“I Went From $1 Million and a 30-Person Crew on Location in Vegas to Maybe 88 Grand, a 12-Person Crew, and My Producer’s Apartment as a Set”: Bryan Wizemann on You Mean Everything to Me
Bryan Wizemann’s You Mean Everything to Me is the first feature film I worked on as an A.C in New York. Before principal photography, production sent me the script and the lookbook, which introduced me to the abusive relationship at the center of the film. Nathan (Ben Rosenfield) comes off affable and attractive enough on the surface, but is dangerously worn inside from lying to others and himself. Perpetuating his particularly gangrenous insecurity, he habitually coerces partners into his ring of control. Cassandra (Morgan Saylor) just happens to meet him while she’s down on her luck,and finds herself spiraling into his sticky web of lies soon enough. The lookbook also introduced me to the principal crew, including D.P. Mark Schwartzbard (Reservation Dogs, The Photograph, Master of None), who I would learn a lot from. It was a low-budget film, so I thought I knew the drill—long, breakneck hours, and perhaps a beer on the company card for clearing an antiquated rite of passage. But we worked ten-hour days, and Mark never stopped looking out for me and the crew. By wrap, it was strange not to feel totally sore and burnt out; and in retrospect, it was strange to feel strange about that.
Mark had worked on productions of all shapes and sizes but came to set with nothing to prove. When he realized what lights, stands, and mounts weren’t fast enough for the shoot’s pace, he had no qualms about eschewing almost everything but Quasar tubes and black paper tape—potentially the camera department’s highest expense. The end result maintains his unique granular texture and unerring intuition as an operator. As longtime friends and collaborators, Mark and Bryan barely talked through the cinematography on set. Their shorthand had evolved to the point of unbroken comfort, so Bryan could focus his energy on the actors. Despite the set’s intimacy, I could only wonder and speculate about Bryan’s side of the process. So, just before the film started its theatrical run this week at New York’s Cinema Village, we talked about the parts I wasn’t around for or was curious about: Pre-production, post, and working with his leads Morgan Saylor and Ben Rosenfield.
You Mean Everything to Me is released by Factory 25.
Filmmaker: Are you going to sit through the film at the premiere?
Bryan Wizemann: I generally don’t watch. I’ll come into the hallway for certain scenes, but one of my favorite things to do is walk around the lobby or the street where your film is playing–it feels like you’ve left part of yourself somewhere else. Sometimes it’s fun to watch, though, and see when the audience is with it or not. I had a friend in art school, who once said to me, “What I wouldn’t give to watch my film as somebody else.” I always thought that was a nice sentiment.
My last film, the unfortunately titled About Sunny—that happened back when they wanted films to start with the letter A so that it would show up high on the video on demand list, which was alphabetical. Luckily that’s not a thing anymore… People found that film kind of dark and sad, but I didn’t see it that way.
Filmmaker: How do you see You Mean Everything to Me?
Wizemann: The last film was semi-autobiographical. This one isn’t. I was certainly in a manipulative relationship when I was very young, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Neither of us did. Because the story’s an amalgamation of a few women I knew in Vegas, coupled with some other stories, imagination, and research, I do have some objectivity to it. This film is just one example of how coercive control can take place. The question for me was always there: how does this happen? I was always struck and saddened by these things, especially when it would happen to someone I knew. For 30 years I had this idea on the backburner. One day I told my old manager, “I haven’t seen a film about a woman whose boyfriend coerces her into prostitution.” And he said, “There’s a reason for that.” [laughs] In these relationships, it’s easy to get caught up in what people from the outside would see as red flags, but this kind of thing can happen to anyone.
Filmmaker: I think I read what you wrote about “taker” vs “giver” personalities in the lookbook. You see that dynamic play out between Nathan and Cassandra from the very beginning. Before he even introduces himself, he asks her for some of her drink.
Wizemann: In a subtle way, he’s trying to see how malleable someone is. That actually came from a radio profile of this kind of thing. A lot of these men will come up to a bar and ask someone to buy them a drink. Most people will say no, but the person who doesn’t—that’s their opening to slowly insinuate themselves into a person’s life. The sad thing about a lot of these reports was that there wasn’t a lot of detail in them, because the process can happen so quickly.
These things can be ugly to watch, ugly to shoot—as you know—and ugly to edit. I don’t know how to make the film any other way. If you’re going to make a film about exploitation, you kind of have to let it exploit the character you’re portraying.
Filmmaker: What did your research look like?
Wizemann: Around the time I was writing this, the stories of Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson, FKA Twigs and Shia Labeouf came out. For the men there seems to be a personality type—they’re a little sociopathic and controlling. They confuse love with ownership. That’s what I took away from it. There’s a great documentary from the ’80s that’s really hard to find called We’re Here Now: Prostitution that follows a support group of former sex workers in their 40-50s. They describe how, while they were runaways or having financial problems, some guy took over their lives. Each of them had different takes on it, but they all made the same comment about not knowing how to get out of the relationship. There’s this crazy statistic: Women in abusive relationships leave their partner seven times on average before they leave them for good.
