By Elizabeth Quinn
As a fan of improvisation, one of the highlights of attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival was seeing the world premiere of the new improvised feature film, Speak Now. Speak Now screened as part of the festival’s new WRITE/REC Series, focusing on the best in low-budget storytelling and won the WRITE/REC Audience Award.
Directed by Noah Harald and written by Erin Cardillo, Speak Now is a Romantic Dramedy following high school friends reuniting for a wedding. Old offenses and newly mounting scandal plunge the group back into a pool of high-school drama. Entirely improvised from an outline and character studies, the entire feature was shot in three days. I sat down with the filmmakers and lead actress to talk about the filmmaking and fundraising process.
How did you develop the idea for this film?
Erin Cardillo: I’m an acting teacher at Warner Loughlin Studios in Los Angeles and part of the Warner Loughlin technique is dramatic improvisation and character building. We give the students some backstory on the emotional lives of their characters and from there, we put the actors in a situation and they improvise a scene as those characters. One night in class I decided to link all of the improvisation exercises. They improvised their scenes as if they were different characters at a wedding with different secrets. Rosie Mattia, who plays the bride in our film, invited her husband Noah Harrald to sit in and record the improvisation for us.
Noah Harald: I had worked with Rosie on a short, and seen her employ the Warner Loughlin method and was really interested in what the actors at that studio were doing. I went there solely just to observe, but as I watched it, I felt like I was watching a movie. I saw 16 different actors who were all great; there was not one weak link. Afterwards, I told them that this should be a movie. Erin agreed, and we started the conversation about how it could work.
How is acting in an improvised film different than with a scripted text?
Rosie Mattia: This technique works beautifully with scripted text but with improvisation, it’s just the most realistic acting that you could possibly do because you’re essentially creating the entire character from the age of six until the present and infusing them with tons of memories from their life. In the process of developing the film, we created memories with other cast members through improvisation exercises to flesh out their lives before the wedding. When it came time to shoot the film, we were filled with all of this natural life of the character but we also worked off of what we were giving each other in the moment. You don’t know what you’re going to say, or how you’re going to feel about what other characters are saying, but you know the relationships and the history.
NH: Erin’s writing contribution was knowing all of the information the actors created, as well as, how the story would unfold as far as plot, and what information she would give the actors right before we shot the scenes.
Isn’t the prep work for this type of film the same as for a scripted film?
EC: The prep work is similar it’s just that the script is not written. Our process was purely to do improvisations that served as the backstory for the movie. None of the scenes in the movie were worked on prior to filming.
RM: It was like working backwards because with scripted text we analyze the script and then create all of the backstory. In the case of Speak Now, we did the backstory and memories first, and then we wrote the script in the actual shooting of the film.
NH: Seeing this process and working this way has made my writing so much stronger. I always struggled with dialogue but now, I figure out the history of the characters first and the dialogue just comes right out on the page.
EC: It’s a wonderful technique for writing, and it’s partially what inspired me to start writing because it’s so creative. One of the main differences in technique is whether you’re drawing from your own life or your imagination and the Warner Loughlin technique is imagination-based.
What advice do you have for our students who want to create an improvised film?
NH: The tendency with an improvised film is to just show up and make it all happen on that day, but the truth is that I prepared more for this film than on any other scripted film I’ve worked. We couldn’t use focus marks, so I walked throughout the set with my DP, Dave McGrory, and discussed every possible space where the actors could move in, and we blocked it all out and created a shot list from that. We shot it more in a documentary style, actually, so the actors had freedom on set within a certain space. We had two cameras with one camera on each actor.
RM: The pressure is on the camera people so much more in this type of film. They’re absolutely key.
NH: Yes, and they really rose to the challenge. I suggest you hire a DP that has the kind of experience that can move you along as quickly as you need to and not mess up the camera shots.
EC: You can’t re-shoot for camera in an improvisation film. We couldn’t have shot this film in three days unless the actors had done as much preparation work as they had, and the camera work was as flawless as it was, so that we only had to do 1-2 takes for each scene.
NH: We would run 12-minute takes even though the scenes weren’t that long, just so we had enough coverage. In an improvised film, when one of the big secrets is revealed and this character/actor, is finding it out for the first time that is a real initial reaction based on the life of the character the actor has created. If we had to re-shoot it, it would feel like an “acted” moment rather than a truly, organic moment.
RM: A big piece that we haven’t even touched on is that Noah is also an incredibly skilled editor, and I feel like that helped us because he was directing and shooting with an editor’s eye.
NC: So much of this is about digging deeper to find the nuances and transition moments to make it look like it’s not jump cutting everywhere. That was the big challenge and it took a lot of finessing. If I weren’t going to edit an improvised film I directed, I would want the editor to be on set, which is very different than how I work on a scripted text where I actually want the editor to see it fresh in the editing room and be that objective eye. Work with an editor that you know and trust, and have them on set so that they understand what’s happening. For an improvisational movie, it really is about the whole experience.
Can you talk about the Kickstarter campaign and share your advice on what makes for a successful crowdsourcing project?
EC: We did the Kickstarter campaign during the holidays of 2011 and finished the film in spring 2013. We shot a campaign video that explained the whole process and because we already had the film cast, we could focus on the different characters within that video. Having a big ensemble was also helpful for fundraising because everyone was on board to help with that goal of raising the money. We did the campaign initially just to get our startup money, and we asked for our shooting budget ($15,000).
NH: That became the seed money for our production, but as we started realizing we could have access to things that would make our movie better, we felt it was worth upping our budget and reaching out to investors. As we talked to people about the movie, we ended up getting a great deal on some better equipment and a beautiful location. We actually shot the film in Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller’s old house!
EC: In our campaign video, we focused on why we wanted to make this movie, how we came up with the idea and why we thought it would be cool: the fact that it was improvisation and we were shooting it in three days which is different than most film projects. When there’s a touch of an experimental nature in it, I think people are excited to get involved and see how it’s going to turn out. They’re a little more invested in it.
NH: I’ve done two successful Kickstarters at this point and here’s what I’ve learned: You must make a video. You must reach out personally to people, you can’t just keep posting on your Facebook wall. Don’t ask people to “donate”; you’re asking people to be a part of the making of the movie and you always want to thank them for that, make them feel like they’re a part of the movie, and update them on what’s happening with it. Also, be involved with people who have a track record of getting things made. Even if it’s your first thing, perhaps some crew or cast member has a great track record that you can publicize as part of your project.
EC: We also did some fun incentives like naming a character after a person or awarding walk-on parts in the film.
NH: We did the usual t-shirts, posters, DVDs, etc. but you have to take the merchandising seriously. If you’re promising these items, get them professionally done. And you want to take the merchandise costs into account for your Kickstarter financial goal.
Any final thoughts on the whole experience?
NH: It’s been such an honor to premiere our film here. It’s such a film friendly city, and it’s a great festival in the way that it breaks down the barriers between the fans and the filmmakers. This has been a very special experience, which has turned into a film that is really affecting people and they’re enjoying it. Being able to share that with everyone involved in the film has been amazing.
EC: For me, because I taught so many of these actors who were already well trained before they came to me, to start something as a class exercise and now all be here together celebrating their work and how it translates to the industry feels really exciting to me. I’m really proud of all of them and their work.