With his new ensemble comedy, Person to Person, Dustin Guy Defa seems poised to break through to a wider cultural consciousness outside that of in-the-know cinephiles.
Despite a larger cast and some name actors to boot (including Philip Baker Hall and Michael Cera), fans of the Utah-born Defa’s previous work shouldn’t worry about this expanded spotlight compromising his vision. As in his shorts, Defa’s camera still lingers effectively on his actors, capturing their inner melancholy and hinting at their struggles to connect with others. His first feature, 2012’s Bad Fever, doubled down on these themes and examined a loner (played by do-it-all filmmaker Kentucker Audley) in a small town who attempts to carve out a career as a stand-up comedian (and is rendered painfully tragic on screen as he’s not even a little funny).
Person to Person for the most part shies away from cringe comedy, maintaining a lighter, more humorous touch over the course of a few different storylines. In one of the segments, Bene Coopersmith (reprising his role from Defa’s fantastic 2014 short also named “Person to Person”) hunts down a rare Charlie Parker record, and then must hunt down the seller (in a hilariously long and slow bike chase) after realizing he was duped. Meanwhile, Michael Cera is a metal-loving detective investigating a murder alongside Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson, his protege, who slowly realizes she’d rather have a more traditional occupation. Tavi Gevinson, George Sample III and Hall round out the cast in several other stories. The different segments are of a same piece tonally, but don’t mistake this film for Crash—the threads don’t come together under a pseudo-profound thesis. Defa is a subtler filmmaker than that, and, like Richard Linklater, he mines depth in casual conversations and hangouts.
I spoke with Defa about embracing his melancholic tendencies and the importance of finding a filmmaking collective to be part of.
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you talk about how this went from an acclaimed short to an ensemble piece?
Dustin Guy Defa (DGD): The short premiered at Sundance. I was just so happy about the short. I felt like I had found a tone that I really liked. Bene Coopersmith is an old friend of mine. I finally was able to put him in a movie, and I was just very happy his charisma and his awesomeness translated to a film. I wanted to work with Bene again. At Sundance, I thought about the idea of a feature, and starting developing it after that. The feature was actually called something else for quite a while. I decided to change it back to Person to Person because I didn’t like the other title, and I couldn’t find a better title, so it kept coming back to me. I never thought about it at all as an extension of the short. It never was. They both have the same title, and it is similar in tone, and obviously Bene is still a record store owner [in real life]. I just got very excited about the ideas and pulling something like this off.
MM: Obviously a lot of Bene’s character is based on his own personality, since he’s not a traditional actor. Did you work with the professional actors and amateurs differently?
DGD: Bene was one person I really had in mind when I was writing, so the character was already written, and then we starting playing to the actors. Thankfully the script got very good responses, and people were attracted to it. And I did have the short, so you could read the script and watch the short and know what I was up to. Casting took a little while, but it also wasn’t terribly difficult. I pretty much got everyone I wanted, which was awesome. Everybody is very different. It’s pretty easy for me to bounce back and forth between non-actors and professional actors. I’m able to just change how I’m working depending on what actor needs what. With the main characters, we had lots of talks. I had to rehearse with some people, and with other people we had lots of phone calls and meetings, and it went from there.
It’s sort of a natural thing for me because I do some acting also, but I’m also a non-actor in some ways. So I think I understand both ways. But in terms of production, in a way it was refreshing and fun to move back and forth between everybody. It was actually fairly easy. We really wanted to keep a sort of intimacy that I had on stuff I had made before; we wanted it to be a very friendly set. Thankfully none of these people had any egos or anything like that. There were no divas. Still, it was a difficult production; we had to move pretty fast. But there was at least a friendliness always.
MM: How fast was the shoot?
DGD: We shot for 21 days. We definitely could’ve used some more days. This movie is so full; with so many locations and so many characters. I wanted that to seem effortless, so you’re not even paying attention to how many locations there are or how many characters there are. But it is really chock full and we’re shooting in New York, so locations cost money. And we lost locations last minute, so we were scrambling around to find those. It was pretty often a stressful production. It was quite ambitious to pull off with the budget that we had. We did have an amazing production team, and pre-production was a huge thing for this movie. The whole thing needed to be planned out pretty tightly, especially when those problems arose, we would just switch gears and find another solution.
MM: How did shooting on film aid or hinder such a tight production?
