference between the emulsion and base, how many perfs per frame, how many feet per second, etc.

I called the rental houses and learned all the names of the pieces of equipment that were used.  In those days, it was a pretty straightforward mechanical process, in terms of the gear.

The job of being the assistant editor, especially in a film that has already been cut--it was a recut basically--was that of being a librarian, along with distributing the materials to the other departments that they needed for completing their parts of the recut.

I learned the names of every last single part of every piece of equipment, probably in a couple of hours. I know it sounds very mundane, but that was what I needed to know, so I learned it.

And I was very active, going and talking to all the people in all the facilities where we were working. I learned all about the lab and what was in the lab and how things were done there. I just had really good communication skills with the providers of the services. Whatever communication I could have, I did have, and learned that way.

Did you have any union issues?

DODY: No, because I got into a union on my very first job.

How did you do that? When I talked to Carol Littleton, about half of our conversation was about how tough it was for her to get into the union.

DODY: I don’t even know how much of this is legitimate or not legitimate, but I was working for union company and I was gathering my days. I worked for long enough that I got my days and I went to the union and I got my checkbook out and I said, “Here are my days.”

I met with the field rep at the time and I said I’m ready to sign-up. And it went from there, I signed up and I was in the union. Because I was so forthright, just standing there with my checkbook open, maybe the field rep just thought, “Ah, she’s just a good kid.” I don’t know.

You said you self taught yourself film history. Do remember what you found to be the most useful?

DODY: There are so many great books out there about cinema, and I just went back to the early ones. Eisenstein and his theories about editing are fascinating. I was just voracious, watching and reading what I could. But that was later, by the way. The first two or three years, I was just doing my job and feeling good about having a marketable skill.

And then once I knew it inside and out, it became kind of boring, and I started to look deeper. And then I started working in sound, and when I was working sound I was examining the film in a different way. Because as an assistant film editor, you’re not really examining the film. You’re really more of a librarian.

Now it is easier to examine the film in its progressions. It wasn’t so easy in the days of 35mm. Because you’re handling the film with such kid gloves. You were just popping it up on the Movieola and watching the cut as it progressed. You, as the assistant editor, were cleaning it and repairing splices and making sure it didn’t get damaged. You weren’t necessarily in dailies, you weren’t necessarily in the discussions between the director and the editor. And that was the thing that kind of bummed me out. I was very appreciated as an assistant, but that is what I did. I was an assistant. I wanted to do more.

And so I went over to sound. At the time, a lot of people said, why you moving into sound? It was looked upon as a step down. For me, I am just curious by nature, I like to learn new things. So I felt I had learned as much as I could as an assistant editor, and I didn’t see myself getting into the room with the film editor and learning about cutting from that.

So I became a sound assistant. And very shortly thereafter, I was cutting sound. When you’re cutting sound, you see the editor’s version come through and then the new version comes through and you see what’s different and you begin to understand what the impact is.

My main things that I cut were dialog and Foley. And cutting Foley was very instrumental in teaching about editing because it’s all about rhythms. And again, because you’re watching the same material over and over and over again.

When cutting dialogue you also learn about rhythm, because you see how the cuts are made. Sometimes because they made them in the middle of the sentence. You saw which parts of which sentences could go together, and where you can make those joins. And what the impact of those things was.

So this lateral move was a very conscious choice on your part?

DODY: You know, I’m not all that sure that it was. I’m not sure that it was conscious. Mainly it was a form of appetite, more than a maneuver. I think of myself as a naïve person. In terms of politics and how to get ahead. Positioning has never been one of the things that I wanted to do. I figured I should just do what I do as well as I can. And see what happens.

But because I’m so curious, and so willing to go sideways or down or up or around, I learn a lot more.

So how did you move into the position of editor?

DODY: The same way. I was a sound editor, and then I was a supervising sound editor, and then I started a company. At some point, again, it became kind of boring, because I was doing the same thing, doing it by rote.

And then I wanted to move back into the picture department. I had been a sound editor and a supervising sound editor, by then, for 10 years. I couldn’t go and be an assistant editor. So I started to look for work as an editor. And I found that I couldn’t get arrested. So I went back down to the bottom, and started working for free. As a picture editor.

