We make movies for different reasons. Sometimes it’s to tell a story, sometimes it’s to explore a subculture. Sometimes it’s to learn a new approach to storytelling. Or maybe you just want to make a damn film. My second feature, Alison, was a quickie movie, borne of the desire – perhaps the need – to make a movie when a larger budgeted project of mine seemed to stall.
Alison was created hastily when my other movie didn’t happen as intended. The energy and the frustration to shoot and direct were there, however, so I forged ahead and made a movie anyway. This is, it should be said, my usual process: My previous feature, the 35mm Sinkhole, was also created in this way – out of a need to forge ahead when a larger budgeted project didn’t happen.
This is not a bad way to be creative, actually: Backup projects – B projects – are often the best kind. That’s how Bruce Springsteen came up with his heralded, low-fi Nebraska; that’s how Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange. His big-budget bio-pic Napoleon with Jack Nicholson had been cancelled for being too unweildy, and he just wanted to make a movie, dammit. So Clockwork became his quickie solution. To me, haste was not a bad concept.
But still, Alison was different. This movie was truly a quickie: conceived in May, we shot four days in June. We then took six weeks off to allow our DP to go and shoot another, previously-arranged film, and after an eight-day late August/early September shoot (twelve days in all), we were done.
Los Angeles Film Festival
Inspiration came from several sources: at the time I was intrigued by the roster of (the now defunct) Benten Films: Joe Swanberg’s LOL, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, and so on. Most of these films were classified as ‘mumblecore,’ and though that was a movement of sorts for a while (just as Dogme 95 had also been a movement) I knew all movements were doomed to fade away. But I liked the pattern – no hard script, feeling your way through a story. Improv in music was something I admired, and thought it would fun to explore the same thing in film. It usually led to interesting moments between actors.
Moments. That’s what I wanted: moments. The best movies in my opinion, were made up of great moments. Think Paul Thomas Anderson and his moments, or David Lynch, or Jesus’ Son’s odd, inexplicable moments – those living, breathing minutes onscreen where the dialogue and the action are not following preordained patterns, but rather feel alive, like the filmmakers were winging it as they went along. Like you truly did not know what would happen next. That’s what I was (and remain) interested in – moments. What is an excellent film, after all, but an accumulation of great moments?
So we set out to capture a movie full of moments. More inspiration: I’d met a young lady who’d just left her husband, and was going through a life crisis of sorts. She seemed so smart, so interesting (and okay, she was beautiful, too) that it caught my attention. But she was lost – she had no idea where to go, or what to do now. She just knew she needed to be away. I sensed there was a story somewhere in there.
The celebrated writer Raymond Carver had made a career out of marital discord, of unhappy people sitting around in apartments talking about failed dreams and mistaken expectations. That seemed to be where this story was headed – apartments and conversations are easy and cheap to shoot. I had a vague idea – a woman leaves her husband, lots of self-discovery, maybe trading in a certain status – sliding lower down the economic ladder – for happiness’ sake. It seemed like it could work. And the chick flick aspect of it intrigued me as well – as a male filmmaker, I’d never crafted a female lead character, and thought that it was a cool challenge.
Through my commercial work I’d met an actor named Lauren Fortuna who seemed to do everything right: She was smart, she was funny, she was nice, the camera loved her. Following Gus Van Sant’s Zen-like advice (“First thought, best thought”) my initial inclination was to approach her and get her in this movie somehow. And when we met, she told me she was interested, but there was one wrinkle: She was pregnant. She was camera-ready now, but soon she would be huge. And tired a lot. And grumpy, as many pregnant women – with good reason – seem to be.
The question now was, forge ahead or find someone new? I liked Lauren a lot – a whole lot. She had charisma, dedication, and years of experience. Lots of folks (including me) thought she was the best actor in town. And my larger project had taken so long precisely because of the development and the casting – we were chasing ‘names’ (and we got them, too) – but I didn’t want that elongated, sometimes years-long process for this movie. This one was from the heart –we were supposed to feel our way through the immedicay of it. And my gut was telling me to forge ahead with Lauren.
