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“We Shot for Four-and-a-Half Days”: Tynan DeLong on Dad & Step-Dad

Dad & Step-Dad

Cringe comedy and pathos converge with unlikely grace in Dad & Step-Dad, the debut feature from director Tynan DeLong. Expanded significantly from short films that DeLong crafted with recurring collaborators Colin Burgess (recent star of Ryan Martin Brown’s debut feature Free Time) and Anthony Oberbeck, the premise of the feature is nonetheless pretty straightforward.

On a weekend trip to an Airbnb in upstate New York, titular dad Jim (Burgess) and step-dad Dave (Oberbeck) quarrel incessantly, both over the affection of teenage ward Branson (played hilariously by adult Brian Fiddyment) and for inconsequential paternal bragging rights over the other. Passive aggression seeps into every interaction, whether it be over the title of “grill master,” what constitutes “north” on a compass or the validity of adolescent masturbation to lewd furry drawings. Their equally pathetic displays of masculine virtue signaling are put into perspective when Branson’s mother, Suzie (Clare O’Kane), finally arrives, her presence immediately recognized as the component needed to quell the dysfunction.

I spoke to DeLong at a Greenpoint cafe shortly after his film’s NoBudge streaming debut. Our conversation covers editing as a team, looking to cinema verite for comedic inspiration and the director’s artistic ventures outside of film.

Filmmaker: I read that the film was shot chronologically. Can you talk a bit about why you elected this approach and what the benefits and challenges were on set?

DeLong: We wanted to shoot chronologically just because of the nature of the film. It’s all improvised, so we felt it was imperative for it to be shot chronologically in order for the characters to develop organically alongside the story. Personally, I would always elect to shoot things chronologically, just so people can feel that emotional arc in real-time. We didn’t really have a script supervisor, so we were all keeping it up in our heads. It made more sense to shoot roughly chronologically in order to keep things simpler for us. I say “roughly” because we moved things around just a tiny bit. There was one day where we got rained out and the power went out, so that really threw things off considerably. We had to race and shoot everything on the last day.

Filmmaker: How long did the shoot last and how did you find the location of the house? Was it actually an Airbnb? It really has that vibe.

DeLong: Yeah, it is a legitimate Airbnb. Our producer, Graham Mason, had an old boss who rents out that place, so he helped us out in securing that location. We shot for four-and-a-half days. We drove up there on a Sunday morning—so half a day of driving—and we started shooting as soon as we got there through the rest of the week.

Filmmaker: You utilized extensive improvisation, which is obviously a big feat and speaks to the creative chemistry that you’ve developed with these collaborators. I’m curious, though, about how improv factored into some of the visual gags in the film. I’m mostly thinking of the eight-foot-high outlet Colin’s character plugs his phone into, as well as the furry picture.

DeLong: The specific outlet thing that you’re referring to [came about because] we went on a one-day location scout. The next morning we were all getting ready to leave. We were in the kitchen, and I spotted the outlet way up high. We all thought it was so funny. Everyone started laughing and we said we needed to incorporate that into the film somehow. When we got back, we figured out a way to put it in the outline and figure out a scene for it.

The furry image was sourced by our producer Sarah Wilson. She had a friend who does that kind of art, and she asked him if he could do this for us. He sent us back the picture and it was like, “Yeah, it’s great, no notes.” It was perfect.

We didn’t have a production designer on this—we couldn’t afford one—so everything that we did was pretty much play it as it lays. Anything in the environment that we could work with, we would just roll with it. There were knives in the kitchen, so we told Branson to play with them. That’s pretty much how I function on most shoots.

Filmmaker: Something that also I find interesting is that you’ve spoken about how your cinematic influences on this project skew more toward Frederick Wiseman than something like, you know, Paul Flaherty’s Clifford.

DeLong: I’m actually going to see that for the first time on Saturday at the BAM screening.

Filmmaker: You definitely need to let me know your thoughts. But can you elaborate on how documentary and verite filmmaking inform your comedic sensibility here?

DeLong: Comedically, I just think that smaller moments are funnier than broader moments. A lot of Frederick Wiseman’s work, in particular, has a lot of funny stuff in it. The film I watched most recently was Ex Libris, the one about the New York Public Library. There’s a scene where it’s just men at computers in the public library. It’s a short, two-minute sequence, and you just see what they’re looking at on their screens and their faces. I think it’s so fascinating. Smaller gestures and communications between people are the real gold, because I think it’s more universal. Wiseman and Allan King are endlessly watchable to me. I’m drawn in by very small human dramas, and I think that relates to Dad & Step-Dad in that I wanted to zero in on the nuances of these passive-aggressive ego battles. I wanted to communicate their animosity toward one another with an eyebrow raise or a furrowed brow.

Again, it’s a budgetary thing. We’re racing through the shoot, and we don’t have time to set up beauty shots. We don’t have time to set up lights. We just have to roll with what we have. So the work around is to kind of adapt verite documentary techniques for the camera. It’s something I’ve always done kind of since I started making movies. I’d love to have the budget and scope to really set up a lot of beautiful shots, so I’m not going to pretend that we do. Instead, I’m just going to work with what we have and use it to our advantage. Sometimes, those restrictions are actually very helpful.

