Zachary Quinto is known for playing roles with inhuman characteristics—either literally, in the case of his young Spock in the recent Star Trek films, or metaphorically, as the big, bad Sylar on Heroes. That’s part of why seeing him as a very human, very damaged figure in Aardvark (which the actor also produced) is so refreshing. 

In Aardvark, Quinto is Josh, a sensitive soul whose imaginative hallucinations become aggressive as his famous actor brother, Craig (Jon Hamm) returns to their hometown after many years away. Quinto’s therapist Emily (Jenny Slate) complicates matters when she falls for Hamm, blurring ethical lines in a situation where reality itself is already blurred.

Opposite Quinto’s character is Sheila Vand. Known for playing enigmatic protagonists in recent indie favorites like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Women Who Kill, she is perfectly cast as Quinto’s possibly imaginary love interest, Hannah.

Director Brian Shoaf has created a world for these protagonists wherein you never quite know whose mind you’re inside, and it's all the more impressive by the fact that Aardvark is his debut feature. No Film School sat down with Shoaf and Sheila Vand just before their world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss the film’s five-year path to production, portraying mental illness on screen, advice for first-time directors, and more.

“There was a version where it was going to be everybody in sleeping bags in a cabin somewhere, shooting it, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

No Film School: Brian, you have a background in playwriting. How was the writing process different for film?

Brian Shoaf: That actually happened quite a while ago, in a very organic way, as far as just writing and wanting to write screenplays. I have an MFA in playwriting from UCLA, and while I was there, Sheila was an undergrad as an actress. It was just a very small world, and I was constantly looking for other interesting things I might be doing while I was there. A lot of my friends who I’d known in New York had moved out to L.A., and they all went into the film industry. It just seemed to make sense; why wouldn’t I be trying to do this? Then, I found out that I was actually better at it.

Sheila Vand: I don’t know if that’s true. You’re a great playwright.

Shoaf: I don’t know. Maybe because of having a different kind of sensibility, and I think people whose job it is to read screenplays can get kind of mired in feeling like they’re seeing the same thing every day. Some of the early stuff that I wrote was probably not unlike Aardvark—very character-driven, dialogue-driven stuff that wasn’t so far removed from something you could do on a stage.

Then, I think I went off into the woods a little bit and started trying to write what I thought those people who read scripts for a living wanted to read. Then, I think I actually lost quite a bit of steam, and this was sort of a return to something that felt more like a play, I suppose.

AardvarkSheila Vand in 'Aardvark'Credit: Linda Kallerus

NFS: Why did you feel that this project needed to be on screen instead of the stage?

Shoaf: To be totally frank, the initial idea was for a stage play, and it would have been essentially Hannah, Josh, and Craig.

Vand: Oh, wow.

Shoaf: The shtick would have been that, as soon as Josh meets Hannah, he has to figure out if she’s Craig or not, because in that context, Craig would have been played by four or five different actors. When Hannah comes in, hopefully, the question on everybody’s mind is, “Is she who she says she is, or is this a part of Craig’s ongoing prank?” [In the film, Quinto’s character, Josh, believes that his brother is physically taking on the form of several other people to play an elaborate prank on him.]

I had put some thought into that. Somewhere, I have an application for a grant where I actually wrote all that out, and then they threw it away as soon as they received it. Around the same time, I was working with this group of filmmakers to do Periods, which is a Web series, but it was also sort of like a mini film collective production entity. I realized that if I said I wanted to direct something, I know people with cameras who would shoot it for me, and who would edit, and who would hold the boom mic, because that’s what we were all doing for each other, anyway.

I got the idea in my head that I could be a director. I did a few shorts, an independent pilot and some stuff. I said, “I’m going to do everything I have to do in order to make a movie.”

“It took five years to make it, and in the five years, I wrote five more scripts, because I kept being convinced that Aardvark had completely imploded.”

NFS: Any movie, or this movie in particular?

Shoaf: This movie, very much this movie. I said this would be the last script I ever write, and then it took five years to make it, and in the five years, I wrote five more scripts, because I kept being convinced that Aardvark had completely imploded. 

Vand: I didn't know that. How did it finally come to fruition?

Shoaf: I tried a lot of different things, and there really was a version where it was going to be, like, everybody in sleeping bags in a cabin somewhere shooting it, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we would do it on like a 7D and take six years to edit it in someone’s free time.

Vand: But it was very much not that.

Shoaf: It was very validating in that there were people who really knew what they were doing and didn’t have to do me any favors, who said, “I think this is a good script.” Then, on the other hand, I was desperately trying to create the peanut butter and jelly sandwich version of it.

I felt like at some point, there was a risk of doing a disservice to this script. People encouraged me to keep trying to do this in such a way that the end result is going to be a movie that people are going to want to see, as opposed to just something that you’re doing to prove to yourself that you can. That’s about when Zach [Quinto] entered the picture, and not only did he want to star in the movie, but he was going to produce it as well.

Then, we were very, very fortunate to be connected to Great Point Media, who are our financiers. I just imagined it all as like one phone call, like Zach called the film finance division at this agency and he was like, “I’ve got a movie, and we need a million bucks, so find it,” and then they were like, “Hold on a minute.” This company, Great Point, had called and said, “We need a movie that’s about a million bucks.”

