Melissa B. Miller Costanzo on the Hustle Required to Bring Your Film Into Reality

We chat with the director about crafting her feature debut, ‘All These Small Moments’

All These Small Moments
Orion Pictures

Willing a film into existence is no easy thing. We all know that, but sometimes us consumers can take such a herculean effort for granted. Writer/director Melissa B. Miller Costanzo toiled for years in a variety of gigs on an even larger variety of projects before concocting All These Small Moments as her debut feature. Her art contributed to If Beale Street Could Talk, The Affair, Rubicon, The Fighter, Precious, and dozens of other narratives. She got the bills paid, nabbed the necessary health care, but now was the time to achieve the dream she’s always sought.

All These Small Moments is a personal exploration of a family that finds empathy with every chaotic player involved. Our Andrew Karpan first caught the film last May, and he called it “a therapy session, the real kind, where you lay the incidents of your life off your shoulders and leave feeling lighter.” Yeah, it’s not your average wannabe coming-of-age experience. All These Small Moments finds a connection to every human adventure, exploring various points of view and not settling merely on one protagonist.

I spoke to Costanzo over the phone a week before the film’s release. Our conversation begins with how All These Small Moments became her first directorial effort and escalated to the practicalities of what it takes to deliver your personal story on screen. We discuss the tortures of the casting process as well as a few tricks she wished she had known before starting this grand adventure.

Here is our conversation in full:

You’ve been hustling in this industry for a while.

Yes.

Has the endgame always been All These Small Moments?

I don’t know if the endgame has always been All These Small Moments, but I think the endgame has probably been a writer, director. I think it was just sloshing around in my brain for a bit while I was living life and getting healthcare and making money, but I do believe it has been there the whole time.

Well, how did you get to this particular film? Why is this your feature debut?

I think because it’s the first one that kind of just poured out of me pretty easily, and not in the way that you’re supposed to write screenplays. For me, the process is much more stream of consciousness than like thoughtful plotting. You know? And so this was just kind of where I was at, I guess, with my life and things that I wanted to explore, and things that I was feeling.

Okay, well let’s take it from there. What are you exploring with the film?

Okay. So I think this is the type of movie, there’s a lot of stuff going on, and I think they’re all splintered parts of my own personality. So when people ask, who do you relate to? It’s everyone. But I think the obvious one is marriage. I’ve been with my husband 18 years. We have a six-year-old, and I think marriage is … it’s tough, as people have said before. And I think that was something that I wanted to explore.

Also, I always wonder how adolescent boys make it out of high school alive. I think that’s probably why they spend so much time beating the shit of each other, because they have all this pent up stuff that they need to get out, and I don’t know they’re able to focus on anything. So that’s always been something that’s been really interesting to me.

I’m also very interested in the moral line that people draw, and especially if you look at people who cheat and there’s a line. And they have, whether it’s conscious or not, they make a decision to cross it. I’ve always been interested with that idea of like, how close do you get to the line until you say like, “All right, well, this is getting to a place that I don’t morally believe in.” Because then other people jump it without thinking, but other people flirt with that line as much as they can until they have to pull back. So the idea of that line and how close you can get and how people are comfortable with getting how close to that line is something that I’m really interested in with this kid’s relationship with this older woman.

Yeah. I was kinda surprised this was not just Howie’s story. Early on in the film, you use the device of Carla talking to her therapist, speaking directly into the camera. Where did that come from?

Well, I think what I found about myself as a writer is that I probably should be writing novels, but I’m too afraid, and I’m more comfortable with the screenplay structure. So I just feel like I have too much to say. And so for me, it was a way to hide that stream of conscious talking that I wanted to get in there. And then at the end of the day, I thought it was a cool device.

That was one of the first shots I knew that I wanted when we’re on Brian and then we pull out to a two-shot, and then we keep pulling out, we keep pulling out, and then you see you’re in the therapist’s office. So once I realized like, “Oh, I have a lot to say. I need to figure out how to do that.” Then I figured out that shot, and then I grew to really like it. It’s a way to get out the way that they’re feeling, but still would be in the contents of a movie.

What was the casting process of this movie? Lots of key players to acquire.

Oh, I mean, during our casting process, I was curled up in the fetal position in my linen closet. It was horrifying. It was absolutely horrifying. It’s just the waiting. You get excited about someone, and you start obsessing, and you watch every interview they’ve ever done for some inkling that they’re gonna want to do your movie. And you feel confident, and then you feel totally like, “What am I doing? Why would this person ever do my movie?” So, of course, it runs the gamut of emotions. It’s a terrible, terrible process.

