The Browsing Effect is one of the smartest, more charming indie comedies that I’ve seen in quite some time (Full Review). I was lucky to get to talk to director Michael K. Feinstein at length about his processes to get this movie out to us. I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it!
First of all, I don’t really get to talk to a lot of directors that also write their movies. I wanted to ask if this was kind of semi-autobiographical in a way? Did you have a breakup that convinced you to write this?
Michael K. Feinstein: Yeah sure what break up hasn’t influenced my life. All of that. This was definitely very autobiographical, and it had come out of these experiences. I saw that my dating experiences through apps were not really portrayed accurately in film and television except when it was a joke or a punchline. So out of that desire to see it and represent it the way that I’ve been experiencing it and talk about feelings my friends and I, who were using the apps, were also going through. I knew at the same time that I wanted to direct something, and I wouldn’t have a lot of money to do it. Inherently a relationship comedy isn’t one that requires a lot of set pieces or special effects or make-up. At the same time, it would be something that I felt like I could accomplish from a production standpoint. You know often relationship movies are a lot of people talking in restaurants and bedrooms, which still costs lots of money, too! No doubt, but maybe a little bit easier than “oh, now we’re at the car crash, and his arm has fallen off”…and you know that kind of stuff.
Kind of in line with that, are any of these characters more you than the others, or is it all just a mix?
I think you can probably even tell just be talking with me. The Ben character is very close to me. But!—because I am a narcissist, I have imbued all the characters with some aspect of myself. I’ve never been able to escape myself entirely, and unfortunately the same sort of goes with any character that comes from my mind, but Ben is certainly more me than not. So, when you cast someone, the actor then brings a lot of himself. You know, Josh (Margolin), who plays Ben, we have a lot of overlap in our personalities, but there are some ways where he is much different than I am. He brought that into the character as well.
“…because I am a narcissist, I have imbued all the characters with some aspect of myself.”
Did you talk to any of your female friends about your experiences to get the women’s perspective?
It was important to me. I feel like I’m lucky because I have a lot of female friends. I always have. I’ve always gotten a lot out of those relationships, and I feel, as someone who watches a lot of movies, I can tell when a woman’s voice feels like a man’s voice that’s being delivered by an actress. It was vital to me that my female characters felt authentic and they did and said things that ultimately a woman would do or say and not something that ANYONE would do or say. If I got to a point in the script where I didn’t know what a character would do, I would think “Oh, what would my friend Caroline do in this situation?” Or “What would my friend Zoe do in the situation?” And, you know, I would imagine my friend doing what this character would do, whether or not they would do that in real life, I don’t know, but just the process of putting myself outside of myself, I think that’s an essential part of the writing process.
I write other things besides film reviews, I’m in the middle of trying to write a screenplay too, and it’s tough to have a voice that isn’t just your inner voice. It’s important to separate the two, and I’m glad to hear that people source the characters that aren’t like them and don’t just…guess.
Totally, and it was a process, it wasn’t just something I think I was successful at in the first handful of drafts. It was something I had to go back to and really push myself on. I knew that make the difference in the film, so it was something I struggled with. It is very difficult to have your characters say things that you wouldn’t say because you don’t know what you wouldn’t say because you wouldn’t say it.
How long was the process?
I wrote the first draft in about four months. It was about two years until we were shooting. There would be times in those two years where I was writing and rewriting constantly, and there’d be times when I put it away. I wrote a draft of the script, and I corrected that draft for seven drafts, and then I realized ⅓ of it wasn’t working, and I threw it out and re-wrote thirty, forty pages of the movie. So, my first draft of my movie and my last draft look very different in a certain sense, but I would imagine they feel the same. I think the tone, I always had fine; it was just figuring out what literally happens in the movie that I went back and forth on.
“I wrote a draft of the script, and I corrected that draft for seven drafts, and then I realized ⅓ of it wasn’t working, and I threw it out…”
Where did you shoot that scene, the nursing home scene?
There was a nursing home that was in Van Nuys. I think this nursing home had some kind of acting group, and those were the women that we used, a lot of them. There were only women, we didn’t have any men, so we had to hire this older guy to come in, and he’s really not even that old, but he fits fine.
Originally in the script, it was an elementary school, and they were gonna teach improv, and in the pre-production process my producers were like “Hey, we’re sending out feelers, but it seems like it’s going to be difficult to get an elementary school, and to get a bunch of kids in the summer…where else could this work?” This became a big part of rewriting. I’m just trying to write things to be better or easy to produce so I thought okay, this could happen in a retirement home. The scene will be able to have all these same beats at the retirement home as it did at the elementary school.
What was your personal worst (that you want to talk about) experience with online dating?
You know, I’ve gone on some dates that have had some unexpected turns to them and maybe not ended the way I wanted, but those dates I would never say are the worst because they’re good stories and you learn stuff from them and you kind of laugh. The worst dates are the ones you go, and the person just immediately seems so disinterested, or the person just seems bored, and you’re like what did I do to bore you already? Those are the worst.
