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Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine: Actress and Director, Gabi on the Roof in July

February 17, 2013

1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY, from concept to financing. 

MV5BMTc4OTQ0Nzc0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjY4OTU3MQ@@._V1._SY314_CR89,0,214,314_Lawrence (writer/director/actor): I shot and edited my first feature, TERRITORY, over the course of my first year at film school, so when the film premiered in Cinequest in 2005 I was still really a student. While at film school the teachers pushed me to write very conventional screenplays, which I was resistant to, but I wrote them anyway. When I graduated, I realized the films I’d written at school would be hard to get off the ground because they had relatively large budgets. It was depressing to think I might have to wait years to get back on set and work with actors, which is my favorite part of filmmaking. At the same time, I’d been revisiting a lot of Cassavetes, Mike Leigh & Rob Nilsson films and reading about their methods. They really inspired me to break away from the more conventional approach that I’d adopted at school. I was especially interested in how they collaborated with actors to create their films and decided that the next film I shot would draw on their techniques.

MV5BMTY0MDE5MzkxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDk2Nzk5NA@@._V1._SY314_CR128,0,214,314_Sophia (actor/producer/editor): I got cast in a national commercial. It was the first commercial audition I’d ever gone on, and I was pretty sure I blew it in the callback but then got a call from the casting director saying I’d gotten a part. When I got to the set, I remember I called Lawrence and said I was pretty sure my part was useless and I was going to get cut from the commercial (which I basically did). But, the commercial aired and I started getting residuals despite the fact that you could mainly only see my left kneecap. So, I suggested we use the money I made to make a film using the methods Lawrence had been so interested in. Combined with Lawrence’s savings, we had enough money to make a no-budget feature!

2Q: You used an unconventional way of developing your script to obtain more complete and truthful characters. Please explain to our readers how improvisation was used in your film.

Lawrence: Well, the film itself is not actually improvised, though I’m sure a lot of people will think it is because all of the performance are so natural. I feel like I really have to point this out, because the term ‘improvisation’ seems to distract people from the fact that these actors are giving great performances. They aren’t in front of the camera making up lines, playing themselves. We worked for six months prior to the shoot rehearsing and developing characters that are often startlingly different from the actors who play them.

The first step in the process was the audition. I asked the actors who were auditioning to bring in a list of people they knew – they could be someone as close to them as their sister or someone they’d only seen once on the street – I just wanted the list to consist of real people. Then each actor and I went through the list and parsed it down to two or three characters that I thought would be interesting to see them play. Once that decisions had been made, each actor came in and did a private moment as each of the three characters we’d selected. After seeing all the actors do this, I decided what characters I thought would play well off each other and that’s how we decided which actors would be in the movie.

The next step was to meet with each member of the cast individually, and flesh out specifics about the characters. After that, each actor went out into the real world as their character and I shadowed them, watching how they interacted with people and how people reacted to them. For example, one of the character’s lives on the street for stretches, so I followed him around and watched him panhandle. This allowed the actors to experience the way their character would be treated in certain situations and enabled me to see how people responded to them.

The following step was to bring characters together through backstory rehearsals. Any relationships that existed prior to the start of the film were explored. For example, a brother and sister in the movie improvised the time the sister was five and her older brother was babysitting her, or a couple in the film who had a romantic history rehearsed the entirety of their relationship from first meet through break up. This part of the process allowed the actors to get really specific about what the characters meant to each other and to have real emotional memories to draw on during scenes.

The final step consisted of considering what we had seen in the backstory rehearsals and deciding what might be going on in all these characters lives at present. That present would be the basis of the screenplay. Kate Kirtz, my co-writer, and I came up with a list of scenes we thought could potentially be in the film, then gave the circumstances of each scene to the actors. They improvised scenes that sometimes went on for three or four hours, all of which we recorded on video, and then I went back and took those long scenes and boiled them down to their essence using the video tapes as a reference.

All of this work culminated in a final shooting script. There is very little improvisation in the final version of GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY. The film is scripted, it just feels like improvisation because the actors knew their characters so well due to our process.

Sophia: I just want to mention that working this way, as an actor, was incredibly empowering. So often actors don’t get to control the characters they play, but through this process I not only had control over who my character was, I was also able to dig so much deeper into her history than on any other project I’ve worked on.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY?

Lawrence: I think we both had the same best experience – a backstory rehearsal we did where the majority of characters came together for the first time. It’s difficult to describe, but it was extremely exciting to see the characters that we had created finally colliding with each other in surprising ways. At that point I knew we were on to something pretty special, the things that happened in this rehearsal would never have manifested if I’d been sitting alone in a room writing a script.

Sophia: Yeah, that rehearsal ruled! My character, Gabi, was 14 and visiting her brother, Sam, in New York City. Sam was throwing a housewarming party with his then girlfriend, Chelsea, and a bunch of other characters were there. It was crazy, I never had a brother but I really experienced what it would be like to be younger and meet all your brother’s older, cooler friends. Also, one part of this process was that Lawrence kept all the characters apart until they were fully formed. Actors couldn’t know anything more than their characters would know about the other characters in the film. Lawrence was in and out of our apartment all hours of the day and night working with other actors and I had no idea what they were doing. When we all finally came together at this rehearsal it was awesome to see what he and the actors had been cooking up. I got a real kick out of how different some of the characters were from the actors who created them.

The worst part for me was watching Lawrence kiss other girls. Once I got so jealous I punched him.

Lawrence: That was the worst part for me.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

Sophia: My mom really likes the movie.

Lawrence: Mine does too. And I know it sounds unimpressive but my mom is really, really objective. Just kidding. I’m most proud of the performances in this film. I believe that people go to movies to reconnect with their humanity and actors are the conduit for that. Every time I watch our film I’m thrilled by the energy and vitality the actors bring to the screen. Because of the process that we did, even the smallest parts have real life and specificity, and I have to give the cast a lot of credit. If there’s any reason I want to people to see the film it’s for the beautiful work they all did.

Sophia: Also, it’s really funny.

5Q: The current market for independent films is fractured, to put it lightly, and existing distribution models grow more ineffective with each passing moment. What are your hopes or plans for distribution?

Sophia: I want to play at every AMC in the world. I’m not gonna let the haters tell me I can’t.

Lawrence: Word.

Sophia: Actually, we’ll take what we can get.

Lawrence: Unfortunately, we live in a world where movies like this don’t play in multiplexes. There are so many amazing films coming out now that are made for nothing that are vastly superior to what plays in big movie theaters. I think this period for filmmaking is a lot like the post-punk or psychedelic eras for music, when cheaper technologies and the social climate combined to provide fertile ground for an artistic explosion. People are still discovering new/old bands from those eras that were recording demos in their garage or on 4-tracks that are amazing.  Compare a bunch of movies like NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS, FROWNLAND and COCAINE ANGELS which were made for practically nothing to something like COP OUT – not that I’ve even seen that, maybe it’s great, but you take my point. People are doing really, really high quality work for very little money. That being said, it’s great to know there are so many ways to get your film seen even if you can’t make your money back. Which is fine by me. If you’re making a movie to make money you shouldn’t be making a movie.

From → Interviews

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