Filmmaker: I want to know more about the score, which is beautiful and affecting. It really does draw out this very human element you’re speaking about from the film’s overarching comedy. How did you work with the composer to really nail that sonic element?

DeLong: That was Celia Hollander, who is a very accomplished and talented ambient artist in her own right. When she came on board, I was excited because I really like her work. I made a reference playlist for her that served as a jumping off point. It had a lot of Japanese environmental music; Hiroshi Yoshimura is someone I really like. For the temp score, we were also using Daniel Lanois’ 2016 slide guitar album Goodbye to Language. So we had these starting points, but I obviously didn’t want her to replicate any of that. I wanted her to do her own thing, but the vibe we were trying to create was bucolic and ASMR-y; something that calms the viewer and lures them in. That was like the initial sonic palette, and then we worked together dialing in the exact music for the film. We decided to make four different themes that would recur throughout the film. I don’t have a lot of technical musical knowledge, so my direction was more abstract. I would say things like, “This song should sound like a ghost that’s like looking for his mother.” She would then take that, interpret it, send a piece back and we’d go from there. Working with Celia was one of my favorite parts of the whole process. It was very easy, there was not a huge revision period. She really understood the assignment right away.

Filmmaker: What conversations did you have with your DP to capture the disparate looks of indoor and outdoor segments and the way that the characters would interact within these environments?

DeLong: First, we used two Arri Alexa Mini cameras at the same time. It’s much easier to edit when you have two cameras going, because the takes will be different each time. Having two cameras allowed us the necessary options we needed in the edit.

The outdoor location that we chose was definitely a workaround for not having the money to do glamor shots. That area is inherently beautiful, so it’s pretty hard to screw it up. I think that was one of the ways we were able to have cinematic touches in the film. Our second cameraman, Alex Bliss, would go out in the morning and get b-roll—we called him b-roll Bliss—so a lot of that up-close b-roll, like the mushroom in the beginning, is all him.

Our DP, Johnny Frohman, would help us make the most of our environment with our limited lighting setup. Indoors, we really didn’t have enough light, so he would throw up a light with a softbox against the wall to kind of give it a little bit more illumination. There was one scene where the dads are talking in the doorway looking at a picture of Branson. It kind of came out beautifully just with a very minimal lighting technique that he used. I don’t know if the light from outside was hitting just right or what.

Like I said, we shot it like a documentary, and our DP shoots a lot of documentaries, so he knew how to expose properly and get the best shot for that indoor stuff where our options are pretty limited. I knew that inside was not the prettiest environment, so you’ll notice that most of the film is intense close-ups. I didn’t want to focus on what was around the guys, just the nitty-gritty of what they’re thinking and feeling. Close-ups also help with the comedy—you’re able to see those minute expressions, which add so much to the delivery.

Filmmaker: You, Colin and Anthony edited the film together. How did you make the decision to collaborate on the cut together, and did you discover anything new due to having their presence there with you?

DeLong: That’s the way we have done it since the shorts. We each take a chunk and then kind of connect it. I think Anthony took the first [act], Colin took the second and I the third. The core group of us, and our producer Graham, were all very heavily involved in that process of editing the film, watching the cuts, giving notes and dialing it in. As far as noticing anything new, I think the film kind of came out exactly as we had envisioned it, for the most part. If anything, it was discovering stuff that had to be cut. We also had to let time do its thing, because when you’re editing a comedy, everything’s really funny at first. As time wears on, it gets less funny, and you’re able to be more stringent with what you cut.

Filmmaker: Is there something that makes your editing sensibility different from the others, or do you feel like you’re all pretty much honed in on the same approach?

DeLong: I would say that those guys are comedy heads, so they’re very good at finding the comedy in pieces. I have a comedy background as well, but I’m also a self-admitted sad boy. I like finding the emotional core, the moments where I can really shade the film with more depth. But I think we all trusted each other when it came time for the edit.

Filmmaker: This is your first feature film, and now that it’s available out in the world for people to watch, I’m wondering what we can expect next from you? Are you set on trying to do another feature or are you setting your sights on other creative ventures?

DeLong: I edited a feature film from Wes Haney and Stavros Halkias. It’ll be out sometime, I’m not sure when. It’s in post.

I’m going to try and do a couple shorts just to kind of get back in the swing of things. I’ve got outlines written and ideas for some features. I would like to find some funds to do it, because I don’t have that right now [laughs].

I’m exploring some other artistic ventures as well. I’ve been deep in my poetry bag. I’ve taken some poetry workshops and I have enough for a book right now. I’m also making some music. I’ve got a lot of music that I’m sitting on and haven’t really shared with anyone. I’ve got that Roland TR-8S drum machine, so I’m going crazy on that.

So I don’t have a feature film that I’m working on right now, but it’s kind of freeing. It’s nice to not be bogged down. Maybe “bog” isn’t the right word, but if you do a feature film—at least on this level—it’ll occupy a good two years of your life, non-stop. I have to make sure I’m ready to embrace that when the time comes again.

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