Thursday, August 22, 2019

THROWBACK THURSDAY: THE MIX-UP—Revisiting The Evening Class Interview With A.J. Eaton

In the Fall of 2007 I was invited by Bruce Fletcher, a colleague from the Bay Area and then-programmer for the Idaho International Film Festival (IIFF) to attend the festival's upcoming edition. Although at that time IIFF's importance on the festival circuit was near to negligible, I had become interested in the regional cinema populating such overlooked festivals. For me, such regionality held a certain allure and a refreshing authenticity separate from the more valorized and publicized festivals.

Further, in an effort to remain "right sized" about my film reportage, I had adopted the ameliorative practice of balancing opportunities to interview "famous" celebrities with giving due time and attention to filmmakers who were just starting their careers. As a consequence, after interviewing an auteur like Bela Tarr at the Toronto International, something felt "just right" about interviewing a young 27-year old director at his second festival with his first short. At the time, nearly 12 years ago, it was important for me to include a conversation with A.J. Eaton within the body of my work. "Perhaps, down the line when A.J. Eaton is gathering his laurels," I wrote, "I can say I was one of the first to recognize his talent and champion his work. Believe it or not, such delayed gratification would give this old film writer much pleasure and satisfaction."

With his first directorial feature David Crosby: Remember My Name emerging as a Sundance darling picked up by Sony Pictures for theatrical distribution, I was touched by A.J.'s invitation to moderate the Q&A after the film's premiere in Boise, Idaho at The Flicks. Evidencing "a large dimension to small actions", as diarist Anaïs Nin once wrote, it was with genuine pleasure and satisfaction that I accepted the invitation. It was great to know that A.J. was still the affable, accessible young man I met so many years ago.

A.J. Eaton's The Mix-Up (2007) kicked off IIFF's "Local Heroes" program of shorts and set an unsurpassed bar for the evening. A perfectly pitched comedy, crisply edited, well-acted, and concisely written, The Mix-Up proved to be an intact professional piece of filmmaking, integral unto itself, putting the other entries in the sidebar to shame. Having already played at the 2007 Palm Springs ShortFest, IIFF was the short's second stop, on what I predicted would be a robust festival run. Sure enough, Eaton's The Mix-Up courted the festival circuit and worked as a successful calling card in helping Eaton secure editing gigs in Los Angeles. In addition, The Mix-Up ended up in a Japanese collection of short films frequently screened to a viewing public.

I revisit the friendly and informative conversation on shorts filmmaking that A.J. and I had over coffee and raspberry shortbread in the selfsame spirit that informs Crosby's revelatory presence in David Crosby: Remember My Name: it is sometimes only in looking back that we can actually look forward. To revisit this conversation is to likewise honor A.J. for his perseverance and tenacity in achieving his goals. I had no doubt that A.J. would eventually create a document like David Crosby: Remember My Name. Each time we conversed, he had leapt forward in experience and know-how. When we sat down at the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival to discuss the theme of cinematic disruption, he was already displaying major growth through his experiences in the industry. While looking forward to talking to A.J. about his first directorial feature, I likewise look back to our conversation on his first festival short.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Where did the idea for The Mix-Up originate? How did you develop this impressively tight script?

A.J. Eaton: It was a conglomeration of a few things. I wanted to do a well-done short film and so I started pursuing two ideas. One idea was a play called Sure Thing by David Ives where the same scene is played out over and over again. I phoned the author's agent and I said, "Hey, I'm trying to do a short film and I'm really interested in Sure Thing." She goes, "Well, you're about the fifth person to call this week on that. It's a really popular piece and the author's been adamant that it's going to remain in the theater." So that idea was gone.

I decided to go on an idea that my brother and I had worked up. We were just joking around in the car. My brother's a musician and we're both theatrical when we get together. I said, "What you need to do is get yourself a ball peen hammer and just beat the hell out of it" and then it just kind of evolved from there. I started thinking about my grandfather who's this little Italian guy who's had this hobby where he does construction. But the problem is that he's never quite done it right. The house that he and my grandmother live in is a 40-year conglomeration of bad construction projects. He took a deck one time and turned it into a TV room. The ceiling's sagging and all of that but it's his work and he's very proud of it.

Guillén: So your grandfather became the template for the character of Bill in The Mix-Up?

Eaton: Somewhat, yeah. But my main concept for the character was like a roly poly older Chris Farley. When I was starting to write it, I thought, "What's my grandpa's value?" Obviously, I love him dearly and his attitude is his value.