I worked on shorts and low budget features. I did something in Germany that was not for free, but for low pay. If it needed editing and I found it interesting, I would edit it. I was not making the salary important. That wasn’t important to me. It was important that it was interesting to me.

Do you feel that you were not getting opportunities that guys were getting?

DODY: I have to say I did not perceive that, if that was true. I did hear, once in a while, someone would say, “Oh we’ll hire him, he’s got a wife and kids.” And that would gall me. Because I did not feel that should be a criteria for filling a position. Especially a creative position.

And I have to say, I struggled quite a bit to become an editor. By struggle, I mean I worked a long time for low or no pay. And it was difficult to get into a position where I was considered.

By then, with all my work on sound, I had worked with some great directors. But those directors were not interested in giving me a shot as a picture editor. So that was frustrating, but I understand it – you need to know that someone can do what you need them to do. It’s a really important position.

What was the first movie you worked on as an editor?

DODY: I did a movie called Floundering. Peter McCarthy directed. He was a producer. He produced Sid and Nancy. And that was a no pay job. After that I did an extended cut of Terminator 2 for Jim Cameron.

And then I did Guinevere with Sarah Polly and Stephen Rea.

Looking back on it now, do you recommend the approach you took, the whole process of learning?

DODY: I do recommend it. I have recommended it to quite a few people. One thing about life is that it is not a thing where you just work and you arrive. It is a series of ups and downs. It’s a journey. To look at the goal as an endpoint, I think can cut you off from a lot of opportunities. If that makes sense.

Have you seen the results of that advice?

DODY: One guy in particular, Matt Clark, who has cut several films for Kirby Dick. And Matt is a guy came to me with a question that most people have, maybe not expressed this naïvely. He called me up and he said, “I want you to tell me how I can get work at the Studios.”

And I thought oh no. And I said, “Are you sitting down? Have you got a pencil and a piece of paper? Never ever ever ever ever call anyone ever again and ask ‘How do you get a job at the studio?’”

And then I gave him my recipe. It’s not really a recipe, it’s my advice. And I was very forthright about it. And he followed it pretty aggressively. And he became a film editor.

One of the things that I said--and I learned this from somebody else--when I was fresh out of high school or looking for work, I had one of those very similar conversations. I was meeting somebody that I’ve known from my father’s business. And I said, “I’m thinking of working in film.”

And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Oh I’ll do anything.”

And he said, “Never say you’ll do anything. Say you are a this or you are a that.”

And that is something that I took forward and I take seriously. I am a film editor.

With Matt I said, “You want to be a film editor, do you have any money? Do you have enough money to live for a year without working? Will your parents help you out?” It was that kind of conversation.

Because what you need to do is, you need to edit. You need to edit whatever you can. You just keep editing.

I wasn’t just editing anything that came along when I was working for no money. I always made sure that it was something that I would be proud to have on my resume. If at all possible.

There is one film on my resume where I noticed that the director changed the credit to an Alan Smithee film, so that must’ve been one where I needed to pay my rent. But for the most part, I tried to make sure that I was making my decisions based on the project and not on the money.

What project do you think you learned the most from or that provided the most challenge?

DODY: That’s interesting, because I feel like I’m learning all the time. I think I’m in a state of constantly learning.  I’ve learned on every project, so it’s a hard thing for me to answer. It’s like saying which one is your favorite child?

Okay, let me ask this: While you were teaching yourself film history, were there any films that really jumped out at you?

DODY: All That Jazz was really remarkable. Also I would say Bonnie and Clyde is another one. There’s a kind of poetic quality to the editing that I think is really exciting. I think it also took a lot from the French New Wave.

I still see a lot of foreign films, and I see a lot of classics. I’m not, for some reason, all that interested in contemporary films.

Are you an editor or an audience member when you watch these films?

DODY: Oh, I’m an audience member. If I’m watching the technique, I feel that it is self-conscious. On the other hand, in my career when I’m reading a script, I’m always looking for scripts where the editing gets to be a character.

