Wednesday, March 23, 2016

FILMFORT: SMOKE (2016)—The Evening Class Interview With Amadeus Serafini & Joel Nagle

In a particularly lovely entry on his Facebook timeline, award-winning author Alan Heathcock recalls that when he was nine years old, his grandfather told him a story. The story sat inside him, "roiling about for years." When he grew into manhood, he wrote "Smoke", a story to make sense of his grandfather's story, to make sense of things that scared and confounded him. The story, as he puts it, "found its people." Two of the people it found were aspiring filmmakers Stephen Heleker and Cody Gittings, previous students of Heathcock's, who asked permission to adapt "Smoke" into a film, secured seed funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and organized a production crew of smart and talented people from all over the country who, along with Heathcock, came together to make a film based on the story he had written to make sense of the story his grandfather had told him when he was nine.

An odd and extraordinary blessing, indeed. And one of the most creative flourishes in the Summer of 2013 within the state of Idaho, winningly detailed by Frankie Barnhill at KBSX (who earlier reported on Smoke's crowdfunding efforts). My thanks to Alan Heathcock for inviting me to Smoke's wrap party where I had the chance to sit down with actors Joel Nagle and Amadeus Serafini to discuss filming within the Gem State.

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Michael Guillén: Amadeus, I understand you come from a modeling background and Smoke is your first film?

Amadeus Serafini: Yes. I started modeling out of high school at 18 years old in L.A. with Ford Models. I'm still with them; but, as I progressed, I wanted to study film so I went to college, took a few film classes for a few years, did some theater, and then I decided to take some professional classes. I'm studying with Eric Morris. He's 80 years old and he's got an actors workshop on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. He's coached such people as Anthony Hopkins, Jack Nicholson, on and on. I studied with Morris for a year, took what I learned, and the selfsame friend who introduced me to Morris' workshop, is friends with Cody Gittings—small world, they grew up in Nevada together—and he said, "Hey, we have this audition. You should try out."

Guillén: My understanding is you came in quite late to the audition process?

Serafini: I did! The day of. I was working that day and I had to ask my manager to get a couple hours off to drive to the audition. I hadn't had a chance to read the sides or anything, but I read for them anyway, didn't expect anything, and they asked me to send in a taped audition. So I did it and the next thing I knew I booked it and I was on my way to Idaho.

Guillén: Congratulations. Advise me a bit on how this works here: you have a modeling career, you want to shift into acting, so do you use the same agent? The same manager?

Serafini: No, not at all. I don't have an agent, not for acting anyway.

Guillén: You, on the other hand, Joel, are a seasoned actor who recently won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival for your performance in the short film Palimpsest (2013), which I had an opportunity to see at the Sun Valley Film Festival. The Sundance jurors stated: "This performer's quiet presence and subtle depth was a standout amongst talented actors and actresses." Congratulations.

Joel Nagle: Thank you. I started acting years and years ago in the '80s as a 20-some-year-old kid. A lot of it was learning about myself. The first 10 years of "acting" was really about instinct. Somewhere in the mid-'90s I thought, "I've got to learn the craft, the mechanics, I've got to get some tools and not just go off instinct." So I did that and have done a lot of short films plus I try to do one or two plays a year. Theater brings you back to those moments. When you're living through them, there's not another take, so that keeps everything stable. I like the process of rehearsing for a few weeks, knowing every night of performance has to be fresh.

Guillén: Theatrical acting is quite distinct from acting in films. For one thing, with a theatrical performance you get to do it and play the whole thing out. Film is really stop-and-go and, in my opinion, much more difficult to hold onto the momentum of a performance.

Nagle: But that's where knowing yourself can help. Filmmaking can drive you nuts. They might be setting up lights for 20-40 minutes between shots and yet you have to be able to continue your performance from where you left off. You have to be able to either stay near that place or just be able to recreate it. But it's hard to stay in the same place. If you try to hold it and stay in that place all the time, you can wear yourself down. It's also hard to have too small a part that doesn't allow you to build. I appreciated the opportunity to do Smoke because it allowed me to create a character from start to finish. Amadeus and I fed off each other. The film naturally progressed, but also the characters progressed as Amadeus and I found out about each other.

