Aaron Clark has it all: financial security, a beautiful wife, and a close-knit circle of old friends. But this cozy life is shattered by the arrival of Teddy, former classmate and proverbial snake.
Teddy worms his way back into their lives, ‘befriends’ Aaron’s wife and hijacks Aaron’s 40th birthday surprise. He systematically stalks them — at home, at work, and in cyberspace. Bitter over Aaron’s success, Teddy pries into his business affairs and hints at improprieties, threatening extortion and revenge.
He relentlessly pushes, until Aaron snaps. And suddenly the question on everyone’s mind: Is Aaron really the man he appears to be? Or is it true that “Nobody really knows anybody, least of all themselves?” This deep, dark question goes at the heart of human nature, and in ‘Brief Reunion‘, finds some disturbing and even fatal answers.
We talked with Writer/Director John Daschbach about the film, some of his inspirations behind its development as well as breaking down some the films lengthy dialogue sequences. ‘Brief Reunion‘ will play in New York City starting January 18, 2013 at the Quad Theater (34 W 13th St, NY, NY).
What/Who were some of your personal filmmaking inspirations behind writing and developing this film?
I was reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith before I started writing it, particularly the Ripley novels. She was definitely an inspiration. Her short stories too. Many of them deal with everyday people who suddenly find themselves caught up in… murderous events, shall we say… Also, The Talented Mr. Ripley (book and film) and James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” (book more than film).
Another filmmaking influence would be Ralph Rosenblum, who Andrew Lund (producer and co-editor) and I studied editing with at Columbia. Ralph edited many of Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen’s films and was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. There were many times in the editing room where we found ourselves asking, “What would Ralph say?” He wrote a great book on editing, by the way, which I highly recommend for any filmmaker, called When the Shooting Stops.
And in pre-production, Joel de la Fuente and I watched and talked about some films where the main character is alone for a significant part of the film, as his character Aaron is. Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, for example. One of my favorite films of the last several years.
Social media plays a very prominent role in the narrative of ‘Brief Reunion’ by focusing on its invasiveness, as well as its place in modern social dynamics. Was this critical aspect of social media something you had pre planned to use or was it simply a relatable way of revealing certain plot points?
I didn’t know how I was going to use it exactly, but I knew I wanted to from the start. The more the story became about old flames, skeletons in the closet, and an unwelcome interloper from the past, the more it seemed like social media definitely had to play a role.
I did also hope of course that it would make Aaron’s character more relatable to audiences (which is pretty crucial to the film working or not). But that was more thematic, I guess. Rather than as a plot device (although it did become convenient for turning certain plot corners).
Some people I know seem to feel pressured into reluctantly participating in social media, in order not to feel left out of the loop. But they’re also terrified of it — of how they might somehow unwittingly reveal something about themselves. Or how easy it could be for somebody else to do that and for them to have no control over it. So, I wanted to tap into some of those feelings that I think a lot of people, especially my generation, have about social media. The only truly preventative option, of course, is to just not care about being left out and just never get involved with social media, which is true of some of my best friends, actually.
What were some of the directorial cues that you gave each of your principal leads in preparation for production? How deep into the characters did you get while writing the script?
I write a lot of character backstory in the script stage. This story in particular demanded it, given how much of it is about the past, and how the past is affecting the present. So I shared and discussed a lot of that with the actors during rehearsal. I think it helped clarify some things for them. We also worked together to establish certain facts, thoughts, feelings, etc. about their past – and present – relationships that I hadn’t necessarily developed for myself when I was writing.
Scott Shepherd (Teddy) and I went into a fair amount of detail about what happened with Aaron’s successful tech startup that Teddy felt cheated out of. And then separately, Joel (Aaron) and I did the same. And of course, these were two very different versions, which was good, because that’s how it is in the film: both characters remember the past very differently. Also, we talked about each character’s friendship with their now-deceased friend, Neil – and how he died, etc. And some little things, like what Teddy is thinking of when he says “I’ll always remember her as Gitta Glitter.” Or what difficult secret Alexie Gilmore’s character (Lea) had admitted years ago with her fiancé in their pre-marriage retreat. And for Joel, Aaron’s relationship with Gitta and what exactly happened between them, how they met, fell in love, parted, etc.
Of course, most good actors do this kind of preparation all the time anyway. But I find they’re usually willing to do it collaboratively, particularly if you’re also the writer. And I find that helpful as a director – to be on the same page as some of the backstory. Sometimes you can use it and refer to it on the spot when you’re shooting almost like shorthand. It’s very useful when you have as little time for actual scene work rehearsal as we did because of budget, travel, and scheduling constraints.
