Making its North American premiere at the 2018 San Diego International Film Festival, I May Regret won with Audience Choice Award for Best Feature. Film Threat Managing Editor Alan Ng spoke with writer/director Graham Streeter about his film. Addressing issues of living and caring for dementia in seniors, along with elder abuse and euthanasia, I May Regret stands firmly in the thriller genre. The story follows a phony caregiver as she takes advantage of an affluent patient, Ruth, who suffers from dementia, in hopes of grabbing her remaining wealth. Graham and Alan discuss the genesis of his film, directing actors facing challenging roles, and even self-distributing films.
Give me your take on the story of I May Regret.
Graham Streeter: It’s a story about a woman who is navigating through the early stages dementia and trying to organize her end of life while also suspecting she is being taken advantage of by her caregivers.
How did the idea of the story come about?
Whenever I do a film, I always ask myself what’s an imperative issue that we can grab onto and sink into while telling a narrative feature. So not only go on a ride but when you walk away, you feel like you’re smarter and more aware of a situation that is imperative in our times.
As far as the hook of this story, essentially it’s a karma piece. Not to say that when you do bad things in life, bad things will happen. But that when you do bad things, and they’re in your memory, and those volatilities will surface when you have something like dementia.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, war veterans, at the onset of dementia, they can either be happy as clams or they reside in this horrific kind of moment when they were in the war. Someone who’s famous may reside in this glory of telling speeches and this accolade kind of thing, and they’re just kind of up there or they might be very negative. Wherever the hard wiring is its greatest is where when you start clipping all those wires in your head, whoever has the most wires at the end, wins.
“I always ask myself what’s an imperative issue that we can grab onto and sink into…”
Was that the seed for the idea for I May Regret?
No. The seed was just trying to find the hypothetical in asking, “what if you did something horrible in life and you were recalling that over and over again.” In trying to understand dementia when you’re older, you tend to remember yourself as younger. In the mirror, you’re looking at a completely different person. You don’t recognize that person.
In the case of the lead character Ruth, what if you are having these memories of when you were younger doing something to an older person, and the only thing that’s kind of in your head is this older person which is you. You meet you, and that confusion, that mash-up of ideas becomes the narrative. What if you, at one moment in your dementia, you realize it for a second and then it drifts away again.
I May Regret more or less is told from May the caregiver’s perspective and your narrative clearly fits in the Thriller category.
Right. I did it because I’d never seen it before, when I was working on the script, I think I shut it down, rehashed it, and started from scratch maybe four or five times. I was constantly looking at movies trying to see if someone had done something cinematically that described the same thing. I’ve yet to find that. There are thrillers that deal with a person who was not there (The Sixth Sense), and the hook is at the end, and throughout the film, you’re teased the whole way through, and you don’t realize it was something different, but the same person face-to-face.
Let’s talk about the screenwriting then. You mentioned you re-wrote I May Regret four or five times. I guess from a new screenwriter’s perspective, that can seem kind of maddening. What is that process like? How far do you get until you realize, okay, let’s take a fresh look at it?
You get all the way to the end once, and if it doesn’t feel right, you have maybe one or two people read it. They always say, “I don’t get it.” and you don’t go any further because I have it in my head, but I’m not able to get it out there right.
I reset. I changed all the names. I changed the location. I changed things like that, and then I do it again so I’m fresh with it and then try to tell the story again because the story could have happened anywhere. I try to just swap out big things. My very first draft started on a vineyard. The money was something buried in the ground, for example. First, it was two men; a male, older gentleman and a male nurse. I did a completely different rewrite. As you start finding the locations and finding your actors, then you start shaping it more and more.
And then you had the big reveal.
At the end of the day, what happened was I took everything that was at the end, and I threw it at the very front. Anyone would say, “It’s just the biggest spoiler you can do. That’s insane.”
When we did our focus groups, we did 10 rounds of focus groups during the editing process. I put everything possible at the front end. That’s what you see, but it’s so early on, and it doesn’t have any context to it that you kind of, it’s something. Then you go into the story. Then at the end, it all kind of comes back to you, and it makes sense. It was a testament to the limitations of the human brain when it comes to the editorial process.
