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L.A. Film Fest FUTURES | “How to Cheat” Director Amber Sealey on Ditching the Script

L.A. Film Fest FUTURES | "How to Cheat" Director Amber Sealey on Ditching the Script

Why She’s On Our Radar: Sealey’s first feature, the relationship drama “A Plus D,” played the regional film festival circuit (although Sealey initially generated interest from Sundance). Her latest effort, “How to Cheat,” premiered at the L.A. Film Festival last week to generally positive reactions. The film stars Kent Osbourne (most recently the star of Joe Swanberg’s “Uncle Kent” and a writer for “Spongebob Squarepants”) as a depressed chauffeur who decides to cheat on his wife (Sealey) when their sex life devolves into constant failed attempts to have a baby. Blending the look and feel of numerous DIY movies of the moment, Sealey still manages to buck innumerable conventions, which makes her career worth tracking–especially since she’s already writing another screenplay, “New Mexican Rain.”

More About Her: In addition to her filmmaking, Sealey has worked as an actress for several years. Her credits include Jake Paltrow’s “The Good Night” and the TV movie “Heatwave.” She attended drama school in London but moved to Los Angeles a few years ago.

Fun Facts: Sealey’s husband is a scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and works on its Mars Rovers, including the latest, “Curiosity.” She left the L.A. Film Festival mid-week to accompany him to Florida for its test flight ahead of the scheduled fall takeoff.

indieWIRE Asks: You’ve acted in many movies than you’ve directed. Do you prefer to work this way or would you like to direct more often?

I lived in London for a long time and worked with a theater company there, which got me really interested in making films. I made a 20-minute short with a friend back in London. I only produced and acted in it. That was like seven years ago. That lit the fire, that making films was really exciting to me. I felt like I had stories to tell in me. That’s when I made “A Plus D.”

How did your theater experience affect your transition into filmmaking?

I had been working with a theater company called Shunt, and we only did improvised theater. We don’t start with a script. We basically create the story out of different ideas, then improvise for months and months. The pieces were more like events, big soundscapes. You would have to, like, crawl through a small tunnel and watch a scene there. It was very interactive.

So, even though your movies contain the kind of DIY filmmaking familiar from a lot of recent American DIY cinema, your influences are much more experimental.

Well, when I was in London getting involved with improvised theater, I was also getting really interested in the Dogma movies, which are mainly improvised. That was how the idea emerged for me–doing improvised theater and seeing these movies, that’s how I decided to do my first film, “A Plus D.” In “How to Cheat,” there’s a brunch scene where you hear the kids playing in the background. The kids were really playing in the background. I like that. As an actor, I love doing big stuff with sets and costumes, but as a director, I’m most interested in the more simple, pared-down stuff. We shot in all the cast members’ houses. I just like that really raw look. That’s why I think video is such a great medium. It has that intimate look. Film is gorgeous; if I had the money shoot on it, I’d probably try. But I shot part of “A Plus D” on a Hi-8 camera. It just feels very real. To me, there’s something instantly relatable on a subconscious level about video.

Did you write any sort of screenplay?

No, I didn’t. I feel like the acting is so much more believable when it’s improvised. I’ll probably show my next script to the actors, but I don’t want them to memorize it. I’ll do some writing while we’re filming. I try and give myself as many options as possible for when we edit. I think it’s amazing that these other filmmakers, like the mumblecore guys, have come along. The mainstream audience is more likely to be comfortable with a low budget film now.

But you don’t feel like those movies have influenced you.

No, I don’t. When I made “A Plus D,” I was living in London and hadn’t heard about those movies. I would say I’m more influenced by the Dogma films. And I love Mike Leigh. I’ve heard that he does intense rehearsals beforehand. Also, Michael Winterbottom, Lukas Moodyson…but I’m still inspired by people like Joe Swanberg because he makes so many movies. I met him because my editor for “A Plus D” was at South by Southwest when “Nights and Weekends” was there, and since it was another relationship movie about a couple, he told me I should check it out. So we did a DVD swap in the mail, and then we met at Indie Memphis, because both of our films were there. Then I saw him in L.A. a few months later and said I was looking for a male actor who lived there. So he put me in touch with Kent. I saw the movie he wrote and acted in called “Dropping Out,” which was at Sundance in 1999 and I thought he was really great in it.

Do you think actors feel liberated when they work on projects like this?

As an actor, I’ve been on set with Gwyneth Paltrow and other big actors. If they want to change their dialogue and do fifty million takes, they can. But if you’re just an unknown actor, you do it perfect and then nobody talks to you again. So yes.

Have you thought about trying to pitch a screenplay on a bigger film?

I’m definitely trying to do that with my next film, “New Mexican Rain.” I want to direct it and improvised around the story, but it will require more of a budget. For “A Plus D,” I put limits on the production on purpose. I tried to go a little bigger with “How to Cheat.” With “New Mexican Rain,” it’s set in the eighties, and has more characters and locations, but there are certain things I won’t change. I really like working with as minimum a crew as possible. If I’m in charge, I don’t like a big circus.

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