“But it felt wrong; the first day back, we were shooting a scene in a bar, and Lauren commented that it felt different; it felt staged and scripted. I didn’t catch it, but sure enough, the scene was very different, and didn’t end up in the film. We’d lost our way a bit, and had to struggle to refind it.”
In the spirit of the unscripted, emotional landscape of the movie, this meant our story was now about a pregnant lady. To aid the improvisation, of course, I asked the actors not to mention pregnancy, the word ‘pregnant,’ or anything about it (inevitably, it did creep in here and there, however). Our primary MO was to pretend that the pregnancy was not happening, or not an issue. As viewers we would just see that she’s pregnant, and allow that to add another layer onto her dilemma. Anyone who’s parented a child knows that it immediately throws everything else into perspective; suddenly, the child is everything. So we didn’t have to belabor that point. We just let it be.
After I had found our actors, I prepped them for the improv approach. All of them were trained in theatre, aside from one of our actors, and he had had intensive onscreen experience, so I knew that they could carry a scene without a net, so to speak. We knew where the scene would go, we knew what we wanted, but I encouraged the actors to get there by their own means – to surprise each other.
After our break (we took six weeks off, which of course allowed Lauren to develop her rotund physique a bit more) and came back to shoot, I had a tiny addition to our plan: I had had the time to work out a rough plot, with a minimal script to get us there. But it felt wrong; the first day back, we were shooting a scene in a bar, and Lauren commented that it felt different; it felt staged and scripted. I didn’t catch it, but sure enough, the scene was very different, and didn’t end up in the film. We’d lost our way a bit, and had to struggle to refind it.
But we trusted our gut and persevered. It was fun sitting back and watching the actors go at it without a detailed map. It seemed to really free them, allowing them to go off the page and innovate in their performances. And since they really did not know what was going to happen next, it required them to be more in the moment (just like real life). Thus we were able to get some stellar performances in what is essentially a tiny film.
About that tiny-ness: it was intentional – I wanted it tiny. I wanted to experiment, to have room to play. With my larger movie looming (which, as of this writing, natch, has still not come to fruition), and another acclaimed movie behind me, I felt I had my ‘filmmaker’s splash’ covered. I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking to increase my own skill as a director at getting out of the actors’ way and achieving great performances. Poor performances, as you know, are usually the hallmark of low budget indies, and I wanted to escape that; I wanted to show my actors off a bit.
It paid off. Lauren was voted Best Actress at the inaugural Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. At that same fest, we also received Best Director, Best Screenplay (for a film essentially without a script!), and 2nd Best Film overall. Someone there evidently liked us.
All in all, however, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in our festival run; perhaps my ‘tiny film’ mantra worked against us. Many of the top-tier fests liked us (we came very close to premiering at Rotterdam, Tribeca and SXSW) but were in the end rejected by those fests looking for splashier, larger films. The tiny improv thing, I believe, doesn’t work as well as it could when festivals need some mojo of their own; they like a buzz, and Alison, for some reason, did not buzz well.
Since then the movie has been rediscovered, however – several 2nd tier fests loved it, and the people who dig what we were trying to do really like it. So we feel vindicated for what was, essentially, a quick and cheap experiment.
As for me, I’m still waiting on that larger film to materialize. And in the meantime, I’m in development on yet another smart, cult-worthy indie. A bigger, splashier, buzzier indie.
Paul Schattel’s Bio:
An award-winning writer/director, Paul was originally trained as a journalist before turning to filmmaking. His 35mm feature debut, “Sinkhole,” was accepted in the IFP Feature Program, picked up by Shoreline Entertainment for their Watermark label, and has been distributed in countries all over the world. He is presently in development on several films, including the Appalachian horror tale “The Mourning Portrait,” the feminist revenge thriller “Your Ass is Grass,” and the contemporary dark fantasy, “Old Exit One.” Paul has directed and/or photographed countless musical acts, including Yo La Tengo, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Charlie Louvin, and moe., and has worked with clients like Moog Music, the BBC, The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and more.