A struggling actress and an aspiring playwright reach for the sublime while performing workplace scenarios in this Slamdance 2017 Dramatic Grand Jury Prizewinner.
At some point in their careers, many filmmakers and actors will likely find themselves working in industrial training videos or even live corporate workplace scenarios. While these projects may not be the pinnacle of a creative's career, they certainly pay the bills.
Dim the Fluorescents, the Slamdance 2017 Dramatic Grand Jury Prize award winner, takes a humorous view of corporate training sessions from the perspective of two women determined to make their creative mark through this most unlikely of venues. The film follows Audrey (Claire Armstrong) and Lillian (Naomi Skwarna) as they strive to perform their master work for a live corporate training at a hotel conference.
No Film School had the opportunity to talk to the film's director, Daniel Warth, about his inspirations for the film, its unique shifts in tone and story structure, and his trust in the audience to make their own connections.
"I was just fascinated by the notion of taking the work that you have and trying to turn it into what you want it to be."
No Film School: One of the things I really loved about Dim the Fluorescents is how the main characters pour all of their creative ambitions into these workplace training scenarios. Did this idea come from your own experiences in the corporate training world?
Daniel Warth: It did indeed. I was doing work in that field on the directing/shooting/editing side. I had made a corporate video and sort of phoned it in because it was a quick paycheck for me. Then I was hired again to document a seminar where they had two actors come out and demonstrate mediation techniques. It was two 27-year-old men and one was playing the other's father with Alzheimer's, and it was this very heavy, tear-filled scenario that they were playing out at the foot of this boardroom table.
I found it very funny and a little bit sad. But I was also kind of embarrassed that I had phoned in my corporate video and that they were so committed to the quality of their craft that they did a good job in spite of the adversity of that environment. I was just fascinated by the notion of taking the work that you have and trying to turn it into what you want it to be.
"We were trying to write a short and we accidentally wrote a feature."
NFS: How did you decide to take that experience of seeing those two men and turn it into a story about these two women?
Warth: It started for me as one woman. I was kind of drawing on backstage drama like Opening Night or All About My Mother. I thought it would be funny and interesting to do a movie like Opening Night with a Gena Rowlands-type powerhouse actor who has to make a corporate training seminar performance as real as she can. When I started working with my co-writer, Miles Barstead, we decided we wanted to make it a duo. We were excited to write snappy dialogue, so we were like, "We gotta have two characters."
It grew organically out of that. We were trying to write a short and we accidentally wrote a feature. It just kept growing as we got more and more interested in Audrey and Lillian and their past; what else is going on in their lives around the main story about the hotel conference? To try and make it feel as lived-in as possible, we did a lot of work developing the world, the preparations for this hotel conference.
NFS: That's a monumental shift from making a short to making a feature. How did you accomplish your goal after you changed the scope of your project?
Warth: It was a little bit easier at first because it was just on paper. Miles and I just decided we liked it better as a feature. We weren't trying to write a feature initially, so that pressure wasn't there from the beginning. It just kind of grew and we were like, "Great!" And then, it dawned on me, "Now we have to make a feature."
I teamed up with Josh Clavir, who has produced a couple shorts that I had directed, and he and I started figuring out how to make it. Any feature is difficult, but Miles and I weren't really sure whether it was ever going to get made, so we were just writing whatever we wanted it to be. That meant we had written in lots of extras, and we'd written in quite a lot of locations and stuff like that. But God bless Josh, he was unfazed by that and he was excited to do it, to find a way to do it. So we made it eventually, it took a few years.
NFS: Early on in the film, it has an arch comedic tone and then it shifts to a more naturalistic drama. And then structurally, the second half of the film breaks away from traditional models of cross-cutting between two parallel storylines and instead tells these stories in sequence, back-to-back, yet out of time. Can you tell us how you came to these decisions about tone and structure during the writing, the directing, and the editing of the film?
Warth: I think the tone was a little bit evident to us from the beginning. That first corporate seminar experience I had, remembering the various emotional responses I had to it, suggested to me that we were going to do something that was funny and sad. What I think Miles and I were both excited about doing was setting it up as a ridiculous thing right from the beginning. A viewer might go, "They actually think this is going to work?" And then over the course of the film, making the audience hopefully really want it to succeed.
"It was an interesting emotional journey to go through as the writers and we felt like that's what we wanted to inflict on the viewer."
That was what I was interested in, taking a ridiculous notion of succeeding in theatre through this hotel conference that I think you kind of chuckle at when it's first introduced, and then really growing uneasy that it might not work out. It was an interesting emotional journey to go through as the writers and we felt like that's what we wanted to inflict on the viewer.
In terms of the structure, we arrived at that organically. Miles and I both like films and books that play with time that way. It was an interesting how that happened with our script. We decided it was more efficient for us to split up and write different sections. One of us would take a section where Audrey was alone and [the other would take a section where] Lillian was alone. We liked the way that those played as isolated chunks because it really made you feel the absence of the other person.
There was an emotional logic to doing that strange thing. It felt like when you're with Lillian, you're able to wonder what Audrey is up to, and vice versa. And with Audrey, you can feel a little bit free of Lillian and see how that affected them emotionally by using this structure.
NFS: Because the film shifts in tone, the style of the camera work also shifts accordingly. Could talk to us about your plan for how you wanted to shoot the film, in terms of tone?