Like in Memento, the editing is a character. I did another film, Guy, where the editing is a character. It’s a point of view film, and the point of view was a cameraperson who is a character. And so that person is a filmmaker and a cameraperson, making a documentary. And the way it is cut has to represent that person’s personality.

Self-conscious editing, if it’s justified, I love. Just to be self-conscious for no good reason is not interesting to me.

Requiem for a Dream was, I thought, self-conscious. I did not enjoy the self-consciousness of that. But I felt they were pushing the envelope for a reason. But it wasn’t something that I responded to.

And now an example of where the self-consciousness worked for you?

DODY: Well, All That Jazz is a great example. The way the editor and the director together placed the sound and the image, it does grab your attention. When the sound drops out during heart attack scene, there’s not a person in the theater who isn’t wondering what happened? What’s going on? They’re suddenly conscious, and thinking that the projector is no longer making sound. At least, that’s what I think happens. That’s the way I felt when I was watching it.

It is certainly a wake up call. It wakes you up. You’re not just rolling along.

You see, there’s this funny thing about editing. It‘s all supposed to be invisible. And I think there is value in that. That’s what the match cut is all about. But it is equally valid to have a strong hard cut that jars you, if it has a narrative purpose.

What were the special challenges you’ve dealt with on Memento?

DODY: Among the things that Chris Nolan and I talked about were, How much of the repeated material needed to be shown in order for you to understand that not only were you seeing the same thing again, but it was the exact same moment again? Because those are the clues that were laid that told you that things were going backwards. Nobody says or announces, there is no subtitle upfront, that says this is going to go backwards.

We did things with sound and music that were very identifiable. So if it was Muzak in the bathroom, it was a very identifiable piece of music. But we also use the exact same pieces of film. They weren’t necessarily the same length. They were often much shorter. And we wanted it to be ever shorter and shorter throughout the course of the film.

And so we were just kind of testing that, to see how little it could be before you to recognize it. And of course once the pattern is set, then there’s a rhythm about how fast we were jumping back-and-forth.

And the other funny thing about it is, that it is not really backwards. It is something that is folded in half. So you are going backwards in the color and forward in the black-and-white. And so the beginning and the end are the starting point of the story and as you are marching forward, you are getting to the middle.

And so just understanding that was fun. It was a very frustrating script to read, because you have to keep flipping pages back-and-forth and back-and-forth, because it’s confusing. But that was enthralling to me.

It was fun. It was really fun. My mother was a mathematician, so I have that in me. It was kind of like a puzzle. Like I was doing my own little puzzle. And it really required a lot of intense focus, but it was very very well laid out in the script stage. We only rearranged one scene. Everything else was exactly as it was structured in the script.

What did you rearrange?

DODY: There was a point in the middle of the script where the jumping back got too frequent. So we join two sections, and dropped one repeat.

Did you do any audience testing with Memento?

DODY: No. We showed it to some people, but it wasn’t really a test. And I think that was the right decision. It is not the kind of film where you could gather a response from the test. People always come out of that film looking like they’ve been hit on the back of the head with a 2 x 4. And I think that’s one of the most gratifying things about it. Because the whole film is a wake up. It wakes you up.

And there are some people who are really irritated by it. And I liken that irritation to something I said to Chris in our first meeting. It reminded me of the book called If On A Winter’s Day A Traveler.

In that book, at I think close to the end of the first chapter, some of the text is repeated. And then the author addresses the reader straight out of the page, saying “Oh, and now you’ve noticed that some of the text is repeated.” And I thought, hey I don’t want to hear this, I just want to read a story. But I wasn’t the editor of that book. Reading the script of Memento and thinking that I might have the opportunity to be the editor of that, that was very exciting.

But as a viewer, I can understand how some people might be irritated by it. It’s a matter of taste, if you want to be played with like that. Many many people just go into the theater and they want to be carried down that stream, they don’t want to be woken up.

Have you had any experience with any of the films you’ve worked on being tested with audiences?

DODY: Yes I have.

How do you like that process?

DODY: I don’t like it.  Things need to be tested to be sure that audiences are following and that they understand. It depends on what kind of the film it is. So if you want people to understand, you might have to test.

I think I don’t like it, because I don’t like all the politics involved. It’s a stressful process.

