By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
How exactly didFunny Ha Hacome about?
I spent the year after college living in Boston, where I’d stumbled into a job teaching a film-studies elective class at a high school, which was fun. After that, I moved to Austin, somewhat arbitrarily, and I ended up really loving it. Kate Dollenmayer, who I’d gone to school with, was one of my roommates down there, and somehow I got the idea in my head that she could carry a film. It’s hard to know exactly why — it had something to do with me having some sense of her personal charisma, but also having some imagined sense of her as a performer. So I started to write, with the central thing driving the writing being that it was a vehicle for Kate. And while the film has very little biography of me or of her in it, it was, in a kind of ineffable way, very helpful for me to imagine her playing these scenes. That definitely added a dimension to the writing that I wouldn’t have been able to get at otherwise. Then we were able to shoot in Boston in the summer of 2001.
Pardon me for being so blunt about it, but how did you put the budget together?
We were cutting every corner we could. All the equipment was lent to us. With a couple of tiny exceptions, everybody was working for free. The thing that does cost money, of course, is 16 mm film stock and processing, so every dime I had was in there and the rest was kind of friends-of-the-family type of money. On the one hand, it’s an ideal way to do something, because there are no strings attached. On the other hand, it’s not easily repeatable, and it’s something I feel a little guilty about, because often this question is raised in the context of young filmmakers seeking advice, and it’s terrible advice to give someone: Have a family that can afford to give you that chunk of money.
How did you go about achieving the wonderful, seemingly improvisational looseness in the dialogue and the performances? Was there a complete script, or more of an outline?
We were very loose on set and in rehearsal, and it was really important to me to remain open to whatever people were going to bring to it. Maybe because I’ve had a lot of time to think about these questions, the more I think about them, the less I feel like I know the answers. There was a full script written and it’s a totally conventional-looking script. And from there . . . well, go ahead and quote Cassavetes: I think he said at some point that once he starts into production, he kills off the writer part of himself. That seemed important to me. As much as you may think you’ve written something awfully clever, if it’s not working, it’s probably not advisable to force it. Making a film in this fashion , where I’m really there at every step of it, I feel like every new stage of the process is a chance for me to cover up the mistakes of the last stage. When you’re on the set, you can try to get rid of all your bad writing, and when you’re editing, you can try to get rid of all your bad directing. Part of me wishes that I had the kind of attention span it would take to be a novelist, but I don’t think I could do it, because it requires you to stay locked up in your own brain and feed off of your own energy for an incredibly long time. I feel like the opposite of that is what’s thrilling about filmmaking. There are so many other life forces to draw from.
Did you use nonprofessional actors out of choice, necessity or some combination of the two?
It was important to me that they were nonprofessionals, because I think I knew that I needed the performances to be idiosyncratic, and that I didn’t want people to be falling back on actorly tricks. But more important than that was just the fact that a lot of these people were old friends, and those that weren’t were basically new friends. With everyone in the film, I felt there was some kind of personal rapport. And I think that’s the only way I know how to direct — hanging out with people and having it be a somewhat social thing, rather than sharing a language based on craft, which I don’t have any more of than they do. I can’t imagine trying to make Funny Ha Ha with professionals. I don’t think it would work.
And how do you go about staging and shooting the action? Do the actors have specific marks to hit?
I love my cinematographer, a guy named Matthias Grunsky. Between Austin and Boston, I was living in Los Angeles briefly and I met him there and there was just an instant bond. He’s also been really critical to getting these films made, because he has what I think is a pretty rare quality of great technical skill, but without the ego that’s often attached to that. A lot of really good DPs that I’ve seen in action have certain ways, they know this is what’s going to make for the most beautiful shot, so everything has to bend to the will of the DP. And in the sort of filmmaking we’re doing, we really have to bend everything to these performers, and Matthias is amazing about that. He’s also just a really charming guy and great to have on the set for that reason. It’s good to have someone around who everybody likes. In terms of blocking, we try not to make people hit specific marks — occasionally it becomes necessary, but for the most part we try to design it so people can go anywhere they want, and then it’s Matthias’ job to keep up with them. Obviously, you want some consistency in how things happen, to make it possible to edit. But sometimes that doesn’t happen and that’s a challenge in editing, but it’s always been more important to me to have each individual shot make sense to the performers, and then I deal with it later. That also informs the editing; I think the first thing I look for when I cut is where the most interesting performance is and then how I can cut things together and have them make sense. From there, you try to make it start looking like you were cutting that way on purpose.
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