Serafini: Another difficulty with film acting is that scenes flip. You're doing a part of a scene that comes before another scene or after another scene and you have to switch back and forth.

Guillén: How did you come to the project, Joel?

Nagle: It wasn't that odd. I had seen a listing on Breakdown Services and—though I won't submit to everything—sometimes you submit to projects where, when you get the script and you have your audition, it ends up not being anything you're really interested in; but, you may do it because you have time. But the description for Smoke seemed really interesting.

Guillén: Had you read Alan Heathcock's short story?

Stephen Heleker, Alan Heathcock, Cody Gittings.  Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Nagle: After I got cast. It all happened very quick. I was preparing to go out of town and I submitted to Stephen and Cody but, at the same time, they had also seen Palimpsest at the Sun Valley Film Festival. They contacted me and sent me two scenes that were two-character scenes; but, I was getting ready to go out of town and couldn't get anybody to help me out on such short notice so I told them, "Guys, I don't have time to round somebody up because I'm really busy; but, can we condense these two scenes into a monologue?" That's what I did, though it was a little difficult. So the night before I left town, I set up a camera at 3:00 in the morning and said, " I'm going to rehearse and then I'll do it in the morning." I did three takes and chose two to send them. They contacted me—this was prior to their going to San Francisco and Los Angeles for auditions—and they said, "We really love it and you're right there; but, we have to continue auditions."

Guillén: So whereas you were found early in the casting process, and Amadeus much later, at what point did the two of you finally meet? Was it here in Idaho on location?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Serafini: Oh, yes. We had a couple of days to rehearse and then we started shooting.

Guillén: Provide a glimpse into how two actors who have never met before are supposed to have such a deep and intimate family relationship. How do you develop that after only two days of rehearsal?

Serafini: We made full use of those two days.

Nagle: It was even shorter than that. When Amadeus says rehearsal days, there was one day we didn't really rehearse. There was one day when we were supposed to rehearse, we were both there, but there were production things happening and I literally sat there for 2½ to 3 hours semi in-character waiting for it all to begin. We did moments of blocking, like picking up the body and how we were going to work it out and that's all we did with the rehearsal. But like Amadeus said, we made great use of those couple of days. The day after we got in, Stephen took us out on location just to see the area.

Guillén: I bet that got you excited!

Serafini: It was wilderness! I wanted to see Idaho!

Nagle: He was coming from L.A., I was coming from New York, and we spent four hours looking around.

Serafini: While we ran scenes. We spoke a lot and opened up to each other.

Guillén: What has it been like for you two city dwellers to film in Idaho?

Serafini: Permissive, that's the word I would use. Not only is everyone good-natured, but it wasn't restrictive. In L.A., for instance, if you try to shoot in front of a taco shop, they'll try to find a way to charge you! Here, everyone seems willing to have something shot. Granted, there's not as large of an industry here ...yet... but I think Idahoans are much more willing to be a part of the project and be a part of the art.

Guillén: Filmmaking in Idaho strikes me as a particularly hybrid phenomenon fusing regional enthusiasm with industrial know-how, frequently brought in from outside the state.

Nagle: I loved everyone involved. Although no one had a ton of experience, including myself, the passion was unbelievable. Speaking of Idaho and Boise in particular, you know it's going to get done because people have the passion to do it.

Guillén: "Get 'er done" is a favorite local saying.

Serafini: We had quite a few people coming in from L.A. to work on this movie and there wasn't an exploitive feeling to that. We were working with so many people who were local and connected to this state. They know what it's about. They're representing their own. It's not like we were busting in and shooting our movie on their landscape as a backdrop. They were a part of it.

Guillén: Exactly, that's the hybrid quality I'm talking about that greases the gears. Obviously, Amadeus, you enjoyed the experience of making a film in Idaho, but what did you learn by working with a more experienced actor like Joel?

