It all started in college, when I fell in love with my gay best friend.
Years later, when I sat down to write my first feature film, Those People, I wanted to tell a coming of age story about a young gay man who struggled to break free from a lifelong infatuation with his best friend. I still hadn’t been able to move on from my friend, so I decided to examine why. And so while the first film was my confession, the second was my therapy, with the Sebastian character in Those People a model for him.
At the same time I started writing the script, I became fascinated with the story of Mark Madoff, Bernie Madoff’s son, who took his own life two years after his father’s arrest. I knew I wanted to explore this story, of a publicly reviled son—not as the main character, but, rather, through the eyes of someone who blindly loved him. That’s how Mark Madoff became the other inspiration for the character of Sebastian. Having grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I knew that setting the film there in the aftermath of a financial scandal would provide the larger sociopolitical backdrop needed to explore big themes, as well as raise the stakes of the central love triangle.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my writing teacher, Mick Casale. He said, if your main character is based on you (which happens often in first features), you have to take away something you, as the writer, know, so the character can learn that piece of information by the end. In Those People, the character of Charlie is a less extroverted version of myself, five or six years ago, though I’m just as bad at hitting on boys in bars. Over the course of the film, Charlie has to learn who he is independently of other people, and how to put himself first sometimes.
A big part of the writing (and editing process) was playing with the levels of Sebastian’s unlikeability, and tracking the audience’s feelings towards him. He was never meant to be purely good or purely bad, but in some ways, he is the unknowing villain of the film. I love difficult characters in film, but it was still a surprise to me when some people had a hard time with his character.
In order to bring these characters to life, we were lucky enough to work with casting director and indie legend Susan Shopmaker. Over the two months of casting, I used every audition as an opportunity to practice directing actors, even if the actors weren’t right for the role. On a movie with no time for rehearsal, the auditions were opportunities for me to work through some of the big scenes.
It was actor Jonathan Gordon’s eyes that drew me to him, in his audition for the role of Charlie. And costar Jason Ralph was so damn charming and mischievous-looking, bringing an unpredictability to his scenes as Sebastian. Because the movie lived and died by the chemistry of the actors at the center of the love triangle, after callbacks, we did chemistry reads. When Jonathan and Jason got in the room together for the first time, I was blown away by their instant spark. They read two scenes together—one fun and one dramatic—and immediately sank into the dynamic, Jason toying with Jonathan even between reads. They seemed like they had known each other for years. My producer, Kim Parker, watched the tapes in the production office with our line producer, Melissa, and our UPM, Stephanie, and they all flipped out. I knew if three grown, straight women loved watching these actors explore this gay friendship, they were the right choice. We cast Haaz Sleiman (“Tim”) just three days before filming, after the initial actor’s visa fell through. For the rest of the ensemble, I cast the amazing Britt Lower (“Ursula”) off an audition tape she sent in from L.A., and Chris Conroy (“Wyatt”) was one of the first people to audition for the movie. And I knew Meghann Fahy was the perfect “London” after she read with Jonathan.
Because we didn’t have time for rehearsals in pre-production, I brought actors together the day before principal photography, to read through some scenes and play ice breakers. My best friend and fellow director, Pamela Romanowsky, had taught me the Carl Jung animal personality test, and it proved a funny way for the actors to inadvertently reveal information about themselves, while fostering an electric group dynamic.
We shot for 22 days on location in New York City, from Lincoln Center and the High Line, to friends’ and family’s apartments, to my own synagogue, Temple Israel (the Rosh Hashanah scene stars my actual rabbi and cantor). I showcased locations that were personal and important to me, in order to create a love letter to my hometown. We had our fair share of challenges that come with low-budget filmmaking, like shooting the climactic rooftop scene outside in an unexpected blizzard, or making the 3,500-seat United Palace Theater on West 175th street look like a packed auditorium with only 35 extras to place in the background. It all came down to clever camera placement and shifting extras around every time I moved the camera.