“…they’re in your memory, and those volatilities will surface…”
I suppose it’s good to get away from the comfort of the narrative structure that people, especially critics like me, tend to judge a film on.
Sure, and yet the structure’s still there. It’s still three-part, and it’s still, the turning points are all pretty much in the same traditional spots. Because when you want a cheeseburger, you want a cheeseburger. You want a bun on the top and the bottom. I know that an audience wants that too. You have to kind of keep it in the structure still. Their expectations are there.
You have to keep that integrity to be true to the topic point. You have to put them on a ride. You have to screw with them a little bit. You have to make them uncomfortable, make them confused, make things the impossible for a second, and then somehow to wake up and say, “It all was possible.”
The whole film actually rests on your two leads, Lisa Goodman and Denise Dorado. You cast them. You’re trying to get that authentic performance, especially from Lisa. Were items on the director’s checklist to ensure their performances were true and respectful?
I learned while doing a documentary piece called Return to Autism, and specifically my feature film, Imperfect Sky, I dealt with a character who was in severe stages of denial with a heroin addiction. I learned that no two people are alike. First of all. I never have that fear that I’m trying to depict the perfect person with an ailment. It affects everyone differently. There are some general things that you can suggest to the actor and give them. I gave Lisa, for example, tons and tons of video files and research of people I had befriended over the years, who have parents or grandparents with dementia.
I let Lisa find the things that worked for her. When I found her, she has a kind of a tense personality type to her. Even if you just talk to her in person, she’s a little skittish and tight. She just has a kind of energy already that she then pushed forward for herself. She made choices that I had not even thought about. She had a couple months to really dive into those things.
Was there a great deal of anxiety knowing you had the perfect way the story would play out in your head and then work with your actor to match it?
Yeah, it goes both ways. As much as I have anxiety about them, they have anxiety about whether or not they would deliver the right performance for me, right? I have to say when I pick the right people, I need to empower them and let them make those choices. If I micromanage them, they’re never going to feel good about their own self.
I felt relieved when I looked at Lisa’s script in the rehearsal, and it’s worn to pieces, and we’re still a month out from shooting; I know whatever she’s cooking up, it’s good. You know you’re working with an actor with a trained, calm mind about how to build a character and then bring it to the script. You’ve got to trust it. You have to. If you try to micromanage a movement or an action or an idiosyncrasy or something like that, you would be in terrible trouble.
That’s a thing I’m learning with directors today is it is that internal struggle between control and trust.
Trust is my number one thing that I need to always rely on. I’m a controlling person by nature. If I can control the type of content I’m giving them, then I can trust that they can do something good with it. I could be surprised on set too. The actors can. As the director, you know the hits and what had to happen to Ruth in a scene because we rehearsed it. But even on set, the character Ruth, she’s alive and you have to kind of deal with her. The actors had to figure her out and work with her words and calm her and keep her in check. It also helps keep the performance fresh.
“Most people say never use your own money. I don’t know where that came from, but I think that’s ridiculous.”
A lot of times filmmakers tend to want to do too much in a film. The advice usually is well, take a single idea and run with it. In this one, you go with three. You go with the late stages of dementia, elder abuse, and euthanasia...
Oh yeah, goldfish and the care of goldfish. While you were dealing with the issue of dementia, was there the intention of saying, “hey, let’s bring up the issues of elder abuse and end of life?”
I think it was all simultaneously there because her … the whole crux of the story is abuse, elder abuse. We had to show how a nurse in this day and age, right now, manipulate an older generation by isolating them, building their trust, getting a couple of little pieces of information, parlaying on that to a bigger thing, to a bigger thing, cutting off the family.
Because it’s such an issue, and every time I did research on Alzheimer’s, that kind of stuff is as equally as part of the conversation. While the patient is going through the Alzheimer’s, the family and everyone else is going through the other issues. They’re trying to manage that whole thing. Long-term care, elderly abuse, and euthanasia, not so much.