Warth: I tried to structure the film visually according to how Audrey and Lillian were feeling their lives were going. At the beginning of the film, it's all very precise, smooth camera moves. It's designed to feel like the pieces fit into an overall sequence. Like, when they run their big hotel performance for the first time and it feels pretty dry, I decided to just shoot it with coverage, which I hate doing, but it felt right. You feel that this sequence is a little bit dull in a way. And then, as things go off the rails, pardon the pun, we tried to capture the feeling of things being different and that things were a bit more frenetic, and I guess that felt a bit more real.
NFS: I really felt like your leads brought to life this constant yearning for something bigger against this daily reminder of the difficulties to get any creative endeavor out into the world. What was your casting process to find them?
Warth: I worked with Claire on a previous short film, and while I was making that short film, I had the idea for what eventually became Dim the Fluorescents. I was so impressed with her ability to be so vulnerable and commanding on stage, she is for sure one of the best stage performers I've ever seen. I felt like the idea of Fluorescents depended on somebody like that.
Like I said, when I was first conceiving it, I was like, "It's got to be like Gena Rowlands." Well, that's a tall order, right? Once I started to see Claire and become familiar with her work as an actor, I was like, "This is the only person that could do this." And I asked her what she was up to after we did the short film and she said, "I'm doing this corporate motivational seminar and I'm doing Macbeth kind of simultaneously." And I was like, "Okay, you're Audrey."
I was having trouble finding somebody that felt like how I imagined Lillian to be, so I reached out to Naomi who I went to high school with. I didn't know what she was doing, but I knew she acted in high school. I found out later she was doing stage work, but I didn't know that at the time.
"She said, 'I'm doing this corporate motivational seminar and I'm doing Macbeth kind of simultaneously.' And I was like, 'Okay, you're Audrey.'"
Naomi is also a writer; that's primarily how I knew her. She wrote for a bunch of quite big publications and I didn't know if she was acting. So we had brought people in that we thought were like the characters of Audrey and Lillian to some degree. I knew Naomi had been a theatre critic, and I think that was helpful for us, too. We felt like she was credible in the world.
We brought Naomi in to meet Claire. They had never met, I don't think. And they instantly felt like old friends. They had an amazing chemistry. We had them do an improvised scene, we said, "Okay, you guys are brainstorming a workplace safety demonstration, go!" And we were killing ourselves laughing [at their performance]. It was just perfect for us. Some of the dialogue that they made up in that audition we actually stole verbatim and put it in our workplace safety information session sequence.
NFS: Both of the characters in your film and the film itself touch upon the idea of trusting the audience to make their own connections. So I was wondering how did this concept affect how you made your own film?
Warth: There's a playful admission in the film that we're putting some of it on the audience. People are always nervous if you don't say something right away or somebody leaves a voicemail but they don't say, "Just so we're clear, I'm this person." And I understand their concerns about that, but I guess it comes down to sensibility. Miles and I as viewers like to work a little harder than that. So we expected our audience to work a little harder as well, in some cases. I think maybe the biggest kind of "ask" is that you don't fully understand the extent of their relationship and what they've been through until the final scene.
NFS: Your film follows this interesting side story with the character of Fiona. It seems to be a story that a lot of films wouldn't include, but I think Fiona's story gives an interesting perspective on how younger creative are influenced by people older than them pursuing their creative ambitions.
Warth: The character of Fiona was inspired by something that happened to me where I was doing a performance and was asked at the last minute to incorporate somebody's young niece or daughter, I think. I found it funny that somebody would hire someone to do something and say, "Oh, and you've got to include my niece in it as well." So it was originally just a hurdle for Audrey and Lillian to overcome, particularly because Fiona wasn't the strongest actor. But what we realized was that Fiona gave the film an outside perspective of what was happening to Audrey and Lillian. It forced certain things to be externalized because there was a person there when all this stuff was going down, so Fiona's part expanded as the film went on.
I think she does capture a part of what is embarrassing about starting out as an artist. There's a motif in the film that I think the people who aren't working primarily as artists are envious of the people that are. And the people that are working as artists are envious of the people who are not. It's that "grass is always greener" thing going on in the film. So Fiona's just learning about empathy and learning that the world is bigger than her concerns and there are things she can and can't affect around her.
NFS: What was the most challenging thing about making Dim the Fluorescents, and what lessons did you learn from that challenge that you could share with other filmmakers about the process?
Warth: Probably the easy answer would be money. I would say not having enough money—most challenges would fit under that umbrella, I think. The advice I would give, other than get more money if you can, is I think it's good to not say no right away.
For example, there's a sequence in the film that we wrote and I remember instantly saying, "When I send this to [our producer] Josh, he's going to be very upset," because we wanted the characters to invite a bunch of important, influential figures to their big performance. So we decided that the most exciting way to do that cinematically would be this sequence where you cut to all the characters, introduce them, almost like they're assembling the team of drillers in Armageddon or something.
"Just decide what you want the film to be and take as long as it takes to get it right."
So we wrote the sequence where we basically added ten characters and locations, and you know, you probably shouldn't do something like that. But I guess what was nice again about the way that Josh and I worked together was that when we were set on an idea, we found a way to do it. And that was something where it was like, "Okay, maybe we can find a room in the location of some other scene, it doesn't look like it's part of the same place and film this agent there."
So I think it's good to not say no right away. Just decide what you want the film to be and take as long as it takes to get it right, which in our case was about four years.