Guillén: At the Q&A you mentioned that the idea of the mix-up came from when you were working for a television studio?

Eaton: One of my first jobs in live TV was working at a local TV station in Pocatello, Idaho. It was an NBC affiliate and I was a camera operator and production assistant on this early morning show. We were on the air live at 6:00 AM every day. It was murder. We had to fill an hour's worth of news content every day and there isn't a lot of news in Eastern Idaho. I mean, there isn't that much news in Boise, Idaho. At least news that comes reaching out at you. The TV station didn't have the staff or resources to get reporters to actually do hard hitting news stories so we would find ourselves getting "experts" from a variety of different places. Some guy would show up about 10 minutes before he was supposed to be on the air. "Oh yeah," he'd say, "Duffy [the anchor] said I'd be on the second half, so just show up at 6:30" and his segment was at 6:40.

My job was to go into the break room where they had bad coffee and go get that person and bring him on to the interview set and I was like, "Now, what are you here for? What are you talking about?" "Oh," he'd say, "I'm going to be talking about fertilizer." "Are you from some kind of greenhouse?" "Oh no, I work for the school district. But I just met Duffy at dinner the other night and I told her that I'd been fertilizing my lawn…" and the rest was history.

Guillén: Would you say that early haphazard environment is why you now favor a tight, lean production style?

Eaton: Yes, absolutely.

Guillén: Among the shorts in the "Local Heroes" program, yours stood out for its fully-realized production value. Some of the shorts were being used to pitch for seed money for features, as the one filmmaker admitted, but what I admired about The Mix-Up was that it was complete; it was an intact universe. Clearly, you'd had some training in production?

Eaton: I started doing production when I was about 15. I was lucky because my dad is a songwriter [Steve Eaton] and he enjoyed some moderate success in the late '70s-early '80s. I spent a lot of time in his recording studio. That's how I got into film production. He was working on some TV music and the two filmmakers from PBS came to my dad's studio. He lived a Sun Valley lifestyle with a recording studio in the basement. We lived on an acreage where a lot of people would come to the studio and work. These guys were talking about sounds and shots and how the sounds work together. From that point forward I was addicted.

Guillén: Has that opportunity for early production training and access put you in conflict with peers who are operating off more of a DIY aesthetic? I sensed this last night. What I recognized as professional, I suspected others felt was privilege. Has this caused tension between you and other filmmakers your age?

Eaton: Absolutely.

Guillén: So what's the philosophy behind your filmmaking? What are you going for?

Eaton: I have a lot of films that I've made that were that DIY type of idea; but, they're not films that I feel comfortable showing in public. However, public feedback is always good; but, I would get the feedback after I showed it to a friend or family member. I've been involved in a few projects where I wasn't the director and I learned from the director's mistakes. A lot. I was so gung-ho by 21 to be a film director but I learned to be patient. I don't know all that I don't know.

Guillén: Let's talk about your directorial style. Your actors are natural. Do you have a way you work with your actors or do you let them bring what they're going to do?

Eaton: With The Mix-Up I took the approach that I was going to let the actors fill in the grout inbetween the bricks, if you will. I knew who was going to be right in the casting process. We went with something of an improvisational approach on this. But it all depends on the piece. I have another piece right now that I'm working on where I will be very strict with the actors because of the style of it. With this piece, I was so lucky to get all of the actors I got.

Guillén: You had a very good cast.

Eaton: They were. And thank Patti Kalles, who's a casting agent. Casting agents have become almost like executive producers these days. They have access. They know who's out there. They know who's not working. She was very encouraging. I was so concerned for our first day of shooting because even though Wally Dalton ["Bill"] and Rodney Sherwood ["the construction boss"] had worked together before, I hadn't rehearsed their scene. So I wasn't sure how these guys would gel. When I called Wally Dalton, I said, "I'm so excited to work with you, Wally. Your audition was amazing. I cast a guy named Rodney Sherwood to be your nemesis in that first scene…." He said, "Rodney and I used to tour on stand-up comedy together." The chemistry between those two was an absolute blessing; they had this unspoken communication. It was just right on. I rehearsed everything else, especially that scene where they take Bill into the studio and the people are pouring in and they're testing his microphone; I felt the timing had to be just right on that. I had the script. I had the group of people for the rehearsal. I said, "Here's what we're thinking. The camera's going to be here. You guys are going to be doing that." The actors would come up with ideas, they'd do stuff and I'd say, "Y'know, I don't think that's working for me. That's not right for the character." But they were all very detailed and so eager to work.

