Improvised Anxiety: On the Rocks is a Painfully Hilarious Microbudget Feature

Incredibly uncomfortable and relentlessly hilarious, On the Rocks, the first feature from Alex Kavutskiy and Ariel Gardner, is a tragicomedy of epic proportions.

The story of Dallas (Chase Fein), a mild-mannered man whose life starts to fray at the edges when a deluge of family trouble befalls him, including the death of his father, the arrival of annoying in-laws and the manipulations of his needy wife, Karen (Nichole Bagby), a wannabe nurse. While Dallas struggles with bouts of alcoholism and self-destruction, and Karen tries to be a better person, the film becomes a testament to the myriad relationships in our lives, no matter how unpleasant and suffocating they may be.

The jokes in On the Rocks come so fast and thick, it might be surprising to learn that the film was almost entirely improvised. Kavutskiy and Gardner perfected their improv chops over a range of web-series and short films, including “Judy,” which played at Fantastic Fest 2016, and “Kill the Baby,” a Vimeo Staff Pick. On the Rocks itself was adapted from a 2013 short of the same name, in which Fein, Bagby and other feature cast members like Kate Freund appeared as well.

Kavutskiy and Gardner spoke to MovieMaker about their own creative partnership, the process of crafting their first feature-length film on a minuscule budget and how they finally, arduously got On the Rocks to the public.

Chase Fein and Nichole Bagby in On the Rocks

Ryan Williams, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did your creative partnership begin?

Ariel Gardner (AG): When I was a kid, my brother and I would hang out and make movies together in our backyard. I think Alex took a video class in middle school, and he and his brother would do the same. We met somewhere around high school; we’d hang out after school and make videos. I went off to college in San Francisco and, around that time, Alex figured out that he wanted to write scripts. He’d send me scripts while I was in school that I thought were really funny. In college, we’d make stuff whenever we found the opportunity, with Alex driving all of the way up to San Francisco or whenever I’d come back to L.A.

MM: How soon after college did you come to make short films, like “Kill the Baby” and your initial version of “On the Rocks?”

Alex Kavutskiy (AK): After Ariel moved back to L.A., we found out about this series called Channel 101 [founded by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab]. It’s a monthly live screening of mini TV shows, where you submit your work and the audience votes on what they want to come back. We thought that it was just the best, so we just started making as much as we could for it. Eventually, we made the short for “On the Rocks,” which didn’t get voted back—but we decided to make it a feature anyways. “Kill the Baby” did get voted back numerous times, so that’s what we worked on the whole year.

MM: What was your process of transitioning from short filmmaking to feature-length filmmaking? Why did you choose “On the Rocks” to expand to feature length?

AK: We considered a bunch of different shorts to adapt. “On the Rocks,” when compared to something like “Kill the Baby,” was the least premise-y thing we had done. It wasn’t a gimmick, just actual people interacting. The dynamic between Karen and Dallas, which was so fun to do in the short, felt like it had unlimited potential. If you have a lot of these ideas coming in, it’s a good step toward making a feature.

AG: Also, we had zero resources. This was the one idea we had that was within our world of resources. We had a few locations and the cast and crew, which was all that we could afford.

AK: “On the Rocks” was the one short where we thought we could set scenes up, do long takes and knock off entire scenes at a time. Looking back, it was, financially, the only option.

MM: A lot of the cast in the feature appeared in the short. Can you talk about casting other actors for the feature, and your crew?

AK: J.D. Lifshitz at [production company] BoulderLight Pictures saw “Kill the Baby” and said, “Any feature you guys want to make, we will fund it.” They had a little bit of money to give. We didn’t know the producers going in, except for a friend of Ariel’s who provided some funding. Going into it, we cast all our friends.

AG: All of the crew was from Channel 101 and, except for a few stand-up comedians that we knew, so was the cast.

AK: The writing process was also fit to actors that we knew. Everyone was just ready to go. Our conversations went like, “Hey, I wrote you a part.” “Cool, I’ll be there.” It was the same with crew. We worked with our DP, Nate Cornett, that we always work with, as well as our composer, Jason Castillo. I think it was our second time working with the production designer [Ester Song Kim].

MM: How did you create an environment in which improvisation still fit the needs of the characters and the overall story structure that you desired?

AK: We wrote an outline—outlining the story is most of writing, anyway. We knew what was happening in every scene, how each scene started, how each scene ended and what chunks in the middle we needed. We worked with the actors and tried to create a fun environment where, if someone did something that wasn’t interesting or even very good, it was fine and it would never be on the screen. We also had a lot of rehearsal time, which helped with finding lines and moments that we liked. It’s a really fun way to work.

AG: Most of writing dialogue is just trying to capture the way someone speaks. When you just allow the actor to say it in their own voice, they react to each other in a very natural way and respond to what the other person is saying.

AK: It’s almost like cheating. You’ll be sitting there trying to figure out how to make this line of dialogue realistic. It just feels forced. But then you get some seasoned actors in there to put it in their own words, and it just seems really natural.

AG: Our strengths come from putting together stories that play on beats and allow actors to thrive in the improv style. I think that other first-time directors may rely on a more visual style, but ours is definitely more dialogue-driven.

