This is the continuation of a Q&A with the team from the Oscar-nominated short film “Time Freak” that I conducted for LimitéMagazine.com. For the first part of my interview with writer/director Andrew Bowler, producer Gigi Causey, and lead actor Michael Nathanson, click here.
Andrew, did you go to film school?
I went to NYU’s film school. I think I had a similar experience to most people who go there in that I met my best friends whom I would collaborate with for years and almost no one else. Geoffrey Richman, Michael McDermott, and Adam Fleischhacker are all accomplished filmmakers in their own right and they all worked really hard on “Time Freak.” The four of us all met in the same video class sophomore year. Geoffrey and Mike were producers [on “Time Freak”], as well as the editor and production designer, respectively.
Michael, how and when did you first catch the acting bug? What have been your biggest challenges in developing your style and rhythm as an actor?
I remember being in my first school play when I was in sixth grade, playing the comedic villain in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and getting in front of an audience and thinking, “Wow, this is what I want to do.” I was always a film buff, and I had the opportunity to see so many great films, growing up in NYC. It really wasn’t until I got to Northwestern in Chicago and studied theatre that it really hit me that this is what I’m going to be doing with my life. As an actor, kind of like the character in “Time Freak,” you’re always trying to get better, understand the craft more—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel like I try, whether it’s stage or screen, to give the audience something edgy, something unexpected. I like when an audience is uncomfortable, and yet wants to know more. I think that’s when the most interesting work happens. There’s a fearlessness I admire in actors like Gary Oldman and in comedians like Bill Murray; they are so invested in their character work, you truly feel like anything can happen at any moment. I guess I would say I’m not into ever playing it safe.
Gigi, what was the casting process like?
The casting process was grueling, intense, and very selective. Luckily, a casting director that I worked with on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Kristian Sorge, connected us with some amazing professional talent in NYC. We held two rounds of auditions and callbacks. Michael and [John] Conor [Brooke] spent 10 hours with us auditioning different combinations one day. We’re absolutely thrilled with the acting team we put together.
Michael, how much of your performance was scripted versus improvised?
The script was very tight when we got it, it didn’t really need or allow for too much improvising. Andrew and I got pretty comfortable with each other, though, during the rehearsal process, and I was so familiar with the script and Stillman’s journey that by the time we got on set we allowed ourselves to just live and breathe in the character, which allowed for me to give Andrew a range of stuff. Andrew definitely had very specific ideas about every scene, but he also allowed for me to play and explore, and gave me takes to try stuff when I felt like I had something to say.
The one scene in which there was a lot of improvisation was the “meeting Debbie [played by Emilea Wilson] in the park” scene. The schedule was running late, and basically he [Andrew] threw the ball to me and said, “Go ahead, run with it.” We both knew what the scene needed. We had to show Stillman in a million different versions (or degrees) of duress, but didn’t know ultimately what would work in an edit. But Andrew was confident I would find what we needed, and his trust was essential for me to get us there. So a lot of what you see in that scene is the result of a frenetic series of improvs set around the structure Andrew created in his script. It was a crazy day, but so much fun. There’s some stuff on the cutting room floor that was pretty damn funny, but the structure of the film needed to stay in line, so it had to go. I’m hoping someday he’ll release the outtakes. I would love to see them.
How long was the process, from initial concept to final cut?
Andrew: I wrote the idea in May of ’09, we shot in Feb of ’10, we locked picture in Oct of ’10 and premiered at AFI in Nov of ’10. Looking back, it’s been a long time living with the film, but maybe that’s because we were mostly done with or festival run before anything happened with the Oscars, and that has almost given it a second life.
I understand that in order to qualify for an Oscar nomination, the film has to win an award at an Oscar-qualifying festival. How did the film go about qualifying?
Gigi: We won the Seattle International Film Festival, which made us eligible to submit for Oscar consideration. We learned in December that we had been shortlisted for the nomination, and then we learned on the 24th of January that we were Oscar nominees! There are two other roads to qualify: 1) You can four-wall the film in LA or NY for a week, opening the screenings to the public for admission, and 2) you can win the Student Academy Award during the previous year.
What’s the best advice you’ve received from someone that you keep in mind with every production that you shoot?
Andrew: I’m not sure if I was ever told this advice, but something I have learned over the years is that filmmakers should be really hard on their work. It’s a tough business and a lot of crazy and unlucky crap happens to us along the way, but quality is still the great equalizer. Making a good movie is very hard and if you are the toughest critic on the set (while still being professional, of course), you’ll set a high bar for the cast and crew.
Michael: I think listening is the best tool on a set, and understanding what your role is. There are a million things going on at every moment on a film shoot, you have to always remember it’s not about you, it’s about a collaboration to tell a story, and you’re just one cog in that wheel
I have to ask this of everyone: What’s your favorite movie?
Andrew: Kenneth Brannagh’s Henry V. I plan on cornering him at the Oscars and telling him how much that movie means to me.
Michael: Well, you’re talking to a film geek, so I could go on forever. For me, I have favorite filmmakers whose bodies of work I admire: Kubrick, Welles, the Coen Brothers. I absolutely love Wes Anderson, and it’s kind of a dream of mine to be in one of his films. So, Wes, please call me, I’m available.