'Song of Back and Neck': Emmy Winner Paul Lieberstein on Budgeting for Your First Feature
A former showrunner for 'The Office,' Paul Lieberstein's feature directorial debut finds the humor in pain.
Complete with a last name ripe for ridicule, Fred Trolleycar (played by writer/director Paul Lieberstein) leads an equally ridiculed life. Employed as a paralegal at his father's antagonistic law firm, hopelessly looking for love, and dealing with excruciating, chronic back and neck pain, Fred's daily existence is equal parts emotional and physical struggle.
After meeting a client (Rosemarie Dewitt) inquiring about an attorney for her impending divorce, the two strike up a relationship centered around their physical ailments. Are things finally taking a turn for the better? It's a good indication, and one further underlined by the revelation that, upon deciding to try acupuncture as a method of pain reduction, Fred discovers that his needle-ridden back can produce otherworldly soundwaves, literally producing music to our ears.
A comedy that proves physical pain can come from dishabilitating, stress-induced outside forces, Song of Back and Neck is less about delivering a happy ending than it is an encouraging stance on working through the struggles life throws your way.
Before his film had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Lieberstein about jumping back-and-forth between the roles of actor and director, the best ways to edit dialogue-heavy scenes, and how Mark Duplass laid out how to make the kind of film you desire with the budget you can obtain.
No Film School: Given that the film is based on very personal experiences of pain that you experienced, what were the challenges you faced crafting a fictional narrative in which to incorporate them?
Paul Lieberstein: Well, it's very much not a...what do you call those movies that are based on history? It's not a historical film where we're telling a [specific] account, and so it really became its own thing very quickly. Rather than try to write about myself and what I went through, I was really trying to write about a feeling I had, of a transition that I went through.
All I had to do was give the character the sense of discovering that a lot of these life decisions and assumptions simply just aren't tenable (and are also maybe untrue). That was nothing but fun and really didn't feel challenging. Also, I had just about every freedom in the world to give him his own weirdo journey, to make him as good in his heart as he could be for himself...before just needing to explode.
NFS: What was it like having to recreate the experience of intense back and neck pain? As a performer, how do you balance the severity of the pain with the humor it sometimes presents to the viewer?
Lieberstein: Yeah, it's such a good question. I mean, that's the goal with every scene that I ever write. It's just like, "How do I make it entertaining while putting a character through something real?" I guess if you're asking what the challenge is, that's my challenge every time I sit down to write a scene! It obviously just takes time and drafts. Does that make sense?
"We had versions where we really played with time quite a bit, even within a single scene."
NFS: It does, yeah. Do you ever go back and say, "Oh, maybe I could go further with this or I should pull back a little bit. This is too much or too little," etc. Do you think that through as you're acting it out?
Lieberstein: Yes, but to a lesser degree than when I'm writing, because when I'm writing, I'm in a sense kind of acting it out as well. I had many, many versions of the script and it was at lots of different levels. When I finally do settle on a level that I feel tells the story (and is entertaining), then, when I'm acting, there are more focused, small-scale adjustments.
NFS: I heard that you were influenced to try your hand at directing feature films thanks in part to Mark and Jay Duplass. Could you speak a little bit about that?
Lieberstein: Oh, so I had my script that I I wanted to make, and I then met the Duplass Brothers and had a long conversation with Mark about their model. I had a very traditional way of thinking and I didn't really know how it all worked. I thought I would have to go with stars for financing to open up a whole world of different levels.
Mark laid it out like this: "This is what my $200,000 movie looks like, and this is what my $600,000 version looks like, and this is what the $3,000,000 or $4,000,000 version looks like." In order to make the $3,000,000 or $4,000,000 movie, you need a star [who can open a movie]. You might get 30 days to shoot it, which is great, but you have the same problems everybody does when looking for stars.
Mark said that his favorite kind of movie to make is the $200,000 to $300,000 movie that he can just make. At that point in time, he was making a lot of $600,000 (which I've since learned are really $800,000) movies. Regardless, that's not a lot of money. I think Mark was able to make that jump because he and Jay have become stars. Their presence alone can kind of guarantee the sale for a few extra hundred thousand dollars. Their Netflix deal certainly doesn't hurt that.
Hearing Mark outline how I could do it served as incredible inspiration. He was so positive and encouraging and made it all sound possible. I was really inspired by him to just push forward and get this made in a low budget way. I just had to do it and I don't know if the movie would've been made if I hadn't had that conversation with Mark. I might've spent the whole time looking for $4,000,000, which I may or may not have gotten.
"That's the biggest thing to toggle, to try to be in the moment and then give myself enough time and distance after a take to think about what everyone else did."
NFS: You’re in pretty much every scene of the film. As the director, how do you toggle back and forth between being the performer and being behind the camera? Is it disorienting constantly switching between both hats?
Lieberstein: I felt that was the challenge of the movie, the hardest thing. Especially being an independent film where we had so little time and didn't really have playback either, I just had to trust in the people around me. I could see how we set up the shot, I knew what we were doing, but then I just had to let go of being the filmmaker. I think the hardest thing to do was not so much my own performance but rather to look out for the performances of the other people in the scene, which, of course, is my responsibility as a director.
