Al Watt fought through impossible D.C. traffic to join me at a screenwriting panel this past February at D.C. Independent Film Festival. These events can take on a perfunctory quality, a sort of primer for some other event that filmmakers and festivalgoers really want to attend. Not with Al. His decades-long battle to understand and conquer the craft of screenwriting made for a vital discussion of protagonists and antagonists and plot. Al screened his debut feature Interior Night at the festival, where it was well-received. But, even from meeting him for only an hour, you just knew he was gonna be right back to outlining or sketching a character bio on the plane ride back to Los Angeles. That’s what I like about him and why I asked him to participate in our interview series.
Hunter: Congratulations on your feature directorial debut – Interior Night. How long did it take you from conception to distribution? What was the most fun part of the process? What was the most challenging part?
Alan: It took twenty years from the first draft to putting it out into the world. I went through about ten different producing entities, and got very close seventeen years ago, where we had a cast, crew, production offices, and a budget literally ten times what we ultimately shot it for, but lost the financing a week out from production. I got so despondent that I returned to writing novels and screenplays for other people. Then, a couple of years ago, I walked into the kitchen and told my wife that I was going to make the film. Something shifted in me and I realized that making films is difficult for everybody. Everyone goes through this. You have to have grit. You have to dig in and climb the mountain everyday. When I got that, we were off.
The most fun part? Directing is the best job in the world, and it’s really hard work. I love the writing, the prep with my cinematographer, rehearsing with actors. I love production, though it is completely exhausting to maintain that kind of total focus for twelve or fourteen hours a day. My favorite part is probably having all the material in the can and sitting with my editor and putting it all together.
Hunter: And especially have twenty years of uncertainty. That must have been such a huge relief – to sit with the editor. I love the inclusion of the cuckcoo clock as this powerful image in the film. Of course, it reminds me of The Third Man. So that particular image is a placeholder for an idea. When you’re writing and directing a film, do you come up with the image first and then seek to understand and integrate what that image means in terms of an idea behind it? Or do you have an idea, then search for the right image to express it?
Alan: The cuckoo clock idea came in right at the end, just before production. It was one of the last things I put in the script, believe it or not. Here’s what happened: we’re shooting on a very low-budget and I had all these ideas on how Conrad and Esther had different aesthetics, and when it came time to show the tension in their relationship based on their conflicting styles, I realized we didn’t have the production design budget to explicitly show it, so I jumped on the idea of Esther being obsessed with birds. That would show how Conrad was losing his mind due to her obsession with porcelain birds. All we had to do was go to the 99-cent store and fill the house with these birds and it became instantly clear. The cuckoo clock is a gift that Charlotte gives to Esther, but it is an underhanded dig, because Charlotte actually resents her and is calling her a nutcase. The cuckoo clock goes off at the height of the madness, and we realize that in their quest for love and security these characters have gone mad.
Hunter: Speaking of love and madness, your film plays with some of the tropes we associate with seminal moments in love relationships – when we say “I love you” or ask someone to marry. It’s as if your film is saying, “We’ve had enough uber-romantic viral proposal videos. Here’s how a lot of real people, terrified, get to talking about their future together.” Was this a conscious choice to dispel how love is often handled in the movies?
Alan: It’s definitely an anti-romantic comedy. Some people have said that they don’t relate to the characters, which I find fascinating, because that’s how I feel about most romantic comedies. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good one, but they are fantasies. Escapist. And that’s not what interests me as a filmmaker. I’m interested in real love, not happily ever after. In fact, I believe that Interior Night does give us a happily ever after, because it’s about taking responsibility for oneself. When we started doing readings of the script for small groups of people, we talked to them afterwards and we noticed that each person sided with a different character, and they would get heated when someone disagreed with them. Everyone has a fixed idea of how they ought to behave in a relationship, and they judge others based on their value system. I rewrote the script with that in mind, making sure that the argument kept shifting. I’m not condoning any of the awful behavior in the film, but I have compassion for their sincere struggles. None of the characters are all good or all bad, and although they are all trying to find love, they are doing it in the messiest ways possible – and when I say messy, I mean ‘real,’ in the ways that I can relate to when I was in my twenties and thirties.
