16. července 2018

Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town - interview with director Christian Papierniak: Let them just exist

I recently saw a really great and funny movie. Izzy Gets The F*ck Across town, directed by Christian Papierniak, is an indie movie about a riot grrrl trying to get “across” town in time to stop her ex before he marries someone else. It has an unusually fresh and punk-ish feeling to it that I particularly enjoyed and that I find great to see on big screen these days. I could even say in a way it took me back to my twenties and made me reminiscent in the best possible way. But even for those who have not lived through a part of their life that is similar to the story they are watching, I truly believe they will find a lot of entertainment in this movie throughout. 

So for those of you who would like to know more about the movie and the process of creating it, here is an interview with the director as Christian was kind enough to answer my many questions.

Sit back, and enjoy this piece that clearly showcases a true love and passion for film, filmmaking, and creativity. Oh and in case you have yet to see the movie, do not reveal the spoiler protected part, we talk about the ending there a lot. I mean it.

So firstly let me start off by saying that I really loved your movie, Christian. I laughed, I cried, and I went to see it twice. So thank you for making it. 

Thank you - you are kind. Every time I hear something like this, I find it incredibly meaningful and gratifying. Not because I want my ego stroked, I could care less about that. It's just, indie filmmakers work incredibly hard, for no money and most of the time no real payoff - we just want people to care about and enjoy what we do. And so when someone says they did care and they did enjoy it, it's a truly amazing feeling because it feels like the effort wasn't wasted..... AND THANK YOU FOR GOING TO THE THEATRE AND SUPPORTING INDIE FILM!

As everyone should! It is an important message I often give in my articles about films: when you can, do go see it in the cinema, in the format it was meant to be seen, and knowing that by doing that you recognize and reward the filmmaker for their effort. Making a movie is no easy job. Anyway, back to your movie. I want to ask about the cast. Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town has an amazing ensemble of super-talented actors. Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror, Blade Runner 2049), Carrie Coon (Fargo, Gone Girl), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, Alpha House), Lakeith Stanfeild (Get Out, Sorry to Bother You), Ryan Simpkins (Brigsby Bear), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, 20th Century Women), Rob Huebel (The League, Seeking a Friend for the End of The World), I mean the list goes on and on. And I would love to know a bit more about how they ended up in this movie. Did you write any of the parts specifically for them?

No. This is a very low budget movie, we made it for $160,000 in 16 days. I didn't have connections to any name actors and I actually wrote the movie to be on an even smaller scale. I was originally going to make this on weekends with friends that are actors. Really solid, talented actors - but with limited profiles. I just wanted to make a feature film. But Meghan Lennox and I decided, hey before we do that, let's see if we can get a casting director hooked and see what happens from there. The script seemed solid and everyone we showed it to really liked it. So who knows? 

We loved Mackenzie from "Halt and Catch Fire" and immediately targeted her as the first choice. Initially she wasn't available so we went and kicked the tires on other actors. But then Mackenzie was available suddenly. We sent her team the script, she read it, we got on a Skype call, hit it off and then this movie with a bunch of friends on weekends was out. Suddenly we had to figure out how to make this new, bigger thing work. 

How long did it take to put this ensemble together?

Mackenzie joined the project around Halloween. We were going to start shooting January 6th. So we had two months to pull the cast together. Which may sound crazy, but when you're doing a project of this size, shorter turn arounds work to your advantage. An actor will know their January schedule by that time, so you have a good chance to slot them in somewhere. If it's any earlier, they might be holding out for some other opportunities to come along. 

Immediately when Mack came on the project we all sat down and made cast lists - who do we want to fill in the ensemble around her? Who did she want to work with? Initially we thought we might get one or two more "names", three if we were lucky. We had no money to pay anyone, just back-end, and really not much of that. So we were realistic. Mack wrote a letter to Alia Shawkat who we all loved and respected and whom Mack had recently struck up a casual friendship with. Right away, Alia said yes. She liked the script, the role, the fact that she only had to do a few days, and you will find this with every actor on the project - she wanted to work with Mackenzie. 

Not only is Mackenzie one of the best actors on the planet, but she is genuinely a great person. And I'm not just saying that for PR or politics. She's a remarkable, lovely human being - who also happens to be insanely talented and the hardest worker out there. Other actors really respond to her because they know she's going to give them her heart and soul and they'll have a chance to do their best work.