Any final advice? For someone wanting to get into the business?

DODY: The clearest advice I would give is do your best to find projects that you can believe in and work on those. And the rest may or may not follow. It’s a very tricky business. And it’s a tricky life. On some level, all you have is now. So you better make sure that what you’re doing now is something you enjoy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Miranda July on "Me and You and Everyone We Know"

Where did the idea for the script come from?

MIRANDA JULY: I had the idea for a while that I would eventually write a feature film and that I'd make it. I didn't really know anything about the industry, but I figured that if I'd made a half-hour movie I could make one that was an hour and a half.

The way that I write anything is pretty free-associative and magical. Usually I just start with a structure. The idea was to have these multiple story lines that converged in surprising ways. That structure gave me the freedom to write from where I was each day and add characters as I needed to.

Did you know where you were headed with the story and the characters when you started?

MIRANDA JULY: No, but I had a strong feeling, an emotional touchstone in me. That feeling was in me from the beginning and I knew when I would write a scene that would be filled with that feeling or when I would write a scene that was irrelevant to that feeling.

For example, one day I wrote the scene that was eventually the ending -- the tapping the quarter thing -- but I wrote that probably a year before I actually finished writing the script, so it wasn't like I wrote chronologically or anything.

What is your writing process?

MIRANDA JULY: At the very beginning, I just sit down and write dialogue. Writing dialogue was very familiar to me, because I'd been doing that for performances for a long time. Then I act out the characters as I'm writing that dialogue.

But I usually start with some really irrelevant detail, seemingly out of left field. Like, "I know she has a powder compact in this scene." So I'm starting with that, rather than starting with, "She needs to connect with this man." There's something about the irrelevance and the physicality of something like that. And often it’s humor that gets me into a scene, because I'm enjoying myself when I'm writing something funny. And in enjoying myself, just as hopefully the audience will, you kind of open up and then other stuff can come out, maybe deeper stuff.

So it's never starting with the big idea; it's always something physical or quite often something visual. For example, a little door peephole that a girl can open in the door. Sometimes I'll write a scene and I won't know until later why that little door will be opened. It seems very magical to me, like, “Oh, Richard knocks on the door because he's looking for his son,” but I actually already wrote a version with a girl opening a peephole, without any clear objective.

At what point do you start to connect these disparate scenes?

MIRANDA JULY: Pretty quickly there are characters. And characters have intentions, whether you're conscious of it or not and pretty quickly there's a set of problems. So then much of the scenes come out of trying to solve problems. Like, how can the audience be reminded that she's thinking about him? And that becomes the scene with the "Me" and "You" shoes.

There's a certain point where there's just enough stuff where you establish problems and at that point you start solving problems.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bob Odenkirk and Michael Blieden on "Melvin Goes To Dinner"

What first attracted you to this project?

BOB ODENKIRK: I saw the play a couple times -- I think five, all told and I felt that if all I do is shoot this play in some form, then that would be worthy of the effort. It was so well played, so well written, and the cast was so perfect, that I felt I had to fall back on. It was just worth shooting. And I thought I had an idea of how to shoot it and keep it lively, which was multiple, handheld cameras.

I had some ideas on what I thought would help make it feel and work like a feature film. It's a very good performance piece for the stage, and one of the reasons it's so good is, it's very much alive every night that you do it. One night it could be a little more comic, another night it could be more dramatic. It all depends on the tone of performance and it depends on the audience and it depends on their interaction. That's what a great play does: it lives on stage every night, and it lives a little differently.

When you're making a movie, you're committing to one performance. Unlike a play, where your eyes can move around and the energy can shift in this interplay between audience and performance, you're committing. You're saying to everybody, 'Look at this person and look at this performance and this is the right performance.'
How many cameras did you end up using?

BOB ODENKIRK: We used five cameras, so everybody is on camera at all times. And we tried to layer it so that you can follow everyone's performance throughout the movie, even though we commit to singles angles at any one time. When a person's talking and telling a story, we cut from them to watch the people listening, because the way that anyone of those persons stories is affecting the other people is the depth of the piece.