Even though I had gone to school for directing and had worked with actors before, I learned a lot throughout the shoot. One of my biggest takeaways: Every actor needs something different from you. Some actors liked to talk extensively about motivation, and how they felt about a take, and some don’t like to talk at all. With some actors, we naturally spoke “the same language,” while with others, it was challenging to tap into their psyches.< Another big takeaway: Some actors are amazing on take one or two, and then get tired, while some actors get better and better with each take. After a few days, I learned whose coverage I needed to shoot out first, and whose I could save for later in the day. As director, so much of your job is being a therapist. You have to understand what makes people tick, and adjust accordingly. [caption id="attachment_38509" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Ralph and Gordon in Those People. Photograph by Tom Zuback[/caption]
Some things didn’t change about my directing style. I still like to give each actor in the scene his or her own direction individually and in secret. When you have talented actors who actually listen and react to their co-stars, it’s fun to play with giving actors differing motivations, and watching them navigate the shifting emotion on screen. One of my favorite things to do was change the direction of the person off-screen, as opposed to the person on camera (when shooting matching closeups.). For example, in Those People‘s Halloween scene, I would tell Jason to react differently to Jonathan’s kiss in certain takes, to watch Jonathan’s genuine reaction in character. Later, in a climactic group dinner scene, when we were shooting Jason’s close-ups, I directed the friends to ignore him in some takes, and give him lots of love in others. Jason was amazing at being present and in the moment in every take. He had his motivations, but it proved a better strategy to change up what was happening to him in a scene, provoking a response, rather than to instruct him to react differently. I learned to trust the actors’ reactive instincts more than any results-oriented direction I could give them.
Like many directors, I also usually gave the actors an extra take to play, improvise or try something completely different. Even if their improvised dialogue didn’t work, the actors would often find a new take on or emotional bent to the scene.
It was important that the movie not look like all the other indie films out there—we didn’t want the handheld, slice-of-life look. Visually, I’ve always gravitated towards vintage lenses. In fact, both my short films from grad school were shot on Super-16mm using 1970s Cooke Panchro lenses.
After we had to scrap plans to shoot Those People on film for budgetary reason, my DP, Leonardo D’Antoni, and I chose to shoot the film on the Arri Alexa. To make the images appear more classic and timeless, Leo found this great 1970s Angenieux zoom lense. We chose the specific model because of the way its lens flared and how it softened the edges of the frame (the “bokeh”). We found our look on the second day of shooting, by mounting the tripod on a dolly moving back and forth, and concurrently zooming within shots. Our big stylistic influences included Fosse’s Cabaret, as well as Gordon Willis’s work on Woody Allen films of the era, especially Manhattan and Interiors. In terms of contemporary references, Leo and I also watched Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower for its color palette, grain quality and emotion.
We tried to avoid classic Hollywood coverage. With Tim and Charlie’s scenes, I discovered during shooting that I liked keeping the camera more observational or distanced, as if you were peeking in on their budding relationship. We shot the High Line scene using French coverage (from behind) for the same reason—it made their interactions seem realer and more intimate to me. We also tried to design interesting master shots that were dynamic and changing, instead of a typical locked-down wide. For the group scenes, we shot more coverage, but still tried to keep the shots interesting. We were only able to afford Steadicam for two of our shooting days, so we used it for the big Halloween scene with lots of coverage, where we knew we had to move quickly because of a hard out that gave us an abbreviated shooting day. (Accordingly, remember to work with your AD to schedule your difficult scenes early in the day. You don’t want to have to rush through your emotional scenes at the end to make your day.)
I’ll never forget my producer Sarah Bremner saying to me in pre-production, “Joey, you’re never going to be able to please everyone. And if you try to do that, your movie will be bad. You just have to be OK with some people hating your movie.” It was incredibly freeing. Let me reiterate: You have to be OK with some people hating your movie.
More than anything, I set out to make a film that I could love. I had never seen a grand, sweeping, gay New York romance, so I decided to make one. With Those People, I wanted to create modern representations of gay men my age: well-adjusted individuals whose struggles have little to do with their sexuality, and more with negotiating their own adulthood and building lasting relationships. I didn’t want to tell another coming out story. Representation is power. If you don’t see yourself reflected onscreen, pick up a camera and make it happen. MM
Those People opens in theaters May 6, 2016, courtesy of Wolfe Video.