On the Cusp: Person to Person Director Dustin Guy Defa on Turning a Short into a Feature, Directing Actors and the Question of Agents
Dustin Guy Defa is on the cusp of big changes. The filmmaker’s second feature film, Person To Person, opens tomorrow. In it, Defa delicately interweaves multiple stories taking place over one day in the lives of New Yorkers portrayed by an ensemble of legendary performers (Phillip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr.), name actors (Michael Cera), newcomers (Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevinson, George Sample III), and so-called “non-actors” (Bene Coopersmith). It’s a bighearted, hilarious and impressive display of Defa’s directorial skills and the kind of film that can jump start a career.
The road to getting it made is a bit unusual. Despite making an impressive debut feature (Bad Fever, 2012), Defa didn’t solidify a name for himself as a director until he made a succession of acclaimed short films, culminating with the beautifully realized, 18-minute Person to Person, inspired by and starring his former roommate (Coopersmith). The success of that short led to the making of the feature that shares its name.
I sat down with Defa at a Brooklyn cafe and started the conversation there.
Filmmaker: The idea of a short film being a “calling-card” for a director seems to be outdated. But Person to Person (the short film) really acted as that for you, right?
Dustin Guy Defa: I’ve always been opposed to the calling-card short film. I mean, if I wasn’t opposed to it I would have done it a long time ago. When that time came around, all the short films that were calling-card short films were horrible. They just gave me a bad taste. I’ve never thought about making a calling-card short film but that one definitely became a calling-card. It was very helpful in getting the feature made.
Filmmaker: Can you walk us through the opportunities the short opened up?
Defa: Well, it’s hard to tell when opportunities are existing. I mean, I don’t even know what they are, in a way. They all seem sort of natural. I was at Sundance with the short, and I just felt so good about it. It was doing really well. It was playing very good festivals, winning awards. I could tell audiences were really into it. I could feel the success of it in a way that I hadn’t felt before. It doesn’t happen that often for a short film to have success. That’s very rare. But it wasn’t like people were knocking on my door. So I just started writing the feature. When I finished it, I had a list of five producers. Toby [Halbrooks] was the person who started the whole thing off. I sent the script to him and he read it and called me the next day and he said, “This is amazing. Let me have James read it.” And then James [Johnson] read it the next day also. I mean, it was all a span of three days. Then I did another draft. After that we sent it to Sara Murphy. So they were the three producers. Then Bow and Arrow came on for financing, along with Joe [Swanberg] and his company Forager.
Filmmaker: So things started to come together just on the strength of the script and the success of the short?
Defa: I never intended the feature to be an extension of the short. I really do consider them two distinct pieces. It’s just confusing that they’re the same title. However, the thing about the calling-card idea and how it worked with this movie is that you can watch the short and read the script and see exactly what I was up to. And that’s how the short helped so much. The tone, the humor, the rhythm of things — everything is there, and you can feel it.
Filmmaker: So let’s move to the financing part. Even for low-budget indies there seems to be this paradoxical equation now –the amount of money raised is in direct proportion to the weight of the name of the star attached. But an actor’s representatives will not advise a star to attach to something without money in place. Did that play out with this film?
Defa: It’s sort of a catch-22. We only had Tavi and Abbi when we got the money. I think for the most part when you’re making a movie you have to get the star first, but you have to say, “This is what our budget is going to be,” and then you get the people. So the two companies who gave the money were very excited about Tavi and Abbi, extremely excited. But the money wasn’t contingent on them. I mean it was somewhat contingent on them, but not really.
Filmmaker: So there wasn’t a terribly long time spent raising money?
Defa: I mean it felt like a long time. But it was very frustrating and not fun. Raising the money took almost a year, but there was six months of real intensity. And six months is a long time for that kind of intensity.
Filmmaker: How did you handle that?
Defa: Well, I feel like I should always be dealing with things in a better way. When I look around and I see that people are very prolific, I’m like, “They don’t sit around agonizing over these things,” but they probably do in certain ways. I always feel like I should be more productive in my agonizing time.
But in this case, yeah, I was agonizing and yet, I will admit that I was determined to get this made. I had that confidence. I knew it was going to be made. I mean, I couldn’t let it not be made. So I had that going for me. But I certainly spent a lot of time angry and agonizing.
And then once you get people in the movie that you really want you start to realize that there are “windows” and things like that. Like, I knew that Tavi was going to be in The Crucible [on Broadway]. So I knew we might lose her. That happens to everybody. You start to feel this “window” happening. That starts freaking me out in a real way because you have people you want and the thought of losing them is a terrible feeling.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Tavi as a way to transition into talking about the tone you captured in this thing. Tavi Gevinson is a brilliant young writer and publisher with very little acting experience at the time. How did you know she could pull off the particular kind of vibe you were going for here?
Defa: I didn’t know if she could pull it off. I mean, it was my idea; I didn’t necessarily write it for her but I was thinking about her a lot. I was always fascinated with her. I mean, she’s so amazing. At the same time I didn’t know her personally. I knew she was brilliant, but I didn’t know how brilliant. But our first meeting went terrific. She was so engaged and so interested in the character. I trusted that. It was the same when I first worked with Bene. I trust this person. This person gets it.
Filmmaker: And then you have Abbi Jacobson, who is known for a very different kind of comedy than what you were going for in this film. Another risk there?
Defa: Yeah, but that wasn’t me though. That was her. She wanted to do that. I thought she was going to play it up more, but she didn’t.
Filmmaker: But you’re happy with it.