Guillén: The Mix-Up runs 13 minutes. How long did it take you to make the film? From the germ idea to writing the script to burnishing the script to actually shooting, which I understand took three days?

Eaton: Right. I started more than a year ago. My feet were on the ground where I decided, "I'm going to do this short film right away." There was a program On the Lot that Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett were producing. I thought, "That would be really cool to get my short on that program." The deadline for that was January 1, I believe, so I was gung-ho to get The Mix-Up done by January 1. We were going to make this happen. No one else was going to hire me to make the film. We shot 80% of the film in November in Seattle. Then we edited it. I put in temporary music and some of the temporary sound effects and then deemed that, okay, I'm going to do some pick-up shots, put in a few more insert shots, and set up the crew again to do some of the fill-in shots that I knew that I was going to need when I was shooting the first two days but we just didn't have the time to do them. So I went back to Seattle and shot. I completed the film after editing in July. There was always something that I wanted to do. "Okay, we're going to have to remix the sound because it's not right." I was really really picky on this. We did it on a full digital intermediate. We shot high definition and the digital intermediate process is becoming an essential part to every great film production. I was lucky enough to get some time with the top colorists in Hollywood.

Guillén: Where did The Mix-Up's central joke of using construction metaphors to represent relationships come from?

Eaton: That came out of thin air, I suppose, going on the theme of how can someone's bad work still be valuable? The last line that Bill says when he's on the show is a verbatim quote from my grandfather. We had this friend who was visiting, came to my grandparents' house with us, and he's kind of a makeshift construction guy himself, but he does things right. He's sitting in my grandfather's living room and says, "Boy, Johnny, this is quite the production you got going here," or something to that effect and my grandfather responded, tapping the side of his head, "Yeah, it's all about engineering." I worked backwards from that. Engineering, y'know.

Guillén: Let's talk a little bit about reception. You've shown The Mix-Up at the Palm Springs Short Fest and now here at the Idaho International. Have you confirmed any further festival appearances?

Eaton: Not yet. I've been invited to submit to five film festivals.

Guillén: Explain that process a bit. How does that work with a short film? I imagine most filmmakers would start with a short. How do you go about knowing where you want to place it?

Eaton: I'm learning a lot about this. I was reluctant to step to the director's chair until I knew that I was going to do a good short. I happened to come into contact with a lady named Kathleen McGinnis. She is a leading shorts programmer. I didn't even know that when I met her. Someone said she was a film festival consultant. She's programmed the Seattle International, was one of the programmers at Palm Springs, and is a qualified publicist and producer as well. She's so eager to help people, which is amazing. She said, "Well, send me a copy of the film and I'll take a look at it." I Fed-Exed a copy to her and she said, "I like it." One of the things that Kathleen and I talked about is that there are shorts film festivals that are all about shorts where the shorts aren't just a side thing to the features, which can be a good strategy. She said, "You want to premiere at a shorts festival and these are the festivals you want to go to." She gave me a list and said, "Good luck."

As they say in the business, it only takes one yes. I applied to CineVegas. I was so excited about CineVegas. I thought it was a huge growing film festival. We didn't get into that, but there's only 10 slots for short films. I applied to a number of others but got a yes from Palm Springs. They called me personally on the phone and said, "Is this Mr. Eaton?" and I was like, "It is." They said, "This is Alan Spano and we're from Palm Springs Film Festival and we just want to wish you congratulations." For a second I was like, "Congratulations for what?" They said, "We love your film and we love the character of Bill and we really think it's going to play well here in Palm Springs."

Guillén: Did it?

Eaton: It did! The audience was laughing out loud, which was validating.

Guillén: What's it like starting out as a director where you've been accepted into a program of shorts with five or six other directors? What are the dynamics of that? Do you find yourself interacting a lot with those other directors who are submitting shorts? How do you gauge yourself against your peers?

Eaton: I can see the problems with my film but compared with others here at the Idaho International. I can say, "We might have something." But in Palm Springs, I almost felt like I was the underdog.

Guillén: The caliber was higher?

Eaton: Yeah! Absolutely. These guys are coming from Great Britain and Canada and Australia where they have lottery funding for filmmakers. Budgets were up to $500,000 for a short film.