I felt like that gave Ruth a drive. She had her struggle. If you’re just fading, that’s not an interesting character with dementia, but fighting it, and in this case, at the help of a nurse, she’s trying to keep her clarity so she’d be clear enough to end her life. It’s contradicting everyone else’s function in the story, but that’s Ruth’s mission. That mission to have it revealed at the end is a nice way to see someone … it gave her drive.
It gave a new dimension to the family member characters as well.
Absolutely. Her nephew, Paul. Is he right or wrong? Is he good or bad?
For caregivers, it’s a thankless job, especially for Alzheimer’s and dimension.
Or it could be lucrative.
“You’re training on your equipment, and you’re exhausting the script over and over again…”
Yeah, exactly. There’s that sense of entitlement. I put all this effort into caring for someone and what do I ultimately get in the end?
They’re first ones at the sale, too. In my mother’s case. She was in her ailing years of life and had a live-in nurse. Toward the end, that live-in nurse had bought all of my mom’s furniture. Wanted to buy the house when my mom put it up for sale. Then you move on to the next patient. It’s kind of racket sometimes, especially in the ’80s.
Speaking of the ‘80s, what about the subject of euthanasia? You present a fairly clear presentation as to how the process works. I May Regret is set during the height of the Kevorkian era.
It’s Kevorkian, exactly, yeah. There were so little rights about ending your life at that time that if you were dead set on it, you would do it one way or another. You just didn’t want to mess it up. That’s why in the case of Ruth, her husband, having missed his opportunity to do suicide right, she didn’t want to mess it up. She does want to pay someone. In this case, her nephew and she dangles that payment to the very last moment. Matter of fact, he questioned whether or not she would have been in a state to give him the money because if she had given him the money before the last drink, he might not have given it to her.
Now let’s get into money. I definitely feel your film falls somewhere between the funding the film with credit cards and the big studio $100 million budget. You’ve made several films. Was it difficult to get to the point now where you can finance a film for a few million dollars and get that kind of that mid-range film made?
Filmmaking, in general, is difficult. So yes, I would say it’s difficult. I say that we don’t lose money because we’re super, super smart about the fact that we’re not taking other people’s money. People will argue this with me all the time. Most people say never use your own money. I don’t know where that came from, but I think that’s ridiculous.
If I’m spending my own money, I’m going to be super smart about it. My team and I, we say “We think within a box, not think outside the box.” If you have a box and you stay in it, it keeps you disciplined. I know that for X amount of money I’m going to make a movie. In turn, that means I’m going to do it on this day and no one’s going to stop me, and we’re going to get it done.
Then it influences your choices. You say, “Okay, so I’m not going to be in this big, huge whatever building. I’m going to be in another thing.” It makes you fight to find that right piece for the right price, re-write it and not only re-write it but empower that location to be as exciting as possible.
When your money’s in it, you have a vested interest in its success.
Let’s look at the economics. With studio films, you drive down Hollywood Boulevard, and you see a couple cops. You see some cones, and you see a couple trucks, and you see people smoking cigarettes. Then you see more trucks and more equipment and more people smoking cigarettes and more people. Suddenly, it’s a city block of people smoking and sitting outside in trucks that are completely full of equipment. That’s already twice my budget. That’s not even being used on the one day inside a set somewhere on that city block. The waste from that kind of production is incredible.
We do ours with a 10-person team. I own all the equipment. I can’t pay for a cameraman, so I’m a cameraman, I’m an editor, I’m a writer, I’m a director, but get it done. I will never do a romantic comedy because I don’t have enough lights or makeup to do it.
Do you have a piece of advice for the up and coming filmmaker to get to that next level?
Yeah. If you’re a filmmaker who writes, I’d say write without obstacles. Write to get it done. Write a story that you know can get produced. Often people write massive big content, which is fine, but you are running against a lot of people doing a lot of big concepts. I just think if you really want to make films, write something you can do right away. Make it accessible.
So, have an idea of what resources you have access to and write with that in mind.
Exactly. Reverse engineering.
What kind of team do you need and then how do you pull that together?