Defa: Oh, yeah. I think it’s great. I edited the movie, so I know how good of an actress Abbi actually is. The only true dramatic scene with her and Michael is at the end. And she’s so good in that scene. Both of them are so good in that scene. When we were shooting it, I was like, “Wow these guys are doing something I wasn’t even expecting. I didn’t know they were going to do what they’re doing right now.” So Abbi, to me, in that scene, was a revelation of what kind of actress she is and maybe what kind of future she has.
Filmmaker: How did you prep with all these actors? Was there rehearsal? Did you have a table read?
Defa: That would have been great. It was impossible. No, we didn’t have a table read. I knew Bene, George and Tavi had to rehearse. So we did rehearsals. But with everyone else there was a lot of talking about their characters, sometimes on the phone, sometimes in person. People like Phillip and Michaela [Watkins], I met them on set. Neither of them lived in New York so I hadn’t met them. Isiah I met at a wardrobe fitting.
Filmmaker: So some of the lines you didn’t hear come out of these actors’ mouths until their first day of shooting?
Defa: Yes, definitely. Everyone’s schedule was so different.
Filmmaker: That’s surprising because it feels like you spent weeks with each actor working on their characters.
Defa: The script did a lot of the work for me. The script was really, really tight, and everyone stuck to it. And everyone had seen the short, so they knew what kind of vibe I was shooting for a little bit.
Filmmaker: Did you have anyone who was just playing it outside of this tone you were going for?
Defa: Sure. But there weren’t that many.
Filmmaker: What do you do? I mean, when someone is playing it here [holds hand up high] and you want them here [holds hand lower].
Defa: Well, I did do that with somebody and truthfully I was terrified to tell them. And my heart was beating when I did it because I’ve never done it before. But I did it, and I actually felt very proud of myself. The relief I felt afterward — because they want to know that. But it was like a scary moment for me. Like, what is this person going to say, what are they going to do when I tell them? And it was scary. But I did it. And I felt great.
Filmmaker: And did they take the note?
Defa: Yeah, totally. 100% I let actors have lots of freedom. I try to let them be themselves, unless they don’t want to be. I don’t impose anything on anybody. With most actors there’s a point where they know more about their characters than I do. I let them own it.
Filmmaker: You shot 42 characters in 21 days. That’s a lot. Were you stressed out? How did you deal with it?
Defa: I knew I could never let my head just go off, that I couldn’t unravel. I mean, I did unravel slightly but I knew if I completely unraveled I would lose the movie. So I never allowed myself to do that. But I was so close many times. I got the flu that first week, among other great catastrophes.
In terms of the production itself, we had an amazing team. I mean some of it is very mysterious to me. We all talked about how the most important thing was that I was OK, that I was relaxed. Because if I could relax, then the actors could relax. For the most part, things were taken care of. How they were taken care of, a lot of times I didn’t know. Often times I was stepping into something that was already created, in terms of comfort level.
Filmmaker: So you would be filming something and another team would be at another location prepping it?
Defa: Oh yes. It had to be that way.
Filmmaker: With the actor already at that location?
Defa: Sometimes, but not always. We would lose locations suddenly, and we’d just have to walk into a location we’d never been to. Those were the times that were so difficult because I’d already planned out the shots and everything. That’s when, in this kind of movie when you don’t have a lot of time, you have to come up with the shots very quickly. I mean, I can do it, but I’d rather not be doing it as fast as we had to do it. There were a couple of moments when I was thinking about [Werner] Herzog, and I’m thinking, everything’s fine. He goes through real war, in jungles, and it’s like–
Filmmaker: People died.
Filmmaker: Everyone here will probably live?
Defa: Yeah, [laughs] everyone’s going to live. So sometimes that’s helpful, just thinking about him.
Filmmaker: I read that, going into Sundance, you didn’t have an agent. You have an agent now, right?
Defa: No, I don’t. I could have one. It’s my fault. I could’ve had one with the short film. I keep saying I’m going to have one soon.
Filmmaker: What’s the matter? You don’t want to get in the game?
Defa: I do want to get in the game. I want to get in the game very badly. I’ve just witnessed a lot of my friends have agents and nothing happening. And them also being very frustrated with that experience. And also them having to get their movies made on their own and the agent really doing nothing. With agents, they will get you work if it’s clearly obvious that you will make money. So I’ve been avoiding it until it’s obvious that I’m going to make more money. And also when I’m in a position when I know they can help me get a movie made. So it feels like it’s a necessity. I really want an agent. I’m always broke. I need money. I should’ve taken somebody after Sundance. I do regret that. But up until then I don’t think I needed one.
Filmmaker: So, we’re catching you at an interesting moment. Your film is opening this week. Most filmmakers stress about their opening weekend. But this is the kind of small film that could actually be surprisingly more successful than expected. Are you excited? Happy? Stressed? Worried?
Defa: I’m happy about the movie. I’m happy about the movie playing. I’m very stressed about the future.
Filmmaker: Stressed about what specifically?
Defa: It’s financial. I can’t keep going without making money. I spend more of my time thinking about money then I do about the work, and that’s just not a good place to be in. So yeah, I’m looking to make this a stable thing the next two years or so.
Filmmaker: Well, after directing this movie that has a whole bunch of names in it, one would figure, if you had an agent, they’d be tossing you offers to direct little TV things at least.
Defa: I know. What’s my problem?
Filmmaker: Good question — what’s your problem?
Defa: I don’t know. I think it might be that I’m sort of naive. Or that I don’t understand — or that I’m nervous. I have a very bad relationship with money. I come from a — I never had it. But I’ve worked very hard on my relationship with it. But I’m not just saying I’m self-sabotaging myself, because I’ve done that, and I’m not really doing that. But, yeah, I’m in a much better position than I’ve been in, and I’ll probably have an agent…uh….next week.