Saturday, January 29, 2011

Inventing an inventory story

Castparty Productions' first feature, The Observer, is the result a timed-filmmaking challenge we set for ourselves: to conceive, shoot, and edit a feature film in two weeks. We actually managed to pull it off (though we've since recut it and plan to make a few more tweaks to it in the near future).

One particularly invigorating part of making The Observer was having groups of supporting characters improvise on-camera, exploring key themes from the story's main plot line.

We wanted to do the same thing with Inventory, but like Ginger Rogers: backwards and in high heels. That is, developing a set of main characters and—fueled by improv and reimprov—building story arcs inspired by them.

The use of reimprov (reusing material derived from improv) as a scriptwriting tool is a little-discussed but highly valuable technique, and one we cultivate at Castparty.

Pretty much the only literature I've seen on reimprov consists of a few memorable quotes by Tina Fey from Anne Libera's The Second City Almanac of Improvisation and a chapter in a college thesis by Matt Fotis (.PDF).

Ms. Fey crystallizes the virtues of "scriptprov" (as Fotis calls it)...
I'm always surprised when I meet someone who thinks that sitting and writing is the only way of creating comedy. It's like meeting someone who thinks that in vitro fertilization is the only way to make a baby. You want to say, "No, there's this whole other way of doing it that's natural and sometimes pleasurable." well as the awkwardness when you first reimprovise an initially funny bit:
The scene feels flat and forced. You feel like a dirty whore.
For some gifted improvisers, chewing the cud of a previously improvised scene is deadly. It's a direct invitation to "get in your head," a state contrary to the Zen-like plane where they thrive.

High among the attributes that make someone a favorite actor of ours is a facility with reimprov and an openness to an iterative give-and-take process for building and refining characters and scripts.

We used reimprov at every stage of the Inventory project. Sometimes we'd shoot a scene precisely as planned (with plans that, for the most part, grew out of earlier improv). More often, we explored variations in the first takes of a scene before settling on one version that worked best.

To initiate casting, Dennis Hurley, Kevin Hammer, and I pooled notes on our favorite local performers, most of whom we'd worked with before or had hoped to.

We scheduled several get-togethers with prospective cast, with new recruits to the project answering this question at the outset:
What character would be fun for you to play... and fun for the audience to watch you play?
We gradually got to know these characters and their wants, foibles, and secrets.

Through improv and ongoing discussions, we learned what each character thought about each other character, and we tracked all this info in a Google spreadsheet. Eventually, the spreadsheet became the "source of truth" for the story beats and their state of completion, cast/crew availability, etc.

A Google text doc was a repository for memorable bits of dialogue that came out of the rehearsals and from subsequent discussions about characters and scenes. Once the shoot location was secured, that doc also included Kevin's bird-eye map of the furniture-store layout, which helped answer logistical questions about which characters would be in which part of the store at any point in the story.

For scenes with extensive scripted dialogue, and for the lyrics and animation beats for the title song, we used the Zhura (now "Scripped") online screenwriting app.

Since I wrote and finalized a plurality of the dialogue, I'm listed as screenwriter. Kevin, Dennis, and Katarina Morhacova share story credits, as they worked most intensively with me on helping craft a meaningful narrative from the warehouseful of rich material that grew out of the collaborative process.

In reality, there were more than a dozen significant contributors to the script—everyone on either side of the camera (and other Castparty friends who pitched in with helpful suggestions along the way), starting with each castmember's concept of the character they wanted to create and snowballing from there.

* * *

Given that locations are among the scarcest commodities for indie filmmakers, we envisioned a very compressed shoot, maybe over two weekends. When we found our location, Mattress Warehouse #1 in Norwell, MA, and Dave and Doris Thompson were so supremely helpful, we were able to expand our ambitions considerably, spending time on developing that "lived-in" feeling and structuring a much more cohesive story than a more completely improvised film would typically offer.

A good example of the evolutionary process we like to foster was Dave going from being our gracious location host to a cameo performer to a featured player who, according to some of our early viewers, practically steals the third act. If the fates put us in the company of a furniture-store owner who's a natural at the Charlie Brownish humor that fulfills our mission to make "sad little comedies," we ain't too proud to, y'know, improvise, and add some serendipitous fun to the proceedings.

Some of our recurring castmembers are extensively schooled in improv and acting, and some just fell off an unmarked talent truck. What's important to us is what they bring to the rehearsals, to the set, and most importantly to the screen.

And I'm damned proud to work with so many talented people and in a way that, I think, allows us all to be our creative best.

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