Once we had Mack and Alia, we went to Haley (Joel Osment) - oh you have those two? Sounds good to me. Then came Carrie (Coon), who once she said yes, people started piling into even the smallest roles. Carrie of course holds such an elevated place in the acting community, once you match that with Mackenzie, Alia and Haley on the "who's in this movie" email, it's like magic. We were pinching ourselves daily, we couldn't believe how lucky we were. It was humbling to say the least. But as Mackenzie will say, all of the actors that signed on to this project wanted to do it because they LOVE acting in it's purest form. Three dimensional characters, dialogue they could chew on, working with other actors they knew would challenge them, etc....  and they liked what the script had to offer for each of them. And shooting in LA was a huge plus because no one had to travel. With the exception of Carrie they were all LA local.

Did they improvise any of their roles or was it pretty much stick to the script?

Very little improv. The common thread for the actors saying yes was that they liked the specific dialogue and characterizations on the page. Brandon T. Jackson and Rob Huebel are improv actors by trade so they certainly took some liberties with the dialogue.

I want to say how much I enjoyed your writing. Its funny and smart and it does a good job writing a female character, albeit such an unique one as Izzy is. What was your inspiration? 

You're so sweet, you're killing me. Thank you for the kind words. I love writing and work insanely hard at it. I'm glad you found joy in it. Izzy herself is a character I've had in my mind for over a decade. I just had this image of a girl in a bloody white tux in the back of a taxi cab. I didn't know if that was the start of the movie, the end. But I always thought it was an interesting idea. Then I started writing the movie and the character's layers started revealing itself.... she's a failed musician, she's at a crossroads, what kind of band was she in? The idea of Riot Grrrl stuck in my head. It was a genre of music that was really inspiring to me growing up, I was listening to Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile and Bikini Kill as I was writing the movie, so it all started to fuse together. I'm a very improvisational writer in the beginning stages of a script. Later I get very technical and work each piece, but at the beginning I try to not censor my instincts. So it all just sort of melded together.

Was there a story from your life behind the script? 

The central plot is very similar to something I went through in my own life. It was a time when everything in my life felt broken - personally and professionally, nothing was stable, and it all seemed to be spiraling at the bottom of a toilet bowl. And then to make matters worse, I found out someone I had relied on as a close "friend" was also actively sabotaging me behind my back just like Whitney to Izzy. It was awful. And sadly, incredibly universal. Every time I show this movie to an audience, I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say, "Oh yeah, I went through that." And there's always a name: goddamn Mike, effing Sarah, if I ever saw Pete again I'd.... Of course, the movie portrays a funny version of it, but the movie also wears its heart on its sleeve.

Also there's this idea of the creative life. What happens when that starts to crater and you realize, maybe I won't be one of the lucky ones that makes it? Do I give up? Is that actually the responsible choice? Is that the sell out choice? If I did quit, then what? My whole identity is wrapped in this idea, what else would I do? It's something I went through at various times in my career and it's a very common moment many people find themselves in and I wanted to illustrate some small part of that journey.

Mackenzie Davis is a such a strong actress with an amazing ability to showcase her emotional intelligence. This truly was great vehicle for her to show her range. And you have put her through a lot in the movie. Emotionally and physically. How was the cooperation with her?

Easy. And unbelievably rewarding. Her professionalism and work ethic is inspiring. The notes she takes? My God, it's like a novel. She's a grinder that believes in working the craft. And I'm the same way, we're both very tactical and precise. But at the same time constantly working to loosen up the process and allow it to breath as a real environment. So we were a good match. 

She's one of the greatest actors in the world hands down and you see it immediately. Her ability to listen in a scene, see all of the pieces of the environment, react to them and make it all feel so tangible and real is incredible. The comparison in my mind is James Dean. She does a lot of the same things he would do, she's very physical but in a way that makes the scene feel effortless, real and complete. 

We got along immediately as friends and have a very similar approach - collaboration isn't just a word, it's an operating principal on how movies should be made. This was going to be a very unique movie in the sense that you have Izzy in every frame. 

We talked about Izzy the person extensively leading up to the shoot, but once we started rolling - that was it, she was Izzy. We would check in daily, talk about the progress of the shoot. But mostly I had the pleasure of sitting back and watching her work.

Any funny stories from the shoot?