Serafini: It was incredible. He made himself emotionally available. I was worried. To quote from the movie, "I was scared shitless." I was like a rope of sand. But Joel really made me feel comfortable. What this experience taught me is that actors have to make themselves available to each other. You can't be selfish. It's not a selfish endeavor. Because you will go down if you're selfish. It's a tandem process.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Guillén: Do you want to continue acting?

Serafini: I think I absolutely do. This was my first official project and it was incredible. Of course, I'd love to see the end product. I don't know what to make of it, but everyone is raving. I hope it comes out as well as they say. I'm sure it will. I have confidence in our directors and our writer.

Guillén: What I've appreciated about monitoring Smoke is to witness that Stephen and Cody have such a professional vision and can see this film past its making. They see it out there in the world or, as I like to say, they dream in detail. That's admirable in that, usually, young filmmakers can't see that far and are struggling just to get through production.

Serafini: And it came out of Kickstarter, of all things!

Guillén: There have actually been several successful Kickstarter campaigns for film coming out of Idaho.

Serafini: Really?!

Guillén: Oh yeah. This is, again, another element of that hybrid filmmaking I mentioned earlier, where the regional input comes directly from community engagement and support. At this point, for independent filmmaking to succeed, the community has to want it, that's the bottom line, and that's a great plus for regional filmmaking.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Quick question for you, Joel. You're a seasoned pro, you've been acting for a while but you say you're constantly learning. What did you learn from working with a newcomer like Amadeus?

Nagle: Amadeus is way beyond his years. I didn't even think of acting until many years after his age. But if you stay in it in every moment, it doesn't matter how much experience you have. You're building a character but your own character infuses every role. Seeing someone as young as Amadeus come into this project without any experience of having acted before blows me away. At his age, I would have felt the need for permission. I wouldn't have had the balls to say, "I can do this." Obviously, the story moved him as much as it moved me. So what I've learned from Amadeus is not to fear anything. If you feel a connection to the material and you don't put too much pressure on yourself, you can do amazing things. May I ask Amadeus a question?

Guillén: By all means, help me out.

Nagle: You had to have questioned yourself coming into this project; but, in the process, were there times when you wondered what you had gotten yourself into? Because I never sensed that. I sensed here was a guy who wants to do his best but I never sensed that you were there to please anyone; you were there to serve the story. It was like you took off a layer of self-censoring.

Serafini: Maybe I'm just really good at deceiving people? Because I was scared the whole time. But I did get it in the back of my head and I had to keep telling myself, "This is for me. I'm making the project for all of us, clearly, but I'm doing this for me. I'm not trying to please anybody. I'm just trying to be good at what I can do. I want to put out the best work I can." But was I scared the whole time? Yes!! I'm still scared, because I haven't seen any of it.

Guillén: I'm interested in the craft of acting, which I find quite idiosyncratic, so I need to ask both of you: with this script, which is such a character-driven narrative that rests wholly on the shoulders of these two individuals, in terms of craft what was the way that you each found your way into your characters? How do you start your work in developing a character for a role?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Nagle: For me, I think it started the night that I made that audition tape. It obviously started before when I read the material, but that night when it was 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I was exhausted and—through my exhaustion—I felt how this guy was in such a bad situation and who does he turn to? He turns to his son. But what an awful thing to bring your son into. So my entry into the character was through this physical exhaustion. A couple of weeks later when I learned I got the role, I was in Thailand and I remember asking myself, "Okay, how do I get back to that guy from a week or two ago at 3:00-4:00 in the morning in New York City sitting in an apartment all alone with a camera?" And it was the physicality of this last chance the father has. I need to feel a role. I would like 24 hours, or at least 12 hours where I can literally be awake with it, go to sleep with it, and then wake up with it and boom. I don't memorize lines. I get the character through osmosis. But when I wake up in the morning I'm doing the lines, and not just lines, I'm feeling it....

Serafini: Intention, you've said to me. "I do intention; I don't do lines."

Nagle: I never go for lines. If I can get across in what I'm saying to myself the physicality of the role—the feel for it?—I know I can do it. I know I've got the in. And that's what it was. It's the feel.

Guillén: Was it the same for you, Amadeus?

