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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Interview with Anna Martemucci

Anna Martemucci
By Joshua Handler

Until a short while ago, Anna Martemucci was best known as an actress and writer.  Now, she has directed her first feature, Hollidaysburg, which is a very good film.  The film was produced through the new TV show, The Chair, which challenged two filmmakers to make their first feature films based off of the same screenplay. The show is now on Starz. The following is an email interview with Anna Martemucci:

How did you get involved in The Chair

Chris Moore saw our short film series, Periods Films, and our feature film, Breakup at a Wedding. Because of seeing those, he hired my husband, Victor Quinaz, and I as writers on a web series that he hired my brother-in-law, Philip Quinaz, to star in. It was fun! During production on that, the idea of my taking on The Chair project came up very organically. I was realizing at the time that I needed to kick it up a notch and pursue directing for real, and I was depressed at how daunting I knew the landscape to be for anybody, but especially for people who aren’t men. No offense to men (love ‘em). So I was sort of dragging my feet about it. And then Chris Moore appeared like a beautiful angel, bathed in light, and offered me this opportunity. I said yes after making him buy me roughly seven milkshakes at various diners around Los Angeles. It’s just how I do business.

You had the unusual situation of having an entire crew (and then nation) watching you direct your first feature. Did that affect the way in which you directed the film? 

Hmmm. In a way it did, I think, because I was hyper aware of every word I said and every action I took. The cameras forced me to be so intentional with how I presented myself and what I said about other people. In a way the biggest challenge was also the biggest blessing. This whole thing has, I think, expanded my view of the world. It’s made it more complex and sometimes scary, but ultimately enriching and thrilling. Life right now feels a little like being on a roller coaster all the time; sometimes it’s exhilarating, and sometimes it’s puke-in-your-crotch terrifying. 

Were you aware of how Shane Dawson would be approaching the material? If you did, did that affect your approach?

I viewed this experience as very much my own and my team’s, completely separate from Shane and his team’s. We never ran into each other during production. Which was great because if I had thought too much about being in a competition, I would have never been able to focus on the task at hand, which was getting Hollidaysburg in the can. So because of the time crunch the project put me under, I sort of forced myself to pretend that the competition didn’t exist so I could have the brain space to make Hollidaysburg. I conducted myself like I was going into production on a real independent film, because I was, and anyone who’s done that can tell you, it’s an all-consuming task, even more so when cameras are there capturing every moment. I didn’t even manage to familiarize myself with Shane’s work until after production on Hollidaysburg

Your cast is remarkably talented.  How did you find them?

I know right? I am constantly alarmed at their talent and charm and my luck at finding them. Our casting director Donna Belajac had everything to do with this process. Donna found us our two lead girls and Petroff and Katie Krake right away, and then Scott Karazewski proved a much tougher nut to crack. I’m so glad I held out because man did Tobin kill that role. And man do his eyebrows match Phil’s eyebrows. It was less than a week-and-a-half from when he got the job to when he shot his first scene. I ended up finding him through Facebook, at the recommendation of an actor friend. Toby had a website up as an actor, so it was easy to see that he fit some major criteria for the role, like looking like Phil and having improv experience.  I called the cell phone he had listed on the website at 9:30pm on a Sunday night to ask him to audition. 

In the supporting roles we had written roles for whoever we could from my favorite talent pool: the players of Periods Films. We brought in Brian Shoaf, Julie Ann Dulude, David Harrison, Chris Manley. As well as the voices of Shaina Feinberg and Giovanni P. Autran.  Many of those guys were also in Breakup at a Wedding, our first film which Victor directed. Victor and Phil’s mom also makes a voice cameo.  

Also, one of the goals of our script rewrite was to create a role for Phil. I’ve always loved Phil’s natural charm and ability as an actor, and I’ve watched him grow over the years, so it was incredibly satisfying to put him in the movie in a big way. The pie storyline in the film really happened to our stunt coordinator, Jason Schumacher, while he was in college in Wisconsin. I had to email with several of his roommates in order to secure the unofficial rights to that story. At one point I received a novelization of the story one of them had written about the event. That’s how good a story we all thought it was I guess, me and these guys from Wisconsin I haven’t even met.

Did you have any creative input in the screenplay? Did you change anything from Dan Schoffer’s original screenplay?

