Deb Shoval Interviews Stacie Passon About Concussion and the IFP Narrative Labs
The following is a guest post by writer/director Deb Shoval, whose debut feature AWOL participated in the 2013 IFP Narrative Labs.
Nine months ago, I sat down with the endlessly generous Stacie Passon, the writer/director of Concussion, for some words of wisdom on making the low budget, indie first feature. Her biggest piece of advice? Get AWOL into the IFP Narrative Labs. Fast forward to Part 2 of 3 of the yearlong lab fellowship: IFP Week. Stacie, now an IFP Narrative Lab mentor, gets into more detail.
Passon: Now if my son comes in during this interview and starts whining, and I start screaming my ass off… You’re not going to print that, right?
Shoval: If you don’t want me to I won’t – but that’s a good opening to my first question about you and your children.
Shoval: You directed your own kids in Concussion. How did you come to that decision, and would you do it again?
Passon: I knew it would be a really intimate shoot, and the last thing I wanted was a stage mother situation; I know a few of those, and it can get really bad. I asked my wife her opinion, and I asked my mother, and I asked Rose [Troche, the producer of Concussion]. I even asked Robin [Weigert, Concussion’s lead]. My kids really look like Robin, particularly Mikah. So it just kinda worked. And they wanted to do it. So I did it. Directing Mikah was really easy. He’d be upstairs watching a football game and I’d say, “Come downstairs and say your line.” And he’d walk in and say, “I’m hungry.”
Shoval: You shot in your own house?
Passon: Well, I could’ve paid $5,000 to use someone else’s house, or I could’ve just used mine. Come to think of it, I should’ve probably just paid the $5,000.
Passon: Marin, however – she was quite the actor. She was actually directing me. I’d say something to her, and then she would do the scene, and then I’d pace and say, “We’re going to do it a different way; this is the way I’d like you to do it now.” And she’d say, “Hold on. Cut. That’s something totally different than what you said before!” And she could keep track. She knew she’d had her right hand up in the last shot. Marin, at 6 years old, could do continuity. It was kind of hilarious.
Shoval: Did it make you want to write for her?
Passon: No. I’m done working with my children.
Shoval: Let’s talk about Robin. Did you formally audition her?
Passon: No. Robin was an offer. I saw her reel, and when you’re casting your first film, unless you’ve got a huge budget, you’re probably going to have to put in an offer to your lead actor. We met and we had dinner and we knew. I knew immediately that she was just going to be fantastic. She just had a terrific, self-possessed way about her.
I adore watching her. She’s an actor’s actor; she’s ready to steep into a character. She lived with me for a week, and I think she got Abby a little bit more. She got know the family dynamic and the environment. She was able to really extract and recalibrate in her character what she had only sort of thought about. She just became this character. We had a ton of time to talk about it. It was a really special relationship. She became an artistic mirror for me. She was amazing.
Shoval: Whose idea was that for her to live with you for a week?
Passon: We wanted her to come in for the shoot a week before her apartment was ready, so I just said, “Stay with me.” And she said, “Yeah, actually, that would work.” We had talked pretty much every day for three months. She remade her entire body for the part.
Shoval: Remade her body in terms of being so physically fit?
Passon: She lost all this weight, a ton of weight, and put on a ton of muscle. When people talk about the type of discipline that actors have to have… Robin showed that type of discipline in every aspect of preparing for this role. She knew that it could be a breakout role for her, and she also knew that to properly serve the role she was going to have to do certain things.
Shoval: Did you have any strategies particular to working with her?
Passon: During the shoot, during our loft scenes, I’d be far more complimentary to Robin than when we were shooting at the house. That was by design. Sometimes she’d come to me and say, “Oh Stacie, can you give me a compliment?” Not that she would fish for compliments, but she would look for some sort of sign that she was doing the right thing. And I wouldn’t do it, because I felt that Abby would never be complimented on anything that she would do in her home life. So there was an aspect of immersion. And the results, when I started to edit, the results were… when Anthony [Cupo, the editor and executive producer] and I started to edit, I’d look at take after take after take, and I’d think, “She’s really giving an amazing performance!” When Rose came in [the editing room], she said she loved Robin’s performance – Rose is really tough with casting and performance – so when Rose said, “Yeah this is solid,” I think we knew we had something with Robin.
Shoval: Most interesting to me, as a director, is how many day players you had in the film who gave such authentic, present performances. What was your strategy for getting those performances in the context of the rush and all the limitations of the low-budget indie film set?
Passon: I just cast people that I loved and trusted. A great example of “cast and go” is somebody like Ben Shenkman, who came in for literally 35 minutes. Talk about an incredibly professional person who could do something in a couple of takes and get it done. Daniel London is another one. Emily Kinney from TheWalking Dead, she was fantastic! My friend Claudine Ohayon; my friend Funda Duval, who turned out to be an improvisational genius. Robin brought on a few of her friends that were fantastic. I guess you just keep it really loose, and try to find what you’re looking for, and you don’t stop until you get it.
Shoval: So a great deal of effort went into casting. And you feel like you made the right decisions?