Serafini: There isn't any one way to go about it. Empathy has a lot to do with it. You have to be able to feel for the character and understand what they're going through to feel it yourself and to recreate it. Then, of course, being in the location or forcing the physicality upon yourself that the character experiences pushes you. It might sound silly to people who aren't in film, but a lot of arbitrary action gets you there. You may not be sad but try to cry. Once you start crying and start thinking about the character and about their back story, you can invent anything you want about their life to get there. It's a hard question for an actor to answer.

Guillén: Which is why I ask it. [Laughs.]

Serafini: It's an intuitive process.

Guillén: It's intuitive, yes, but it's a craft.

Nagle: And let's not shortchange the work. I've done some films where there's not a whole lot of dialogue. You can get into it, you can get the flow, and it's acting as non-emotion. It's either there or it isn't. If it's not there, you don't push. What's in the tank is in the tank; but, I got to tell you, especially with this project, the words, Alan's words, was how I got the feel. It's not a natural way to speak some of these lines. It's period and it's poetic. Alan's words made it a lot easier for me as an actor to get in to the character. The words are crucial.

Serafini: And one last thing that I might add is that you use a lot of events from your own life that mirror those of the character. That's your tool box: your life! And you use whatever you can from your own life to mirror the character and—once you tap into that—you can recreate those feelings, you delve into the story and use those lines and everything just melds. You and the character get stitched together.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell
Guillén: What has it been like for you to have the author on set? Did you check your characterizations against him? Did you get direct feedback from him?

Serafini: It was a blessing! How often does that happen? I was constantly asking him to clarify certain things because—when you read a story—you still have your own interpretation and I wanted to know what his interpretation was; I had mine. I wanted to be true to his story.

Guillén: As instincts go, were you accurate in your interpretations?  Did Alan confirm them?

Serafini: A lot of the time, yes. He told us. He was impressed with that. But that's what we as actors are supposed to do.

Guillén: Finally, along with children and animals co-directors can be a real sticky wicket. What was it like being directed by two directors?

Nagle: With the amount of challenges—the locations, the fact that a lot of these people had not worked with each other before, some had—I thought it worked out good where Cody handled the technical stuff and oversaw our DP and the camera crew, and Stephen was with us 98%-99% of the time.

Serafini: They had their division of labor but overall they had the same vision.

Nagle: It worked out great. Stephen was there for us every step of the way. Early on in one of the first plays I ever did, at the end of the rehearsal everyone had notes from the director but I didn't get any notes. I thought, "What's wrong? They don't like me?" So I approached the director and all he said was, "No notes is good notes." I told both Stephen and Cody, "Listen, I'm just gonna go, but don't be afraid to come up to me. I want you to come up to me if there's something off; but, please, just let me go. If something isn't technically right, just come in and yell, 'Father, five minutes' or whatever." At one point I think Stephen just wanted to stay away from me. [Laughs.] He didn't even want to look at me. In hunch, I thought that was kind of a good thing because he felt I was "in the zone", whether I was or not. That was good. Stephen and Cody do have different personalities, but they work very well together. They were as efficient as they could be with everything that was going on.

Serafini: Our output was incredible.

Nagle: You know what, Amadeus? You're going to see probably a quarter or a half of what we did, I guarantee it. You're not going to see all of it. You'll see blips; a fraction of what we did. But, you're right, we got a lot done. That was good. There were no battles between them.

Serafini: It was a very respectful atmosphere.

Nagle: You're always going to have bumps and things that happen; but, what kept me coming back—after I'd walked away from things that had gone a little off—was the passion. Everyone was so genuine and supportive. They felt it. When people don't have that passion, when they don't feel that, and there are mishaps or miscommunications, that's when it gets really discouraging as an actor because you go, "Wow. There's not even passion." Passion helps you through miscommunication or rocky times.

Serafini: And what fueled that passion is that Smoke isn't a project aimed at the box office. It's meant to be art, which allowed everyone to work as hard as they could in their craft.

Guillén: An excellent place to stop. I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations to both of you. I look forward—just like you—to seeing the final product and we'll probably be attending the premiere together. Until then.