This is tricky to talk about as we have signed a NDA with the WGA. The show was also asked by the WGA to not cover this aspect... But I think I can at least say that yes, Victor, Philip, and I, who also wrote Breakup at a Wedding together, were hired to to do an (uncredited) rewrite. Another funny thing about being in this “contest”, from a writer’s perspective, was that Chris Moore’s only rule with the rewrite was that we keep the first names of all the main characters and the essential premise from How Soon Is Now (Dan’s original title) for the sake of clarity on The Chair. We know a number of people have been upset at the fact that we were even allowed to rewrite it at all, and the show is fuzzy with the actual details of the competition and our participation in the writing process. 

Is any of Hollidaysburg based off of your own life? It felt very personal.

Hollidaysburg is an incredibly personal film to Phil, Victor, and I. So personal I’ve been texting a lot with my best friend from high school, making sure that she’s not going to egg my house when she sees it! She is an awesome person, by the way, and totally cool with this (shout out). 

I made an effort during the writing process too, to keep it personal for all of us. I would say things like “Phil! Describe to me any physical altercations you had as a teenage boy!” and then we’d go off and Phil would write the Skittles scene between Petroff and Scott in the basement. Victor wrote Tori’s parents from some very close to home inspiration. Like I said, the pie storyline was lifted from a friend of mine who did our stunts, just because I thought it was funny and cinematic and knew it wasn’t too out there because much of it had actually happened.  I have sort of a philosophy that the funniest stuff is the truest stuff. So I’m always trying to mine the truth for the little nugs of comedy I believe it holds within it, even if those nugs might be embarrassing. I have this feeling in my gut that I go by...when my writing makes me a little bit uncomfortable that I’m writing it, that’s when I know it’s worthwhile. 

The writer John Updike was also a huge inspiration for this project. In reminiscing about the time when I was eighteen, I realized how deeply his early short stories had affected me. My senior year of high school, I was failing out because I was kind of a bad kid and never showed up, and to prove to a guidance counselor who pissed me off (and to myself) that I wasn’t a complete piece of shit, I took a fiction writing course at Penn State while I was still in high school. The first book we read was Pigeon Feathers by John Updike.  His stories about growing up in a small Pennsylvania town resonated with me so much at a time when I was 17, the age of the characters, growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. So it felt right to delve into my love of early Updike during this project. I went deep on it and had all the actors read the story “The Happiest I’ve Been” before production began. The story completely captures the feeling of coming home after being gone briefly at college. It captured the odd realization of the fact that you might not see these people, who had become so constant to you they were almost like furniture, ever again.  In a way, Hollidaysburg is an interpretation of the feeling in that Updike story: an attempt to capture its essence and then make it funny.  What I love is that “The Happiest I’ve Been” was published by the New Yorker in 1959 and yet it still rang so true for me in the early 2000’s. I find the timelessness of certain human experiences to be very life-affirming and potentially unifying.  It’s why I want to tell stories. It also might be why I’m obsessed with coming of age stories: because they let you know that you’re not alone. Somebody else went through it too! Everybody went through it.

Updike wrote a really beautiful letter to his grade school and high school classmates right before he died, saying thank you to them for all of the amazing characters they provided him and how much he loved them all. I plan to do the same on my deathbed. I cannot wait to be on my deathbed and thank everyone! Not until deathbed though. Everyone from State College Area High School in State College, PA, not until deathbed. :)

So in conclusion, ahem, Hollidaysburg most definitely ended up being a love letter to my personal high school experience and, I hope, to growing up in general. 

Hollidaysburg has some John Hughes in it, some Big Chill, with some other films mixed in. Were these indeed influences? What other films influenced Hollidaysburg?

They were! From John Hughes it was mostly The Breakfast Club & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with a lot of the look of the film was inspired by Uncle Buck because Uncle Buck was a winter movie set in cozy interiors. Which is what I wanted to make. Other movies that I carried around with me as I made Hollidaysburg were Alexander Payne’s Election, David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, and Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls. And honestly, I also tried to carry with me the humor of Louis C.K., The Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson. I think of all four of those guys as comedians. I love all that stuff so much I don’t know what to do with myself. It sort of felt like all of these directors were guiding me through the process, because my theory was that if I just kept alive in me what I loved about each of those movies during filming, no matter how stressed I was, the film would turn out okay. Each one of those directors informed Hollidaysburg tremendously.

