For this week’s column, I was inspired by fellow Film Threat writer Hammad Zaidi’s excellent Going Bionic column as well as a conversation I had with filmmaker Jon Keeyes (SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE, LIVING & DYING) late last week. Zaidi’s column is just the kind of no-hysteria allowed information on filmmaking from every damn angle someone that has actually been through the wars has experienced. No hype, just reasonable facts and suggestions. I think it’s great. And I had acted on a friend’s suggestion to speak to Keeyes about my pending moviemaking endeavors – maybe to see if business could be done together, but really just to talk to someone that is as nice and generous with his time and insight as he is accomplished behind the camera.
And Keeyes was great. I had previously had the pleasure of doing PR stuff for his film, LIVING AND DYING during the first edition of the DALLAS International Film Festival and the conversation picked up easily from that time. He was helpful, supportive and gave me at least one more week of not thinking I was completely insane for trying to make the film or not a complete idiot for the way I’m trying to make it.
So, reflecting on that, I recalled that I had recently had similar conversations with other filmmakers – only with me fulfilling the role of info-giver thanks to my film festival public relations career. I often give advice to filmmakers on how to navigate or even dive in those waters in the first place and I often receive screeners of films that I pass along to the programming teams at the festivals I am associated with.
All three are women – two with feature length films (Alison Mason and Kristina Wong) and a third with a short and web series (Joy Gohring). All three were good friends of mine whose talent as artists and filmmakers I was well aware of, but all three were in that position of either just about to try the film festival go-round, or take a swipe at TV land success for the first time. So I had an opportunity to explore some things with each of them that I know all filmmakers at this stage go through (and not just the women).ALISON MASON
I met Alison during my first year doing PR for AFI FEST in 2006. She shot interviews that year for Current TV and we hit it off immediately as I coordinated her segments with the filmmakers she chose to do profiles on. Not long after she had sent me the script for a drama called FINDING JENUA. The film is about a young woman on the run from herself that finds temporary – or maybe a more lasting refuge with an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s that believes she is her daughter.
It took the kind of go-for-broke dedication and personal financial commitments to make the film that one expects of a true-indie production. It’s personal, intimate in almost every way with characters that are genuinely authentic – The kind of film that I can easily see screening for appreciative film festival audiences that want an alternative to big bombastic megaplex movies.
What was the inspiration for the story of FINDING JENUA?
My husband and I moved into a house – to sort of house sit – after the owner had been put into a nursing home for dementia/Alzheimer’s. The house was fully furnished, but all of her pictures and personal belongings were put into one room of the house. This really affected me, imagining this woman sitting in one room of a nursing home while her life’s memories sat in another. My imagination went wild and FINDING JENUA was born.
Speaking of the fact that the film features a character living with Alzheimer’s, what did you do to strike a balance between presenting the effects of that condition accurately versus keeping the emphasis on the film’s story and plot?
I didn’t focus so much on the disease, but I did do a little research about Alzheimer’s while marinating on the story. I would just sit and imagine the frustration, anger and fear that I would feel if my memory were to fade – especially after living a really long life -then thinking of how many of us run away from our memories while they’re intact. Our two main characters represent these two aspects of memory loss. I guess it’s fair to say that I focused on story.
You demonstrate an assured touch behind the camera here. Is that because this type of material (and yes, we know you wrote it) is easy for you to access and translate to the screen? Or do you think that came more from the fact that you personally had been developing this project for some time before you actually shot it?
Thanks, but I can’t all take the credit here. We had amazing actors who really got the material and a very, very, very small crew. Okay, we had no “crew”, just a few friends.
An environment like that really nurtures the creative process. We weren’t afraid to fail because we trusted each other (and nobody was watching) and we all really wanted this. Not to mention the fact that I had been trying to make this film for years and years. And years. The characters were vivid – alive and kicking in my head. And I did do some acting back in the day, so everything just rolled.
It is an intimate drama shot on an appropriately modest scale. So, bearing that in mind, what was the biggest challenge in making this movie?
An appropriately modest scale, as you put it, was the biggest challenge. I like that. Sounds fancier than no budget.