Aside from the obvious elements of limited locations, characters, etc., who did you and your producers assure that the film stay on schedule and on budget? What advice would you give someone working on a similar budget film on maximizing their potential?
We shot the film pretty quickly — in 18 days. Mostly for budget reasons, but also because the actors’ schedules were limited. They were booked to go on to other things right after us. So we just had to stay on schedule not matter what. That meant sometimes dropping or condensing things in order to make our day. Because you just have to make each day.
For me, that’s one of the most essential things about independent filmmaking – or at least, actually completing an independent film on time and on budget. Short of some kind of catastrophe like an accident or an essential equipment malfunction, you have to find a way to shoot what you planned to shoot each day. There was no studio to go back to with our tails between our legs and say we needed more time and money. There was no more money. So, you have to make it work with what you’ve got.
Easier said than done, of course. And it obviously helps to have a very experienced, flexible, and creative DP, which I fortunately did in Joe Foley. And actors who are 100% prepared and ready to go and aren’t prima donnas, which I was also fortunate enough to have. Several are personal friends, in fact.
Writing for locations that you know you can use also helps. This film was conceived to be shot at my parents’ home. So I wrote the film around that house. And for the Connecticut river nearby. And the woods…
I also think it’s good to recognize and seize opportunities that come up during production – chances to add some production value to the film for little or no money. For us, that was the fireworks scene. During pre-production, I discovered that the Independence Day fireworks in the town where we were filming were going to take place on July 3rd, not the 4th, and the 3rd was a workday for us. So, I rewrote one of the Aaron/Teddy scenes to take place during the fireworks and we secured a location with a good view of them.
We knew with the RED camera that we could capture the fireworks in the background and it would look great. We weren’t sure we could pull it off logistically, because there were only going to be about 20 minutes of fireworks and it was a multi-character scene with tons of extras. We had just one shot at it. But we rehearsed it a lot before the sun went down, the logistics of all the camera set ups, where we were going to move when, etc., — like a kind of battle plan — and somehow we got it. So, we were able to add some production value for very little extra cost that way. And then we all had a fun day off on the 4th.
In the film there is a good amount of back and forth amongst multiple characters in confined areas. From a directorial standpoint, can you break down the anatomy of the films first dinner table conversation sequence? Visually, how did you approach an engaging sequence such as this?
That scene was originally something like ten pages when we shot it. In the end, we cut about half of it away. There was some dialogue in there that set up a later scene, but that scene was eventually cut, so then that dialogue was unnecessary. And in general, there was a lot of information about off-camera characters. When we showed it to some friends, they had some trouble processing it all, particularly with it being the first scene in the movie and not yet knowing any of the characters. I had a feeling that we might discover that to be the case, but I wasn’t sure what the limits were, so I wanted to have as much to work with as possible for that scene, with the option to cut and rearrange it as needed.
So, we shot it from many angles, including several takes of singles on each character. Not just for performance, but to increase the odds of having cut-able moments in terms of continuity. That’s something I learned I had to tell the actors in advance – that asking for another take didn’t necessarily mean there was anything wrong with the previous one. I just wanted as many options as possible in the editing room. As many as time would allow for anyway.
We also made a point to have part of the backs of heads in the singles so there was always some kind of anchor for context about where the camera was in relation to everybody (so I guess they were really over-the-shoulders). Fortunately, shooting in such a wide aspect ratio made that easy – would have been hard to avoid it in fact. And we stayed over everyone’s inside shoulders, to make viewers feel like they were right there at the table and also so they could quickly intuitively understand where you they were after any given cut.
I think originally when we were shotlisting we considered using circling dolly shots or something, like two arcs from two sides. But we eventually realized we just wouldn’t have the time for that. Or the space, actually – it was a pretty small room. So, it just wasn’t practical on our budget and schedule. And I knew it would give me far fewer options as editor if we did that instead of using a combination of locked down doubles and singles.
But we did spend a fair amount of time on the opening dolly shot from outside, which I saw in my mind from very early on when I was writing the script (as I said, it was shot in my parents’ house, so I was able to write with that window in mind).
Over the course of the writing, production, post-production and festival run, what have you found to be the most frustrating part of the filmmaking experience?
