Last week, at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, actor Seth Fisher premiered his debut feature film, “Blumenthal,” in which he takes a multi-hyphenate approach to independent filmmaking, as writer/director/star/editor/and more. “Blumenthal” tells the story of a New York City family reeling from the sudden death of famous playwright Harold Blumenthal (Brian Cox), who dies laughing at his own joke. Brother Saul (Mark Blum) feels that Harold stole his ideas, his wife Cheryl (Laila Robins), an aging actress is dealing with her own issues about her body and mortality, and Saul’s son Ethan (Fisher), is an OCD pharmaceutical rep with a few particular issues with women. Back when he only had a first draft of his script, Fisher launched the blog watchmemakeamovie.com, chronicling his process of independent filmmaking, and garnering fans along the way who contributed to his crowdfunding campaign to make “Blumenthal” a reality. We sat down with Fisher in Santa Barbara to for a wide-ranging discussion about everything from modern relationships to the perfect recipe for how to make an independent film (shhh, there isn’t one). Keep reading for some highlights from our discussion and check out our review of “Blumenthal” here.
Fisher, a theater actor who made some short films in between jobs, had been kicking around these characters for some time, who had made appearances in his shorts. “Ethan was a character in another short that didn’t even have a name, basically there was one scene where he was talking to his friend about a girl he almost kissed but didn’t. There was just something I was interested in about that guy,” Fisher said. “Cheryl, and her whole journey, there’s another short that I did that completely chronicled this woman dealing with the same issues that Cheryl does. I also had this whole idea of a famous playwright passing away and what his family felt about it. And after just figuring out in my mind that gee, maybe these people existed together, I started with the playwright and him dying laughing at his own joke, and went from there.”
But getting started is only half the battle in terms of the writing process, as Fisher says, “just getting to the end the first time is the hardest thing. And you do, and it’s 80 pages long and it’s shit, and you really don’t want to show it to anybody, but you can hit print. And when you can hit print, you can look at it and go oh, this is something that exists…it’s sculpture, you chisel away at it.”
Having the blog as an archive of the filmmaking journey is something that Fisher is grateful for, or will be in the future, as he’s still so close to the project’s onscreen birth, in all of its ups and downs and technical malfunctions. Looking back, “it’s a lot easier now that we’ve succeeded and it’s gotten onscreen, to say this is how we got here, and it is nice to look back and see a video of our DP and one of our producers pulling a rickshaw through Chinatown, that’s on the blog, and that for me, is what was really worth it. Really, really worth it,” he says.
The multi-hyphenate role for Fisher wasn’t one borne of his own control issues (like Ethan), but rather just because it’s the nature of the beast when it comes to indie filmmaking and first-time features. The film expresses a distinct voice, and it’s clear that Fisher was able to maintain that in a truly independent setting. Of course, there are many different reasons that contribute to that, “things that I did out of necessity and budget constraints are just easier for me in some regards,” he says. “I think for this project, I did feel like I needed to, because it made certain things for both logistics reasons and personal reasons, much easier.”
Fisher was actively searching for that template for independent filmmaking, or looking to create one himself, saying, “I had this idea when I started the blog, if there was a model for the microbudget film, somebody blogged about it, I’m going to figure it out and I’m going to nail it and it’s going to be the recipe. That was my big grand dream, and I remember sitting down with Garrett [Fennelly, producer], and when I talked to him, Garrett said, ‘I’ve talked to these people who’ve done all these different ranges of budgets, the truth is, there’s no model, it’s always different, and it’s always awful, and it’s always enlightening, and that is the one truth.’ ”
The one absolutely necessary ingredient Fisher found was “people who need you as much as you need them…if somebody is saying, I need something to shoot that is this tone because that’s what I want to shoot, then they have a need. If I say, I need somebody to shoot what I have written that’s my need, and then we have a mutual need, and then we’re codependent.” That relationship and shared need to create something is often the only thing to hold onto during the process, as Fisher described, “moments in the beginning and during the process where you’re looking at each other in fear, like, are you working as hard you can, because I am, and all we’re getting paid is each other. It’s the biggest investment and it’s hard, because you’re literally terrified and you frankly don’t trust each other, you don’t have any reason too, you’ve met them a month ago, and you’re like ok, I’m going to put my life on hold for you, really for me, but…”
As much as it may sound like Fisher is Ethan, Ethan is Fisher, the further could not be farther from the truth. While Fisher pitches his performance as the measured, uptight Ethan perfectly, in person, he’s much more relaxed and funny. About his character, Fisher says, “Ethan is who I’m afraid to be—I’m stealing that from John Irving, when he was asked about ‘The World According to Garp.’ Ethan is a lot of people that I know, he’s certainly parts of me as every character in the movie is, and Cheryl’s a part of me. There’s all sorts of yourself in every character, but Ethan is who, if I didn’t write Ethan, I would be in danger of becoming Ethan.”