In pre-production, I sent Mackenzie a picture of some shoes I wanted Izzy to wear in the movie - she wears the same costume for 90% of the movie so it was a relatively important choice. I'm very detailed in my filmmaking decisions as I've said, so it wasn't a hasty decision at all. And I really expected Mackenzie to say, "Cool, those are the shoes," (which is honestly what too many actors do). Instead, Mackenzie wrote back a two-page email about why Izzy would wear a different pair of shoes with a detailed, bullet-point explanation. I remember grinning ear to ear - if this movie was ever going to be good, the person playing Izzy had to own it completely. From that moment on, I knew we were on to something special.

The part that got me the most was the duet with Carrie Coon. Breath-taking. I cried my eyes out during that scene, was that your intention as a director? (Half of my theatre was sobbing with me so if yes, well done!.) 

Really? that's amazing! although now I think you're exaggerating! And thank you. I don't know that my intention was to make people cry exactly. That feels odd to me to WANT that. Haha... But I get the idea. And I think in some ways the answer is yes. What you want is for the audience to internalize the rawness of the emotions the characters are feeling and empathize. I try not to over think the emotional result I want from the audience because that might lead you to decisions that are intentionally manipulative - and, in my view, that generally leads to bad filmmaking

Tell me a bit more about how this scene came to life, please. Was this song written into the script or was it chosen later? 

The specific song was written into the script, yes. It's a cover of a Heavens To Betsy song (Axemen), so we had to get permission to use it or else we wouldn't have been able to shoot it. Corin Tucker, who was in that band and then Sleater-Kinney, is an idol of mine and the song made sense for the emotions of the scene.  It was a song that I always loved and revisited many times over the years. I was desperate to get it. So we reached out to Corin and crossed our fingers. Fortunately she got what we were going for and let us use the song - she knew that we would be respectful to the music and do everything possible to represent it properly. And she's since seen the piece and loves it so that was a really awesome moment for me personally.

How long did they have to rehearse it and shoot it? 

We rehearsed over a few nights at Carrie's Airbnb in Los Feliz. She's based in Chicago but was shooting another movie in LA at the same time as Izzy - so we found a few nights during our shooting days to get her together with myself, Mackenzie and our composer Andrew Brassell (who was doing the guitar and vocal arrangements). Obviously our movie was so low budget we couldn't pay them for the extra time, but it says all you need to know about Carrie and Mack that they wanted to do the work no matter what the circumstance and make the scene great. That's all they cared about. Also they didn't know each other prior so it was a good way for them to develop some sister chemistry that would translate to their performances on set. We knew the scene was critical to making the movie work and making Izzy's journey make sense, so we took an extreme amount of care in crafting each part of it.

On the day - it became immediately apparent to me that this scene was going to live in the alternating close-ups of the two sisters in the final cut. So we shot those about 5 times each and then got the little pieces we needed in some OTS's and a 2 Shot and moved on. But you could feel it on set when they were singing, this was a special moment - we knew we had something. And no matter what the outcome of the movie, I'm just excited that I had a part in making that scene exist in the universe. I'm very proud of it.

As you should be. I rarely see so much happen in one scene without a dialogue. How did you pack all of those emotions and "story"  in it?

Y'know, it's just one of those things. As a writer you're always trying to find new ways to eliminate exposition. And the idea of a song in this case just seemed right. Being in a band was what united them as sisters when they were kids. It was also the thing that drove them apart. So it made sense that it would be the thing to potentially heal the wounds between them. Actors of their caliber are going to feel this intuitively, they've imagined the backstory, they've done the homework. Mackenzie and Carrie are two of the best actors on the planet. I think a lot of the work of a Director is knowing how to get out of the way. You cast the right people. You put them in the right situation. Now let it happen. Let them just exist. And then magical things can happen.

Izzy is a quite an eccentric character. In your words: who is Izzy? 

Izzy is me at a certain time in my life. Warts and all. She's deeply flawed and selfish. She can be mean, ugly, sarcastic -- but she also stops and listens to the people around her. She hears their stories. She has a great capacity for empathy. She sees the beauty around her and feels it very deeply. She cares about people. She hates phoniness and pretension in all of it's forms. She's funny, charming, full of energy and drive. She's in a wrestling match with life and the struggles it's presenting her. It's exaggerated in tone but I really wanted Izzy to represent a real human being that many people find themselves to be in their late 20's - lost and at a crossroads.


In your head, what made Izzy walk out on Roger in the end? 