DGD: That ended up being difficult, because there’s no more labs in New York City although Kodak is opening in Queens soon I think (or maybe it’s already open). Our turnaround was way too long. It was not comfortable. There are labs in Baltimore; at first we were shipping that stuff, but we ended up having to have a PA drive the film down twice a week to get the turnaround a little faster. That was actually really really hard. Post with film can be… there were a couple of things that were tedius and not fun. There was a flicker problem that we had to deal with. Everyone is so used to digital now, I think people have forgotten or don’t even know. Just the transfer stuff became sort of a problem for us.
MM: In a Film Comment interview you talked about how shooting New York City on 16mm immediately gives a film a frame of reference of 1970s New York films. Was that a worry for you?
DGD: Unfortunately I didn’t think about it before, and I only worry about it now. I think I was pretty naïve. I love that kind of stuff, but it’s not something I was trying to replicate or anything like that. I think I was naïve in the replication of that. [That look] is something I’m very attracted to. I love 16mm. The combination of 16mm and New York—it does bring out that… I completely understand all the references now, but it wasn’t my intention to do that.
MM: What was your working relationship with the DP Ashley Connor?
DGD: This was Ashley’s first feature on film. She’s shot some shorts [on film] and and was thrilled to finally shoot a feature [on film]. I had a very extensive shot list; I edited the movie too, so I was thinking about how it was going to be cut. Sometimes I was wrong, but that was all sort of mapped out, although again the production was a little tough. With this movie, the visuals had to be simple with what we were up to. I really wanted a clean look. I did want 16mm, but I didn’t want it to be gritty. It’s not a gritty movie. We were trying to get as little grain as possible. Almost everything is shot in daylight, so we didn’t have to worry too much about grain.
MM: I’m impressed, in this work and in your previous work, by the melancholic tone you capture in your characters, particularly George Sample III’s Ray in this one.
DGD: A lot of it is in the writing. I try not to be too melancholic of a person, but I am melancholic. I go back and forth between sad and happy. Sometimes I want just to make a funny movie or just to make a sad movie—I can’t seem to manage to do that. I just write both those things. I’m embracing that more and more. A lot of is in the script—with George, I think he does have some kind of sadness also, but that character is not him. He’s a lot more outgoing and vibrant in a different way. I go through a lot with my actors to let the character do what they want, to create the character on their own. At some point, I feel like they know more than I do, once we’re actually rolling. I trust them and their choices. I think it’s a mix when it comes down to it.
MM: As a multi-hyphenate who writes, directs, acts and edits, is there any part of that process that is difficult for you, which you perform just as a means to an end because you want to control the material?
DGD: I don’t necessarily have a preference over the three [writing, directing and editing]. There are things like pre-production… I don’t know who loves pre-production, though I’ve heard somebody say that pre-production is their favorite part. Writing—I love when it’s good; when it’s not it’s really the worst time. When it’s working and when I’m excited, I love it, and editing is almost the same. Editing for me is not as painful as writing can be. When things are working in the edit and you find stuff, it can be so thrilling.
MM: When the writing is going badly, have you found processes to get yourself out of that rut or do you just power through?
DGD: I’m trying to work at getting better at it, but it’s a struggle. The worst times of my life are when I’m not working: when I don’t know what movie to write, or don’t know what to do next. Those are the toughest times. I say that now. That’s sort of where I’ve been at for however long. The struggle, the non-fun times, are completely outweighed by the other ones. We keep on trucking.
MM: What do you like about shorts vs. features? Are you planning on continuing to direct shorts, or do you feel like you’re now firmly in the feature world?
DGD: Shorts are awesome because you can make them really fast, and you can experiment. There’s not a lot of risk. There’s a freedom there that is just so awesome. Features are just a lot more responsibility. If I had it my way, I’d probably never make a short again. I want to be making features, and that’s always been the endgame in a way. But I did get so much into shorts, and figuring out how to make them, that I do love that process. Most of my shorts I’ve made so fast—I can decide to do it one day and then be shooting it a few days later and be editing it a few days later. I can make my mind up to do that any day. I never know if that’s going to happen. I’m assuming that I’ll probably make more shorts. I just want to keep working.
MM: In New York you’re associated with an indie filmmaking scene that includes filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Kate Lyn Sheil. Does being a part of a sort of loose collective assist you as a filmmaker?
DGD: To me it’s been an ideal and necessary situation. I’ve been friends with all of these people for quite a while now; time just seems to be flying by. Our relationships and just seeing movies—sometimes we’re all seeing something together and it’s changing all of us, and we’re talking about those movies. Like the Godard retrospective a couple of years ago, or that one year when Possession was playing, and we were all talking about that. Everyone working together and seeing everyone’s movies… it’s a huge thing, and I’ve also learned so much from everyone else. I need the community here a lot. MM
Person to Person opens in theaters on July 28, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.