About Ethan’s anxieties about control (the man hawks birth control pills and hormone replacements, but cannot control the women and their bodies in his life), Fisher says, “the notion that he is seeking control is just another way of putting that pursuit of perfection and trying to categorize everything and say, this is good, this is bad. Things aren’t extremely great or extremely awful.” And for Ethan’s particular brand of medicine, Fisher says, “it was a conscious decision to have him sell birth control pills and also, literally carry around the answer to women’s problems in his suitcase, and not have ANY idea of how to help a woman. It was a conscious idea for him to have the answer in a physical way, and Isaac’s trying to do it for Saul. This sort of self-medicating thing we do, not just with medicine but with just ourselves, trying to self-analyze and self-diagnose, and not control women, but control who is the right person for him.”
The script is incredibly dense and multi-layered with themes of body vs. mind, mind over matter, catharsis, and human connection swirling around in this family dramedy. As for some of those deeper themes, Fisher says about writing, that sometimes this is intentional and sometimes, it’s just a happy accident. “This is all swimming around in your head, and at the time when you write something, themes sort of meld together… there’s two ways that I look at it as a writer, either I’m fleshing something out and having these elliptical themes coming back and metaphors or I’m just running out of ideas. No matter how much you think you know what you’re doing, until you’re watching it on the big screen and you hear people laugh at something that you didn’t even know was there, even though you wrote it, directed it, said it, edited it, and you go oh, I’m the idiot,” he laughed.
For a first, independent feature, Fisher managed to cast some big names, including Brian Cox as the deceased playwright Harold. His casting process was a “mixture of previous relationships and new relationships. I had done a play with Brian Cox and Nicole Ansari [who plays the mysterious lover of Harold], a couple of years before, and I had specifically written Fiona for Nicole because anyone who’s met her, would just go ‘Gee you are fascinating and sort of hypnotizing and beautiful and have an unplace-able accent,’ and she’s a conversation piece. It made the story much more interesting when I wrote her into it.”
He got in touch with actors Mark Blum and Laila Robins through his casting director Sabrina Hyman, and both actors brought life experience that he could not to the roles of Saul and Cheryl. “I sat down with Mark and he didn’t read with me, he told me some of his feelings about Saul that blew my mind, because when you’re 28 and you’re writing a 60 year old, you can put him in a situation, but you can’t know what that is and he comes in and says, I’m interested in someone who reaches a certain point in his life and looks around and says ‘This is it?’ I said, I could never direct that to you, I could, kind of, but it would be bullshit. I need you; I need you to help me get there.” Additionally, Fisher’s “long time best friend and another producer Alex Cendese played Isaac. That’s how we talk. It’s always one take.” Character actor Fred Melamed [he appears as Harold’s manager Jimmy Basmati] was another casting coup, Fisher saying, “that was honestly like, you throw an offer out there and you’re like let’s plan on plan B, C and D. You hear that guy’s voice in a theater and you’re it’s like taking a shower.”
This won’t be the last we hear from Fisher, either, as he has “another feature length screenplay, another smaller indie that I’m working on. And I also have two television pilots that I am showing people around town in Los Angeles. So it’s sort of a two pronged focus, or three pronged—this movie, new movie, and TV.” As for bringing his multiple skill sets to bear on the next feature, he says, “it remains to be seen, I think there are probably 3 or 4 different versions of every movie out there. There are some big budget movies out there that would have been much better if they had been made for $100,000. There are some movies made for $100,000 that would have been much better if they were made for $2 million. Wherever it finds itself, hopefully the shoe will fit.”