2014 SXSW Filmmaker Profile: Jay Karas (Director – ‘Break Point’)

Jimmy Price (Jeremy Sisto) is a reckless man-child on the last leg of his career as a doubles tennis player. When his latest partner drops him, he realizes he’s officially burned all of his bridges on the pro circuit. He decides to make one last ditch effort to revive his career, reaching outside of the tennis world and convincing his childhood partner — his estranged brother Darren (David Walton), now an apathetic substitute teacher — to team up with him. The mismatched pair, with the help of a unique 11-year-old named Barry (Joshua Rush), make an unlikely run at a grand slam tournament and are forced to re-discover their game, and their brotherhood.

Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Break Point’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Director Jay Karas. ‘Break Point’ screens as part of the Narrative Spotlight & SXsports programs on Saturday, March 8 (WORLD PREMIERE), Sunday, March 9, Wednesday, March 12 and Thursday, March 13 in Austin, Texas.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Break Point’ at 2014 SXSW FilmHERE

What were you attracted by with this story? Are you a tennis fan?
I had been very selective about what my first feature film would be. I had read a lot of scripts and when I read this, I just really responded to the story. It wasn’t really about the tennis part of it for me. Tennis in the movie is a way into the story and it’s about two estranged brothers who reconcile their differences to make a run at The Open. Men’s tennis doubles is the metaphor for the brothers having to be in sync not just as tennis players but as human beings, as brothers. So, the sports component was there really to support the story. We always tell people it’s not a tennis movie, it’s a movie about brothers, who happen to be tennis players.

You have a background in television, what prompted you to make a big-screen feature for the first time?
This has been something I wanted to do pretty much my entire life. The goal always for me was to direct a feature at some point and hopefully many features to come. For me it was really about building up a lot of experience in television before taking on the task of telling a longer story. Over the last four years I’ve felt like I had a legitimate amount of experience to be taken seriously for jobs. Again, I just started reading scripts waiting for the right one to come along. When I read this, what happened was they sent me the script, it was all happening very fast, and they were looking to go to prep about two weeks after I got the script. So, it required reading right away and a meeting within a week. I was also told that the story was developed by Jeremy Sisto and Gene Hong, and I had been a huge fan of Jeremy Sisto in “Six Feet Under” and just thought he was a really brilliant actor, so my interest was peaked tremendously by that alone. I didn’t know Gene Hong, the screenwriter, but I looked at his credits that he had written on “Community” and “Allen Gregory.” So, I knew going in right away before I even read the script that: an actor whom I love, excited about what kind of story he wanted to tell and a screenwriter who had really cool comedy credits who I personally respond to. I was really excited about the read. Then when I read it, I just had this gut feeling and said, “I have to do this movie.”

Is there something that surprised you directing a film as opposed to television sitcoms and specials?
In addition to the live stuff, I have a lot of single camera half hour experience as well. From doing that for years, and taking on some very complicated television series logistically speaking, the leap was actually not that great. By the time I was on set shooting Break Point, it felt like a very natural progression and I felt completely prepared for what I was doing based on the years of working on the television side. It was actually a really nice feeling because I know a lot of directors who when they shot their first feature, were very nervous, and didn’t feel like they prepped certain things properly I just felt like I was ready, and that’s one of things I said to a friend last week. I’m really glad I directed my first feature at 40, not 30, because I just felt like I had the work experience and the life experience to better tell the story and better make the film.

Your career has been in comedy and you’ve worked with just about every type of comedian. Do you have a favorite comedic style and how do you implement that in your direction?
You’re right. I’ve directed a lot of different kinds of comedies and a lot of different sensibilities. My personal sensibility leans towards things that are a little weirder and a little more offbeat than the broader, more mainstream stuff. But with everything I do I like to infuse it with a level of accessibility that’s going to play to as big of an audience as possible. For instance, I’m a fan of awkward pauses and subtle moments and found that there was the opportunity to do that in this film. For going in as a guest director on “Workaholics,” I’m thinking about how to make moments funnier. I will pitch out my version of what I think is funnier, which is typically going to be something that hopefully a little left of center.

