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Family Matters on the Set of Lymelife

Family Matters on the Set of Lymelife

Articles - Directing

This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 edition of MovieMaker. Lymelife is now on DVD.

Have you ever heard the cliché “don’t work with family?” Well, it’s all true—yet entirely false.

For my directorial debut, Lymelife, which I co-wrote with my only sibling Steven, I found myself not only working with my brother, but also casting brothers Rory and Kieran Culkin alongside Alec Baldwin, who comes from a well-known family of brothers.

Considering Lymelife is a very personal story—a coming-of-age tale set in the ’70s where life, love and Lyme disease collide— my brother and I debated whether or not we should co-direct. But once we received the shooting schedule, the writing was on the wall: There could only be one director as there would be zero time for extraneous discussions regarding performance adjustments, camera angles, etc. My brother, who is an extraordinary editor, opted to edit while I directed.
Lymelife is rumored to have been shot in 22 days. The truth is even worse: We shot it in 21 days—with an extra second unit half-day that my brother shot, officially called the “Deer Day.”

We needed various shots of a deer who, in the story, is the bane of Timothy Hutton’s character’s existence, as he keeps returning to his yard. In the final cut of the picture, every time Tim sees the deer, it’s a cheat; Tim wasn’t on-set for Deer Day, but those cheats are easy when you have wonderful actors.

So, technically, we shot 129 scenes in 21.5 days on a $1.5 million budget. In order to succeed at this monumental task you need a tremendous support team who you trust, including a 1st AD (in this case Michael Jefferson) who will go to the ends of the earth in order to help you make your days and a DP (here, Frank Godwin) who is on the same exact page as the director.

Frank and I worked very closely in what I call a “soft prep period.” I took the script and shot-designed it based on my protagonist’s (Rory’s) emotional arc. After every scene I would write a list of all the shots that made sense to me.

When I finished this “director’s draft,” I sent it only to my AD and DP. I gave them some time to digest the ambitious design before inviting Godwin to my place for a few days, where we watched several films I felt were appropriate and instructive for what I wanted to accomplish. Godwin was then able to add his own ideas and make some of my shots better—or, on the rare occasion, worse.

When we completed our powwow, I revised our shot list, sent it to my AD and he was able to budget our days. Michael broke down the script, set a goal for “time alloted” to light and shoot each set-up and kept us on schedule. I do not think I will ever make another film without these two wonderfully talented Southern gentlemen.
I credit my producers—Jon Cornick, Michele Tayler and Angela Somerville—for somehow managing to keep us on budget. It’s still a mystery to me how they accomplished this, but I eventually stopped asking questions and focused on my job of finishing the film.

Getting back to my wonderful actors: Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin, Kieran and Rory Culkin, Jill Hennessy, Cynthia Nixon and Emma Roberts. What can I say other than I am the luckiest director alive? How do you continue to have such wonderfully talented actors stick with your project through all of the ups and downs of getting it financed? I have no fucking clue.

The only answer I can muster is that they all became emotionally attached to playing their characters and the overall idea of the piece. So when the financing came through, they all bent over backwards in order to make it work. And let’s face it—it’s an actor’s picture. It’s a story that is hyper-focused on the people who populate the script.

Every single actor went out on a limb for me, despite the budget restraints. And I am proud to say that they all over-delivered. My proudest moments are when I watch the picture with an audience and they immediately invest in every performance; they laugh and cry with my actors—and not because it’s “manipulation” by the director, but because every performance is as honest as the day is long.

I’m a lucky guy because every actor has helped make my film better than it was on the page. They are my cast and I am very possessive. I hate to hear that they’re working with other directors, even though I am happy for them and their careers. I want to work with them over and over again. As luck would have it, I usually get what I want.

Lymelife will be released by Screen Media Films on April 17, 2009.

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