To me, the film is hopeful, because it is about realizing that the only way to have any kind of real intimacy is to take responsibility for your past, for all the stuff that is keeping you from running away from yourself.
Hunter: You and I have had some good conversations about screenwriting and also some more sobering talks about the challenges of actually getting a film funded and made. How do you balance your need to actually do creative work with the business demands of getting a film off the ground?
Alan: It’s a constant struggle. I get up early and get to work. I try to do the writing first thing in the morning. I use an app called Freedom which shuts me off from my Internet.
Hunter: We have a lot of actors on this site. This question is for them: what’s something you need from actors as a writer-director that you’re sometimes afraid to ask for directly?
Alan: OK, this is a good question. I love actors. I love working with actors, and it’s a dance because every actor is different. I don’t care what anyone says, acting well is hard work, it requires tremendous preparation, and I have so much respect for what actors do. To do it well, you are making yourself vulnerable, really baring yourself, and a director has to have your back 100%. A good director is going to fall on the sword for you, and the actor should know that, and, unless they are young and immature, should reciprocate by fully giving themselves to the story. Directing isn’t about telling an actor what to do, it’s about supporting them in telling the story. Sometimes that means saying nothing, just keeping your mouth shut and letting the magic happen. And sometimes it means talking story, offering a metaphor, clarifying a moment, giving an action verb. When we were shooting, one of the actors thanked me for not making me play the role as some kind of extension of me. I thought that was bizarre, but he said it happens all the time.
Having said that, here’s what I need from an actor. The character is not you! You are playing pretend and must surrender to these imaginary circumstances. I had an actor say that if his girlfriend cheated on him, he wouldn’t talk to her for a month. I said, that’s fine, but in this scene you do fucking talk to her, and you do fucking love her, and you do fucking recognize that in some way your secrets led to this. We are creating drama, and if the stakes aren’t high, the meaning won’t be conveyed, and nobody will understand what the fuck is going on. It was a struggle to get the actor to get beyond his self-righteous anger and see the deeper truth that in relationships we are all complicit.
Hunter: Sounds like a lot of your understanding of life has come through learning to put movies together. What has been the role of filmmaking in your growth as a human being?
Alan: I love collaboration, but I also have very high standards. I had the good fortune of working with a very well-trained crew of pros, so we got along really well for the most part. But filmmaking is an art form, and perfection is an illusion. In production, the film begins to unfold before you, and if you’re not open to surprise, to the happy accident, you will ruin this perfectly imperfect thing. You have stay open, be flexible, curious. And also, as the director, you are the leader. If you lead with curiosity and humor, you have a chance of bringing everyone’s best self to the show.
Hunter: Where do you see the indie film scene headed? Are people still going to be watching indie films in theaters in ten years? How should indie filmmakers make adjustments to their marketing/distribution plans to take into account the changes in the industry?
Alan: I feel like this is a new renaissance. We’re in the digital age. The cost of filmmaking has dropped greatly, democratizing this very expensive art form. Anyone can do this now, if they’ve got the desire. I don’t know if people will be watching indie films in theaters in ten years – probably not – certainly not in the numbers they are now. But who knows? Hopefully, that will never go away. I mean, that’s why I wanted to start making movies. It all comes from sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers, the lights come down, and that moment of anticipation is so high – that feeling that anything can happen, that my life is about to be forever altered.
I think filmmakers need to think like entrepreneurs. You are a company that makes films and puts them out into the world. Don’t wait for anyone to rubberstamp your vision, but also, you must take responsibility for your vision. You must find how your personal vision is universal, and that doesn’t mean diluting your vision, but clarifying it, really understanding on a primal level how your story is relatable to others.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.