Did the finished film turn out like you originally envisioned or is it dramatically different?

It’s so funny, it’s sort of like having a baby, making a film, at least I imagine it is. Because in the same way people say they have trouble reconciling that there was a time their kid didn’t exist once they’re there, I sort of feel that way about HollidaysburgIt’s here now, it’s what it is; it has arrived! Which is a pretty great feeling. 

The process of filmmaking for me, turned out to be very much about letting the film reveal itself to me and employing very talented people to help reveal it.  During production, the game for me was to stay extremely focused and efficient about what I wanted while remaining as loose with improv and on-the-fly-rewriting of scenes as my shooting schedule would allow. Then in post, the film revealed itself through trial and error in the edit room with Charlie Porter, with special guest stars Victor and Philip Quinaz. 

There are certain moments in Hollidaysburg that are completely unlike anything I imagined because we literally found them on the day. The 5 point turn that Tori does with her van as she leaves her and Scott’s first romantic encounter was something that popped up on the day as a funny idea to me, and Meena Singh and I were given roughly 3 minutes to execute that shot by my hard-ass assistant director, Siena Brown. Those two, along with many others, got this movie in the can for me in such a great way.

There are many other scenes in the movie that either have smatterings of improvisation or were completely improvised. The “Florida Men” scene in the car where Phil and Scott read Florida newspaper headlines to each other, Phil, Tobin and I worked out on the day. Phil had sent me the headlines, which were real, earlier, but we hadn’t had time to work them into a version of the screenplay. So we had a little writers’ meeting in the car while Meena set up, and came up with how the scene would go through talking it out with each other. 

There were a lot of scenes I knew were weak going into shooting, because we simply ran out of time on the screenplay. Philip, Victor and I did our pass on the story in about thirty days: the month of December...not a lot of time for a screenplay. If left to my own devices, I take about 4 months. If Victor is prodding me, we can get it done in 2 or 3. But one month while also dealing with pre-production was brutal. Pretty sure I ruined Quinaz Christmas because I kept trying to hold writing meetings during dinner. 

All that being said, having what I considered to be a weak script going into production turned out to be a blessing, because it freed me up from any preciousness I usually would have about my own writing. And it made me hyper aware of the fact that if the movie had any chance of working, I had to lean on improvisation. 

Victor, Phil, and I have been playing with filmed improv for the last few years with Periods Films, so we had developed a working style and way of shooting improv and telling stories with it that I was able to adapt to work for Hollidaysburg. We played all the lines kind of loose and let a lot of improvisation in, although the screenplay we wrote is very much alive in the movie. The actors I’d worked with before knew the drill, and the actors who were new to us seemed to love this open, collaborative way of working. 

Because of this approach, Scott and Heather’s last scene together at the diner with the chicken soup turned out to be unrecognizable from our script and largely improvised by Tobin and Claire. The scene where Scott goes to Tori’s door and she rejects him, I threw out right before we shot because I didn’t like it any more, and again, Phil, Toby, Rachel and I stood in the cold on a porch in Mt. Lebanon, and worked out what the hell Scott was going to tell this girl Tori when she opened the door. 

I held the film in my mind and sort of rewrote it as we went, and it was exhilarating. I live for that kind of collaboration and spontaneity with other human beings. It’s just the most fun thing in the entire world. It’s magic.

Did you view The Chair? If so, what was that experience like? What did you learn from watching yourself direct?

I’ve seen episodes 1 through 9. The tenth episode is still being cut. I learned a tremendous amount about myself during this experience and I continue to! It’s all a process. I got on the phone with my oldest brother after a good review yesterday and he said, “You know you’re the only one who ever doubted you,” and I burst into tears. One, that definitely isn’t true brother, but two, I just feel so lucky that I got to make a movie with people who were so damn good at what they do. Everyone involved in Hollidaysburg was a true professional, and I’m so proud of the team, and grateful that I was able to find the right talent that could make this vision happen in such a short time, willing to work in frigid environments for so very little money. I’m so lucky and it was all a blast.

What’s next?

Periods Films’ third feature film, PERIODS., comes out this November from Oscilloscope.  PERIODS. is a film in the vein of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life or Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, in which we take the viewer through the history of the world with docu-commentary by God himself (real name “Tim”). We hope you like it! 

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