She's holding on to Roger as an idea. Her life has gone to shit. Nothing has worked out the way she imagined, she's losing in every game she's playing. So she needs this life raft.  If she can get him back then everything will be fine. She loves him, this is right. If I can fix this problem, then everything else will get fixed.  But she's flawed like we all are. There's a blindspot. All of the things she romanticized about Roger are false. She forgot all of the bad stuff. The chemistry issues that drove them apart in the first place. And now she has to confront this. Alarm bells go off. This is wrong. I don't need him. I don't need this man to save me, to bail me out. I don't need anyone to save me. Even if I keep losing until the end of time, I'm going to bet on myself. She won't sell out no matter what. So she disappears into the night -  newly affirmed in her belief that being Izzy is all she needs to be - however messy and chaotic that may be. It's ok..... and yeah, it's incredibly selfish what she's done to Roger and Whitney. But people, especially at that time in their lives are imperfect and I wanted to represent that truthfully. In the end, Izzy's not a fully redeemed like most movie characters. She's a work in progress like real human beings are. 

It shows a certain strength that I am glad you showed, not many female characters are written like that.  Was that the plan from the beginning to have her walk away? 

Yes. That was always the ending of the movie. And it's certainly tweaked some critics and audience members. If you don't like this movie - you HATE the ending. It purposefully challenges a lot of conventions. The most basic of which is women don't walk out on men at the end of movies. Or if they do it's for a better man. Izzy chooses her own path in the end. Izzy is a strong individual. She never backs down or submits to anyone in the movie, especially the men. And that was a choice we all believed in especially myself and Mackenzie.

The way the movie ends now - would you call that end a happy ending? 

To a certain extent. Once she and Roger are reunited, we always looked at that sequence as "the death of Izzy". All of the color is her life, her costuming, the production design, lighting, her personality, energy is just sucked out. Really what happens when you find yourself in a bad relationship. We wanted the audience to miss the Izzy they knew in the first 2/3rds. So when she walks away in the end, we hoped there was a sense of at least relief for the audience that the real Izzy was back. 

How important it was to the movie that it was happening in LA? I felt like there was a certain significance to it, to the craziness, exclusion of some people, distances etc. Did you write it as a reflection on the area in any way?

Yes. LA is vital to the movie. If you know LA, there's a lot that will feel very familiar just in the tone and vibe of the piece. If you don't know it well, the idea of LA should also feel very vibrant and present. It's a transplant city of weirdos and dreamers and broken dreams and hope - and Izzy gives us a window into all of that. And the idea of traveling from one side of LA to the other and how challenging that can be was the perfect metaphor for her journey. Most people understand that, even people who have never been here, that it's a very challenging place to navigate - just as Izzy's life is also becoming difficult to navigate from an emotional standpoint. The two should go hand in hand for the viewer. And sure, she could take an Uber or whatever, but that realism isn't the point. The challenge of the journey is a metaphor.

This was your full feature cinematic debut. I know you did a lot of writing and directing for TV in your career, but I am wondering if now you intend to switch over to full features and cinema? What is your next project?

Y'know, TV is always there. It's an exciting medium with a lot of challenges and there's something incredibly meaningful about it if you can pull of a long and complete story like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Those feel like great novels. Whereas feature films are best compared to short fiction. That said, if I had my choice, I would probably only make feature films. I'm most attracted to the length of that story telling arc. My next project is a detective movie. Hopefully we can get it up and running by the end of the year. Still in my style and voice but I want to take on a genre that I've always loved in my own way. And I love detective stories.

If you were to say one reason why people should watch this movie (be it in cinema if they can, or through a VOD) what would you say?

IZZY is meant to be a throwback to '90s indies like Clerks, My Own Private Idaho, Swingers, Slacker, and Bottle Rocket - it's immediate, fast-paced, stylistically aggressive - it's a fun movie yet it takes itself seriously when it needs to. We've lost a little bit of that in recent years with independent cinema and we were hoping to just bring a sliver of that back. Not every indie film has to be an issues based, hard hitting drama. We LOVE those movies too. But it's a big tent and small movies can also be fun.

Christian, thank you so much for taking your time to answer my questions, and for all the readers out there: see Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. Its fun, its funny, its touching, and it shows extremely talented people doing what they do best. And I cant wait for the next full feature from Christian as he is now completely on my radar. Oh and I also love detective movies. Don't we all?

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across town - if you didn't catch it in the cinema, you can see it via VOD in the UK, Spain, Portugal, China, Latin America, the Baltics, and Russia in the September or October and hopefully in the Czech Republic soon too.

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