The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Dan Gilroy (writer/director of ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’). Special thanks to Lisa Gullickson and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.
Who the hell would love me? It’s a question all of us ask at one point or another. Trapped inside our heads, forced to confront ourselves each day in the bathroom mirror, we can fall into some cavernous voids of self-loathing. Good morning, I am a monster. Let me fetch that noose.
Love occurs when another person sees you at your most exposed and accepts your self-proclaimed wretched meat sack. They even recognize your flaws as strengths and find validation of their own questionable persona in you. Such human understanding does not necessarily translate into a romantic connection, but we all need that companion who will consent to this revelation of identity.
We want to believe that person exists for all of us, and thankfully we have films like Paddleton to give hope to the hopeless. Alex Lehmann’s follow-up to Blue Jay is another improv-heavy character exploration that relies just as much on the actors to craft the story as it does the director and the editor. Mark Duplass and Ray Romano play a pair of oddball Kung Fu film aficionados who would wallow in solitary misery if not for their routine bouts of the titular fictional sport. When one of them is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, the two set out on a journey of emotional confrontation.
The plot summary does not necessarily scream “good time out at the movies,” but entertainment is undeniable when you have Duplass and Romano in a room together. The actors bring tremendous warmth, cheer, and authentic love to their characters. As credits roll on the film, you are struck by how absent platonic romance seems from the rest of cinema. Paddleton is one of the truest creative expressions of friendship, highlighting the necessary bond required to get all of us across the finish line.
We spoke to Duplass and Romano over the phone shortly after their film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film seriously struck a chord between Lisa and myself, and we could barely contain our gushing at the beginning of this conversation. Please, forgive us. After a quick burst of tearful confession, we move the discussion to why Duplass encouraged Lehmann to tackle death head-on, and how Romano embraced the improv method of storytelling. We talk a little bit about Kung Fu movies and where this particular bromance originated.
Here is our conversation in full:
Brad: This film destroyed us. We were both in tears by the end of the film, just gushing.
Lisa: It is such a beautiful ode to platonic love and how all kinds of love can be true and complete love. I just thought that that was so wonderful.
Mark: Well, thank you very much. You’re our ideal audience.
Ray: Where did you see it? What showing did you go to?
Brad: At Sundance. We caught it at a Press & Industry Screening.
Ray: Oh nice, nice.
Mark: That’s just great that you liked it because that’s the worst possible environment to watch a movie in. That’s great. (Laughter)
Brad: That can be true. When we talked to Alex [Lehmann] he mentioned how after Blue Jay, he didn’t want to tackle death. He’d had just come out of some film at a festival, and it was something with a bunch of gratuitous death, and Mark, you said, “Well, because you don’t want to deal with death, you’ve got to deal with death for the next movie.” Why were you pushing him there?
Mark: I think I said that as a joke, but I think he was really into it, so we just went with it. And I think, for us, the key to this movie was doing something that was in a similar form to Blue Jay, that was, sort of, a deep dive, two-hander, personal relationship story, but kind of taking it to a different level and exploring something a little bit deeper. So, to Alex’s point, that was something that was a little scary for him, and I thought it would be interesting for all of us to go into that.
But the core of the movie, for me, at the end of the day, it’s really about what it means to have a truly intimate, platonic, male relationship because I just don’t really see those onscreen that much. There are, sort of, jokey bromances, and things like that, but this represents the kind of relationships that I have with my brother and my male friends. I haven’t really seen it on screen, so that was a big goal of ours.
Lisa: For the more medical side of the story, what kind of research did you do? Or did you have any kind of source material you were pulling from?
Mark: Alex did a bunch of that stuff, but I also helped a little bit with it. It was really, for us, more about getting the facts down of, how this is done, as opposed to, why it was done. Because, needless to say, first and foremost, this is really a movie about friendship. So we wanted to make sure we understood what it did, and how it worked, and that was really the focus, so that it could support the friendship storyline.
Brad: And, Ray, we heard you came up with a pretty extensive backstory for your character. Why was that necessary for you, going into this film?
Ray: I just find it helps. I started doing that, I don’t know, about five or six years ago on every project. I heard Denzel Washington say it, so I thought, “Okay, if I can be like him …” (Laughter) He was actually giving that advice to young actors. He was saying, “Always write a backstory.” And I tried it. Another director once told me, “Yes, write a backstory, read it, and then forget about it. Just put it away and forget about it.” I thought it was a little important to know how this guy got to where he was, and what made him tick a little bit, and how lucky he was to have found the one guy that he can relate to. So, yeah. I did it, I showed it to Mark, and Mark said, “Whatever you need, just …”
Brad: That could have been dangerous. What if Mark was like, “No, this is not Andy”?
Ray: Well, no, that’s why I show it to the director every time. I say, “Hey, this is just for me. If you think it’s contradicting something you think about what’s going on, let me know.” Yeah, I want to know that, but it seemed to fit, right?