You have Amy Smart, J.K. Simmons, Adam DeVine, Jeremy Sisto and David Walton in this film. What was your experience directing a diverse bunch of actors like that?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wonderfully long list of talented actors. The approach I take is the same as everything else, where every actor has specific ways they like to work and it was really about figuring out, with the little bit of prep time I had, what those things were. We only had seven weeks to prep the film, which is insane. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of access to my other actors, so it was really about gathering as much information from watching their other performances and other work that they’ve done and making a couple phone calls and read-throughs and figuring out from a director’s standpoint what their style was. That way, by the time I was on set I could adapt my style of direction to their personal acting style.

Going down the list, J.K. Simmons, when I first met him, he actually wanted to sit down and meet. He knows Jeremy and that’s how he came to the project. The other thing I was told when I got the script was, not that it was just Jeremy Sisto and Gene Hung, but that there was a tremendous likelihood that J.K. Simmons would play their father and that was another huge thing for me because J.K. Simmons has always been a favorite actor of mine. For other films on my directing assignments, he was always on my list. I knew that he would bring an incredibly seasoned approach and some valuable input to his character, which he definitely did. Amy Smart was just really lovely to work with and incredibly professional and really open to trying different takes. David Walton is someone that was such a pleasant surprise. When his name came up, it was submitted on a long list of ideas from his agency, which happens to be my agency. At the time, the name rang a bell, and I looked him up and went, “Oh that guy, yeah, I know that guy.” He typically plays the more “jockey” kind of role. And I just had this gut feeling that he could play this character, which is a much more subdued, subtle performance from what we’ve seen from him. He came in and read and really blew us all away. What we also found out was that he grew up playing tennis, he’s a highly ranked amateur tennis player, and always wanted to make a tennis movie. So it’s an amazing convergence of details. Looking back, I can’t believe we were even considering anyone in that role that did not play tennis and that was not David Walton.

How much direction do you implement with actors, or do you trust each actor’s comic understanding?
It’s a little of both. I always like to hear from the actors first, especially with a guy like J.K. Simmons. You want to hear what he has to say about it and what his interpretation is. I like to hear that first and then share my thoughts and then it just becomes a dialogue. I like dialing it in with them together. As far as the comedy plays, I always like to get different options on every read. I know in your head you want a joke to play a certain way, you might have a certain reading of that line in your head, and you direct the actors towards that. But then we always like to get options because when you’re in the editing room, I feel like you never quite know what version of it is going to be the best from using context, with not just the scene, but the rest of the film.

How does improvisation play into your editing and final say over scenes?
I typically like to allow room for improvisation. Sometimes as a guest director on television shows, you don’t get the opportunity to do that, but my personal style is allowing time and space for that. For me, if there are some words on the page that don’t come out exactly, and it’s more comfortable for an actor to say it a certain way, and it sounds more natural and more real or grounded, then I’m all for allowing them to do that. There were a lot of scenes in the film where we just let the scene go longer in the end and just riff and we got a lot of fun and funny, sometimes heartfelt nuggets to play that were not there on the page. So for me, it’s just tantamount importance to allow time for that.

The movie is built as a comedy, but its definitely got a lot of heart and the relationship between the brothers, who are estranged, there’s a lot of repair to be done so it explores a lot of the tough aspects of family relationships in addition to being funny. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do, especially for my first film.

Why is the SXSW Film Festival an ideal spot for this film?
I’ve never been to SXSW, but I’ve been to Austin a few times for some comedy specials.  There was just something about the vibe of the film that, for me and all of the producers, seemed to fit best with SXSW. It’s a little difficult to articulate because I haven’t been to SXSW, but it’s again one of those gut feelings. So we’re thrilled that the film was accepted and that they’ve given us a really nice premiere slot on the second night of the festival. 

Break_Point_Jay_Karas_About Jay Karas
Jay Karas has directed episodes of Workaholics, Parks & Rec, Raising Hope & Eagleheart, and has helmed Chelsea Handler’s scripted series After Lately for three seasons as showrunner & director. He has also directed numerous stand-up specials and commercial campaigns, including Conan’s launch on TBS. Jay lives in LA with his wife Monica and son Leo.

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