Thursday, November 17, 2016

Max Azulay and Matt Porter on "5 Doctors"

What was your filmmaking background before making 5 Doctors?

MAX: I was a somewhat bizarre child and knew from a very early age that I wanted to make films. I spent most weekends in middle school and high school writing scripts and making movies with similarly bizarre friends, while our more well-adjusted classmates were off socializing and engaging in reality.

I made short films throughout college and afterward, always with the intention of working towards a feature. I had written a few feature screenplays before 5 Doctors, all of which I can safely say were mostly complete garbage and which never did and never will see the light of day- but the experience of writing, learning to finish things, learning what your tastes are and the feeling of ever-so-incrementally improving all proved to be invaluable when it was time to actually make a real movie.

MATT: Very similar for me. In addition to making many short films, with Max and without, I have also spent the last few years making web sketches under the name Good Cop Great Cop with my friend Charlie Hankin, and that has led to some other short-form directing, writing, and acting work, but nothing that quite prepared me to tackle the lofty goal of making a feature film. 

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for writing the script and getting the script ready to shoot?

MAX: Matt, Phil and I had been making short films together for years. Eventually, we felt like writing and producing something longer, and we were kicking around some ideas, but nothing really stuck. We were kind of in a rut, not knowing what to work on exactly.

One day, Matt and I were driving around New York City, and he mentioned that our mutual friend had said he'd like to see a version of The Trip (2010) starring Matt and me. That got us laughing, and we started sort of casually riffing on what that movie would be, never thinking we'd actually make it.

Matt had written a short film a few years prior about a kid who goes to see his childhood doctors, all in a single day, and we started talking about that being the premise. And then we stumbled on, maybe Matt's character is a repressed townie guy, who has actual responsibilities, but gets roped into driving me, as the hypochondriac, to and from his various doctors. That made us laugh some more, and we started improvising as the two characters and then we sort of looked at each other like, wait, maybe we should actually make this movie.

From there, we started outlining, and then passed drafts back and forth between the three of us. Also, because Matt and I were the main actors, we'd often write by sitting on my couch in Queens, or his couch in Brooklyn, or Phil's couch in Manhattan, and improvising as the two characters. The only thing missing was a couch in Staten Island or the Bronx.

For all of us, in different ways, the movie was very personal and part of the joy of writing it was staring down the swirling storm of anxiety we were feeling at the time.

Personally, I was dealing with a lot of anxiousness, uncertainty about my life, career, relationships, etc. It became a way of sorting things out, working on the script. Instead of giving into the feeling of “oh no, I'm doomed!,” I'd write some of that screenplay and it had a therapeutic effect.

I think that's important if you want to make something that resonates. It has to be something you sort of NEED to write or else you'll go insane.

You both wore a lot of hats on the production. How did you handle co-directing while also both acting in the movie?

MATT: I am a strong believer that it is impossible to truly act and direct at the same time. At their core, they are truly opposite jobs, and you can ruin one if you are thinking about the other. So, by having the two of us trading off during the shoot, it allowed whoever was on camera to fully let go of the overall vision and just be in the moment. And meanwhile, whoever was directing could fully step back and experience the scene from the outside.

MAX: Yeah, I think where the co-directing came in was mostly performance. When Matt was acting, Phil and I were there to direct- when I was acting, the other two did that, and when both of us were acting together, Phil was the guy. It was a way of having each other's backs. We all put a lot into it, and needed the support, and leaned on each other a lot. I felt very lucky to have those two guys there.

What's the upside and the downside of having the same people write, direct and act in the movie?

MATT: The upside is that you are the keeper of the vision. Throughout the process, solving problems can be much easier because you can trust your gut. 

MAX: Definitely. The downside is that they are all antithetical jobs in many ways. You can't be thinking like a writer, for example, when you are acting. I couldn't be in the middle of an emotional scene and think, “maybe this line should have an 'and' instead of a 'but' here, that'd be more elegant-sounding.” That would be terrible and pretty much guarantee I'd be delivering the kind of performance that would cause you to rightfully demand your money back.