Mark: Yeah, well also, this was a different process in that, it wasn’t a script already written. We were creating and building the story on the characters together. So, it wasn’t a question of, “Is it Andy or not?” It was a question of, “Do we want this to be Andy?” And it became Andy.
Brad: Where did the mutual appreciation of Kung Fu cinema come from?
Mark: I think that when we started creating Michael and Andy, we knew that their interests were very specific, and that, they didn’t have a lot of chances of making friends in the world. We wanted to build things for them that felt very small and very strange, and that included made-up racquetball games and strange, sort of niche, Kung Fu movies, and badly frozen pizzas. So, for us, it was really just a question of, what are the interests we can give these guys that will make you feel, as an audience member, “Holy shit. I hope nothing bad happens to one of them, because this may be their last chance of getting a good friend.”
Lisa: So, Ray, this is your first time doing a treatment-style film. How was that for you?
Ray: Yeah, it was a little nerve-racking. I remember talking with Mark and Alex about it, and they told me how Sarah Paulson felt in the movie Blue Jay, which they did right before this because it was the same process. And she’d be a little nervous and scared right before the cutscenes.
I wasn’t just worried about the comedy part of it, where we knew we wanted to keep things light. I was more worried about the dramatic part. How was that gonna go? I’ve done improv where, on a scripted piece, you add a line here, you change a line here, but never in the dramatic scenes. So, that seemed to be a little tricky for me at first. But it ended up being perfect, because the improv-ing, I thought, it is what made me feel so close to this character because you were creating his reality, his words, for 20 days in a row. So, I felt very embodied within this guy, and so the dramatic scenes were easy to get to.
Lisa: Initial trepidation aside, at the end of creating this character and making this movie, did you find that the improv style related closer to your work doing stand-up?
Ray: I mean, just my style is very conversational. It may seem like I’m improv-ing up on stage, but in that sense, it’s the same, because that’s what you want the movie to feel like, like we’re just speaking extemporaneously.
Mark: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Ray: And that’s how I try to make it look on stage in stand-up, but it’s all written. The stand-up is word-for-word the same, night after night. Yes, I do change a few things here or there, but I’m not just winging it up there. But making it seem natural is kind of important in my stand-up, and it’s a good thing to be able to do, especially in this movie.
Brad: This film lives or dies on whether or not the audience buys into this relationship. How did you guys build that chemistry, that relationship?
Mark: Ray and I didn’t know each other before we got involved in this movie. We were sort of mutual fans of each other. And so, part of the way you build that chemistry is through meeting up before we shoot, discussing the backstory, getting to know each other. Another part of it is that we try to shoot the movie, as much as possible, in the chronological order of the film, so that you yourselves are going through the same journey that the characters are going on. But I think, by and large, the major factor is that we improvised, so that there is an element of surprise for us every time we’re acting. The laughs seem a little more genuine, and the fumbling with the words are a little more genuine because they’re real. And, while improvising can be a scary process, and you can certainly fall on your face if the scene’s not working, when you get it right, I think it’s a natural chemistry generator.
Brad: And because of the way you shoot it, the run and gun, you’re able to have a few more passes than your average movie production.
Mark: Yeah, we do a lot more takes than the average shoot does. I’d say, when you’re on a movie, I don’t know if you’d agree with this, Ray, but I feel like you spend 80% of your time waiting around, and maybe 20% of your time acting. And, on this set, it was almost reversed. We had very little time in between and then when we get up, we’re doing six, seven, eight, nine, ten takes, two cameras, one on each of us the whole time to try and get it right, because we didn’t have car crashes to offer in this. All we had to offer was the relationship, so we had to spend all our time trying to get that right.
Ray: There are gonna be a lot of DVD extras on this.
Mark: And they’ll all be terrible. You’ll say, “Thank God, they cut this out.”
Ray: Yeah, yeah.
Brad: Well, that brings up an interesting question though. You’re putting a lot of faith in the edit. How do you know as an actor, when that’s the cut you want, or that’s the way you want the scene to go?
Mark: Yeah, it does seem like you’re swimming in the sea of infinite possibility, and it can be confusing at times. But, more often than not, everyone on set feels that when it clicks in, from the actors to the directors, down to the boom operator. When the chemistry’s clicking, you kind of know. And, of course, editing is where the movie really comes together. That’s almost the last part of the writing process, is in the editing room. You have all these options. And that’s good, because it allows us the ability to show the movie to people and say, “Is this working? Is this not working,” and change it. We have quite a while to get this movie to the place where we want it to be.
Lisa: So part of this movie is a road movie, but they really only interact closely with two other characters, the pharmacist and the hotel lady. Was there any time where you wanted to open up this world more, and we could see this couple through more characters’ eyes, or close it down, where it really was just a two-man movie?
Mark: I think, for us, we really felt like we were opening it up with those other two characters. We really wanted to just show these two guys, and it was nice to have a couple of other lenses in, but there was never a point where we thought we would go wider than what it was. If anything, we thought we might just keep it smaller.
Paddleton hits Netflix on February 22nd.