Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.
“Easier with Practice” (USA, 2009)
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Cast: Brian Geraghty, Kel O’Neill, Marguerite Moreau, Jeanette Brox, Jenna Gavigan
While on a road trip to promote his unpublished novel, Davy Mitchell finds himself falling for a mysterious phone sex caller.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?
When I was eight I got drawn into film when my mom rented the Alfred Hitchcock film “Psycho” for me one Friday night. I was so affected (and terrified) by it, that after that I watched nearly all of his films in succession. That was the gateway for me into understanding what film was beyond just entertainment. As I started growing up, I would just watch everything I could get my hands on and became a big cinephile. I wasn’t really one of those kids running around their back yards with a video camera, I spent all that time watching movies.
I think what’s really evolved for me is just my understanding of how much film is really a collaborative medium. The auteur theory is so misleading, because the joy for me in making this film came from getting to work with so many talented people and bring all of their insight and ideas together. Especially through making my first film, I really learned how to appreciate each individual’s job from the DP to the intern.
How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?
I had been living in LA for a year and working as an assistant. I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be, or where I should be, since I really wanted to be putting efforts into trying to write and direct a feature film. So I quit and it was actually during my two weeks’ notice that I read this personal essay by Davy Rothbart in an issue of GQ Magazine. It was a surreal moment in which I suddenly felt an immense amount of confidence about how to tell the story cinematically and also this specific determination to get it done. I was 23 at the time and set a goal for myself to be on set and making the film by the time I turned 25.
For me, getting excited about making a film usually sparks from one specific moment I want to bring to screen. With “Easier with Practice,” it was the idea of this long, real-time phone sex scene where you saw Davy slowly change from being shy and insecure to slowly letting himself go (even if it’s just a little bit). I thought it was an opportunity to be sexually provocative without being threatening to the audience. That also terrified me in a way, which I knew meant I had to do it. Ultimately, I just loved the idea of making a film about a guy who wasn’t so secure with himself sexually and the efforts he takes to overcome that. It was a feeling I could understand and one I felt was unique to bring to a movie.
How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?
I had never had the chance to work with professional actors before so I was quite scared about that. I was always worried I would say too much or too little when working on a scene. I really tried to be humble and honest about my lack of experience to the actors. That isn’t to say I felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, just that I felt it was right to be vulnerable to actors considering you are asking the same thing of them. I told myself every shooting day that all I had were instincts and if something felt right, to just go with it and not feel like I had to “direct” actors just for the sake of it.
There was this incredibly important scene where the main character is walking alone down a hallway after just having had a devastatingly humiliating experience. Brian and I had already been working together for a few weeks and I think we were at the point where we really trusted each other. We would sit between takes and just talk ourselves into a state of depression and loneliness to really get to the core of what the character was thinking. There was just a level of honesty between us; it was a creative relationship I’d never had before. I think what I learned then was how important it is to be sympathetic to an actor’s challenges and also empathetic to what the character is going through as well and that directing actors is really about bringing those two things together.
What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?
The first, and most obvious, was raising the money. We were lucky, in a way, that we financed the film before the economic downturn because there would’ve been no way to raise the money we did a year and a half ago today. Otherwise, the biggest challenge for us in making the film was trying to get the industry to cooperate with us. Unless you are working on a micro-budget, you have to work with the agencies, etc. on some level. Once we had financing, I had this fantasy in my head that things would fall into place, but there was still a lot of struggle because most agents don’t see the value of their clients doing low budget films (even less with first time directors). The ultimate challenge of it is that you always have to be watching your back and realize that you, and no one else, will ultimately be in charge of what ends up on the screen. Owning that responsibility can be stressful, but it’s rewarding.
Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?
When we were filming the last scene of the movie, which takes place outside of a chain restaurant, the wind was blowing so hard that we couldn’t shoot the scene. It was nerve-wracking because we couldn’t get sound and the actors had this incredible wind blowing right into their eyes. To add to that, “Observe and Report” was shooting at the same time just a couple hundred feet away. Here we were trying to shoot the most important scene of the film and nature was getting the way, it just wasn’t working. I stepped away from set for 30 minutes and rewrote the scene completely. What had been three pages of dialogue was now reduced to just one line. It was really one of those challenging moments where you just have to work with what you have. Ultimately, I believe we ended up with a scene that was so much better that what was originally scripted and more emotionally climactic.
What other genres or stories would you like to explore?
I really love small, but high concept genre movies; like (recently) “Let the Right One In” or “Timecrimes.” I would love to try to do something that handled a big science fiction idea but on a small personal level.
What other projects are you looking to do?
I’m very eager to get another film up and going soon. There’s a specific project I’m trying to make happen; I’m working on optioning the material now but it’s from a relatively well known author so it’s incredibly complicated and difficult to try and circumvent all of the agents and handlers (especially without agents of my own). I’ve done it once before though, so I’m quite determined!