But, because we didn’t have any money, I did most of the pre-production solo – which required a lot of begging. And because we weren’t really crewed, production was challenging because you can’t really think about lunch when you’re in the middle of a scene. But, I will say that post production was another giant hurdle. Finding finishing funds (back to begging). So I guess the entire filmmaking process offered up its own pile of unique and face twitching challenges. The crazy thing is, I’m ready to do it again.
This is not a stereotypically commercial film. What did you use as your selling points to secure investors? How much of your own money was put into making the film?
It’s not a blockbuster, you’re right, but the script was optioned for seven consecutive years and had A-listers attached, but for whatever reason it never got off the ground. So my husband, Brian (who plays Bill in the film) and I took out a loan and just did it. It was time. We were fortunate enough to be able to do that because our families were behind us cheering us on (and also co-signing loans).
Being that there aren’t big movie stars in the cast, crazy CGI effects or exotic locations in the film, what demanded the most of your budget?
Post production. It was a doozie. I thought when I finished physical production, I could coast through post. Nah. Again, we go back to the limited budget. Which required even more begging. I mean you can’t really go to an editor or composer and say, hey, score my film for a pie? (I actually did secure an expensive location by calling daily and showing up with a pie.) Luckily, we found some amazing people who believed in the project- like Brian Dreyfuss, Dan at Anarchy Post in Burbank – and our post sound mixer, Christian Schaanning. But, seriously post will kick your a*s if you’re not ready for it.
Yep, we’re buying our festival lottery tickets and crossing our fingers. I think there is a market for the film. I know there is. It’s just getting it out there and because we’re broke and can’t advertise, we’re going the festival route. I hope we get into some good festivals so we can celebrate our hard work and the hard work of other filmmakers.
I think it’s really important to have raw and real films in the world and for people to have access to them. I mean films that engage us, challenge and shift us. And because FINDING JENUA deals with memory loss, love and finding your place in the world, I think a solid festival tour is in our future. And hey, if I have to tour the country and sell DVD’s out of my trunk, I will. But God, I hope it doesn’t come to that.
Have the ambitions for the film changed or evolved from when you first conceived and wrote the script to the actual filming of it to its current status?
Yes. The market crashed while we were in post-production. This changed everything, but we didn’t know it at the time. We completed the film and tried to get it out there. Dramas were not flying. At all. So we sat on it for a while and decided to re-cut the movie. Since the film deals with memories, we cut it ala MEMENTO (don’t worry, it’s not nearly as confusing). The thought of going back into post was a recurring nightmare. But, the re-cut was a much better movie, so we owed it to the film and to everyone who worked on it to go for it, yet again. I’m really proud of the film and really glad that we’re finally finished!
The current cut of the film is a little over an hour. Knowing that could make for a tricky programming challenge (how to slot it in a screening program) due to length, how much do you consider the film to still be a work in progress versus the vision you originally had for it?
A work in what?! What?! No, we’re done! This isn’t what I intended when I wrote the script and shot the film, but we rolled with things. And I do have to say that this is the film that I wanted to make. It’s about the essence of the story. Does it accomplish what I set out to do? Yes!
Is everything focused on “completing the ride” with FINDING JENUA or have you moved on to other projects? Or are you trying to do both at the same time?
I’m gearing up for the next film already. It’s a mental illness or something. That being said, I’m looking forward to throwing my hands up on the last loop of the FINDING JENUA roller coaster.
Joy Gohring is funny. And smart in that way that she could play Spock in that three level game of chess thing that he would do. I met her after I was recruited to bang a drum and get some attention for the largely ignored Directing Workshop for Women at AFI. Her short film, 18, was screening as part of the showcase of the participants’ work, but the organization had little desire to promote them when there was serious work to be done ensuring that all outgoing documents were utilizing the proper font.
Anyway, Joy’s film about a young girl dealing with the responsibility of removing her mother from life support displayed the kind of nuance, balance and restraint you would never expect from someone that wasn’t simply a comedienne, but a take-no-prisoners comedienne at that. And now, a couple years removed, she’s about to start dancing with some potential suitors looking to bring her 80s style sci-fi comedy web series, DATE A HUMAN to television. It’s clever, accessible day-glo comedy – just the thing to balance the crime procedural stranglehold on our remotes.
What is the current status with DATE A HUMAN?
We have several people who are interested – studios and production companies that have approached us to turn it into a TV show. And we are about to go out with it and take meetings.