My responsibility as an actor is to not think about that and just let go, and that's the biggest push-and-pull. That's the biggest thing to toggle, to try to be in the moment and then give myself enough time and distance after a take to think about what everyone else did.
NFS: And since you didn't have playback, how did you go about choosing your DP? Had you worked with this person before? I imagine a lot of trust was involved.
Lieberstein: Yeah, it was hard. I had shot a commercial for Nationwide Insurance where my DP was Janusz Kamiński. [I met] Bartosz Nalazek, who was Janusz's cameraman for 10 years, on the set of the commercial and we got to talking. We really struck up interesting conversations about film and realized that we saw things similarly. Of course, for this film, we had our own learning curve to get through working together as director and DP for the first time.
"I feel like there's a release of tension every time you do a cut."
NFS: How did you work with him to get across the character’s pain nonverbally?
Lieberstein: We went through that very carefully. Any project benefits from this but especially independent films where you have no time—you can lose an hour-a-day discovering what shots to do while you're on set—and so we carefully storyboarded to the best of our abilities. Locations can sometimes make that very challenging. We talked a lot about the emotion of different shots, the style and look that might best capture the kind of the comedy we were going for so that it would add to the magical realism.
NFS: You mentioned magical realism. The film features several nonlinear edits that often take us back into a scene we were in a few minutes earlier. Did you make that decision in post?
Lieberstein: Yeah, that was found in post. We hadn't planned on doing that, but that was something Gary Levy, our editor, came up with. It worked really well, and we had a lot more of it. We had versions where we really played with time quite a bit, even within a single scene. And then it took a while and a lot of distance to find out that the best telling of this film was mostly linear, with some suggestions of something to come, to pull the focus back into a more internal world.
NFS: When shooting your extended dialogue sequences, how did you decide when to go for a shot reverse shot or a two-shot or a medium, etc.?
Lieberstein: I had a general feeling that longer takes would be more suited to this movie, and so we tried a lot of blocking that would allow for that. We'd do a two-shot or a shot reverse shot for a while and then cut to a two. I feel like there's a release of tension every time you do a cut. If tension is growing between two characters, then it's kind of a relief to see the two-shot at a certain point, you know? You can build up a different kind of tension that way and it's all very subtle.
In the scene [with Rosemarie Dewitt and me on the kitchen room floor], it covered a lot of ground in the kitchen. That scene and the one where my character is hurt and on the living room floor mirror each other in a way. One actor is static and the other is moving around, walking into a single, walking into a two-shot and leaving frame. I just went scene-by-scene to try to feel the mood and keep it moving.
"The shoot itself was 20 days. I tell people this and they say, 'That doesn't sound so bad for an independent film,' but it was a race."
NFS: In addition to the score itself, the film has some very interesting sound design. Specifically, how did you work on coming up with the sound for the acupuncture sequences? Because at first, we're not aware that the humming sound is a diegetic part of the scene itself; we're thinking that it's a part of the score.
Lieberstein: It took a lot of tries and a lot of people helping. We really wanted to get a sense of what one needle would sound like, and then two, and then seven. After that, we just had to suggest what 200 would sound like! We would then be free to jump into a score version of it, but it was equally the composer and the sound designer working together there.
NFS: Did they come up with different versions? Were you given samples in which to choose the most appropriate?
Lieberstein: We tried a lot of different things and it was not until we put them up to screen and cut them into picture that we realized, "Oh no, that didn't really sound like a needle," or, "That sounds too electronic." Of course, another part of low-budget filmmaking is that I didn't have an orchestra. We didn't have a lot of possibilities regarding the different types of score [we could have]. We had to do it electronically.
"Your classic indie movie has just four or five locations and is predominantly set in one place."
NFS: You mentioned not having much time. How long was the shoot?
Lieberstein: The shoot itself was 20 days. I tell people this and they say, "That doesn't sound so bad for an independent film," but it was a race. I just wrote the movie for what I felt would be the best movie. Your classic indie movie has just four or five locations and is predominantly set in one place. You see many of them with just four characters and a house in the woods or something. When you have that, you don't lose all this time to moving around your production. You get quicker and better at shooting fast.
The shooting style that I picked with my DP was a very slow one. We didn't do handheld, which is capable of grabbing so much footage so quickly, and we weren't really moving the camera, swinging around and capturing two sides of a conversation. While we did a couple of Steadicam scenes, for the most part, we were setting up and composing shots carefully. You don't get a lot of footage when you do that in 20 days. You don't get a lot of coverage.
NFS: If you were to embark on another feature film, would you write an "economically responsible" screenplay suited for a limited budget, or is it better not to think about that while you're writing?
Lieberstein: It's so hard to give myself the freedom to write what I think is best on the heels of a production. I always need some distance, because I just don't think it's best for the movie to think about stuff like that. However, the reality is to come up with an idea that is suited to handheld and that has fewer locations and characters. It will really enable a project to get made for very little. It's a tough balance.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.