What it's about:When their big gig falls through, a ragtag performance troupe struggles to find their audience—and the motivating force behind their work.
About the filmmaker: I'm a choreographer and multidisciplinary artist and have been making dance theater in Seattle for 25 years. "Improvement Club" is my first feature film. My live work has been presented nationally and internationally in dance and contemporary performance venues such as Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Performing Garage and Joyce Theater in New York, On the Boards in Seattle, Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt, REDCAT in Los Angeles and Fusebox Festival in Austin.
I’ve made short dance films on my own and with my former dance company, 33 Fainting Spells, and have curated dance film festivals and programs in Seattle. One of my films with 33 Fainting Spells, “Measure,” can be found on First Run Features’ Dance For Camera DVD, Vol. 1. I’m proud of this work, an intricate step-based duet set in the hallway of an abandoned boarding school. Dance film is a growing genre and I love hearing from dance majors who have studied “Measure” in college—I consider this an honor.
My live work often blends dance, theater, music and film so it’s not surprising that my first feature would incorporate dance, performance and music. Because my performances are experimental and often non-linear, film allows me to work more directly with story. I find this fulfilling, as my academic training—and first love as an artist—was fiction writing.
I received a Guggenheim Fellowship in choreography in 2006 and a 2010
United States Artists Oliver Fellowship in Dance. In 2012 I received
Artist Trust’s Arts Innovator Award.
What else do you want audiences to know about your film? My group and I created an experimental rock musical inspired by the American Revolution called “Gloria's Cause,” which is in turn the inspiration for “Improvement Club.” As we made the performance, I paid close attention to what we were going through. After we premiered I began writing the script, drawing as much from my collaborators’ perspectives as from my own. The cast was extremely generous, both in terms of allowing me to write scenes that capitalized on—exploited, rather!—their personalities and stories and then buying into this alternate version of our lives together and acting it out for the camera. The film would be nothing without the fascinating, talented artists in it.
As with any creative project, making the show had peaks and valleys; as I wrote I was drawn to our more pathetic moments. I hoped the film could illuminate the struggle inherent in making art, and show how human and fulfilling and funny that struggle can be. The script is around 60% distortion of events we experienced and 40% fiction.
I wrote much of “Improvement Club” in Austin, where I was working with theater company Rude Mechs. When I wasn’t rehearsing with the Rudes I had index cards spread out in my temporary home in South Austin.
With two exceptions, all the music in “Improvement Club” came from either the show, our band, Today!, or band members (also in the cast of “Improvement Club”).
What was your biggest challenge in developing this project? My production crew was the best, though it consisted of only six people including myself. It was really hard! Director of photography Ben Kasulke ("Keyhole," "Your Sister's Sister," "Safety Not Guaranteed") was also first camera operator and, together with second camera operator Jacob Rosen, did any gaffing we managed to do. We had a rotating team of sound recordists (no one person was available for our entire 16-day shoot); a production designer, Tania Kupczak, who was far more than a production designer; and a first assistant director, Jody Kuehner, who had been my assistant during the making of Gloria’s Cause and who helped me in millions of ways during every second of production though she had never worked on a film before. For the production phase that was it, plus the ensemble cast of eight (which is basically a slightly unruly, loving family that I adore and fuss over and that simultaneously drives me crazy in the best way). I loved our intimate, idiosyncratic set but there were plenty of moments when I was pretty sure I was going to crack. Even more than acting in my own film, that struggle to keep my head together while doing way too much was by far the biggest challenge I experienced—though it may have fed into my own character development in a helpful way.
On my next film I aim to keep the same sense of intimacy and positive atmosphere with a larger crew.
What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film? I’m very interested in learning what SXSW audiences come away with after seeing “Improvement Club”—I have no idea! As an artist I want to
create an experience that is open-ended enough for the audience to make their own connections. This stems from my own tastes in both performance and film—I enjoy leaving the theater or the cinema a little stirred up, with questions in mind that weren’t necessarily there when I walked in. Experiencing art is highly individual and I find that fascinating.
At the same time, “Improvement Club” tells a straightforward story with characters and events that are very close to my heart. For my debut feature I wanted to be extremely clear and thoughtful with those elements. I also wanted to express my point of view that performance is like a sacred conversation between artist and audience, and there is dignity, humility and need on both sides.
In “Improvement Club,” the group has to labor incredibly hard to complete what they’ve been working on. And in order to achieve their dream, they need someone to watch, listen, give a rat’s ass—they need their audience. At times their efforts seem doomed; at times it seems questionable whether or not it’s worth it. It might be nice if SXSW audiences come away from "Improvement Club" with a sense that paying attention to someone is about the kindest, most important thing you can do. And that doing what inspires you is worth whatever struggle is involved. And that anything worth doing is worth risking failing at.
Did any specific films inspire you? “Improvement Club” quotes both “Opening Night” and “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” by John Cassavetes because I am a hopeless Cassavetes fan. The profound humanity of his films—most apparent in the performances he drew from his actors—has made a strong impact on me. People often speak of overlooking technical elements of Cassavetes’ films in favor of his humanistic directorial genius but in the case of one scene in “Improvement Club” my DP, Ben Kasulke, and I actually took inspiration from the way a specific Cassavetes scene was shot. Which was a concession of sorts for Ben.
I have always been drawn in by the way in which David Lynch uses performance and theaters within his stories. The theater is a surreal, dreamlike place in films like “Mulholland Drive” and “Eraserhead,” a place of cryptic, unsettling, subconscious communication.
I am a native Pacific Northwesterner and find the landscape of Puget Sound incredibly inspiring—especially the Key Peninsula, where I spent countless weekends during my teen years. Though it was shot in British Columbia, the ferry scene from “Five Easy Pieces” had an influence on Act Three of “Improvement Club.”
Finally I have to admit that “Waiting for Guffman” came to mind repeatedly during script development for “Improvement Club” because of that film’s affection for a group of individuals united by their commitment to putting on a show.
What camera did you shoot on? We used a combination of the Canon 7D and Canon 5D.
Did you crowdfund? If yes, using what platform? I did two crowdfunding campaigns on USA Projects and one on Kickstarter. "Improvement Club" has been supported financially by more than 200 individuals since 2011 and, since our Kickstarter campaign is still active at the time of writing, that number is still growing. Some donors are old friends, some are new friends, some are collaborators and colleagues and some are complete strangers to me. The whole effect of crowdfunding is pretty magical to me—I have found it to be a powerful way to build a community around this film.
How much of your budget was made through crowdfunding?
What did you edit on? Editor Sean Donavan edited “Improvement Club” on Final Cut Pro 7.
What do you have in the works? My next feature film is based on a screenplay I’ve written with Dave Proscia, who is my boyfriend and artistic collaborator and plays Dave in “Improvement Club.” It’s about a break-in that kind of never ends. I’m also going back to the Key Peninsula of Puget Sound this spring to shoot a short dance film. And I’m working on a play that will premiere this fall called “The Clay Duke.” It’s a devised dance theater work, created in collaboration with an ensemble that includes several performers from “Improvement Club.” Inspired by a 2010 school board shooting in Florida, this work also looks at suicide in the work of Anton Chekhov and the extreme vigilantism of Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” film franchise.
Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.