Dylan Levy | 10.20.2014
For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Christopher Thomas, the filmmaker of the AFF 2014 Film Terrible Love! AFF is hosting a screening of Terrible Love Thursday, October 23 and Sunday, October 26 at the IMAX Theatre. Join AFF and filmmaker Christopher Thomas for the screening!
Dylan Levy: Dramatic films concerning post-traumatic stress disorder are certainly not new, but Terrible Love is strikingly different, significantly because all of the dialogue is improvised. Why did you choose to forego written dialogue, and how do you think that choice impacted the film?
Terrible Love filmmaker Christopher Thomas: Our overall goal for the production was authenticity, both in the cinematography and the performances. I wanted the audience to understand that the scenarios in the film are not manufactured drama, but in fact everyday reality for thousands of veterans.
There is something unique about the energy of improvised dialog. It’s messy. It’s erratic. You end up saying things you don’t understand. This is also true of life in general. But the moment a section of speech is written down, even the most skilled actor tends to get into a rut of line-readings and preciousness towards the text. The “You speak” then “I speak” sort of rhythm that a lot of films fall into – it doesn’t sound like real life; it sounds like a fanciful approximation.
Improvisation keeps everyone fresh and honest. You never know what the other actors are going to throw at you. Your only choice is to commit yourself 100% to the authenticity of the moment. Improv is not a good fit for every project. But for any drama or character-centric piece, I find it very hard to replace the benefits of well-executed (and properly planned) improvisation. I think the choice to improvise impacted this film in exactly the way you have described: the film feels different. The film feels real.
DL: What kind of research did you and the actors do to prepare for the film?
CT: I was lucky to work with such dedicated talent. We weren’t playing games here. Rufus stayed with me for about a month before production, just to hammer out the nuances of the character. Rufus and Amy (the leads in the film) actually lived in the set house for the duration of the production. They decorated the space as if it was their own, and they spent 24/7 in the mindset and lifestyle of their characters. After a 15+ hour day of shooting and rehearsals, Rufus would have to chop wood to feed the woodstove which was the only source of heat in the house.
It was fascinating to watch Rufus and Amy morph not only mentally, but physically, into their characters. By the end of production, they had completely transformed as human beings. When you see them walking around AFF, I would be surprised if you even recognize them. I really have respect for that level of dedication to the craft- when you are so deeply immersed into a role that the physiological structure of your face changes.
But this prep work completely paid off on set. With such immersion in the roles, we had the assurance that whatever came out of the actor’s mouth would be authentic and true to character. It gave us the courage to show up to set each day and completely gamble with the entire project, knowing we wouldn’t have the schedule or budget to reshoot scenes. But I think our gamble paid off, as we got some dynamite breakthrough performances out of it.
On a practical level, Luke (our producer) and I spent about a year researching veteran affairs, talking with families in the area, and jotting down anecdotes. Everything that happens in the film is a true story based off of stories relayed to me by veteran families. We were in close contact with veteran counselors and healthcare providers to make sure that everything we were creating was true to life.
DL: How much did you improvise in the filmmaking process? Did you ever feel that you were “letting go” of the content and imparting it to the actors?
CT: If you think about it, every film is improvised. Someone has to do the work of extracting random ideas from the nebulous ether. Traditionally this falls on the shoulders of the screenwriter. Even when J.J. Abrams sits down to write the new Star Wars, that first draft is going to be essentially improv. Just making it up as you go along, with or without the safety net of an outline.
And different filmmakers have played around with how far to extend this improvisation process into production. Mike Leigh improvises in rehearsals, before setting a final shooting script in stone. On the other end of the spectrum, Harmony Korine has admitted to sometimes showing up to set without knowing what (or who) he is shooting; leave it to the Editor to find the story.
On Terrible Love we really tried to find a balance. It is my professional goal to marry the unwavering focus of a scripted piece with the authenticity (and fireworks) of improvisation.
We didn’t improvise the plot. The whole piece was pretty heavily outlined, so the actors would go into each scene with a rough roadmap. So it didn’t really feel like I was “letting go” of the story; it was all enormously collaborative. I would simply lay out a juicy circumstance that we could all hook into, and the actors would do the work of shading that circumstance in with different colors.
However, there was a lot of trust going on. Our lead actors have a daughter in the film. During pre-production, we wanted to keep the daughter separate from Rufus. We wanted their relationship to be a little tepid, a little awkward, in order to reflect that in the film, Rufus has been deployed overseas for a year. But on the first day we were shooting those two together, our risk nearly backfired. The young actress playing Rufus’s daughter was so terrified of him that she was just crying and crying and telling everyone that she didn’t want to be in the movie anymore. That was the moment I looked to Luke (our producer) and thought “We’re doomed.” After about an hour of rewrites and tremendous feats of kindergarten diplomacy- we were able to get the two on screen together. We were actually able to capture them opening up to each other for the first time on camera. So in that sense we did have the experience of “letting go” and allowing the project to tug us in the direction it wanted to go.
DL: How has making this film impacted you, personally and professionally as a filmmaker?
CT: On the most basic level, when I started this film I was 21. I am now 24. In the same time period that it has taken me to complete a single project, I have had friends give birth to infants who I can now carry conversations with.
Personally, I have gained new insight into the struggles of returning vets. That insight fundamentally transformed me. It has definitely deepened my compassion for families wrestling with mental illness. There is also another military doc playing at AFF: That Which I Love Destroys Me. I have hope that the exposure of these films can bring tangible relief, and legislation, for veterans and their families.
Professionally, this was my first feature film project. It has been magnificent to now find myself surrounded by a company of the most delightful and competent professionals, and I look forward to connecting with even more souls who might resonate with Terrible Love.
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