Two years of working on a movie—three weeks to prep it. How Jesse Zwick found himself making his directorial debut, the seven-person ensemble piece About Alex, with high-profile actors and no film school buddies to call upon for favors.
Writing a movie, not a script
A couple of years into my attempted life as a screenwriter—after several scripts had received the damning praise of being “good writing samples”—I became convinced that the best thing I could do for my career was to stop waiting for someone to hire me and, instead, write a very contained story that I could make on any budget. In other words, I decided to stop writing scripts and instead write a movie, and I wouldn’t stop hustling until I completed it.
I set out some parameters before I began writing, and ended up following a strategy employed by many small indies: restricting the number of locations, characters, and script days as much as humanly possible. I arrived at a story that would take place largely in one location over one weekend. That might sound overly clinical, but it actually dovetailed quite nicely with a story I had wanted to tell for some time—one about friendship, and the obligations contained therein, in a world where it’s easier than ever to make “friends” and stay in touch with them, but it’s unclear how accurate those “status updates” really are and what level of responsibility, if any, we have to dig deeper.
I started with a group of friends who had formed an intense bond at one point in their lives but had since scattered, and then instigated a traumatic event to force them back together under one roof. This had the dual benefit of provoking the kind of questions I wanted to ask, while still keeping my world small and contained. The claustrophobia of the single, remote location would be an ally to me, by denying each of the characters the ability to hide, and eventually helping break down the facades we all tend to wear, even among our closest friends.
Putting together the pieces
The movie needed a director and the idea that that person would be me wasn’t immediately obvious to me. On the one hand, I had written a small, personal story, and I felt I had a strong vision about who these characters were and what their world should look like. On the other hand, I had never directed anything before and was terrified that my lack of experience would royally screw up a script I was finally very happy with. In the end I concluded that—since directing was something I was eager to attempt—the opportunity to try my hand at it far outweighed the entailed risks. No one was going to let me direct a piece of material unless I had written it myself, and I wasn’t eager to go back to school for several years. I decided, for better or worse, that this project would be my film school.
Making the decision to direct was quite different, however, from convincing other people that I could pull it off. Luckily, I partnered with an independent producer named Adam Saunders who believed in my abilities and saw my deep familiarity with the script as an asset. Convincing actors, on the other hand, would prove trickier. A part of me would have been quite happy to cast seven talented unknowns and go off into the woods to shoot this movie, but Adam was convinced that the characters I had written could lure established actors, and he persuaded me to take a number of big shots. He and I compared lists and identified actors we both loved. I bent a little bit, at times, in the casting give-and-take, but I vowed never to make an offer to anyone purely because of his/her ability to get the movie financed. I knew the movie would live or die based on its ensemble cast and the illusion of deep, complicated, and shared histories that we would have to weave. One weak link or casting stunt was all it would take to send everything crashing down.
For months and months we made offers, and nothing happened. A number of actors expressed interest, only to shrink away. In an ensemble film with an untested director, making our first attachment proved maddeningly elusive. Each actor was justifiably concerned about who their six co-stars would be. The result was a prisoner’s dilemma scenario, with many talented actors circling but no one eager to make the first move. Finally, the logjam broke: Max Minghella and I sat down and he told me he loved the script and that I should tell him when and where to show up. His confidence in the project was hugely refreshing, and it proved a watershed moment. Other actors signed on quickly. Agents who hadn’t returned our calls a month prior began hounding me on my cell phone on behalf of their clients. In the span of a couple of weeks I went from one problem (no cast) to another, totally different one: seven very busy actors ready to make a movie in a narrow window of time that began in approximately three weeks.
Prepping like mad
I desperately needed more time. Three weeks was not nearly enough to hire all my department heads, find and secure our locations, and shot-list the movie. But a number of our actors came from ongoing successful careers in television and had “hard out-dates” set by the TV networks, so it was now or never. The task of hiring keys made me wish I’d gone to film school and befriended a cadre of people whose talent I trusted and personalities I loved. Instead I was starting from scratch, but luckily I was connected with Andre Lascaris, a cinematographer with a couple of features under his belt and the American Film Institute on his resumé.
Like nearly all the DPs I met with, Andre had a beautiful reel of footage on his website. But what distinguished him immediately was his focus on storytelling and preparation. As a first-time filmmaker, I wanted a DP who was willing to put in the time to work closely with me in envisioning how each scene would be shot. And we shared a belief that, while of course we wanted the movie to be beautiful, the shots should all be in the service of telling the story. The final factor that encouraged me was that I had seen a movie Andre had shot called Good Dick, which was made on a shoestring budget in Los Angeles but nonetheless had a remarkable beauty. The fact the he had found ways, with very few resources and often unflattering locations, to create a beautiful and graphic world made me confident in his ability to improvise and extend to the limit whatever amount of money and crew we could afford.
Throughout those frantic three weeks I tried to carve out as much time as possible for Andre and I to work together. Instead of immediately planning shots, we started on the level of character, asking what each of them most wanted, needed, and feared. Because this was a pure ensemble, no single point of view would dominate at all times, but we wanted to be making active choices about whose perspective was most important to each scene. Only then did we begin to plan our shots, always with the understanding that it was a blueprint that would likely be partially or entirely thrown out on the day. At night, I tried my best to keep my eyes open and watch movies with similar qualities to mine—a single location, a large ensemble, a similar tone—from which I imagined I could learn different things. Yes, of course, this included Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, to which my movie owes a huge debt, but also Noah Baumbach’s first film Kicking and Screaming and his more recent Margot at the Wedding, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Making the plunge
Before I knew, it the three weeks were up and it was time to begin principal photography. Instead of feeling elated—after all, I’d been working towards this moment for nearly two years—I was overwhelmed with dread. Surely, I’d be exposed as a fraud. The minute I revealed the depths of my inexperience the actors would lose faith and the crew would mutiny and the production would fall apart. It took all my strength to get out of bed. The night before shooting, however, I had dinner with Andre and he told me a story: While shooting Good Dick the writer/director/lead actress Marianna Palka elected to shoot a shower scene on the first morning of production. Once the scene was lit she promptly took off all her clothes, hopped in the shower, and said, “Let’s roll!” It was the kind of attitude that set a tone for the rest of production and that, I realized, is one of the most important things a director can do. (And by that I mean setting a tone, not getting naked.)
But getting naked is as good a metaphor as any for a willingness to put yourself out there and be vulnerable, which is important if you’re trying to create an atmosphere in which your actors will regularly be asked to do the same. So I resolved to do my best to show up on set every day feeling happy and lucky to be there, clear about what I wanted but still humble in seeking out the opinions of the talented people around me, and I hoped the attitude would trickle down. If I wasn’t going to be the most experienced person on set, I was damn well going to be a happy warrior, and I think it paid off. MM
All photos courtesy of Screen Media Films.
About Alex opened in select theaters last Friday, August 8th.
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