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Matt Herron Talks Audition

Usually the term “a cast of hundreds” isn’t applied to a film with just two characters. But that’s exactly how to describe Matt Herron’s new feature Audition, an innovative film in which 100 actors — 50 men, 50 women — portray one couple over the course of a torrid romance. The concept is for this narrative story to be told through the documentary process of different actors interpreting the fictional roles (or, conversely, it could be seen as a documentary about acting that conveys a narrative storyline): the original 100 actors are winnowed down as the film progresses until the final moments contain only one couple, who finish out the story. The process of acting is on center stage, but the fictional story is paramount at the same time, nearly making Audition two films in one.

The film was shot over the course of one week and is now through post and being submitted to Sundance and other festivals. More information is at the film’s website, its Facebook page, and Herron’s Twitter feed. Herron, seen above briefing some of his cast, told me more about his creative process.

Filmmaker: The most intriguing thing about this film is its premise. Is this a documentary about acting or a fiction film with a documentary ethos?

Herron: The film is fictional, but enhanced by a sprinkling of documentary footage from behind the scenes. The story focuses on an intense two-week romance. The film uses filmmaking, acting, and an audition process to speak about manipulation, individuality, replaceability, and urban isolation – the need for love many of us feel when surrounded by so many different people. It’s about how we manipulate others through words and wishful thinking, but even worse, how we unknowingly trick ourselves into believing something is real when it isn’t, and sometimes hurting people in the process. It asks: how can we trust someone else’s feelings when we can’t even trust our own? How do we know who someone else is when we don’t even fully understand ourselves?

Filmmaker: So where did the concept come from and what are you hoping to achieve with the finished film?

Herron: For me, after all this time, just finishing it is the achievement. But I’d love it to be entertaining to people, number one. I’d like it to prove that there are many ways you can make a film, to not be limited by how you are “supposed” to do things – that there are no rules. I think the main influence was seeing A Chorus Line on stage in London when I was in the fourth grade and then listening to it repeatedly on 8-track. Well, that mashed up with Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which I also saw when I was very young. In the late 90’s I was looking for an idea I could do inexpensively and quickly, say in 24 hours, then one day I was having coffee with an actor friend who had just come from an audition and on top of our usual dating saga chit chat she was talking about all the behind-the-scenes backstabbing and gossip from the audition. In that moment a light bulb just went off. Inspired, that evening I hashed out a mathematically based diagram that showed that an entire script could be shot in a day through a power in numbers approach – that if a lot of people are motivated to learn different bits of a larger whole, you can collectively achieve a great deal in very little time. Little did I know it would take me over 15 years, a lot of begging, and all my savings to prove that.

Filmmaker: So the script’s existed a very long time. Adding dramatic flow to the math, where did you get – or how did you create – your scene(s) that you were going to have all your actors perform? What did you need that script to do?

Herron: In order for people to follow the narrative as the actors change, I felt it needed to be a two-character story with just a man and woman. When I was searching for a story to embed into my concept I was going through a breakup from a long-term relationship, I was starting to date again, and I was going through my own personal struggle with the pain that came from that separation. I noticed that different women I dated would say the same things, sometimes in the exact same place, at the same point of time, on a different day. Since I was having trouble finding a good two-character story that was in public domain (most are multi-character and I was trying to avoid paying for rights) it occurred to me that maybe I should just write about what I was experiencing.  That maybe there was something interesting there that people could relate to. Possibly universal. Plus I wanted to understand myself better and understand why I felt the way I did. In the end I pushed the truth of the story but a lot of the words came from those too-hopeful beginnings and then the coldness of the sudden breakups. However, it was specifically based on one intense two-week relationship, and fleshed out over a two-year on-again, off-again one.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the casting process, both working with your casting director Todd Thaler and with all the candidates you processed for the initial 100 spots.

Herron: Todd and I originally talked about this project in 2001, the first time it almost got made. Then I contacted him around 2005 when I tried to make it again. Then in 2012, on the verge of actually making it for real, Todd came on to hold an open call with us. Attaching his name and reputation really helped us garner credibility during a time when a lot of actors thought we were a scam when we were constantly appearing on Kickstarter. Through his reach we attracted a lot of incredible talent that made up many of the 100 and top 10. Other than that I personally went through over 15,000 digital headshots and narrowed them down to about 1,000 people. From there we coordinated countless auditions and reviewed these selects with my team over the period of a year. During this time, we were trying to hype the production through a constant postering, stickering, and digital campaign – use our casting process to build an audience, raise money and market it. Make it be seen as something big and special – which it is.