I’m a one-man team during the writing process. When I finally get ready to gear up for a film, I pull in a fresh team every time. Alex, my partner, he’s a producer. He’s on board always with me. Since I’m editor, writer, director, cinematographer, that’s my team. You build people to fill in the gap depending on what the function of that production will be and what kind of team members it merits.
We spend a couple of months building that team through training. You’re training on your equipment, and you’re exhausting the script over and over again. You’re two months or three months in with this new team of people, and by the time you get to set, you feel like you’ve been family forever. Everyone knows the story inside and out on a philosophical level. We’ve drunk wine over it. We are completely connected on emotional, logistical, technical level in every way possible. We’ve all told the story from multiple angles and how we’re going to make it.
Team building is my favorite process. When we get to set, we get it done. They go on to work. After we’re done, they take those credits, they excel, and they’re equipped to find other jobs. When the next project rolls around, you do call them up and say, “Are you free?” and they’re not. They’re working. They’re doing good things. Which is great. It’s sad for us, but it’s good for them.
This last round, we had four interns from Emerson College. They came on in the first semester. Timing was perfect. They came in on the first day of their semester, flew in from Boston and Chicago areas, and they stayed with us every day, Monday through Friday. On the last day of their internship, they wrapped up, and they got full credits for it. That was their graduation, their internship. They walked away with a feature film. They didn’t make coffee. They made movies.
“…we’ve seen more return doing self-distribution…day one we’re already making a profit.”
They’re basically production, getting the set prepped, getting actors ready.
One was my camera assist. He was my right-hand man. He was taking care of all the detail on my camera, so I didn’t have to focus on that. Two were just on audio. The fourth was all lighting, all lighting stuff. We lit a month-and-a-half in advance. We put cans in, and we lit the place. It was live. We dressed the place. I make them build the set. We did runs. We did tests. We did lighting, everything so that by the time we get there, they were a tight-knit group of people. We brought in three other people who were doing wardrobe and continuity and props.
Now the final piece is you’re on the festival run right now. As you’re doing this, you know you’re going to festivals but do you think about how you’re going to take this beyond that?
Yeah, I do. I’m not sure. We just, we’ll get through the festivals and hopefully win some recognition, if we’re lucky enough, and then my next goal is always since we own the films, we don’t feel compelled to sell them to someone else.
In fact, a whole other conversation on distribution alone, but we’ve seen more return doing self-distribution under the banner of Imperative Pictures than the other so-called well-oiled distribution companies that have a business of acquiring and shifting and writing off a lot of expenditures. You see them post their pictures in Cannes and in Rotterdam and blah-blah-blah and yachts and parties and eating steak. That all is being subtracted from our profit deal versus me getting an aggregator and going directly to iTunes or Netflix, or not Netflix right now. Day one we’re already making a profit.
Lastly, what are the lessons you learned on I May Regret that you could pass on to future filmmakers as a little tool to put in their tool belt?
I have different stages for different lessons. As a screenwriter, if you’re struggling because you can’t find resources that you can use as models. If you’re trying to tell your story, yet you have no references or no role models, screenplays or stories out there, it’s a good thing. It’s a terrifying thing, but it means it hasn’t been done. You’ve just got to keep on twisting it and massaging it until it finally works. Like I said, so many times I thought I should just give up on that story. I’m glad I didn’t.
As a director of photography, I’ve learned always have a really, really solid right-hand guy. Before I didn’t have that and I was physically exhausted every day. My guy…his name is Nick Burress. An amazing guy. Super smart brain.
This allows you to focus on the creative versus the technical?
Yeah. I just let him have the technical. Those guys were laying on it. I wasn’t assuming it. I made sure that I had my control moments too, training them over a couple of months to make sure they were right. We did tests. I made sure that the night before our first day, I could sleep. I need sleep.
As a director, I think I’m learning every time to trust more in the moment. I’m affirmed of the value of rehearsals earlier. We didn’t talk about scenes on set. We talked about blocking and some of the technical stuff, but we didn’t have to go back and say, “Remember, in this case, you’re thinking this because this just happened.” I had said everything about the film a million times, on the phone. We said it a million times over dinners at the house as a group and on one-on-one. We said it over and over and over, so there was nothing to talk about.