A Conversation with Jordan Alan Of "Kiss And Tell" the Improv Director
by Stephen Garrett
Too often young filmmakers are expected to make a brilliant, innovative
film straight out of the gate -- and if they do, then pressure mounts to
maintain that same style and technique that brought them to success.
30-year-old writer/director Jordan Alan is an exception. His professional
debut, "Terminal Bliss," was a sort of low-rent "Less Than Zero" starring a
pre-90210 Luke Perry. Made for half a million dollars (and eventually
grossing over 3 million), the film is conventionally photographed, with the
requisite crane shots, glossy sheen, and well-rehearsed actors delivering
heavily scripted dialogue familiar to most Hollywood movies.
In Jordan's second feature, the chronicle of an L.A. hit man entitled
"Love and Happiness," the strident change in tone, style, and creative
aspiration reveals one of the more intelligent filmmakers working today.
The engine of "Happiness" and now his latest film "Kiss and Tell" (a crime
farce in which the murder weapon is a carrot) is improvisation -- Jordan
builds his story around the inspiration the actors find while riffing off
of each other's quick-time character revelations. He brings to his mighty
ensemble ("Love" alone had over 60 speaking parts) a basic outline for his
story, but allows his actors to discover the nuances of their characters as
they create them.
As in films by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey, the honesty that emerges from
Alan's actors is at times riveting in the way that only documentaries can
be. Unlike director Mike Leigh, who relies heavily on improvisation to form
his story, then transcribes the best acting moments as his shooting script,
Jordan instead films the improvisation and edits those spontaneous
eruptions into movie scenes.
indieWIRE: What is the role of the camera in an improv?
Jordon Alan: When you're doing the improv, the cameraman becomes part of
the improvisational experience. It's a certain kind of instinct. On "Love and
Happiness" it was easier because the camera was on my shoulder and I
would just know where to go. Once I'm done speaking with my actors, I put
the camera on my shoulder and say, "Okay, let's roll. Let's go to life." It
more or less felt like life was stopped, I would talk to everybody and say,
this is what I want life to be. A theatrical background is what I have. I
made a choice to explore through filmmaking the theatrical ideas.
iW: How do you respond to industry criticism that you reject screenwriting?
Alan: I hear occasionally the ideology that "Jordan Alan doesn't find good
scripts," or "doesn't want to direct from a script, that he chooses to
improvise everything." I've actually scripted the majority of my filmmaking
-- not only scripted but tightly so -- redrafts, the whole thing. It's just
that most of my projects currently that I at least care about are in
development -- either caught up in development with private producers or
various companies. And I don't want to sit here and not make a movie during
the interim -- I can only write so many screenplays before I get bored. I
like to make a movie, that's basically my mode of expression, and improv
became a great tool for me to learn more about actors -- for me, there's an
infinite amount to learn about how to work with actors and how to yield a
iW: At one point in "Kiss And Tell", there's a moment when there's a shot of
Heather Graham laughing, which follows a flashback shot of her with Justine
Bateman. Now, by itself that laugh could be read as an actor losing
concentration during an improv -- but you turned that laugh into a reaction
to a recollection she is fondly remembering -- which I don't think she was
having at that point because you hadn't yet built the story that way during
Alan: Totally. That's an editorial choice made after the fact based upon
what Heather is giving me to work with.
iW: So it's really like clay -- you're molding the characters in the film
based upon emotional moments the actors are providing -- but not
necessarily in the way the actor may have originally intended.
Alan: Exactly. Very similar to writers when they write a first draft.
Experienced writers will say, "let me just get this draft done on paper,"
knowing that from there they are going to, like clay, mold their own
material. The actors that have faith in me will basically do the same thing
-- they'll say, "I'm going to give you a series of moments strung together
by what my knowledge is of the story, and from there I'm going to trust
that you are going to put this into a greater context." And the flashback
with Justine Bateman became the context for Heather Graham's laugh.
iW: Because you had told me that Justine Bateman had walked off the set
during the shoot, maybe I was looking at her performance more acutely --
but it didn't seem like she was responding well to the improvisational
Alan: I wasn't initially planning to kill her character, necessarily. All
of a sudden I would shoot these scenes insinuating that something bad had
happened to Justine, and I didn't really know exactly where I was going to
go with the depth of the bad experience. But when she was starting to
express frustration [with the improv], I knew I was basically shooting my
cover scenes, which was: maybe she's going to die. Because Justine was, in
a sense, dying. And a lot of the morbidity of the characters responding to
Justine came from setting up those situations. It was sort of a
self-fulfilling prophecy she was creating. She was killing herself in the
iW: How does your financing effect improvisational film?
Alan: The limitation of money affects every area. The first three weeks of
photography was shot completely, 100% out of focus. They didn't mount the
lens right. I shot some scenes in the movie three times over, so as much as
people think there's a looseness about it, it actually becomes a process of
writing and rewriting again -- it's polishing through filmmaking. And you
can do that in 16mm. If typewriting paper cost a lot of money, people would
say, "man, when you write that script you gotta write it once and you gotta
get it right." But they don't equate it that way.
iW: So what's your shooting ratio? Closer to a documentary, right?
Alan: Yeah, yeah. I'd say "Love And Happiness," to get my hour and a half cut
it would be about twenty-five to thirty hours of filming. And the
five-month period of shooting gives you time to reflect, go back, rework
things. "Kiss And Tell" did take a year, stop and start -- you're taking
two-month breaks but you're not necessarily shooting every day, either. And
also you're using different stocks not just out of necessity but also out
of choice of different look.
iW: Did you deliberately spent a lot of time shooting the film?
Alan: From "Terminal Bliss," which was a 36-day schedule and quite luxurious
for independent filmmaking, to "Love And Happiness" which was five months, to
"Kiss And Tell" which was almost a year -- all I was doing was getting to
know my talent more and more and more so that a lot of the walls go away
and you feel a closeness with your actors and an ability to get more out of
them that you normally don't have because of the restrictions of time.