Passon: Yeah. You have to make the right decisions. And set the right tone. And attach really smart people. If you run into some people who don’t know what they’re doing, or aren’t actors by trade, you work with it. You make the best of it. They were some people that weren’t actors by trade in the film, and some of them are scene-stealers! My friend Judd turned out to be a scene-stealer, and my friend Wayne, in the party scenes. Another person was Jane Peterson, who played the teacher at the very beginning. She wasn’t a trained actor. She’s a professor of theatre history, and she was just so perfect for the teacher role; she cracked Robin up. Robin had so much do with it. She made everybody feel so comfortable in every single scene.
Shoval: And how much is the film similar or different to the screenplay?
Passon: There’s a lot less dialogue than in the screenplay. We felt that a lot of what Robin was giving was really happening in the ellipses. There was no need for that final line, or that middle line that said what her eyes were already saying.
Shoval: Do you feel that it was important that the dialogue was there in the first place, to inform her about the character?
Passon: Yes. That’s a really, really, really great point, because I think that sometimes you need to overwrite a scene just to give yourself the opportunity to cut later. That was a good lesson to learn on a first feature.
Shoval: What do you think your goals were and did you accomplish them?
Passon: My goals?
Shoval: For making your first feature.
Passon: I wanted it to be well acted. Acting has always been something that I really respect, and I respect people who do it. I wanted to work with somebody who wanted to create an immersive experience and be present in that. I never thought that I’d get the opportunity to do that, but every actor that I worked with was very much about that – very much about the material, and very much about the project. If people aren’t behind it in a family way, you just aren’t going to get a movie, a good movie. Every single person on the set cared about the movie. I had a crew that I thought was special – David Kruta [cinematographer], Lisa Meyers [production designer] – these young fantastic minds that were so incredibly resourceful and able to do things. I would just set the tone and the aesthetic and they would go. David was the visual architect of the film. I would reposition a little bit here and there…but mainly I’d say, “Where do you want to go?”
He’d say, “I see this in eight shots.” And I would say, “Show me.”
After we blocked and worked out the scene, I felt that his positioning was really spot on. He knew what I wanted with natural light and he knew what I wanted in terms of wrapping light around. He was so articulate with his positioning and he knew what he was doing – and that saves so much time! He was so calm, and Lisa was so calm. If you have departments like that, if your production design and your camera department are calm and they’re fast, you can have a really good shoot. And we did. We had a really good shoot.
Shoval: Did you choose David based on his previous work or how you felt about him personally?
Passon: It was much more about how I felt about him personally. I also felt that he was very resourceful. David is a person who, instead of going to film school, bought a camera and started to shoot. He came to my house and we talked for three hours with Anthony. He talked about the house and how it was lit and what types of films he would think about when he was going to shoot… He sent me a look book. He designed shot lists with me. He really worked; he worked as he should have worked. And he was great with actors. He was very calm, and he was fantastically respectful of all the sexual scenes. It really helped Robin that she trusted David. She trusted him hovering around her with this camera, doing what he needed to do. It was a really good team; a very respectful team. Respectful of the process and respectful of what we were trying to do.
Passon: How’re you doing, Deb? How’s AWOL? How’s IFP?
Shoval: Great. Independent Film Week has actually been exactly the resource it’s meant to be. I do feel a lot clearer about our goals and strategies for distribution, which is awesome. We haven’t even completed principal photography.
Passon: IFP [Narrative Labs] is amazing. They just manage expectations so well and say the right things and scare the shit out of you and give you the right tools. The thing that’s so important about IFP is that they track their projects; they create an atmosphere where people are actually tracking your project and they want to see how it’s going, really understanding who you are as a filmmaker. It’s absolutely important for everyone to have mentors and guiders. That was the best week professionally of my life. It absolutely was an immersive experience working with those guys; they don’t fuck around.
Shoval: It’s very generous.
Passon: Very generous!
Shoval: You know, as someone making a first feature with a lesbian storyline right now, in all the industry meetings at IFP Week, people say to me, “Maybe AWOL will be the next Concussion, but if not, what’s the Plan B?” It’s really impressive to be that thing, Stacie: The Plan A.
Passon: Oh, is that what they’re saying? That’s so funny.
Shoval: That’s what they’re saying. What did you do right?
Passon: Well, I know what I did right. I chose a really brilliant actor, the right person for the role. I self-started. I chose an impeccable producer who cared about me, and wanted to get it right. I worked with collaborators who cared about the project and therefore couldn’t see it fail. Because it could have failed – it very well could have. There were many times when I wanted to quit. And Rose and Anthony just wouldn’t hear of it. And so when you have people that have your back, people like Summer Damon [second assistant director], it’s magic. Choosing the right producer is the best way to make a good film. They’re not always going to understand everything you want to do, and you’re not always going to be able to articulate everything you can do. But if you have enough faith in each other that you’re making something decent, it makes all the difference. You have to understand that we had no expectations going into this thing. We just thought it would be something that we did. It definitely was a big surprise when all this stuff has happened with it. I don’t think there’s one way – but having a damn good actor, and a fantastic producer, and terrific cinematographer, and a great editor does not hurt. Independent film is different than making anything else I‘ve ever made: commercials, industrials, anything else. There’s nothing cynical about it. Making Concussion was the least cynical process I’ve ever been involved in. We all cared. I think that’s the key.