Sundance director Dustin Guy Defa takes us into his writing process and collaboration with actors.
The experience of watching Person to Person, which premiered in the NEXT section this year at the Sundance Film Festival, is perhaps best likened to sitting through a meticulously controlled tornado. That's not to say the plot itself is reminiscent of any movie you might catch at your local 4DX theater (sorry BvS fans); rather, it's rooted in the manner that writer-director Dustin Guy Defa seamlessly floats back and forth through the lives of his New York City-based subjects.
The ensemble story works well in large part due to the strength of the characters Defa has written. Of course, it also helps when you an incredibly gifted group of actors at your disposal.
Michael Cera plays the hot-headed reporter to Abbi Jacobson's timid first-timer as they scour the city for clues to a murder. Tavi Gevinson plays a teenager who questions just about every aspect of life. But it's the relatively unknown Bene Coopersmith and George Sample III who really steal the show, however, as a pair of friends whose individual dysfunctions make them perhaps the most functional roommates in the history of tenancy. Coopersmith plays a record collector who is scammed out of an awesome find, and Sample III plays an unmotivated tech Luddite who is hunted down for unwittingly posting pictures of his ex-girlfriend online. Whenever these guys appear on screen, it almost feels as if Defa snuck up on them with a DSLR and decided to follow them around for a day in secret.
Person to Person is a study of relationships. Refreshingly, however, it's not focused on romance as much as it is on human interaction. No Film School sat down with Defa along with actors Coopersmith, Sample III, and Dakota O'Hara to discuss the film scene in New York, shooting on Super 16, and how they all collaborated to pull off such distinct characters in their performances.
"Sometimes we didn't have permits and we would just do it. It makes producers nervous. I'm very comfortable stealing things."
No Film School: What struck me most about the film was the naturalistic quality of the dialogue. Your characters speak very literally, saying exactly what they feel. Can you talk about your writing process?
Dustin Guy Defa: I do a long outline and I spend a lot of time getting into the characters before I start writing the dialogue. When I actually do start writing the script, I think I know who they are but I'm not entirely sure, and then they start speaking and I start to get to know them, and then sometimes I have to backtrack and fix the dialogue where I thought I knew how they were going to speak.
I knew Bene was going to be in the movie, so writing Bene, I knew what that voice was going to be like. But, you know, I didn't know who was going to play Ray, so that character is just somebody—you're still trying to just let the characters be themselves. Again, it's only later when everybody shows up that I'm starting to actually discover who these characters are.
NFS: So as part of that outlining process, would you say that the majority of your story comes from a "character first" approach? Do you write out character personalities before you get into the meat of the script itself?
Defa: Yeah, I'm definitely more interested in character than anything else, but also mood and feeling and all those things that also go along with character. But yeah, sometimes once you start working on plot things and structure and outline, then those start to also shape the character. It's not always that the characters are first; sometimes, the plot kicks in and then the characters start following that.
NFS: Your actors were all magnificent. I would have to guess that in some way their performances informed the character while you were shooting. Bennie, do you want to speak to that process?
Bene Coopersmith: I guess I felt pretty close to it already. It's nothing I thought about before making it. I don't know if it was Dustin's idea, but I looked at the script just a little bit, mostly right before we were going to get going, and then I looked at a little more that day and that was it.
Defa: I told you not to overthink it. I told you to memorize and then forget. But yeah, I definitely stole a lot of stuff from Bene; we used to live together.
NFS: The movie was full of small, truthful moments. Were those all memories you collected from past experience?
Defa: Well, none of them are real. They're all fake in certain ways. I mean, certainly emotional things that I've experienced and some of the things people say are coming from me. But in terms of scenarios and situations, it's all made up.
NFS: George, I want to ask: How much of yourself did you bring to that character? And how much of that would you attribute to the writing?
George Sample III: Well, the writing was excellent, but as far as my character, I brought my all into it. I can't commit to something without putting my all into it. I'm not going to halfway do it. So, I was on board with the project and I brought all I could do. For me, it's just a reality movie. It's nothing off the wall, it's happy times, it's sad times, you laugh, you cry. I've been in love before, so it wasn't hard for me to put myself in my character's shoes to find out what he would do. After I read the script, I found myself subconsciously thinking, "This situation was going to lead to this, and lead to that." So it wasn't hard for me to totally soak myself into it.
Defa: For me, that's really the genius of George's acting. You definitely think he's that guy. He is, right? But he's not.
"It's really important to work with people better than yourself so that you are challenged."
NFS: Another big character in the movie was New York City itself. How do you write location as a character?
Defa: During the production, you don't know exactly where you're going to end up because of budget and stuff like that. You don't know where your apartments are going to be and exactly where you're going to be able to shoot exterior, but you go location scouting and you try to figure all that stuff out. You have ideal locations when you're writing and I do picture things. But then when you start doing the production and doing location scouting, you have to just adapt and change.
Coopersmith: Right. You use friends' places.
Defa: I knew we were going to shoot Brooklyn streets and Manhattan streets, and I knew the stories that were in Brooklyn were going to feel a certain way and the ones in Manhattan were going to look their own way.
NFS: Were there any specific challenges with finding locations in New York? It seems like such a difficult place to actually lock down locations.
Defa: Sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's easy, depending on what's going on. You get permits, usually, but then, with a production like this, you have to steal some things. The subway stuff was stolen. Sometimes we didn't have permits and we would just do it. It makes producers nervous. I'm very comfortable stealing things.
NFS: Getting into some of the technical aspects: What medium did you shoot on to give it that '70s New York vibe?
Defa: We shot on Super 16 Kodak. The palette of film and the color and warmth is what I love.
The funny thing is, weirdly, my writing feels sort of ['70s-like]. That stuff was so influential and I can't get away from it. I'm trying to figure out how to shoot Super 16 and not have a '70s kind of vibe. I'm sort of worried that it's impossible to get around it. Like, when you see Jackie, you're not even thinking 70mm.
NFS: It seems like you've all found a great place within the New York filmmaking community, perhaps even a safety net of sorts. Do you ever wonder about what sort of opportunities await outside that, or how breaking the mold could end up liberating you artistically?
Dakota O'Hara: New York is very tight-knit. Dustin and I met there. It's like one big family. That's the beauty of it. But it also comes to a point where you have to leave the nest, so you have to kind of push yourself to go into the unknown territory. We were talking about this idea of pushing yourself as an actor, and you know, shoving that shell and trying to push beyond your limits and what you're capable of. I think it's important as an actor to be someone very different than yourself, so that you can explore areas that maybe you weren't aware that you could go to.
It's also really important to work with people better than yourself so that you are challenged. It's kind of like being on a football team or something. You learn from the other players. You kind of have to lie to yourself a little bit in order to go to those places that maybe you didn't know you could go to, to convince yourself that you can stretch yourself that much further.
NFS: So as a filmmaker, Dustin, how do you relate to that?
Defa: Well, the New York film community has been everything to me. I don't think I'm breaking out of that at all. A lot of the people I love are all sort of in a dialogue. You meet people at screenings or film festivals, or at other movies. And then you start to find people [who] have the same taste or even different taste, and you can discuss those types of things. And you're just living in the same city and become friends.
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.
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