When one person tells a story about infidelity, clearly there is an issue there with some of the other people, and you can read that I think subconsciously. And, if you watch the movie a second time, you can read it consciously. You can see people getting uncomfortable at certain topics, and now you know why.
Although the cast is relatively unknown, you did add some cameos by better known performers. What was your thinking behind that?

BOB ODENKIRK: I knew that we weren't going to use any names in the leads. And I thought just having a few name people would help the movie, and I do think it did help.

Now, some of the people, like Jack Black and Melora Walters, wouldn't let us put their name or their image on the poster, which is fine and understandable, and in fact I would want. The last thing I would want would be for it to be released as
'The Jack Black Movie.' People would hate me, Jack, and the asshole who made the poster.

I do think the cameos help. It helps people to consider the movie legitimate. The thing I'm most happy about is that those people were right for their parts, they were funny and good in their parts, and they don't overshadow the movie.

You like Jack Black, and you like Maura Tierney, and you like Melora Walters, they're all good in their roles. David Cross is great. But none of them overshadows what the movie's about, none of them dislocates the core of the movie.

When the movie's over, you don't go, 'Wow, that was about Jack Black's scene.' Instead, you totally go, 'That was about this couple who are lying and this friend who's in a bad relationship and this girl's story about ghosts,' and about the ninth thing you mention is that Jack Black's in it. And that's perfect. Perfect.

How did you get hooked up with Bob Odenkirk?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob had seen the play and said he was interested in making a movie out of it. So I said, 'Why don't I take a crack at the script, and if you like that, then we'll move forward.' 

And he said, 'That's sounds good. Let me give you a couple of general notes.' And his notes were, number one, why don't you try to focus the story on one character, and why don't you make it Melvin's character, since Melvin's kid of a device to get the other characters' stories out. He's the audience. So why don't you make it from Melvin's perspective. We need to see one character go through something during the night.

I worked on the script for a couple months and sent him a draft.
What was it like to write a screenplay for your play?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: When I sat down to write the screenplay, we'd been performing the play for so long and the characters were so vivid to me, it felt like I was writing the sequel, because I got to write more words for these same characters in this same world.

I write in a completely nonlinear way. I believe in 'write what you're excited about first.' Always work on what you're excited about first.

I started writing scenes that I felt exemplified each character. I wrote a little intro scene for each character -- except I never really wrote one for Sarah, so there isn't one in the movie.

I wrote the story in a linear way -- the first scene was 6:00 a.m., Alex getting on a plane to fly to LA, and Melvin waking up in his office, and each character chronologically. And then they get to the restaurant and then it was -- aside from the internal flashbacks -- it was basically the play. It was like two movies: a single-camera, thirty location film, and then a multi-camera restaurant movie.

Then, for about a full month, I almost exclusively worked in the scene navigator mode (in Final Draft), where I just cut and pasted scenes and I did a paper edit of the film. The script, when it was finally a shooting script, is pretty much the way the movie was edited.
After writing and performing a five-person play, how did you feel about the cameos in the film?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Maura Tierney accepted the part just based on the script. The first day -- she is so warm and you have so much affection for her instantly. Everyone just loved her. Some people can say 'Hi' to you and you like them instantly, and she has that quality.

After shooting with her for one day, I went home and thought, I'm in this great position. I can do whatever I want. I get to act with her. So I wrote three extra pages of dialogue, because she was so much fun.

So I went back in the next day when she was in make-up and said, (whisper) 'I wrote more stuff for us to do!' The whole walking scene on the roof of the ramp, about my mom and her nose job, I wrote the night before because I wanted to do more with her.
What about Jack Black?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob said he was going to ask Jack Black to do it, and I said, 'Let me re-write the scene then!' So I did a special version. The original scene was about a page, but for Jack Black it was about five pages. That was directly written for him.
How do you feel about the finished movie?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: The movie has given me the sense that I could retire, I could work in a bank from now on, and I'd be like, 'I made a movie once, an honest to god movie,' and I have such a feeling of accomplishment about that, there's a part of me that really let go and said 'You knows what, you've done something you never thought you would do.' There's times when I'm actually able to relax a little bit, and that makes it worth it.