What was the original inspiration and intention for doing the project?
Originally, I’d say I love having female leads and I wanted to do either a female buddy comedy or something with a female lead. And one of my friends, Jason Nash, said he had just done a web series. And I asked him, “What is that all about?” He told me where to go, mentioned a couple different outlets and distributors.
I found out that one of them, Babelgum, had just hired a friend of mine, Amber J. Lawson. So, I asked her what they were looking for. And she said, “We’re looking for ‘lady topics’ (They actually have a section called ‘lady topics’), and we’re also looking for sci-fi.” I am a big sci-fi fan along the lines of MARS ATTACKS or GALAXY QUEST and, of course STAR WARS. I also love post-apocalyptic stuff.
So, I told her I would get together with the three people I write with (Paul Malewitz, Bill Weissbaum and Matt Rk) and bring back three ideas. So the four of us came up with ten ideas which we narrowed down to three and then I took those to Amber J. And she ended up picking DATE A HUMAN.
How have the ambitions for the project changed (if at all) from that time to where you are now?
Well, my ambition initially was that I wanted t do something that was better than what was already on the Internet. Because of my production history, I knew that things could look better and I knew that by shooting digitally, it wouldn’t take a lot of money. Because I knew the cinematographers that could do it. So, one of my ambitions was to make it look like something that SHOULD be on TV.
It’s still the Internet because the scripts, the stories lent them self to being on the Internet. It’s 3 to 4 minutes, so it’s got a quick little beginning, middle and end, whereas, obviously, TV would be 22 minutes or 30 minutes where you can get into the characters a little bit more than you can with these.Let’s talk about the female-centric aspect of this. Why, for you, is there so much focus on doing female stories and working with other women?
That’s a good question. When you say “female-centric”, I guess what I mean isn’t that the humor is female-centric, because it’s not. I wanted a female lead that crossed over between female and male audiences – that’s what I love. And I’m a woman, so what do I know better than female stories? That doesn’t mean I can’t tell a man’s story, but I feel like you should do what’s close to your heart and what you know. I was part of a comedy team for five years with another woman and we had a great deal of success – so I know that genre.
I think women can be competitive across the board, but I don’t consider myself one of those people. When another woman succeeds it just makes it easier for me to succeed, you know?
Because you can take her?
Because I’m scrappy. Also, I’m telling a different kind of woman’s story. She’s unsuccessful at love. I’m telling an everywoman’s story. So, I’m telling the story of a woman that I know.
You’ve told me previously about the “kismet” nature of how all of this came together. But fill me in on the difference between doing this and making your short film, 18. What was the difference in the struggle to get either one made?
Honestly, they were so similar. I really feel like they were so similar. I shot 18 in five days and I shot DATE A HUMAN in five days.
I’ve head people say so many times, “Why are you doing a short? Do a feature.” And I feel, why do a short when you can do a web series? I mean, if you have an outlet, someone is giving you a platform to screen your material then why are you doing a short?
I almost don’t do shorts anymore unless someone is going to pay me to do them. When someone approaches me to direct a short, I ask, “Why are you doing this?” But it keeps getting easier, but not. 18 was hard because it was the first time I had done something on that level, where you’re doing something like that for $20,000 and then you’re doing something similar for just a little bit more money for a web series AND people are going to see it. I mean, it’s so much cheaper than going to film festivals with my short film. I can’t afford to do that. I’d love to travel around the world, but that’s expensive. I mean people could see my short online, but I don’t want people to see 18 online. It’s meant to be seen in a theatre, whereas DATE A HUMAN is meant to be seen online. The shots for 18 are meant to be seen in a theater. They’re farther away, they’re longer takes, emotional moments, etc.
What do you personally bring to the writing/directing jobs, having been an actress and performer yourself? Was there anything new to that dynamic you discovered through either of those projects?
Being a director, after having been an actor, you realize that (in my case) I’ve been an overachieving actor and I’ve been an underachieving actor. As the director, I feel I have to know everything. How to answer every question. When an actor says, “I don’t understand this scene. What am I supposed to be doing?” You better have an answer. Or you’ll be wasting time and money and your film is going to be all over the place. What I really got out of it is that every single moment has to be completely thought out.
