Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is my first intentional ensemble film.
It’s a persistent truth that the films you make teach you the kind of films you want and need to make, the ones you will make, and also how to make them. I’ve always been a cinephile, but was never particularly huge on ensemble films (or coming-of-age films, for that matter). But nevertheless, here we are.
The Wise Kids, a prior, well-reviewed film of mine, follows the journey of five characters over the course of a year, while Black Box tells the story not just of an MFA grad student and her favorite author, but also several undergrads trying to find themselves during college. Each of these films became what they became out of my inability—and more importantly, unwillingness—to choose a main character. And so I learned that the kinds of films I most love to make, at least for the time being, are ensemble movies. I didn’t know that before. I had to make movies to learn it.
Which brings me to Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, my 86-minute eighth feature, a film that follows 20 characters over the course of a birthday pool party for Henry, the queer son of a preacher. The son of a Southern Baptist pastor myself, what made viewing this particular world through an ensemble prism so particularly important to me was the fact that I would have the opportunity to simultaneously do justice to not only the conservative evangelicals I held dear growing up, but also the non-Christian, un-churched friends of mine who helped nurture the questioning, curious me as an older teenager. Furthermore, in a film culture that tends to treat Christians as one-dimensional cartoons, the opportunity to tell the story of not one or two multifaceted, three-dimensional Christian characters, but 18 of them (not counting Henry’s “secular” friends Heather and Christine), was challenging, deeply personal, and beyond exciting.
I began the writing process by making a list of both real people I had known growing up the son of an evangelical pastor, but also general descriptions of the types of people I would run into on occasion, whether it be the slightly melancholy 30-something man who lived with his parents or the saucy, half-churched friend of a more conservative teenage girl. I used this list as both a springboard and a consistent reference as I immersed myself in the evangelical world anew. It’s important to note, however, that not a single character in the film is literally, wholly autobiographical, just as I wasn’t literally raised in a megachurch in the Midwest. (I grew up in medium-sized Southern churches, pre-megachurch era, which makes The Wise Kids, at least geographically, the more literally autobiographical of my evangelical films). These movies are amalgams of biographical inspiration and imagination.
The script-writing process, which took place between November 2013 and May 2014, became primarily a matter of ironing. I tend to finish first drafts very quickly, and then spend months whipping them into fluid, believable shape, sometimes even well into casting (or after, a dilemma I could write an entire other essay about). Knowing I wanted to give all 20 characters their due, but that I would not be able to absorb all the script problems at once, each time I went back and read it (and I did this many, many times) I would notice an emotional gap that needed to be filled for one character or another. It’s in this rewriting that much of the final ensemble work was taken care of. I knew that if I went into casting with a relatively complete narrative picture already on the page, successfully pulling off the final vision would be more likely.
At the risk of stating the boringly obvious, casting is everything when attempting to pull off an ensemble narrative. I’ve received a lot of questions on the festival circuit about how I pulled off so many POVs in such a relatively brief amount of time, something that was not easy by any means. (Some question whether I fully succeeded; even I do, at times, though I hope I did.) The truth is that there is no magic. If the emotional arcs are on the page and the cast is skillful, 75-80 percent of the work is complete. What remains is significant, however: the last 20-25 percent of work, on set and in post-production, that will go towards sealing the deal, not to mention the philosophical implications of broadcasting 20 moral vantage points at once.
There is the oft-stated line amongst filmmakers and educators that “editing is the final rewrite,” but I maintain that casting is the next-to-final rewrite. I rely on the casting process (led on HGBP, as on my past few films, by Mickie Paskal and Jennifer Rudnicke of Paskal Rudnicke Casting in Chicago) to reveal new things to me about the script, and, as is often the case, to challenge my preconceived notions as to who the characters are and how they behave. This is especially true when putting together a cast of characters largely intended to evoke genuine, dyed-in-the-wool red state conservatism. By casting multifaceted, intelligent, dynamic actors in those roles, what could otherwise have become a condescending portrait of “middle American” evangelicals has the potential to become just as dazzlingly diverse as any other community portrait. It’s during casting that anyone’s film begins to sing, but it’s when an ensemble’s particular polyphony, especially, starts to reverberate and resound.
Once production has begun, faith in the ensemble becomes even more vital, and indeed it can’t be overstated how far trust in the actors will take a filmmaker striving toward a unified, polyphonic narrative. Much like a conductor and her orchestra, the director is required, impossibly, to think about everyone at once, but each individual craftsperson has the power, privilege and responsibility to nurture their own role.
In this joined mindfulness, the second half of the ensemble work can commence. If the film is scheduled appropriately, the shooting days will be tight but may also allow for a certain amount of breathing room in the area of scene work. On HGBP, it was important that, even while building the shots and texture with DP Jason Chiu, I was always thinking about the emotional journey of the characters. This can become too much to tackle if you’re literally trying to think about everyone at once. But—and in many ways this is the most important phase of the entire process—if you take it scene by scene, making sure that each character, however seemingly insignificant, is as alive and emotionally full as possible, then the scenes in editing will add up to, hopefully, an embarrassment of riches.
Take the character of Bonnie Montgomery, the repressed, uptight, slightly masculine mother of Grace and wife of Larry. From the birth of the idea, I knew that it would be a particular challenge for Bonnie not to come off as a one-dimensional caricature. She was someone who was conceived to be a bit broader, but not in an unreal way; she was conceived to be broad in the same way a percentage of any population or community is, either in belief, behavior or psychology. She could easily have become a laughing stock of a supporting player, though, so with each rewrite, I tried to make sure she was given smaller moments of depth that would culminate in a complete and total portrait. Whether it’s secretly eyeing the flirtatious Cheyenne (Zoe Tyson) as the younger woman removes her shirt to swim, or spontaneously bursting into tears for no apparent reason, these moments needed to exist for the masterful Hanna Dworkin to have layers to swim around in.
In my previous films, I’ve tended to overshoot the picture and find the correct ensemble balance in post-production. There are about an hour’s worth of deleted scenes from The Wise Kids, and about half-an-hour’s worth from Black Box. This is partially due to the fact that, again, I either succeeded or failed to decide on a main character. With HGBP, I strove to get the script tight enough so that I wouldn’t end up with loads of excess footage. As a result, while editing was vital to the rhythm and flow of the film, the ensemble balance was largely complete upon wrap. Though, if I may contradict myself, deciding when and where to cut to a close-up or knowing glance was one of the most important tasks in staying faithful to the even-keeled ensemble nature of the film, and I was grateful my production team scheduled enough time to catch those glances.
Just as the films you make teach you the kinds of films you want to make, so too do they teach you why you make them. It’s no coincidence, ultimately, that I’m making both ensemble films and semi-autobiographical films about evangelical America, and the characters who come and go as we come of age. These are all people, despite their faults and foibles, whom I cherish to this day. Ultimately, an ensemble film has the power to beam a multitude of souls and their individual points-of-view, emotions, desires, secrets and deepest hurt, out of the screen and onto the audience, binding us in a distinctly apolitcal empathy. MM
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is available On Demand and on DVD from May 3, 2016, courtesy of Wolfe Video.