The story of how I met Matthew Szewczyk is pretty typical for two filmmakers on the festival circuit at the same time. I briefly met him at the closing night party of the Woods Hole Film Festival, then somehow bummed a two-hour ride to the Boston Logan airport (let it be known that I kicked in funds for gas). In this potentially awkward situation, in a rented vehicle with a (pretty much) total stranger wearing the same festival filmmaker badge, at least you know what you’ll be discussing: the movies. And discuss them we did. With Matthew, I even feel confident we should elevate the verb to “examine.” Yes, we examined ideas about the movies on our jaunt down the Cape.
More than a year later, I still like talking shop with Matthew and I’m glad he’s agreed to answer some questions here.
Hunter: There are lots of reasons not to become a film director – it’s risky, time-intensive, your fate depends on thousands of variables that are difficult to control. But what are your reasons – despite all those challenges – to be one?
Matthew: This is a personal question that I think every filmmaker would answer differently. I tell young people who ask me about pursing a career in filmmaking this, ”If you want to do anything else, and I mean anything…then go do that instead…because filmmaking isn’t easy. It’s rarely glorious, and when it is…it only lasts for the briefest of seconds. But if you love it, and your heart is in the right place…and you can’t imagine doing anything else…then you know what to do.“ Since the age of 10 or 11, I have always made films. My films found me. They came out of my mental ether. That black hole where creativity is illuminated – they have come as a mental flash of a strong visual or a clever premise. Then I stew on them, and it becomes an obsession until making the film becomes a necessity. I’ve made films for many different reasons, the one underlying thing is that they were all necessary.
Hunter: I love that answer. OK now I’m curious about something. I’ve seen you work with actors in person and you have this strip of paper you pull out and refer to, as you communicate with them. What is that? Why is it important to your process of working with actors?
Matthew: Those are my action verbs. Terrorize, Haunt, Embolden, Level With – They’re printed on a two-sided piece of paper John Badham gave me, and I’ve used on every film I’ve made since moving to Los Angeles. It’s crumpled and creased, covered in dirt and food, and maybe a booger. It’s a gross piece of paper, but it’s become a totem. My directing process is like sweeping water off a concrete floor. You can only push the water in small sections at a time…you can only push each side so far before the momentum collapses and the water overtakes the side you’re not sweeping. So you have to sweep the water slowly, evenly, and deliberately. When I make adjustments on set, I make them acutely. We are working one thing in this scene at this moment. Of course this happens after conversations about character and the story in general so the actors are informed. But I find that even changing one moment affects the scene in other ways. Usually positive, sometimes not. The action verbs are meant to draw out the creativity of the performer. When they approach their counterpart in a scene, giving the actor a new verb asks them to do-something different but ultimately what they do is up to them. That’s their magic, and I have the utmost respect for it. I’m simply guiding them in a direction.
Hunter: I hope I don’t sound unsentimental, but you should make a photocopy of that piece of paper. Just in case. Speaking of character, which of the characters you’ve shaped as a director is most like you? Why?
Matthew: Perhaps to my own detriment, I haven’t made a lot of personal work. My comedy work is very commercial and my thriller/horror films are about atmosphere and the pleasing the audience. I suppose the character most like me is Avy in my film Trunk, about a young couple who are recovering from the loss of a child in a car crash. They win an old car in a church raffle and everything seems to be going well until they realize they can’t open the trunk. The young wife becomes obsessed with the notion that her baby could be locked inside. I didn’t realize until a year after the film came out, but Avy is me at a certain place and time. A few years previously, my ex-girlfriend developed bulimia and hid it from everyone. Her family, friends, and me. I was hopelessly trying to make our relationship work while being confronted and assaulted by the allusive, nasty, desperation that accompanies an eating disorder. We couldn’t talk or communicate about this black hole swallowing her whole being, and yet I was naively optimistic. That’s pretty much the character of Avy in Trunk.