I met the force of personality known as Kristina Wong through my wife, Justina. Friends from the L.A. theatre scene (my wife ran a space on Theatre Row in Hollywood for years and Kristina performed at her theatre), Justina had convinced me to go see Kristina’s signature stage show, WONG FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST early in our dating life which shows her confidence that the show would deliver the goods. And, of course, it did. I believe there is a state law requiring everyone of age residing in Los Angeles County to write and produce a one-man or one-woman show (yes, even I succumbed to the siren call once), but rare is it that the performer is able to crawl out of their navel long enough to do something that really resonates or doesn’t resort to scorching the earth of everyone they had come into contact previously in the name of entertaining as they make themselves the hero (at best) or attention suck (at worst) under a proscenium arch.
Not Kristina Wong. She’s got some fish to fry, some issues to confront, questions to explore and some laughs to get. And she’ll do whatever she needs to do to cajole, convince or even command you to get in her head space – which isn’t simply the stage, it’s the entire theater. And now it’s the big screen. I don’t know many tougher challenges than filming a staged production without it looking like something that should be playing on a PBS station during a fund raising drive, but I think she (with aggressive and dynamic direction by Mike Closson) have achieved it here. It will be very interesting to see if the visceral reaction she gets live will translate to film audiences. I have to think that it will.
What was the original inspiration for the stage show itself?
It was 2005 and I was performing on the campus of Wellesley College. If you know the Wellesley campus, you know that it is an all Women’s college near Boston and such a utopia for women to learn. It’s extremely safe. Women leave their bikes unlocked, there is this annual “Naked Party” that somehow doesn’t turn into a Girls Gone Wild orgy or bad date rape scenario, and the students all seem so worldly and well read. I went to UCLA which was a much more urban, way more impersonal campus and women were always warned to be “on alert” for crime. I kept thinking as I walked the campus how great and less depressing my college years would have been had I gone to Wellesley.
As I was walking around the campus lake with my student hosts, the conversation turned to the topic of suicide attempts at Wellesley and at other nearby colleges. And it struck me how impossible it felt that something so horrible could be happening in a place like that. I had remembered reading that Asian American women had some of the highest rates of depression and suicide and thought how just like Wellesley College, it felt so impossible that something so sick could be happening to women “so perfect.” Yet simultaneously, I think part of me instinctively understood why.
I was interested in doing a show about a problem that nobody wanted to talk about. But most importantly, I went into it with a total savior/martyr complex believing that I could save everyone’s life with a theater show. Easily, the worst attitude to enter a show with. And I ended up satirizing that savior persona in the show.
Why did you decide to do a film version?
As funny as I’ve been able to make the show, I was getting burnt out in the first few months and having nervous breakdowns on a weekly basis because I just couldn’t get used to the stamina required to travel and tour a show alone. Now, I’m a champ and can do a couple shows a day before I get tired, but still, it’s pretty tiring to do a show about depression and suicide for years and all by yourself.
I believe in the show and want the world to see it, but I’m pretty sure, even if I toured it for the next few years, I still wouldn’t reach most of the audience that would potentially love to see it. I initially resisted the idea of putting the show on film because I can be such a “purist” when it comes to theater and think that theater on film NEVER EVER looks or feels the same on camera. But Mike proved me wrong. What we made is a very compelling piece of cinema that really captures the energy of the live show.
How long had you been performing it before you decided to film it?
Two years. I continue to tour the show now in its fourth year, though I’ve had to slow down touring that show because I’m making two new shows now.
How did you choose Mike Closson to direct it?
Mike has been a long time fan and a huge supporter of my work. On his first date with his wife Nancy, he took her to my show! That’s dedication! I’m a big believer in working with people who care about you as a person and Mike is perhaps one of the sweetest, caring, thoughtful people in this town. Especially a show like this, that can be so personal and so sensitive, I really needed to work with a film director who was excellent at the filmmaking craft and also had a great sensitivity to the subject matter. Mike definitely was someone I could trust with my baby (the baby being this show!).
Mike had pushed me two years before when I was developing the show to let him film it, I finally relented. As a solo performer, I am constantly, always exhausted because I do EVERYTHING by myself. My booking, my marketing…. everything! So the prospect of taking on a film project made me dizzy. Just the copyright clearances alone made me nauseous. But Mike is an organized pro so all I had to do was show up and film it! And here we are now. Thanks Mike!
