One of things we love about films is how they transport us a different time and place. Perhaps nothing has such a strong hold on our memories as our first steps towards adulthood. For me that period is fully equated with my visits and eventual move to NYC. When I produced The Ice Storm it was a daily trip back to my most awkward moments. I return there when ever I enter the canon of NYC Coming-Of-Age tales; they are truly a genre on their own. For a filmmaker to walk into this community, requires great courage and knowledge, ambition and research. I was happily reassured viewing Gavin Wiesen’s THE ART OF GETTING BY, for it was clear that Gavin did not take this responsibility lightly. His guest post today reveals that he also had what is ultimately most required in that daunting task: a great deal of love for all that has walked there before (and he thankfully has that in ample supply).
When I was a kid, John Hughes movies literally seemed like a gift from god, something made for the older kids, containing road maps to the coming challenges of growing up, while being hilarious and truthful and occasionally disarmingly sad. A little later, in my early teens, I rented VHS copies of The Graduate and Harold and Maude and watched them over and over until the tape wore out. In film school, studying masterpieces like The 400 Blows and Murmur of the Heart, we would then go see a movie like Dazed and Confused in the theater to simply be entertained. We maybe didn’t admit it at the time, but it spoke just as precisely to how we felt about our recently-ended adolescence as those earlier seminal movies did for their generation.
In sitting down to write what would become The Art of Getting By, I needed to get very honest with myself: what did I truly want to see, and what emotions would be worth exploring? Not, What new ground could I possibly break, trying to invent new revisionist genre hybrid fantasies, but what would be authentic to who I was as a writer? What world would I want to live inside of for a few months, that would bring me pleasure and ultimately move me (and therefore, hopefully others)?
I had just reached my early thirties and was looking back at my high school years for the first time with nostalgia, new-found understanding, and an aching sense of loss. To recreate that world, to go back and revisit the intense feelings of first freedoms and first love and bring to life the fun and the terror of that exact moment between childhood and adulthood, was at times like entering a trance. I started from a place of memories and invented from there. I righted some wrongs. Forgave some people and thanked others. Communed with my more clever, more hard-boiled and yet more troubled alter-ego on the page. Got the girl, sort of. But more than anything, I experienced the feeling of being young again through my teenage characters — and realized they weren’t that different from us, just a little more new to feeling lost, a little more raw and open.
Getting the movie made was a different story. The independent film landscape was changing; there was less financing, less distribution, so many competing projects for so little money. Cast was becoming more important than ever. It wasn’t and still isn’t an easy task to put together a delicate, potentially familiar coming of age drama with a first time director and teenage leads. But I believed in the story, had great partners who did too, who had made a few small movies but not so many that they weren’t still hungry to do it again. We found the balance in the script between the fun entertaining elements and the part I was even more interested in — training a microscopic lens on the emotional experiences we go through at that age. I made a look book that became a compendium of every influence I wanted to pour into the movie — inspiring cinematographers; photographs of New York locations; watercolor character portraits; frame grabs from Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, and Leos Carax movies; the Bob Dylan posters on the main character’s bedroom walls and the books he reads on his shelves.
We came to the decision that we would have to make the movie for half of what we thought we needed, in less days than the script required, or never make it at all. I reassured myself with the possibly deluded conviction that the run-and-gun nature of the production, on the streets of New York, would fit the story like a glove, keep it loose and honest, that we would get to capture some happy accidents, and that the many inevitable imperfections would help to make it its own thing. We got extremely lucky with our cast, really good actors who liked the script and happened to be free within the four weeks we had to shoot. We pulled together a hard-working, enthusiastic crew. We managed to get it done.
Every generation needs its own coming of age movies, to reflect their image back at them and tell them their own stories. In the case of TAOGB, I was telling my own generational story, filtered through current times. That subliminal harkening back to the dim pre-internet early nineties of my high school days is imprinted on the fabric of the movie. I wanted that to resonate with the current economic climate, and hopefully with a persistent search for authenticity in popular culture. More than anything, I would like to think it lends a timelessness to a story that I’d like kids to call their own, and avoid the disposability of most mainstream movies marketed to teens. As technology gets cheaper and cheaper and independent movies may perhaps become more democratic and more affordable to make, I hope that it gets easier to tell personal stories and find ways to connect them with audiences.
Gavin Wiesen was born and raised in New York City and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, majoring in film production. After college he worked as a script reader and assistant to producers and directors including Bruce Paltrow, before writing and developing several screenplays and television pilots. The Art of Getting By is his first feature.