'You Have to Give Zero F*cks': Michelle Morgan on Writing, Acting, and Directing Sundance Comedy 'L.A. Times'
What makes a film funny? Forget the punchlines—it's about the setup.
Great comedies are about creating a cohesive world that walks the fine line between exaggeration and reality, and first-time filmmaker Michelle Morgan has a fresh take on that in her Sundance premiere, L.A. Times. Being the writer, actor, and director on a feature is no easy task, but Morgan displayed a signature style in her debut, an Angeleno-based relationship comedy of manners starring Jorma Taccone, Dree Hemingway, Kentucker Audley, and herself among others.
No Film School sat down with Morgan at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to talk about writing her characters, creating tone, and the humiliation you need to embrace to be a successful filmmaker.
"Whenever I work on anything, I always start with the characters. That's where it begins for me."
NFS: L.A. Times has some flawless comedic timing, which doesn't just come from performances or the writing, but from how everything works together under a cohesive vision. How did you get each aspect to work together? What do you start with?
Morgan: Whenever I work on anything, I always start with the characters. When I contemplated what I would do for my first feature—because I wanted to make a feature for a while—I made sure that I could make the best of the things that I had available to me. And I knew that I wasn't going to have a lot of money, and I knew that it was going be contained. So I wanted to write about the people and places that I knew. That was where it started for me. I had a fun dynamic with my best friend, who was single for several years while I was in a relationship, and she was like our third wheel. We made our little trifecta. And all of her dating stories would sort of entertain us.
Morgan: Today she's actually happily married to an amazing guy; she's about to give birth in three weeks. So, there was a happy ending for my best friend and there's a happy ending for the character Baker (Dree Hemingway). That's where the story started, and it was very much inspired by those amazing Woody Allen comedies of the late seventies and the early eighties. Like, Husbands and Wives and Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan. And I wanted to focus on the conversations, the ridiculousness of life. These are first world problems. It's more of a throwback to those sort of things.
NFS: Creating that tone of ‘ridiculousness’ is not easy. There’s a very fine balance between drawing out the ridiculousness and, well, sh*tting all over your characters and their world. How did you make sure you were walking that line?
Morgan: I genuinely love all my characters. I hope that that comes across. Because, when you think about the people that are in your life that you care about the most, no one is perfect. Everybody has their flaws and their weaknesses. But they also have the thing that keeps you loving them. I think that that's how I felt about my characters. They're human! And of course they're slightly exaggerated.
"Part of it is learning to trust, where you need to let go of your expectations a little in order to make the film stronger."
In terms of the tone, I decided very early on there would be a particular way of speaking, a particular comedic rhythm. I really like doing one take of a long shot. It feels more alive in a lot of ways. It's not for everybody. Some people find it slow. To me, it feels more like a play and I think it's more fun for the actors because it's almost like the movie is in little pieces. It's little movies all strung together. And I think some of that is in the writing, but some of it was just, you get a rhythm going.
NFS: Is there something in your background that allowed you to you hone that ability to sense that rhythm?
Morgan: I don't really know how to answer that. I'm also a huge Whit Stilman fan. I'm very much a fan of conversational comedies. And oftentimes, for comedies that really rest on one thing, like conversation, it's all about the timing and it's all about the rhythm. I like fast talking, what you see in the more mannered comedies of the 1950s. Having been a fan of those and being a fast talker myself, that rhythm just naturally evolved.
"I really like doing one take of a long shot. It feels more alive in a lot of ways."
NFS: How did you manage acting and directing on set? Were you compelled to see every take and control of everything?
Morgan: When you're doing both things, you need a really good team and you need really good people who you trust. They're the ones that you're going to be relying on when you’re in front of the camera. The interesting thing about being an actor and the director is that, as a director, you can watch other actors, and even if they're not feeling a certain take you can tell that it's still good. When I'm acting, I can't tell how it looks, I can just tell that it didn't feel right. Being both the actor and director is where you find the common ground between both disciplines.
Part of it is learning to trust, where you need to let go of your expectations a little in order to make the film stronger. When you write a script, it’s going to take on a different life than it had in your mind when you are imagining it. When you bring it to the screen it takes on a completely different mind. And then when you start editing it, same with that. And then when you start adding music. There [are] all these different levels that take it to a place that you didn't really know it was going to be in.
I think that you need to be open-minded to do whatever works best for the film. It becomes a lot harder than it needs to be when you're tied to one specific thing. Like, "This is how I wrote it, this is how I thought it would be in my head." To make the film good, you have to let go of that, and whatever works best for the film is what you must do.
NFS: How did you give actors direction once you were on set, since I know you had little-to-no rehearsal time?
Morgan: I think we stuck very closely to the script. I think everybody knew that going forward, from the beginning. Knowing that they were really familiar with the script, I think that most actors are eager to have some kind of direction because they want to know that they are doing more or less what you intended for the character.
And, of course, they're going to bring so much to it. I like to give actors a space to discover it on their own and interpret the dialogue the way that they want to. And I feel like it's good to get different versions of things. I think that we had a pretty laid back set. All the actors are incredibly talented and I really trusted them. Once you get going, once you're up and running, I feel like the first couple days are weird because you don't know who the characters are yet. And then after you get through that first week it seems like you don't really need to give as much direction.
NFS: What was your relationship with your DP? What did you convey about the visuals you wanted and what was your working relationship?
Morgan: My DP Nicholas Wiesnet is really talented. And we spent a lot of time going through films that I loved like The Graduate and Manhattan and Wes Anderson. I love a good composition. So that was something that was really important to me. On top of that, Nicholas sees things that I cannot see. Like the cropped images where their heads are cut off or you see me in a reflection, that was all him that he discovered on set.
I really have to hand it to him because, when you have limited means, you have to shoot the same interiors over and over again. We shot beds several times. That one couch in the place where I'm house sitting, we shoot it in five different scenes and he found a different way to shoot it every single time. I think we were just really on the same page from the beginning.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge for you on L.A. Times?
Morgan: I think that the two greatest challenges for an independent film are financing and casting. A lot of times they are interlinked, and you can't get financing without a particular cast. But a particular type of actor might not sign on if there is no financing. It's like a bird in the hand situation, and it just keeps falling apart on different sides. You’re just like, will we ever line up where we have money and casting at the same time? For two years I didn't have that and then it finally came together.
"When you have limited means, you have to shoot the same interiors over and over again. He found a different way to shoot it every single time."
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice for other filmmakers?
Morgan: If you're a creative person, it's applicable to anyone in the arts, and you want to be a filmmaker, no one is going to ask you to be a filmmaker. You have to make a decision that you are going to be a filmmaker, no matter how long it takes and how hard it is. I could have easily given up a hundred and fifty-seven times, but something inside me was like, no! I have to make this film. So my advice would be, understand and accept that rejection is going to court you along every step of the way. Humiliation and rejection will always be a constant. You just have to believe enough in what you're doing to have that voice inside your head be louder. It's not going to be easy.
I mean, I have been to Q&A's where people talk about how easy it was and I want to go up there and bitch slap them. Like, "I had a benefactor and I knew this person who got into this person and here we are." That isn't the norm for most films, and especially films that are here at Sundance. I think people worked for years and sacrificed and worked every possible avenue to get their film made. And you have to. You have to think outside the box. You can’t have too much pride, because you’re going to need to ask for a lot of things. And favors. And support. I think you have to give zero fucks.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.