How did the collaboration work between the two of you – with him directing a show you’ve performed innumerable times all over the country?
Mike came to the earliest version of the show that was only 20 minutes long, he’s watched the show develop over the last five years and as a friend, witnessed a lot of my behind the scenes freak outs with writing and rewriting the show. We were constantly in conversation about how this could all work for camera. Mike would come to meetings with long lists of amazing ideas of where we could shoot, or how to rewrite sections for the camera. We had almost weekly meetings just coming up with ideas for how this very in-the-theater show could translate onto film.
We had multiple conversations about filming it on location. The impulse was there to want to shoot it all over the place because in film you have access to that. But what we found in every scenario of doing an on location shoot, we were taking away the power of the original narrative I had written. Getting too obsessed with hot-shot camera moves and bells and whistles like animation or fancy effects was actually taking away from the story. So we had to make careful decisions about how to shoot.
The show is pretty multimedia with all these projections and we just weren’t sure if the camera could handle it. We went back and forth for a while trying to figure out if we should experiment with filming the show in “real world” locations that weren’t the theater. We had thought about shooting in airports, lecture halls, even mental asylums… But in the end, it didn’t make sense to do that because so much of this show is about a character that is committed to saving everyone from suicide with a theater show, so it had to be shot in the theater.
Can you cite specific examples of films you thought that had done it well? And why did you think that film was successful?
I am a huge fan of Danny Hoch’s JAILS, HOSPITALS AND HIP-HOP, which takes his stage performance which is him on a bare stage and has him doing it in the actual locations he creates in his show. The film cuts between him performing on stage, him in Washington Square Park, etc. I think it’s successful because the film moves well and his performance is so unbelievably seamlessly tight.
What was the most difficult aspect of the process?
People have been telling me for years to put my shows on camera. I don’t think they realize just how hard it is to capture live theater performance for camera. And how much longer it takes to edit! We were in edits for about a year and a half!
As someone who is so used to doing this show live, it was really weird to do it with a camera all up in my face! I think it was hard for the audience to react the way they do in live shows with a jib arm swinging above them. We also had to stop in the middle of the shoot to adjust technical things. In live shows, you just keep going, the roller coaster doesn’t stop. So performing for film was tricky.
I also had a really hard time watching myself, especially during the rough cuts which I’m learning, always NEVER look good. The first few rough cut screenings I wanted to drown myself in the sink I had such a hard time watching myself. But Mike is pretty patient and would make constant adjustments. Now I can watch it without cringing because it looks fantastic.
Compare the filming process (and sometimes – struggle) to the development and rehearsal process you traditionally go through to put up one of your stage shows. What is similar? Where does is differ greatly?
What film and theater have in common is the tremendous amount of work behind the scenes that the audience never sees. Post-production and sitting for hours in the editing room is the biggest pain in the a*s! Rehearsals! Raising money! Marketing the product once it’s done. It’s a process that is so much more tedious to make than what the audience ever sees.
Sometimes I think film is easier because it goes up and then it’s out there forever. But sometimes I think theater is easier because it’s relatively less expensive to make an 80 minute show versus an 80 minute movie. Plus, if your audience doesn’t like you in theater, you can keep adjusting the performance. Unlike film…once the film is locked, it’s locked!
You are about to hit the film festival circuit with the film. What do you hope to accomplish by doing so?
The show has toured all over the country in over 50 engagements and yet, there are still so many people who are just hearing about it. I am so excited about broadening my audience and engaging more people in the subject matter of the show. I’ve been really excited that the live show has been received very well in cities like Tulsa and Homer, Alaska where there is virtually NO Asian American population. I think it really speaks to the show’s universal appeal because unfortunately, everyone’s depressed. I look forward to bringing the show to cities that couldn’t afford it live and eventually, making it available for home distribution.
Also, those film fest people love to party! I’m so looking forward to not having to freight a set across the country and instead, just show up at the festival and throw a beer back as I watch people watch me.
Has the experience so far made you eager to do another film or run back to the stage?
I love doing stage shows, but dammit, I’m getting really tired of all the running around! I look forward to getting in front of the camera more and striking a better balance in my life between live stage work and film work.