NFS: It was just exactly the right timing, and all the things fell into place.

Shoaf: It just felt so immensely fortunate. Great Point were amazingly supportive collaborators in the process. I think we were all sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Vand: Too good to be true?

Shoaf: Yeah. They were just so awesome.

Sheila VandSheila Vand in Ana Lily Amirpour's 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'

NFS: It sounds like you all were collaborative in this film. Sheila, were you more involved in this film than in a larger-scale production?

Vand: Because Brian also used to be an actor, it was easy to talk about the performance in a way that I do find some filmmakers shy away from, because they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary or don’t quite understand what actors actually do. The conversations were just really open and egoless.

Shoaf: That’s very nice of you. That felt a little bit like a double-edged sword going into it because I felt like I had these experiences, but they were my experiences. I didn’t want to impose my lapsed actor baggage on anyone. It felt to me like the best thing to do was to let you guys lead to the extent that you could.

I have to say, I remember watching the early cuts, and I think what you do in the movie is amazing. You can’t play beguiling—you just are. The ease with which that emerged was so amazing to me. I felt like, “Don’t get in there and try to screw with what’s happening.”

NFS: We don’t even know whether Sheila’s character is real, so how do you direct someone to play a possibly imaginary figure? And how do you play someone who may or may not be real?

Vand: We talked at length about her realness. She’s real to herself, so as far as I was concerned, as the actor, I was playing everything real. 

The way I saw it was that she was kind of like a memory, where she has specific details, and she has a background, but when you start asking too many questions, she kind of goes out of focus. I thought a lot about that: what does it mean to be an imaginary friend, a figment of the imagination?

“I discovered on set that the thing that is the director’s purview—that is no one else’s—is the actors.”

Shoaf: That’s exactly how I felt directorially. It would have been a big mistake to say, “Okay, now you don’t exist.” That burden fell on me as the director, conceptually on the DP, and on our color grading to make you feel less real, because you were the real force. There was a lot of debate in editing: how much do we tease this, or how much do we push it? 

Vand: Yeah, because we also had talked about how Josh is unclear of whether or not she’s real, so it’s good for the audience to not be sure as well. From his point of view, that’s precisely what he was trying to figure out. We also talked about what she is to him, that those kinds of hallucinations are like a projection of yourself, or something that you’re needing.

Shoaf: I we have anything to say about mental health, it’s that there are ways to embrace who you are and what’s in your mind, no matter how extreme it may seem. I think that there’s a lot of urge to deaden that—to stifle people, even very ill people, saying, “Let’s throw a lot of medication at this.” She’s the price that he might hapve to pay there. This is somebody who plays a very important role in his life.

Vand: We talked about that: what if the voices in your head weren’t all that bad?

AardvarkZachary Quinto and Jon Hamm in 'Aardvark'Credit: Walter Thomson

NFS: Finally, Sheila, what advice do you have as an actor for newer directors, about how to communicate with you? And Brian, as a first-time director, what would you maybe do differently next time?

Shoaf: Sheila’s worked with more directors in my shoes than I have directed films, certainly.

Vand: My biggest suggestion would be that if it’s your first time making a movie, surround yourself with lots of people who know what they’re doing. You’re going to want to make sure that you feel like you’re in a safe space, and that your cast and your crew feel that. There’s going to be a learning curve there if it’s your first time. 

Shoaf: I did, I had an awesome crew, very experienced producers....

Vand: They made our day, every single time.

Shoaf: When we shot, we were scheduled for 18 days and we finished in 17. That was an accident. Because of weather and stuff, we had to move some scenes around, and then we realized we could do that. 

It’s funny, because I had to answer this question earlier today, and I feel like I might give a different answer now, because you’re bringing up a very interesting point. For me, as a first-time director, especially coming from a non-technical place, I’ve never been a DP. I’ve never edited. I know this sounds terrible, but, during prep, everybody was getting toys. The DP is bargaining with the producer, “What can I get? I need this, I need that.” The production, the art room’s exploding, the costumes are exploding. They’re pouring out of the hallway. I’m just sitting there with the script that I wrote years ago thinking, “I don’t know.”

Then, I discovered on set that the thing that is the director’s purview—that is no one else’s purview—is the actors. No one wants to talk to the actors.

NFS: It’s a respect thing, I think.

Vand: That’s right.

Shoaf: Exactly, I think because the minute that somebody comes up and starts talking to the actors, they’ve kind of automatically superseded the director. For me, it was important to be very respectful of them, and not to treat them as toys. I didn't want to be like, "You go over there, and you do that,” even though inevitably you do say, “You go over there and do that.”

Frankly, if I had to do it again, I probably would have done more, “Go over there and do that,” because there are just certain moments that I feel like, we could have sharpened it a tad. In the end, you have what you have. 

I think what [actors] do is sort of magical. It’s hard for them. You sit around for eight hours, and then somebody comes and says, “Hey, can you come turn this water into wine really quick, and then go back to screwing around on your phone?” I tried to be very, very respectful of that, but also to appreciate that as the director, you are the conduit to the actors, and everything comes through you to them, and so you need to at least figure out how you want to approach that.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.