'People, Places, Things' Director James Strouse on Preparing with DPs but Improvising with Actors
Sundance 2015 comedy People, Places, Things stars Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Concords). Writer-Director James Strouse tells us about finding collaborators, and working with DPs and actors (hint: prepare with the former, improvise with the latter).
If you loosen up the grip, and allow for the possibilities of other creative people to add stuff to it, you can get something really wonderful and bigger than the original idea.
A transcript of the video interview follows.
No Film School: The process of casting Jemaine Clement, did you have him in mind?
James C. Strouse: I didn't write it for Jemaine, but I could have never found anyone better. He fits this part, the sensibility of the character so perfectly. He ad-libbed so many lines that when we were doing the sound mix we played this game, "Jim or Jemaine." I had the script and we were asking people, "do you think this was actually written or did Jemaine come up with It?" It was hard to tell because he was so in sync and his sensibility, his comedy is very situational and character-driven. Across the board, they are all funny people, but no one was ever trying to do something that wasn't appropriate for the scene. I got so much usable stuff. It was really great.
There was an actor that I was trying to do a project with who told me to watch out for laughter on set because it's probably just people reacting to something that they haven't heard.
NFS: That's one of the reasons why I've never found myself able to write comedy because I know that when I see a line for the tenth time it's not going to be funny to me anymore. Is that part of where improv comes from? In the edit room did you have questions about something that you thought was funny?
JCS: There was an actor that I was trying to do a project with who told me to watch out for laughter on set because it's probably just people reacting to something that they haven't heard. Everyone knows what's coming because of the script, and it's just purely unexpected but it might not actually be applicable to the scene and or actually that funny. I always had that in my mind, like, "all right, just don't be fooled." I laughed a lot on set by unexpected things and then I laughed later in the editing room. Then they made their way into the final cut and other people laughed. I don't know what to say. I think there is some wisdom to be careful, because sometimes just anything different seems funny. With these guys, they were all funny in the right ways.
NFS: Jemaine's character is a graphic artist in the film. You are also a visual artist. What is your process like, do you do story board? Is it more of like a shot list? Visually how did you approach the film?
JCS: I doodle. I draw comics. I have a website with my hand drawn comics. I got a nice chance to direct in pre-production with the comic book artist who did the drawings. Gray Williams is a fantastic artist, but he wanted direction. He was like, "This is your idea. I don't know. You say they're in bed, what kind of bed is it and where is it on the page and are there nightstands?" I had to be very specific and I drew out exactly what the composition was.
Chris Teague, the DP and I shot-listed the entire thing. Every scene. Chris is incredibly prepared. He had a spreadsheet with each and every shot of each and every scene. Then a column for his notes, a column for my notes, a column for producer's notes if they wanted to look and weigh-in on anything. Our biggest day was at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. We had every minute of that day planned out. We had two cameras. We were ready. There were no real surprises.
Other times I've had DPs where we make a shot list and then it's like, "Oh yeah, we made a shot list," but it's disregarded for some reason. Chris and I stuck to this. We veered off when we needed to or when a better idea came up. I found tremendous relief and satisfaction in sticking to that plan.
I generally don't like to talk about the project initially. I just like to have coffee and talk.
NFS: As far as editors, DPs or collaborators, what was the process like of finding them? Is it more of a conversation for you? Have you worked with them before?
JCS: This was a all new group of people for me and I want to take them with me everywhere. We just clicked. Generally, from crew to actors, across the board, I generally don't like to talk about the project initially. I just like to have coffee and talk. For instance, Jemaine and Jessica Williams and I spent about three hours just hanging out. That was pretty much our rehearsal.
I've learned it's as much about a match of your personalities as anything. You're only meeting with people hopefully whose work you admire in the first place. That's not in question. You know they're going to do a good job. But, do you like each other? Do you want to have another coffee? That's really important, I've found. Having the confidence to let people make some choices but also to give them the parameters so it has a unified vision of it. In Grace is Gone, I had a very tightly controlled idea of what I wanted that film to be. The idea didn't necessarily match the finished product. I thought that was failure at the time. But then I made The Winning Season with Sam Rockwell and I realized if you loosen up the grip, and allow for the possibilities of other creative people to add stuff to it, you can get something really wonderful and bigger than the original idea.