Hiding The Brushstrokes
In most forms of painting, it is considered good form to "hide" your brushstrokes, making your finished piece appear as if it wasn't painted at all, that it was somehow transferred directly onto a canvas, unblemished and beautiful. In our modern lives we encounter a similar issue. As participants in today's media-soaked environment, we are encouraged to present an almost superhuman highlight reel of our successes while either diminishing or ignoring the failures, rejections, and hard work that were the stepping stones towards said success. Our preoccupation with ourselves as a product- our "brand", our carefully curated stories- does ourselves and everyone who appreciates our work a disservice by hiding the humanity underneath our efforts.
I don't aim to change this societal stance. I can only change what I do about it.
Below you'll find my production diaries and retrospectives, my acting notes made by and for myself, and reviews of my own work by my own hand and others. You'll see my struggles with emotional dead-ends, my hastily made work-arounds, and no small amount of self-criticism pushing the process forward. In the end, I hope this serves as a testament that the only way to make art that survives (and not everything I've ever made is art, nor has all the art survived) is to leave something of yourself in it. The human touch is the hardest to miss.
Happiness Adjacent (2017)
Written and Directed by Rob Williams
Produced by Rod Johnson
Starring Adam Fried, Ian Dick, Rachel Alig and Jorgie Goico
To say Happiness Adjacent is a triumph is not enough- in the context of its creation, it's a miracle it ever got made. We shot entirely guerrilla-style onboard a $300 million dollar cruise liner. We shot an 89 page, feature-length film script over the course of seven days when most take several months. We shot on unsecured locations, around other passengers, while dodging security in dozens of public areas both on and off the ship and in Mexico. We shot two or three takes (at most) for the vast majority of the scenes, many of which were quite emotional, delicately choreographed and irreplaceable if we missed our chance. We shot a movie with not one, not two, but three sex scenes and two actors who had never done a single one in their careers. We shot a movie that to this day is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career, not just because of the hurdles we had to clear to make it, but because it tells a story that transcends the medium that we present it in- Happiness Adjacent is about love, and nothing but love went into its creation.
Honestly, if someone told me that one day I'd be making the film that I just described above, I would have checked my dosage. At the time I was no stranger to one-off, one-shot theater and guerrilla filmmaking, but the sheer magnitude of what we attempted amazed me then and still astounds me to this day. Rob Williams, in my mind, was one of the first filmmakers to embrace the versatility and ubiquity of the smartphone camera when he shot Happiness Adjacent on the iPhone 6+, allowing him to move and shoot discreetly in environments where a skeleton film crew would find themselves either unwelcome or hard pressed to even fit. The whole reason we were able to shoot the film in the first place rested solely on Rob's ballsy conjecture that he could make a movie shot on a smartphone feel it was shot on a camera worth exponentially more. He succeeded at this by making the camera another actor, flowing through the fantastical landscape of Mexico and the gaudy interior of the ship as it followed myself, Adam and Rachel on the ride of a lifetime.
When I initially inquired about Happiness Adjacent it was just another submission in about a dozen I sent off that day. I had no idea if it was going to be fantastically good, painfully bad, or the average case in LA's writing scene- just another audition. I only got to read a scene when Rob contacted me around four months later to arrange a self-tape audition, and boy was I happy when I did. I was enduring a bout of flu and fully thought his email was a fever dream when it bounced across my laptop between viewings of The West Wing and Airplane, but once the fever broke, there it was. Rob was incredibly understanding about my delay, and once I received the sides that I was to audition with, I quickly realized that this was a story that I needed to tell. Kurt Dimmeldorf, on the surface, was fairly far removed from me- a married yet closeted bisexual Jew(ish) man from the midwest who seeks out flings with other men on the rare vacations he and his wife take (a well-established trope in LGBTQ cinema), but the depth of pathos that Rob imbued this character with floored me. Kurt wasn't a guy on the hunt for some vacation dick- he wanted desperately to connect with someone on an emotional level that his wife was incapable of reaching. He was a man for whom loyalty and love were tightly interwoven and yet as fluid as the life he led. He drinks heavily, he lies convincingly, but through it all he loves so, so deeply. I could see that on the page, and I knew this wasn't something I could let go of.
Round One: The Self-Tape
My self-taped audition...whoo. First of all, it's easily one of the longer single take auditions that I've made, clocking in around five minutes for two scenes, one awkwardly comedic and the other intimately emotional. The first scene was an early version of the one where Kurt and Hank meet, a snappy back and forth where the two joust over family history and career choices. As I watch it three years later, I remember sitting in the kitchen of our Tujunga house as David Murakami, one of my best friends (and directors) from college was reading the lines opposite me. You can hear one of us stumbling over some Yiddish that Rob sprinkled throughout the script to lend some authenticity to Kurt's Jewish heritage. Months away from the finished product, Kurt's last name was different and some of the dialogue would be massaged for the final film, but the core of the character shone through, his awkwardness and amiability revealing themselves in turn as he gets to know Hank for the first time.
The next scene, however, was the one I was worried about. The affability of the first scene had to halt almost immediately as I transitioned into the pivotal scene where Kurt explains to Hank why he loves him the way he does. Context required me to play it drunk, but looking back that went out the window about halfway through the scene. Since I shot the pair of scenes in one go, I was able to use the whiplash of the scene transition to get myself where I needed to be, on the brink of emotional collapse. Again, in hindsight, my performance in the finished film is more nuanced but I loved how vulnerable Rob's writing made me feel in the moment, a brief span of time where Kurt not just admits what he needs Hank for, but where he realizes it for the first time.
Self-taping, in general, gives you the opportunity to put your best foot forward- you're no longer constrained by the five minute window that almost all in-person auditions occupy, which allows you to go to great lengths to make sure that the take that you submit, the snapshot of your character, will be good enough to stand out from hundreds of other actors all saying the exact same lines that you are. I know people who shoot a dozen versions, mix and match separate takes and edit audio and color balance until they're sure every extraneous eventuality has been brought into line, but I take a different tack. I treat it like a normal audition, albeit one where I can swear and start over as many times as I need.
In this case, the casual amiability of the first scene led directly into the charged emotion of the confrontational second scene...oh, and I had to play it drunk. That extra little detail is one I can look back on and laugh at. Your typical actor playing a drunk is hilarious, you won't a find anyone with a more exaggerated list and lilt this side of a college kid after their first taste of Schlitz. Portraying a truly drunk person is as easy as playing a person who can't