That’s why the film has some of these false starts where Cassandra gets the nerve to leave. Welcome at her mother’s home, she has a place to go. But she still feels this hold over her to go back.
Filmmaker: The score of the film doesn’t kick in until Cassandra’s kicked out of her sister’s home, cueing her long descent.
Wizemann: That’s the cue that goes into the title card about eight minutes in. Oddly, we were invited to the Sundance sound and music design lab. I didn’t know it existed, but we were accepted and they brought us out to Skywalker Ranch, where the composers were already working and doing seminars. I highly recommend filmmakers at the tail end of their features apply. They pair you with a sound designer and composer; our composer’s name was Sarah Broshofske, a clarinetist by trade. Then they brought the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and recorded a whole scene in the studio at the controls. Sundance ended up giving us a grant to cover the cost of actual recording. With that we could afford about three hours in Budapest for a few grand, so Sarah worked with the Budapest Scoring Orchestra over Zoom. It’s crazy for a small film to have an original orchestrated score.
It was a real learning experience for me. They brought in people like Cedric Cheung-Lau (The Mountains are a Dream that Call Me), Nicole Riegel (Holler), Tabitha Jackson, and Mary Harron as consultants. We had trouble in the beginning, and after all of these events with Mary and others, I realized I had been talking to Sarah about the score all wrong. Finally I said, “Let’s just talk about the feel of the thing.” Sarah then tried this totally new approach with cluster chords that she had never done before. It gave the film a structure but also retained some minimalism. Everyone’s afraid of their score taking over, but she struck a balance that I’m proud of.
Filmmaker: What was wrong about how you were initially talking about it with her?
Wizemannn: I thought there should be a theme that repeated in different ways throughout and all these things. But that tried and true method wasn’t working for us. The minute we cracked it open she sat down and showed me one scene, and it was perfect. The couplings of filmmaker and composer don’t always work out, but ours did and we were happy to have Sarah score the entire thing from that experience.
Filmmaker: What was About Sunny supposed to be called? And can you talk about the title to You Mean Everything to Me. Whenever I tell people the name of the movie they assume it’s a love story; people still think of the phrase as romantic.
Wizemann: “You mean the world to me, you’re my whole life.” For someone who feels love is ownership, that phrase takes a sinister turn. “I’m going to give you all of my love and withdraw it until you do exactly what I want.” In terms of About Sunny, that’s a longer story, but the script was called An Entire Body. It won third place in the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition years ago, and, because they publish those in the trades, that opened some doors for me. But I love esoteric titles. The Dreamlife of Angels is an important film to me and I always thought that was a great title. But people didn’t want An Entire Body to be the title, it was just too out there. So when we played at Toronto we quickly changed it to Think of Me, which is a line that Lauren Ambrose gives when she gives up her kid, thinking they’ll have a better life without her. But when Oscilloscope came on they were like, look, films with the letter A tend to sell 100 times better than those further down the list. We fought them on it, but we lost that fight. So we have the generic title, About Sunny, which has taken me a long time to utter aloud. But I was happy to get it out there and in front of people at all.
Filmmaker: But the original title started with an A!
Wizemann: [laughs] That’s the irony of it all.
Filmmaker: One day on the set of You Mean Everything to Me, you said something about how similar movies used to be made bigger. You made About Sunny with more money and a bigger crew.
Wizemann: About Sunny probably had ten times the budget of You Mean Everything to Me—I mean you were there! We didn’t have a gaffer, we didn’t have a grip. The whole camera department was you, Matt, and Mark. We lit it with everything Mark keeps under his bed in LA. The most expensive part of the camera department was the FedEx bill to ship all of Mark’s stuff out. But I think it looks amazing. We shot it on the Varicam because Mark had used it on Master of None. It’s a great low-light camera, and we knew we had a lot of night, cars, and interior bars. He put a really heavy low-con filter on it, knowing we’d add a little film grain to it afterward, although it’s very subtle.
But I went from a $1 million and a 30-person crew on location in Vegas to maybe 88 grand, a 12-person crew, and my producer Matt Grady’s apartment as a set— an empty apartment for staging. We didn’t even have chairs to sit on. You know the drill, it was pretty barebones, but I’ve had people come back to me and tell me it was one of the best experiences they had as a crew member, which I appreciate, because these things can go real bananas. I’m also pretty strict about a 10-hour day–we rarely went over. My stamina gets drained really quickly; I even try to steal a nap at lunch if I can. After 10 hours, I’m beat, and everyone else is doing more labor than I am. This is the third feature I’ve done with Mark. Over the last 20 years he’s been one of my closest friends, and we have a real shorthand for the look. Mark really kept the train on the tracks, he’s the best combination of a poet and an engineer, and he can break down a camera and build it into something slightly better.