I went on a strange date once. We were texting, and everything seems fine then I get to the bar and order drinks. On the seven-foot walk from the bar to the table, she says to me “Ugh, I just would much rather be home, watching the bachelorette right now.” You know, I get it, there are times when you go on dates where you’d rather be doing something else but instead you gotta push yourself to do it because “Oh, I should be social.” You don’t say that to someone else. It’s dating like that, that are really the worst. In my movie, there’s a character that Ben has sex with on the first date, and he finds out the only reason the girl has sex with him is that she has a boyfriend and the boyfriend is kind of impotent, and she uses these apps to find guys to kind of satiate that sexual desire. That happened to me. It made me feel really weird and used, but I would never say it was the worst date I was on because you know at the end of the day, I still had sex, but it definitely made me feel weird, and I walked out of that situation. I was scratching my head being like “Well, what kind of world have I entered into?” But, I was able to use it in my movie, so I can’t really claim something like that was bad. The real—the worst ones are the ones where people act like you’re a non-human.
Why do you think a lot of directors don’t write their scripts or vice-versa? What do you think the block is?
I think a lot of directors don’t write their script because writing is difficult and not as fun. I think sometimes filmmakers come out of the instinct that I want to be a storyteller. I believe there are a lot of directors and good directors too, and their instinct isn’t entirely storytelling. It’s more about expressing themselves in a visual medium. So I think they don’t necessarily have that desire to write. They could just as easily use someone else’s story and kind of project their ideas on to that.
As someone who has done both now, writing is more complicated, by and large. It’s very tough, and I never understood anyone who’s like “Oh, I find writing fun.” I don’t find writing fun. I like coming up with ideas. I like fine-tuning at the other end of it, but the actual slog of getting your idea as to how you see it in your head on the page is something just short of torture.
“When I was a kid, my dad owned some video stores in Providence, Rhode Island. I grew up around a ton of film. I don’t even remember what the first film I fell in love with was, I just always loved film.”
Yeah, it can be almost impossible.
Yeah, it is almost impossible. That’s what it feels like. For me, the process of writing was “What kind of movie can I make” and you know that meant a lot of characters talking in bedrooms without special effects and all that. Then anticipating that kind of thing, what I’m sure a lot of people who read FIlm Threat hear, which is: don’t wait to make your movie. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission just go out and make it.
I took that to heart, and I read the Robert Rodriguez book and all sorts of other books on how to make it yourself. I took that to heart, and once I had a script that I could make for a small amount of money, I thought about the people in my life who had supported me in the past. Those people who liked the short films I had made and those family, friends, friends of friends, who have a little bit of disposable income that I could sell them the cache of making a movie.
I couldn’t tell them “Hey, I’m definitely gonna make your money back.” I couldn’t say that. I could say “Hey, you’ll be allowed to be part of the movie-making process. You can come and be there during the casting sessions, and you can watch us shoot it. I’ll show you the edits, and your name will be in the credits. If we get into a film festival, you can go…” For a lot of people, that’s very exciting. That’s what I kind of sold people on and once I was able to get a little bit of money, I then reached out to people I went to film school with who I knew would believe in my script and then I called in every favor I could call in.
This movie was made for less than $200,000, but its value is much more because there’s a ton of stuff we got for free that another production wouldn’t have got for free. I don’t think it feels like a movie that was made for $200,000 and that was something that we thought about a lot. How could we make our movie feel big even when its resources are small.
Are you working on anything new right now?
You know I’m someone who’s always writing, I’m writing a script that I hope to make in the future, some of which I have hopes to sell, but nothing concrete at the moment. I’m going back to school in the fall to study film some more, and I’m excited about that. That’s going to be more film history and critical analysis than production. Just any kind of study of film is gonna help me in my writing and hoping to keep moving forward and learn. The hope is always the next one, but I don’t know when that’ll be.
Was there a specific movie that you saw when you were a kid that made you know that this is what you wanted to do?
I think that is an important question. I think I’m a little bit of a special case. When I was a kid, my dad owned some video stores in Providence, Rhode Island. I grew up around a ton of film. I don’t even remember what the first film I fell in love with was, I just always loved film. I can’t even remember before I started watching them. It was always a part of my life. I was always kind of devouring them as fast as I can. I watched a lot of Mary Poppins as a kid. I loved “Feed The Birds” and liked the more melancholic moments of that movie. I liked this movie called Pete’s Dragon from the ’70s. It was live-action, but there was an animated dragon. You know, Peter Pan and Beauty & The Beast. I got older, and I was always looking for more films to watch. I still am. I’m still looking for that next movie that’s going to inspire me. Because my dad owned those video stores, I had a lot of access to them as a kid. Now in the digital age, anyone has that amount of access to watch a large swath of films, so it does become more difficult to watch older films. My whole life I’ve just been obsessed with movies and watching them, so there’s always been a lot of movies that have inspired me.
Just from talking to you I think we have a similar viewpoint so it makes me think that I can actually make a movie, so thank you for this conversation.
It’s tough, you know. I started the first draft of this script five years ago, and there hasn’t been a significant period of time during that I haven’t been working on this movie. There have been times where I wanted to go “Alright, I want to do something else. I want to go to the next thing. I’m bored of this, blah blah blah but you just gotta believe in it enough. You have to care enough and for me, if this had just been any other story, then I don’t know. I might have stopped caring. Because it was something personal. I felt like it was a topic of something that I had something to say and gave me enough gas to keep going. Really it’s about yourself and the stamina you have to keep with it. There are lots of obstacles and things and things that are difficult, but if you, yourself don’t have the drive to overcome those obstacles, then it’s all a moot point, anyway. What’s gonna be the thing that’s gonna allow you to stay interested for such a long period of time? Because there’s no quick independent filmmaking.
Talking with Michael K Feinstein was an eye-opening conversation for how to get your movie made without the safety net of a big studio. Check out The Browsing Effect, but read my review first!