Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
Director: Daryl Wein. Writer: Peter Duchan, Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones
A young New York couple who, desperate to escape their ennui, but fearful of life apart, decide to intricately strategize their own break up. Cast: Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones, Julie White, Peter Friedman, Andrea Martin, Pablo Schreiber, La Chanze, Olivia Thirlby, Ebon Moss-Bachrach [Courtesy of SXSW]
“Breaking Upwards” will screen in the Narrative Features Competition.
Please introduce yourself…
Hello. My name is Daryl Wein. I am 25 years old. I live in New York City. I weigh 145 lbs. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut. I had a red mullet and listened to Whitney Houston. Then I booked a tampon commercial and became an actor. But also a director. But not of tampon commercials. After high school, I attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I like to watch Eric and Tim’s Awesome Show Great Job. I also think I may be turning into an agoraphobic. I don’t leave the house!
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I started messing around with video right when Apple first released the iMac with iMovie. I was in 9th grade I think, and I remember playing around a lot with my dad’s old hi-8 video camera and making funny videos with my friends. I led a typical privileged, upper-middle class life, so the ability to access technology was always at my fingertips both in school and at home. Playing around with the camera, shooting silly things, quickly evolved into a fascination for telling stories. I enrolled in a summer film intensive for college students senior year of high school at USC. That was the first time I got to play with actual film. I made a 16mm short about an American soldier held in solitary confinement during the Korean war. I hired an actor off the street in L.A. He took all his teeth out right before we shot. Very weird. When I graduated from NYU, I produced, directed and co-wrote (with Peter Duchan) a short drama called “Unlocked,” about a guy who asks a teenager on the street to donate her hair to charity. It played at the Tribeca Film Festival. Last year I premiered my feature documentary, “Sex Positive” at SXSW, so I’m really happy to be going back with my debut narrative feature.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
“Breaking Upwards” was inspired by an open relationship I was in with my girlfriend a few years ago. As a means to ultimately separate, we decided to strategize our break up over a period of 12 months. It was neurotic and insane, but somehow worked for us and, rather than process the insanity of it all, I immediately entered filmmaking mode, and saw a totally unique but entirely relatable story that I wanted to share. I felt like we had seen enough relationship movies about the moment a couple falls in love. I was more curious about how you grow apart with someone, and what it’s like to negotiate that space. There was also an aspect of frustration that fueled it, as I had been seeing a lot of films that were supposed to be representing my generation in complicated relationships that I felt were falling short on a lot of levels; craftsmanship being the most obvious.
I thought the idea of a couple breaking up together, not just breaking up, was really funny. But it was also very sad. I felt like there weren’t a lot of movies about people my age that were really addressing those issues in an interesting way. There certainly were a lot of movies being made by twenty-somethings, and are continuing to be made, but just because you can get a bunch of friends together and film them doesn’t make it worthy of other people watching it. Or caring.
I collaborated on this film with my girlfriend/writer/actress/producer/caterer, Zoe Lister-Jones and my good friend, Peter Duchan, co-writer/associate producer, to try to create a fully realized story with a strong beginning, middle and end. It was very important for us to take the classic romantic-comedy model and adjust it so that it felt fresh, contemporary, and complex. The reason this was important was because we wanted it to be clear we were working in a specific genre but allow people to perceive the genre in a new light. We were lucky enough to assemble a cast of brilliant New York actors who lent a lot of variety to our voices as writers. In the end, I think we’ve created a thoughtful story that asks a lot of questions about how to navigate co-dependency. At least, I hope we did!
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
We spent about a year on and off writing this movie. We wanted to make sure the story was nailed down on the page, and not just left to the ether when we got on set. We worked really, really hard on the script to make sure it was complete in every way. We made sure all of the character arcs felt full. We worked hard on structure. We made sure dialogue was both insightful and funny. In seeing how long and arduous (and often unfulfilling) a process it can be to get a film made classically, we decided to make it on our own.
We got our own financing through family. We cast mostly actors we knew who we love. A lot of people Zoe had worked with as an actress or I had worked with in some capacity directing or acting. A few others we reached out to conventionally by contacting their agents. Zoe and I had never produced a narrative feature before, so there was a lot of learning along the way, but we played by the rules within a meager budget, which we’re both really proud of. We shot under a SAG Ultra Low Budget contract, were able to obtain shooting permits from the city through our filmmaker friends who let us hop on their insurance. Our good friend is a DP. He shot my documentary, and has really been a godsend, since he has a full camera/lighting package, and worked entirely on spec. He is amazing. His name is Alex Bergman. bbgun.com
Our crew came almost entirely from craigslist. They also worked for free. Some of them were our friends who helped us as a favor. We had a very small crew. 5 people on average, sometimes less, sometimes more. It was great to have a small crew because things moved quicker. The actors felt less pressure. It was very intimate. Very free. I tried to let the actors feel as much freedom in front of the camera as I could allow. I come from an acting background, so I knew letting the actor feel like they were in control, and not being judged was essential. In terms of preparing for shots, I told my DP everything had to do with the actors. I didn’t want to interfere by being too stylish. I also don’t like handheld. It feels really easy and overdone. I guess the cool thing about the process was that it was totally guerilla but highly crafted. And that’s what we intended from the outset. Also, I want to mention our amazing, hard working composer who did our entire original soundtrack, Kyle Forester. You can get it on iTunes!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
One of the writing challenges was to make sure we were constantly pushing ourselves to strike a truthful balance between what actually happened between Zoe and I in real life, and the fictional world we were creating on the screen. It was always a challenge to make sure we were capturing as many sides of the deconstruction of the break up as we possibly could. In some earlier incantations of the script, we struggled with repetition. Eventually, we got beyond that. We worked hard to try to make the screenplay feel like it had movement in terms of emotion and plot.
Another big challenge was juggling everything that needed to get done between Zoe and I from a producerial perspective. Together, we co-starred, co-produced, co-wrote (with Peter Duchan), Zoe was catering, and I was editing and directing. We had a lot on our plates. There were times when I didn’t know if we could do it all. It was really difficult to focus on what mattered at times. We were up many late nights worrying did we forget to pack a prop, or print out the sides for the actor. I didn’t have really any time to prepare or rehearse my scenes. I was too busy producing. Or directing. That felt like the biggest challenge to me.
I was constantly trying to keep the production moving. We only had a 1st AD a few days, so I was also 1st AD’ing for myself. Sometimes I was slating before takes then calling action then taking a moment before acting the scene. Just trying to make sure we would finish scenes by the end of the day, or before we had to be out of a location, or get an actor done according to their schedule was a constant challenge. We also didn’t have much money, so everything had to be done efficiently. We were catering for ourselves. Costume designing for ourselves. Trying to keep track of wardrobe for each character. Parking cars. Carrying equipment. Sending SAG the actors’ time sheets. The list goes on and on.
Also all of our actors were in plays at the time, so we had to shoot over the course of three months intermittently in order to cater to their various schedules. Because we were paying next to nothing, we didn’t have the luxury of booking someone’s time on our terms, so it was up to Zoe and I to juggle a lot of scheduling conflicts, which was quite difficult. But it’s also the beauty of independent film making! We’re masochists at heart!
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I would define success as a filmmaker as getting to work on projects you believe in on a consistent basis. Having a constant stream of projects coming your way is the dream. My goal is to be able to support myself making the films I want to make for the rest of my life.
What are your future projects?
I can’t say because I don’t want anyone to steal my ideas! But please contact me if you are interested in working with me and helping me get them made! I have a great idea for my next film!