Filmmaker: I’ve been on a number of sets this size, so as a crew member I was prepared to take the brunt of the production’s shortcuts. But I really appreciated that you and Mark kept an eye out for everyone. You guys were also really crafty with locations and company moves.
Wizemann: Most locations were walking distance from my house, or in Matt Grady’s apartment, which was intentional. On a film like this you do whatever’s the lowest hanging fruit. My buddy owns a bar called Dynaco. I ran into him one day and asked if we could shoot in it before it opened one day, and he was like, “Sure.” Down the street from that is this funny sewing place I always loved. So the whole idea of Cassandra making clothes was sort of born out of knowing I had access to that. Across the street from that is a fried chicken place I love, they let us film there. So we got a lot of locations that way. We did have to pay for the club [Bossa Nova Civic Club] and stuff, but we got to film in a grocery store for a few hours for only $500. Mark said the last time he shot in a grocery store in LA it cost $20,000 an hour. So we got lucky.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where Lindsay [Burge’s] character stabs her cereal with her spoon as she walks off frame after a tense conversation with Cassandra. That clanking sound punctuates the tension of the scene. Is that something you play into or create in the sound design after the fact?
Wizemann: That was all Lindsay. I wish I had the presence of mind to focus on such specific details. Sometimes I can, but not always. I did tell the actors that I love when they deliver lines with their mouths half full. They all really embraced that, so maybe I should have pulled it back a little. For the sound design, I worked with Colin Alexander, who did films like Super Dark Times and Midsommar for a long time. He has a little set up in his apartment. When you’re doing a run and gun job the sound isn’t always the greatest, so I have to say Louie Miller, who ran the location sound, did a beautiful job.
Filmmaker: What was your collaboration with your editor Michael Taylor like?
Wizemann: Michael Taylor edited About Sunny, and had also edited Morgan Saylor on White Girl. We shot in December when there are less productions for obvious reasons, so he committed to giving us an assembly in January, at which point I could take over. But he went a lot further than an assembly and had a pretty good cut before he left.
It took us a good six months after the rough cut to really bring it together. One of Michael Taylor’s great strengths is being able to see character arcs both throughout the film and in the very fine details of a performance. I also love that he’s a champion of dropping out dialogue. You sort of get to rewrite the script. Any time you can use dialogue in favor of something visual, he’ll do it.
Filmmaker: How do you shape performances in the edit?
Wizemann: Michael loved both of them [Morgan & Ben] as actors. He wanted to help Ben be as sympathetic as possible, keep the audience on board with him, and have them ignore some of the same red flags Cassandra ignores. They had such great chemistry together that we were often spoiled for choices in terms of performance, but we often went with the quieter moments for both of them.
Filmmaker: And how did you shape them on set?
Wizemann: We had a 20-day schedule, with three days dedicated to rehearsal. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’ve been on films with millions of dollars that never rehearse. Judith Weston likes to say, “When you don’t rehearse, your first seven takes become rehearsal.” And when you’re on a production like this you don’t have time for that. Morgan, Ben, and I first rehearsed at the bar where their characters first meet. That worked so well we then rehearsed at all of the locations.
When you’re directing with little time, you sort of default to notes like “hotter or colder, quiet or louder, sharper or softer, etc.” I remember once I just told Morgan, “Desperate.” I think you’re in a good place when you have that kind of shorthand with the actors, where you can just give a word for them to get it and suddenly see the scene change.
There are directors like Todd Solondz who don’t give actors notes at all. I remember talking with Michael Stuhlbarg after he did A Serious Man, and I was desperate to know what it was like to be directed by the Coens. He said, “Well, I’d just do a scene and one of them would come up to me and say, ‘Do you want another one?’” [laughs]
Elia Kazan would say, “Before you do anything, see what the talent does first.” You don’t want to give them a bunch of direction before you know what they’re bringing. Spielberg and others like to do the last take as a free take, letting the actors do whatever they wanna do. Morgan had a lot of great questions about backstory, which I think serves as great dramaturgy for an actor. But as a writer I don’t care about that. I’m more into this Mamet idea that it’s 90 pages of a fake life. There is no real character, it’s all behavior. You have the lifestream of the person you’re putting this all on, and they’re going to insert elements of themselves whether you like it or not.
Filmmaker: What haven’t we covered?
Wizemann: We certainly had a very strange go of it with festivals. I think the film crossed some political line that no one could quite articulate. Sundance reached out to us and said Morgan’s performance was outstanding, SXSW reached out to us directly and said they were riveted by it and that it’s an important film, and Tribeca reached out and said it’s beautiful and haunting—”we love it!”—and then none of them showed it. When Covid came around, we thought maybe we should send it again because there were less films out in the world. Again, people responded to it, but didn’t show it again. We even got a Rooftop publicity grant that we couldn’t really use because it had to premiere at one of these festivals to promote it. And even Rooftop didn’t show it. One producer pointed out that we have an unresolved sexual assault in the film. In a normal film, that guy would get killed or something. He would get his comeuppance. This film doesn’t have that.