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The Weird, Grey Area: How to Find Tonal Balance in a Dramedy, by the Writer-Director of MAD

The Weird, Grey Area: How to Find Tonal Balance in a Dramedy, by the Writer-Director of MAD

Directing

On top of shooting an overly-long, in-depth script, I also like to stay open to invention on set. Spontaneity is a gift that can only be birthed from being in the moment. And if it’s in the moment, it’ll feel true to your tone. To facilitate this, we rolled two cameras concurrently, about 85 percent of the time, and lit the space so that blocking could remain loose. We’d shoot the scene as scripted until I felt we had what I needed. We then progressively strayed off the page in the same manner we conducted our workshops. It’s important to note that this isn’t a blanket techniquecertain scenes just didn’t feel like we needed to go overboard in straying too far from the script, and certain actors don’t need to work that way, either. I encourage it because working in a more freeform style excites me; but it can’t be forced, either. Also, we never fully chucked the script out, but rather ad-libbed on it. It was very much “controlled chaos.”

I was never more than a few feet away from the actors, prompting them mid-take and feeding alternate lines as well. We rolled longsometimes very longtakes (one ran an hour straightbless BlackMagic Design). This helps achieve an organic momentum and, with on-the-fly adjustments, gives you room to perform the script at different pitches, which may be the most important options to have at your disposal when addressing tone in the edit. It’s a very vital-feeling process that keeps everyone on their toes and honest. A great byproduct of this fast paced, flowing style, is that it allowed us to cover upwards of 7-9 pages a daycrucial for any indie film on a tight schedule. Everyone brought something new to the material that may have never worked on pagefrom sublime moments of realization buried in the subtext, to a couple hilariously bizarre exchanges that the actors and I (from just out of frame) batted around and escalated.

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Jennifer Lafleur, Maryann Plunkett, Eilis Cahill and Robert G. Putka at the Slamdance Film Festival 2016 premiere of Mad. Courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival

Of course, this process requires that you are actively going outside of your comfort zone and trying stuff that ultimately might not work, but you and your cast need to be okay with that. I noticed that even if an actor showed momentary discomfort with a line I felt strongly about, they often gave it their best shot and absolutely nailed it, because they’re pros and can do anything. And if it’s really a problem you try to accommodate them and find a workaround. With that said, a lot of the goofy, weird stuff we took a flyer on (that ended up in the film) killed. I’m thankful they “went there” and they trusted that I would figure it out in the edit. Also, this is where hating yourself comes in handy.

Okay, so you have a wealthmaybe even a greedy, indulgent amountof material. You don’t have a problem, you have options, which are imperative to zeroing in on your tone. Things you thought would work, don’t. And then other things you thought were “stupid” do. That’s filmmaking: it’s wild and obtuse, and it has no regard for your intentions.  Now’s not the time to be proud or to buy into self-satisfactionit’s still very much a raw work in progress despite all of the work you’ve already done.

Ben and I approach all this material as if we were editing a documentary. We look objectively at the entire body of material, and cater to the best, most telling moments of performance. We try to string as many of those together as possible while utilizing only the bare minimum of connective tissue on a scene-by-scene, then 15 minute-chunk basis. The final percentage of written material to improvisation in the final film was about 75 percent to 25 percentbut we only used the best of what we had of either to tell the story, which is how we ended up with a lean 83-minute film. Our editing motto was/is “Funny stuff: Is it funny enough to justify it’s existence? If no, cut that crap! Dramatic stuff: Does it move the story along? Does it add to the characters? If no, cut that crap!”  I swear to God, I made an awful chicken scratch sign of this that we hung off our monitor during the last few months of editing. Sometimes we didn’t follow our own rules, and you know what, we eventually got gut-punched by the immediacy of the test screening process.

It’s funny how quickly you’re willing to cut stuff (especially “funny” stuff) that doesn’t work, when you are privy to it firsthand at a test screening. If a line landed with a thud amongst our first audience of a little over 50, I resolved without deliberation that it would be the first to go when we got back into the edit. After our first test screening, we must have cut about 6 minutes of a (then) 94 minute film, which is a lot. Those were the easiest cuts we ever made, and a lot of it was due to embarrassment. I hated myself, but it allowed me to be OK with losing some of the material I was resolute about keeping but ultimately betrayed the tonal mix. At this point, you and your producers are happy about having too much. Imagine having a 75 minute film where 15 of those minutes flat out don’t work, another 10 need to be reworked, and there’s no alternate material to try out.

We followed the screenings up with an anonymous questionnaire for people to quantify and qualify their feelings. Yes, opening yourself up to notes can be tough, but you have to grit it out. This is doubly true when dealing with something as subjective as the tone we were going forit needed to track with an audience. I’m not saying to take every note, but if a single note pops up enough, you should definitely take a closer look. You’re making this type of film for an audience as a way to emotionally touch and connect with them. Get over yourself, it’s not for you. Listen to them when they’re silentif they’re not laughing, it’s not funny. On a similar note, if they’re laughing and it’s not supposed to be funny, that’s actually okay for a dramedy. Sometimes. But that’s kind of the point, right? Kind of like…life (yeah, I went there, and I hate myself for it). MM

ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club screens Mad on August 14, 2016 at ArcLight Hollywood and on August 24, 2016 at ArcLight Chicago. Mad opens On Demand on September 9, 2016, courtesy of The Orchard.

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