Guillén: So humility becomes requisite?

Eaton: Absolutely. The other thing I was really nervous about—because, I think, directors are type A personalities; I know that I am—sometimes egos can clash, not as bad as actors together, but egos can clash. When I went to Palm Springs—which was the first big festival of that caliber that I had been to—I was nervous to go into a room with all these other filmmakers because I was thinking it was going to be more of a defense mechanism where I was going to have to defend the choices I'd made in my film. But there were no egos. It was all congratulatory and other people giving points; but, it's from an artist to an artist, so it was really great. The British films that I saw absolutely blew my mind. They were deep, great directing, everything about them was perfect. I've seen movies that have been box office smashes that didn't have the technical prowess that these films had. There was actually one director—Mal Woolford—who had two films in the festival, which was remarkable. One was this dark moody piece called Redblack, a perfect short film, and the other piece was a comedy piece called Fluffy. He and I sat down and we started talking about styles and "How did you shoot that?" It was so inspirational.

Guillén: So shorts directorship then and these festival opportunities become a training ground for you?

Eaton: It's like camp.

Guillén: Is your intention to do a few more shorts before attempting a full feature? Do you want to film a full feature?

Eaton: I do want to go to full features, but when the time is right, when I feel that I'm ready. Even with this short film, I decided I'm going to wait a few years, save up some professional capital, before I'm ready. I feel like I'm getting ready to do a feature. I've got two that I'm really pushing for; but, a lot of people are saying, "We want to see the darker side of A.J. We want to see the angst-ridden A.J."

Guillén: Is there an angst-ridden A.J.?

Eaton: There can be; I'm a chameleon! I just talked to a producer yesterday about doing a short film that takes place in … either the first scenes would take place in New York or Los Angeles at a high-rise music corporation office and then it goes to the French district in New Orleans. It's a story that has a definite twist but it will be dark, it will be very moody, it will be the opposite of The Mix-Up. I want to do it to prove to myself that I can do it. I also want to show everyone else that I'm versatile because I think that's what makes a successful director these days, is versatility.

Guillén: Let's talk some about how a young first-time director like yourself markets a short like The Mix-Up. Marketing. Distribution. Do you have a gameplan of how you want to get your film out there or what you hope it will do for you? How it will pay for itself?

Eaton: I do. It's transformed as the production process has gone about; but, surprisingly enough, there is a fertile market for short form content right now. With media expanding daily, with iTunes. I've gone into debt, obviously, to do this. We built sets. The way that we shot The Mix-Up was to look a little bit Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque. My DP is from Curb Your Enthusiasm. I wanted it to look a little bit more on the video side rather than the film side; but, the construction scene … we shot on a practical location for that; but, the TV set and the TV studio, those are all sets. On the TV monitors we digitally put in the logo of my fictitious TV station. We built risers in a big movie studio and put curtains down and the whole thing. So I thought, "Okay, I'm going to spend some money on this and I'm going to use it as momentum to get me another piece." I've cut my teeth on commercials, working as a producer or whatever on commercials, doing the music for commercials, so I thought, "I can show them this piece to show I can direct a 13-minute movie pretty well. I know where to put a camera and I know how to mix things together." But now I'm finding that—I've been talking to a company in Toronto—they buy short form content and put it on airlines. I had done a lot of research before fully going forward on The Mix-Up to find out what are my options? HBO and Cinemax, they're dealing with odd-numbered content, movies that can be 105 minutes long, so they end up finding themselves needing 13 minutes. I thought, if we do it well enough, we can possibly sell it there. In Canada there's two short film channels, two! One's called Movieola; the other one's Channel Zero. In Europe Shorts International just launched their own shorts channel too.

Guillén: Are there money prizes for shorts at the festivals?

Eaton: Yeah, at Palm Springs the shorts that won—which were very well-done and now are Oscar contenders—one of the prizes was a $30,000 Panavision package. It's like, "You've done great, kid, now here's your Panavision. Go and shoot another." I think there were some prizes that went down to $5,000 or $3,000. That would be nice to win that. But right now, my goal is to get into AFI.

Guillén: When does that run?

Eaton: That runs in November. I'll hear probably in three weeks whether that happens. I'd also love to get into Toronto Worldwide Shorts or the Aspen Shorts Fest or Clermont-Ferrand, which is a big shorts film festival in France. In fact, right now, I'm working on getting the French translation of The Mix-Up, which has been a fun, amusing process.

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