AK: I think that every director has the same arc with actors—you write out the words and ask actors to say them but you need them to say it exactly as it appears on the page. Then, when you get more comfortable with actors, you are more willing to let actors do what they want; to watch a scene in rehearsal, be open to new ideas and build off what you learn. The more confident you are in the core ideas of your screenplay, the more comfortable you are finding new discoveries—as opposed to when you are just starting out, like us. I think we initially thought, “This word has to be right here or else it won’t make sense,” but that’s just not true.

Dallas (Fein) and Karen (Bagby) have differing views on how to spend an evening in On the Rocks

MM: Can you talk us through some of your primary influences and how you were able to pull from them to craft your own work?

AK: Our primary influence was actually Stella, which is a show on Comedy Central [created by Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain]. It’s my favorite show of all time. It’s absurdist humor but it’s also this very well-structured, very film-literate style of comedy. All of our early shorts were these silly, meta film parodies. Our favorite directors are these fun, cinematic filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Robert Altman, Woody Allen. Sometimes we’ll steal little moments, but mostly, it’s about finding the tone. In fact, our main influence for On the Rocks was Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. We went for similar jump cuts and had the camera chasing the actors, which both felt so exciting.

AG: We’ve been watching a lot of David O. Russell movies lately, like The Fighter. He gets these really great grounded but really wild performances by working class people. We were marrying Woody Allen’s New York intellectuals to David O. Russell’s family-oriented chaos.

AK: When we communicate on set or when writing, it’s so easy to have this catalog of movies in our heads to reference. It’s way easier to say, “This character is like Chris Klein in Election” than have to describe someone who is “kind of naïve, sweet; we like him, but also kind of dumb.” It’s just way quicker. Eventually, when we put all of these things together, a new style will emerge.

MM: The film has a really unique comedic timing that feels in debt to the editing. Did you have this in mind when you shot it or did you find this more in post-production as the editor, Ariel?

AG: It was really built in to the tone how fast-paced the editing was going to be. The original cut was like three hours long so we had to cut that way down. We also come from a background of cramming 10-minute stories into a five-minute span so we used that mentality when editing. The very instant that a joke isn’t funny anymore or you’re not getting any more information, I cut away from that frame.

AK: There’s obviously a story there that we need to cover in editing but other than that, it’s a lot of trial and error. Sometimes cutting here makes a later joke even better. The downside of this is how many options we end up having for the film. Eventually, we got the film down to an hour and 40 minutes, and it felt too long. Trimming just 10 minutes off made the movie feel perfect. We also had an 87-minute cut too.

AG: In the 87-minute cut, all of the room to breathe in the individual moments was cut. So I had to go back through and restore everything. At this point, I’ve seen [the 90-minute version] like 70 times, so anything we had to cut has been replaced by a new or alternate idea. I can’t regret anything anymore.

AK: We did cut a storyline with a doctor who was low on money and kept trying to get Dallas to donate to his AIDS walk. It’s weird because, when you watch the scene by itself, it seems funny. But when you watch the film with the scene intact, it feels way too long. Just one of those things.

MM: What were your experiences shooting on a low budget in Los Angelesgetting permits, finding locations, etc.?

AK: We didn’t have any permits, this was all shot illegally. We stole the Palm Springs location, we stole the Ralph’s location and we stole the bus location. Locations were just what Ariel and I could get or what any of the producers’ family members had. I really don’t know what it’s like to make a movie with any semblance of a budget. I don’t really think anyone on set knew what that was like.

AG: I’m pretty sure every person on the cast and crew was working on their first feature film. Maybe there was a veteran actor in there…

Dallas at his father’s funeral in On the Rocks

MM: Can you tell us the budget for your film? Roughly how were the funds distributed across the production?

AK: The budget was $40,000 but I have no clue if that’s how much we spent. Ariel and I were paid nothing but we did our best to pay the cast and crew. We got the equipment as a favor.

AG: I think we rented the lens.

AK: A bit was spent on the color pass. We flushed the money down the toilet with festivals.

AG: The majority of the money was spent on cast and crew—and we didn’t even pay them enough. I feel like once you pay your cast and crew, then you’re struggling to find anything after that.

AK: We didn’t have enough for a real sound mix. We adapted the style of the movie to fit the budget, though. We planned it pretty well and didn’t have to lose any scenes. It would certainly have been nice if we had more money. That’s for the next movie. For first-time filmmakers, you’ve got to be resourceful. Get as much as you can possibly get made and show it to as many people as you can. We said yes to a lot of dumb things, signed a lot of dumb things, just to get this made.

AG: Don’t be afraid to make dumb decisions because those dumb decisions are the only way your movie is going to get made

AK: And it’s fine because, next movie, we’ll have fewer dumb decisions. We’ll just have new dumb decisions.

MM: What advice do you have for independent filmmakers seeking distribution for their films?

AK: Our distributor isn’t doing very much; they upload it to iTunes, but they’re not promoting it. We got a theatrical release at the Laemmle in Los Angeles in February through Ariel’s dad, which started on a Friday and ended on a Thursday. We were promoting it ourselves, however, and it was a really great week. When you’re a first-time filmmaker, don’t just see the word “distributor” and be impressed. Actually know what you’re doing. If they just upload the movie to iTunes, know that you can do that yourself.

AG: If you’re making a movie with no stars, then good luck finding a distributor—not just an aggregator. If you can find one, then take what you can get. MM

On the Rocks is now available on Amazon Video, iTunes and other On Demand platforms.