Suburban ennui isn’t exactly new territory for indie films, but Debra Eisenstadt’s SXSW premiere “Before the Sun Explodes” puts a vibrant, vicious twist on a seemingly played out plot. Comedian and actor Bill Dawes stars in the film as, you guessed it, a comedian and an actor, but while the film uses some of Dawes’ own stand-up material to round out his character Ken Cooper, the film never feel like it’s covering old ground.
As Ken, Dawes is a directionless, stay-at-home dad who is trying to juggle his home life with a flatlining comedy career. When he gets one more shot to sell a big-time movie pitch — one he’s been trying to sell for years — it kicks off a series of domestic squabbles that signal just how bad things are for Ken and his breadwinning wife (Christine Woods). Ken, predictably enough, heads off to the comedy club, where he meets the alluring Holly (Sarah Butler), who swiftly upends his entire life. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, “Before the Sun Explodes” will surprise you, as Eisenstadt uses a familiar formula to tackle some wild issues in fresh fashion. By the time the snappy 80-minute feature is over, you won’t know what to make of Ken or Holly, but you’ll have just witnessed another one of Eisenstadt’s canny character studies.
But Eisenstadt isn’t a newbie on the indie scene. Having only made three features over the course of her career, the filmmaker doesn’t have the depth of resume you’d expect from someone whose first feature came out in 2001, but she does have the accolades to back it up. That first feature, “Daydream Believer”? It earned Eisenstadt the Independent Spirit Awards’ coveted Someone to Watch and a Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival. If there’s any problem with Eisenstadt’s relatively slow schedule in turning out new work, it’s that we just want to see more of it, and now.
Below, Eisenstadt sounds off about open endings, comedy and why she takes her time between projects.
Our first screening was at the Vimeo Theatre, which was a little frightening. It’s such an enormous screen, it’s a like a stadium. My film is not “Star Wars,” so I was really nervous about that screening, but I think it went well. I think it went okay! I got really good feedback.
The end of the film, I left it that way so that people could project their own outcome. I think you can really go in a lot of different directions with that situation. I think it’s nice to have that kind of an ending where you know what’s happening, but you don’t necessarily know how these people are going to react to it happening. After knowing the characters for eighty minutes, people are still projecting their own ideas on to it.
It’s really hard to get anything made. I just became very proactive. I had a friend, a really good friend, and he was working on a project and we would commiserate about our projects. I said to him, “Look, I just want to make something. I don’t know what script you have, but I’m curious.” He handed me his script. The script he gave me was not for me and I couldn’t relate to it, but there was one element in the script, about a stalker, and I knew I wanted to do something that involved that. He had another character in the script who was a singer, that I really thought would be better as a stand-up.
[All my roles on my films] have become interconnected for me. This my third really, truly independent film, and you sort of do everything with the help of a lot of people. They all bleed into each other, is what happens.
Editing, it would be really hard for me not to edit one of my films. It’s so much part of the writing. If it wasn’t my script, I think I’d be fine. I really enjoy the continuation of the whole process. I do a lot of editing. I do purposely over-write. I like to work with the actors, doing rehearsals. I have this process, I guess, that has evolved in an organic way because I am so outside of a system.
One thing I was very concerned about when I was writing the script was making Ken a sympathetic character. Just making all the characters very complex and multi-dimensional and all flawed and all longing for something. They’re all desperate. They all meet at this one time in their lives.
We didn’t know originally if the character would be a stay-at-home mom or dad. I liked the idea of a stay-at-home dad, I thought it was a much more interesting position for a lot of men. I know stay-at-home dads, and it’s hard. I know women who are the breadwinners. And it’s hard for both of them. I thought if I could try to expose that in such a way that shows how difficult those roles are and how complicated it is and can be, it would be an interesting character.
The comedy I wanted to be very opposed to that, I wanted it to be this frat boy comedy and a return to the past. Going to the club was sort of going back in time for Ken, trying to recapture something that was lost. That’s why he’s not funny. His stuff is not evolving. He’s not referencing his life now, which could be funny.
We knew Bill Dawes and his comedy, and his comedy act really fit with the character. He was the right age. While writing it, I watched his comedy and sort of had him in mind [during the scripting process]. We gave him the script when we finished, hoping he would be interested, and he was really interested. He was willing to let us use his real comedy.
That’s Bill’s real comedy [in the film]. We’d never written comedy before, and we really wanted to have an authentic feel to the club and the comedy and be very aware how important it was to have that detail in there. He gave it to us, and I of course edited it down so that it would bomb [in the film]. It did make it feel as authentic as possible.
I let the cast also inform the script. I wanted to infuse them, and their experience. If they have something to valuable to share, I will put it in.
All the characters, I sort of see as being parts of Ken. These are all parts of him. Holly sort of represents the past for him, and the autonomy he had. That’s what she has and that’s what’s so attractive. It’s not just her appearance, but her freedom. Even her roommate, Zeb, is sort of the future, what could be the future if Ken’s marriage does kind of dissolve. They all represent different parts of him, or possibilities.
I wanted the movie to have a lot of different feelings [to it], to sort of cross genres. I thought that was interesting. I didn’t know how that would be, because I wanted it to be funny, I wanted it to be dramatic, I wanted it to be sort of a thriller, too.
I’ve had a lot of kids between [my films]. In a lot of ways, I am like Ken. You can’t really make and put one hundred percent into what you’re doing if you’re distracted by raising children. I am someone who felt very reasonable once I had a child to be the main person in their lives. It prevented me from really pursuing a career.
I’ve been teaching, I’ve been writing scripts, I have a lot of scripts. Now that my kids are older, I feel like I can really work now. For years, it was just taking stock of my life and prioritizing what was important.
I managed to make a film in between, a very independent film that I shot in nine days. Just doing little odd jobs here and there in independent film. That’s what I have to work so independently, because I have no momentum. [Laughs] I do like it. I do like the autonomy of working this way. You can work however you want, you can pick the right people who are just kind of game.
I think it’s good to do a lot of different things, especially when you’re directing. You have to do a lot of things. On my first film, I even shot the movie. I did everything on that film. I am used to working with very little. If someone were to just give me money to make something, it would be fantastic.
It was good for me to make this film, just to get back in the swing of it. Now I’m hoping to get some momentum.
“Before the Sun Explodes” premiered this week at SXSW and will screen again on Thursday, March 17 at 2:00pm at the Alamo Lamar.