In production, it was what I alluded to before – having to cut things in order to keep on schedule. Things that you had really carefully planned and envisioned. And having to think very quickly as a writer about whether the story could still work okay without them – or how you could shoot them more simply if not. You always have to do that to some degree when you’re working with a small, fixed budget, but it’s frustrating. Particularly if it’s something you also wrote.
In the editing, my biggest frustration was probably at the self-inflicted challenge of shooting a few scenes with two characters smoking, frequently in opposing two shots (which I had insisted on). So every time I wanted to cut, I had to match both characters’ “smoking continuity,” in order for the cut to work. That was pretty painstaking. Sometimes I got away with minor discrepancies. But that was one place where I was really kicking my director self in the editing room. Then again, it was important to me, that these particular characters were smokers – what that said about them and the particular place they were at in their lives. But don’t have your characters smoke if that’s not important! It’s just a pain. Plus, it makes the actors sick, having to do take after take with those awful herbal cigarettes.
In the festival run, it was the waiting and of course, the rejections. Fairly early on in our submission process, a very top-tier festival told us, right before announcing their slate, that we had been on their short list, but hadn’t made the final cut in the end. That was obviously extremely frustrating. But it did give us some confidence too.
Every time it did get in somewhere, audiences always responded very positively and it even won some awards, including an audience award. So, for a long time we felt like we had a film that a lot of people, a lot of different kinds of people, were really relating to and genuinely enjoying, but there was no way to get it to them. That was very frustrating.
We had some consultants tell us early on that it wasn’t really a “festival film” and that we should just take the film to market and forget about festivals. Maybe we should have listened to them. But, here we are now anyway. And soon, when it’s on VOD, anyone who wants to can see it. That’ll be a relief after three years of trying to bring this film to audiences. We owe that to Michael Gunther and Triboro Pictures and Striped Entertainment, who have been believers in the film ever since they first saw it.
What is the distribution strategy for ‘Brief Reunion’ going forward? Have you begun to weigh out the options of VOD vs. Theatrical vs. Festival (or combinations of the three)?
We’re starting with New York and LA theatrical. Depending on how the reviews are, Striped might be able to take it wider and get some art houses to book it after that. Then VOD soon after. Cable / PPV would be great if we can – but also fairly contingent on reviews and theatrical success, I think.
And we’re also trying to convince the theater in the town where I grew up to book it — in Hanover, NH, which is very close to where most of the film was shot in Lyme NH. We think there’s a decent-sized potential audience there because of the local connection. I saw so many movies there growing up and even worked there as a projectionist when I was a teenager. So it would be fun and a special honor to have it play there.
What is your personal favorite shot in the film?
Joe Foley is a great DP and I think there several beautiful shots in the film (some also from producer Ben Silberfarb, who shot the time-lapse nature tableaus used in some of the transitional sequences).
But I guess for me, it would be a shot of Aaron looking into the mirror in the hotel near the end. I suppose it might be a little hard to understand by just looking at a still of it, because it has a lot to do with what’s happening in the story, and with the music and sound at that moment too. And it’s hard to discuss without giving too much away… But let’s just say that the protagonist is confronting himself in a way that he hasn’t every fully done up to this point. And the audience is learning something new and very important about him.
But the audience is seeing him through a mirror, so he looks suddenly different than he has at any other point in the film so far – at least in close-up. It’s suddenly his face in reverse. We’re now seeing the version of himself that he knows.
So, I was happy with the way that came together, given what I’m trying to say about self-knowledge, knowledge of others – the idea, as Gavin says in the beginning, that “nobody really knows anybody anyway, least of all themselves.”
Plus, I just love mirror shots! My old company was called Mirror Movies. The company that produced this film is Kagami Films (Japanese for mirror). In fact, there’s a mirror shot in every film (or at least a reflection shot – glass, chrome, water, etc.). A friend of mine back in college proposed asserted that. I challenge your readers to name films that don’t have at least one. Actually, I would love it if somebody did, because I’d love to know what they are!
Anyway, for me – that new mirror/opposite perspective on Aaron’s face, coupled with Joel de la Fuente’s performance at that moment, and the way Joe Foley lit it, and the particular red that our production designer Antoinette Jacobson chose to paint those walls – that all makes it a favorite.
Thanks for the great questions. This was fun.
Purchase Tickets - HERE -
Friday, January 18, 2013
Striped Entertainment Presents
‘BRIEF REUNION’ (U.S. Theatrical Release)
@ Quad Cinema
34 W 13th St, NY, NY