It’s a necessary evil, but at the end of the day, I guess the script spoke to people. I think once we went out to Maui, we already had Brendan. The kids were hard of course because we … I think the producers would’ve liked we just had adults playing teenagers, just for SAG rules and having more time to shoot because it was my first movie. And we got lucky with Brendan, but Sam I really had to fight for. At the end of the day, we all just knew that he had to play this role and we had to deal with him being a minor, and that was the tough part, but we got really lucky with the cast obviously. But the process is not fun at all, and I hate it.

Well, when were you confident that all these actors were going to work together? First day on the set?

I mean, yeah, I was never confident it was gonna work out. It was a total nightmare, but yes, when I’m on set, I still joke around that the movies done. It’s coming out next week. I still hope Jemima [Kirk] will do my movie. You know what I mean? I still wonder if she’s gonna do it, because it’s like, I remember when we came up with the idea for Jemima, and my casting director was like, “I don’t know. I don’t think she’s even gonna look at it.” And we were just like, “Let’s just try.” She was the first person we went out to for the role, and I met with her, and she agreed to do it. So it’s like you just don’t know until you try. It’s basically like, stick to your gut and don’t necessarily listen to people who are telling you that this person’s not gonna do it because you don’t know. People do things for different reasons, so you have no idea why they want to do your movie, or not. So I would say just try and wait it out, and when they say no, you move on.

And so, you cast Brandon first as Howie?

I think so. If I recall, I think he was the first person, because we just felt that would always be the question, like, “Well, who’s playing Howie?” So we felt like we needed to get the foundation first, and from there … I think people would hesitate to sign on if they didn’t know who Howie was.

What were your conversations with him in navigating the screenplay and venturing to these emotionally complicated states?

I think it’s an interesting character because it’s someone who … He’s insecure, but he has to have some serious balls to go toe-to-toe with this beautiful older woman. So we kept having these conversations of like, “Well … ” And I also said to him like, “You’re kind of insecure, and you’re kind of fumbling, but yet, all these people are kind of attracted to you. So he has to sort of like figure out what that looks like.” There were even specific scenes I remember where we’d go over, and he was feeling so many things within a certain scene.

Like, there’s a scene that he has with Harley Quinn Smith in the library where she’s really opening up to him, and when we tried it, Brendan was like, “I just feel like I’m being so cold to her. She’s really being honest. It’s not her monologue, but it’s another scene where she’s apologizing for this kid being a jerk before, and she’s basically opening up to him. And so, it’s just figuring out that … even if it’s like a small backstory within the scene, it’s like, “Well, I think that you at the end of the day have too much on your plate right now to take on this new girl, but I do think that you’re curious about her, and maybe there’s something there at this literal exact moment. You have too much going on with the Jemima character to deal with it.” We were able to get through that scene, and even within a very quick scene, he really did have to show a range of emotion.

Making a movie, it’s an insane chaotic process. Is there one particular stage in that process that you enjoy above all others?

I think at the end of the day, and having it be my first movie, and not being sure what I was getting myself into, I think for me, I really did love working with the actors, and they all needed different things. Brian and Molly asked a lot of questions. It was just interesting navigating what each actor needed from me, and that was really rewarding for me. And I also loved the music. I mean, I loved working on the score. That was very difficult and really fun though as well.

Yeah, sure, that’s when the movie becomes a movie, right?

Absolutely. But it’s like literally splitting hairs. It’s like “Instead of dah-dah-dah, can you do like, dah-dee-dah?” We were making ourselves crazy, but it is that attention to detail, especially scores for movies because you’re cutting to the music sometimes. My composer, Dan Lipton, it was his first time. He’s really come up through theater, and he’s done a lot with theater, but this is his first time scoring a movie. So for the two of us, we’re kind of like going at it blind, but it was just so rewarding when it worked because I think it brings so much to the movie.

Is there something that you learned on this film that you’ll bring to your next film?

Yeah, I think for me, I know this sounds random, but have an idea of what your opening titles might be. Even if it changes, get that B roll, because when we were editing there were things that I wished I would’ve had. And B roll in general, just get more than you think you need because it’s so beneficial. I think going into knowing what you think your opening title sequence is going to be, you’re going to be that much more ahead of the game.


All These Small Moments is now playing in select theaters as well as VOD and Digital HD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.