Filmmaker: So then what was your production process like? How did it differ from a more traditional film?

Herron: First of all, we literally shot the film from beginning to end in one week. This enabled us to break the screenplay into three competitive rounds based on the narrative’s acts. Secondly, all the scenes were written in real time with the intention of the actors living out those moments from beginning to end without interruption. We had three narrative camera operators that filmed their performances in docu-vérité style as if everything was really happening. Some scenes were loosely blocked and others were not blocked at all and I allowed the actors to really play and base all their choices on instinct. The one thing I wanted was for honesty in their performances to be the thread that connected everyone together – even though some performances would be drastically different. The first 30 minutes of the film was shot in one 17-hour day with all 100 actors – achieving what I originally envisioned for the entire feature. This covers the first act. As we moved forward into the script, we worked with only 10 actors over two days, which allowed me more time to work with them individually, and run the scenes a few times versus once. This equaled the second act. Then the final four actors and ultimately the two leads who spent three full nights attacking the ending – the final round and final act respectively. Other than that we had several doc teams constantly roaming about filming everything. I think we shot something like 250 hours that week to make up our 92-minute running time.

Filmmaker: You mentioned the actors’ different interpretations of the scenes. What was your process in working with the different pairs of actors? Were you really looking that diversity in how they interpreted the roles?

Herron: I was looking for diversity in performance, but a complete understanding of the character – from their perspective. I spent the entire month before production working with all the actors and their partners. I spent over 100 hours in rehearsal during that month. Basically, each pair of actors had two one-hour sessions with me to go over their initial scene and discuss the entire screenplay. During this time, I gave many of the actors the characters’ backstories, scene objectives, and super objectives, but in some cases provided less information if I liked what someone was doing with intentions that were different from my own. I allowed the actors to get together and run lines but asked them not to discuss anything private I had shared with them individually or to direct each other. I wanted everyone to have a strong spine going in, and to be motivated to study the entire script and not just their initial first round scene.

Filmmaker: What’s your post-production process like? How much of the documentary elements – of actors off the set, of multiple takes – are you retaining in the finished film?

Herron: We literally just locked the cut. We edited for just over a year, minus a few weeks due to Sandy – we’re in Zone A in the Financial District. We are using a lot less of the documentary than I initially thought we would, and the narrative takes up the majority the film. We are not using multiple takes, very little of the the on-site rehearsal process, and even less of the actors receiving direction. The film focuses on the actors and the characters more than anything, and the narrative always moves forward, never repeating or comparing performances – looking for the best way to tell the story. The editing choices were mostly made from the best performances moment per moment, treating the actors as takes and trying to see them only as the characters and not individuals. However, it became very apparent that we needed to factor in the actor’s personality a bit, and that it didn’t work that well cutting together actors from different couples (which I intended to do a lot of), that the best way to cut was from couple to couple with overlaps. Simple. I want to make a huge shout-out to my editor John Como, who gave up a year of his life in belief of this project. Honestly, it would not be what it is without him.

Filmmaker: What’s your reaction to your final scene with your final two actors? Is it similar to what you expected at the outset of the process?

Herron: Beyond my wildest expectations, I am ecstatic about the final act of the film even though that time was hard for all involved – it truly delivers an unsuspecting punch, but not without some cost and regret. Ultimately, it is what makes this film so compelling and controversial. A lot of hard lessons were learned those nights, for me personally, and I wish I could have handled the it all better. However, what I love about the entire film is that, like the actors, the story and the film’s methods constantly change. The final scene is the most unexpected change of them all and no one expected it to become what it has. It goes without saying that I ultimately selected the perfect two actors for the final act. They each have incredible talent and I would love and welcome the opportunity to work with them again.

Filmmaker: Where are you at with the film now? When and how do you plan to release it?

Herron: We are in the finishing stages working on the sound design, mix, color, and visual effects. We just applied for Sundance and are looking to enter into all the major festival competitions for 2014. From there we are hoping to pick up distribution and get it out to the world in every possible way.

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