ALEX: I started as a New York stage actor, but didn’t get on stage very much, so I started writing a lot as a creative outlet. After several years of that, I finally decided to direct.
So without ever having taken a class or set foot on a film set of any kind, I wrote and directed a no-budget feature with dozens of actors and locations and even some early digital effects. The results were mixed, but I loved it like a fish loves water.
I spent many years after that trying to get many scripts produced while editing here and there and directing a couple of shorts. Finally I was going to quit the whole thing but ended up making Hollywood Musical! instead.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
ALEX: The idea came from frustration with trying to break into show business as well as my admiration for the hundreds of people I’ve know through the years who can’t catch a break despite being among the most talented artists you’ll ever see--people well into their 40s and 50s who still haven’t been able to even begin a career but who manage to keep going anyway, out of pure love for the doing of it.
Every character and their circumstances were based on many friends and two characters were based on two sides of myself. I wrote it in a week and showed it to my friend Stefan and my wife, both who are in the movie, as well as my composer and friend, D.D. Jackson.
I had written it in a kind of resigned depression but they all surprised me by saying they thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever written.
ALEX: I love musicals for their inherent cinematic-ness (is that a word?) so I just felt an instinct for where to place the songs. They just came out of the characters at the moments where they needed to express their most passionate responses to their current fates.
I’d come up with a title for each song (McCartney and Lennon said a good title is half the song) and went to New York to write them with D.D. For each one I’d play him a couple of other songs to express the feeling or style I wanted for each song, though sometimes they were a combination of things. Like for Give ‘Em What They Want, I said I wanted a cross between Les Mis and Elton John (ie. Levon).
And D.D. is so brilliant at integrating feeling, style, form, character, story and music history while producing something totally original. I’d write some of the lyrics beforehand, some during, and many after we had the melody. And all very, very quickly since we work in such similar ways. We had a blast creating those songs.
ALEX: I didn’t raise my budget. I’ve always sucked at that. It’s a talent and a gift. If you know anyone who has that touch, send them my way.
A friend of my mom loaned me some money that I still owe her. And I called in lots of favors (I’m lucky to know hundreds of brilliant actors), hustled for free locations and shot fast (8 days) with a crew of 5. And I always cut my own movies so there’s that.
I had no distribution plan since all I cared about was just making something I’d be happy with come what may. Now it’s out on iTunes and all that so we’ll see how it does.
ALEX: As I said, my greatest resource, besides D.D., who is my secret weapon, is the actors I know. I studied and worked for many years at The Barrow Group in New York which is, in my opinion, the greatest source of acting in the U.S. Most of my friends in L.A. are former Barrow Groupers like me so all I have to do is write down a friend’s name next to a character and then make a phone call.
There are 50 speaking parts in Hollywood Musical! and almost all of them are friends from The Barrow Group. So casting took me about 15 minutes. After that the script didn’t change at all, except for little changes the actors made on set in the process of playing, which I love.
ALEX: I don’t know if there were problems, really. It was a joy and very freeing. I absolutely loved shooting the musical numbers. I’d have a specific visual plan for each one, based on a combination of things, from whatever the characters were saying to the style and rhythm of the music to what sort of movie tradition was being referenced.
For example Here I Am is very much a Broadway song. It’s written to be the ultimate audition song so I shot it in a theatrical way, very old school. Something’s Gotta Give was inspired in its cutting style by Tonight from West Side Story but visually by the Wise Up scene in PT Anderson’s Magnolia.
The last number, It’s Not The End of the World, is shot and cut like a Beatles movie. So all that was fun.
The most challenging thing for me was in editing because you’re more locked in to what you’ve shot and can’t change it as much because the performances are so synced and locked into the music track and you can’t change it anymore. At least how I do it because I’m a bit of a classicist. I don’t like chaotic, random editing. And I mostly have to stick to the editing plan I had when I shot, so I better have been right to begin with.
Maybe next time I’ll know how to work around that better but I was mostly happy with how they cut together here.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
ALEX: We used the Canon 7D, which was kind of new at the time. I was naive about it. I’m not technical and have so much to learn about photography. So my mistake was seeing this great, unlit footage from it and thinking it was going to make things look good on its own. But, of course, it doesn’t. It still has to come from the people using it. So there are some scenes we underlit and things like that.
What was your process for directing yourself?
ALEX: The Barrow Group is great for learning how to self diagnose and prescribe your own adjustments as an actor. You really learn to take care of yourself. So I enjoy acting, both for myself and for others. I don’t think much about it and as a director it’s easier for me because it’s one less actor to explain things to!
ALEX: The smartest thing I did was to be honest with myself when something wasn’t working and change the shooting plan very quickly, which was more tricky for musical numbers because I had to rethink how I was going to cut it in under 2 minutes. So thank God for those times when I could recognize that I’d been wrong.
The dumbest were the few scenes where I didn’t have a strong shooting plan and just put my trust in capturing something spontaneous that I’d create more in editing. Big mistake. Always have a strong plan because even the plan never goes according to plan.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
ALEX: Well besides the aforementioned dumb thing I’ll never repeat, I think I’m always learning more about listening to that inner voice that knows if something’s working or not. And to throw that brilliant idea out of my head and quickly come up with something that actually works in the real world.
But I haven’t started my next project yet so hopefully you can ask me in a few months how I’m doing with that. :)