Hunter: My old boss and mentor Mardik Martin used to say of screenwriting that one should try to be a scientist and be 100% objective about the characters in designing them, but that it was inevitable that your own psyche would end up all over every character anyway. How do you deal with the difference between a character in your mind’s eye and the flesh-and-blood actors that eventually play the roles? Or do you design every character with specific actors in mind to play them in the future?
Matthew: The more films I’ve made, the less wedded I’ve become to the character in my “mind’s eye.” I’ve found that actors – and the spontaneity they bring to the character with their performance – are far more interesting than anything I could ever imagine concretely. Certainly there are moods, and story beats, and attitudes – but these are all adjustments that can be handled with action verbs! Casting is such an incredibly important part of the process for me. If you cast the film correctly, then my job becomes much easier on set. My casting sessions are exhaustive. Sometimes they take months. Much much longer then it takes to make the actual film.
Hunter: The performance of Aina Dumlao in The Return was so powerful…what sorts of conversations did you have with Aina as you collaborated on creating this character? What sorts of conversations do you think are important for directors and actors, especially when bringing to life a complex character in a film narrative?
Matthew: If I remember correctly, our conversations revolved a lot around circumstance. The Return is a simple story…it’s a story about escape and rebellion in the face of fear and uncertainty. I remember having a conversation and asking Aina something along the lines of, “Why won’t she just walk out the fucking door?” As Aina thought about the script and the character, she came up with many reasons – her attachment to children she is charged with taking care of, her fear of the police, her inability to speak the local language. She came up with many reasons, a lot of them I hadn’t even thought of or anticipated. They weren’t in the text. But now we had a mutual vocabulary we could use to approach the beats in the story. We understood why “she won’t just walk out the fucking door.” Most importantly, Aina understood the reasons. As a director, there are many important conversations to have with actors to bring a character to life. But these questions are all very different, and film dependent. I would say the underlying element is the responsibility of the director to manage the subtext of the film. Your protagonist is the main instrument through which the subtext is illuminated and reflected, so you must have conversations that point your actor towards performances which elevate the subtext to a perceivable level. These usually necessitate conversations at different levels. You can change the character’s performance at a micro level within a scene to insure realism, believability, and consistency. But you must also manage the character at a global level for symbolic and dramatic purposes. Going back to my film Trunk — there are times in the film that Avy is not optimistic — he is upset and downtrodden. But the overall arc of his character was that of naive optimism. Understanding when and where that character attribute should be felt, and when it shouldn’t, adds to the subtextual element from which the film’s dramatic meaning is derived.
Hunter: I’m so impressed with just how many shorts you’ve directed. Sometimes, you’ve made multiple short films in a year. I personally struggle with the length of time it takes to complete a film, so I’m curious to know how you maintain such a steady clip of work. I want to listen and learn! 🙂
Matthew: I think it comes out of the necessity of making films I talked about earlier and dumb luck. I’ve been fortunate to win grants and be introduced to financiers who have believed in my stories and visions or have allowed me to work with them to achieve their own. I can say that I edit film with a frantic pace. I think my first cut of The Return was completed within 72 hours of receiving synced files from the assistant editor. It’s impossible for me to sit very long with a film in the can and not start putting it together. I think it comes from the anxiety of not knowing if what I did on set actually worked. But whatever, shorts are fine. I’m impressed you made a feature film, Hunter! I know it’s time for me to make a feature film. I’m just not in a big rush because I know career wise it’s a chance to make a splash, so I want to take my time. But really, I’m waiting for the right story. I’m waiting to find the feature film I MUST make. There were opportunities for me to turn the The Return into a feature, but it didn’t feel right. It’s a story that needed to be written by someone like Ligaya. Not like me. I’m OK doing music videos and commercials and silly web videos for now. I’m still searching for the story I need to tell.
Hunter: I have a feeling the story you need to tell is going to find you pretty soon. You’re ready.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.