I do find, though, that if you give yourself fully over to the acting in the moment, having written the scene is beneficial because you know and can access the emotion behind it. You know the intent of the scene on a gut level. But, you need to be in the moment, and quiet your overthinking, writerly brain. It's hard and takes practice.

The key to all of this is that there were three of us, and we knew how to work together, and fill in the gaps when one of us didn't have the bandwidth to do the other stuff. We were a unit, and that's what helped us get by.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

MATT: We are at the early stages of that process now. We began our festival run with a world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, which was a wonderful experience, and now we are hoping we’ll get into a few more early next year. Beyond that, we are organizing our own screening in NY on Nov. 9th and are also of course just sending the film around, far and wide, hoping to find someone who might be interested in distributing. Fingers crossed!

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

MATT: We shot on the Arri Amira, which honestly I loved pretty much wall to wall. The only thing that was frustrating is that it is rather bulky, which meant that car scenes were a little tough, and also the amount of handheld we did really gave our DP Zach’s shoulder a serious workout.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

MAX: The movie changed a lot during editing, yes. The first cut was almost two and a half hours. Watching it for the first time was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. I was overwhelmed, and wasn't sure what we could logically cut and have the movie still remain coherent.

I tried to rationalize: “maybe this is a three hour movie. There are lots of three hour, character-based indie comedies where the stakes are really low and not a lot happens, right?”

The three of us had a lot of panicked meetings, phone calls, late night meals at Chinese restaurants trying to figure out what we were gonna do. We thought maybe we had wasted a few years of our lives putting this together.

Slowly but surely though, once the panic subsided and we started thinking logically, the answers started to present themselves. “Wait a minute, we can cut this entire sub-plot and it won't change much. In fact, it'll make it way better.” It was a lot of slow, painstaking, obsessive work. Basically like writing a whole new draft of the movie.

We also had lots of test screenings where we heard people's reactions and honed and changed everything based on them. The movie is now 90 minutes, and it took about a year to get it down to that. I'm really happy with how it turned out, and it's exciting to realize that we molded it into something that works.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

MATT: I think the smartest thing we did was hire our AD Siena Brown and our line producer Sara Blechman. It was thanks to them that the shoot went as smoothly as it did.

The dumbest thing we did was probably back the truck into a somewhat historic brick wall. But thanks to Siena and Sara, I didn’t even know about that until the wrap party.  

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

MATT: I think we learned a million things, but one of the biggest lessons for me was the value of working with people you trust and who share your taste and vision.

From your main collaborators down to the PAs and the caterers, if everyone is there because they are excited to work, then the experience making the film will be a joy, and the final product will be better as a result.

I think we also learned how to take an idea and carve away at it, over years and years, until it is at it’s most potent and emotionally honest state.

MAX: In terms of writing, I think what made this so satisfying was I had a lot of questions about my own life that I didn't know the answers to, and part of writing this was an attempt to get some clarity. It was selfish, in a way. But, selfish or not, I am trying to do the same thing with projects I am writing now.

I think that you should take the biggest, seemingly insurmountable problems in your life, the things that cause you the most pain and are the most difficult to think about, and just start writing about them. This is a good way to create something that, even if it never amounts to anything, will definitely have a good personal effect, potentially even transformative. It's also a good way to learn to engage with your worried mind and not run from it.

Another thing that this project taught me was to not give up and keep working. The movie took over four years to make. During the writing stage, I had no job and was collecting unemployment benefits. There were plenty of times we all wanted to give up, but we didn't let each other off the hook.

If you want to be a writer or a director or an actor or whatever, you need to find a way to do it, and keep doing it, even when you feel like all is lost, which is necessarily a lot of the time, no matter what stage you are at.

"5 DOCTORS" Trailer from Matt Porter on Vimeo.

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