People With Passion
Filmmaker Alex Beh
E-mail exchange, Feb. 2-3, 2015
When we last spoke, back in April of 2010, filmmaker Alex Beh had recently released Babe, his fourth short film. In the intervening five years he has directed three more shorts, directed several music videos, starred in commercials for Bud Light and Burger King and has now released Warren, his feature film debut.
The movie stars Beh as the title character, a Chicago man drifting through his late 20s while his parents (John Heard & Jean Smart) get divorced and his ex-girlfriend (Sarah Habel) turns up back in town with a fiancé. Beh is the lead but dishes out plenty of screen time for his co-stars, with particularly strong performances from the veterans Heard & Smart. Let me be the first to say that Heard — whose credits include Home Alone, After Hours, Big and The Sopranos — gives one of the best performances his career as Warren’s hard-drinking, love-lorn, soon-to-be-divorced father.
While Beh prepped for Warren‘s Chicago premier last night at the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Beh and I traded e-mails the past two days about his experience making the film. The following is an edited version of that exchange.
SILVERSTEIN: Let’s start at the beginning — the writing.
There are certainly autobiographical elements at work here between you and the character you play, Warren. You’re both from Chicago. You’ve both lived in Los Angeles. You both have a comedic improv background. You’ve both worked service gigs (Warren at a coffee shop, you waiting tables). You both have parents who went through a divorce.
A writer using him or herself as the basis of a character can obviously push the story in any number of directions that diverge from reality. Why did you want to tell this story, and how did the story evolve throughout the writing process?
BEH: I chose to tell this story because I just had to. I wanted to.
The story evolved over a lot of years of experiences from when it was just a notion in 2003, to three years of notes, to the two and a half hours writing the outline after a run in 2006, to actually writing it in two days a few weeks later, and then the years of people reading it and working to get it made.
Over the course of nine years a lot happened: my parents’ divorce, moving back to Chicago, getting into the improv scene, moving to Los Angeles, making countless short films, countless auditions, acting in commercials and indie films, losing my brother Chase, and then all of us sitting down in 2012 and saying, “This is enough. It’s time to make this movie.”
I wanted to tell a story about a guy who was just stuck in his life, and over the years of developing the narrative, I incorporated a lot of personal elements. “Write what you know,” I guess. Sure there are a lot of elements in Warren that are similar to me personally, but there are others that are different, and he is just a character. I wouldn’t let myself just let this be a script on a shelf any longer. We had the financiers, we had the team — Dallas Sonnier, Mark Hannah, Orian Williams, Jory Cordy, Vail Romeyn, the crew, the cast. It was time to go make it, mistakes and mishaps included. We had a lot of fun and fights throughout, but mostly fun, and we’re all proud of it.
Now, you go make another one, and another one, and so on. You keep perfecting something for too long and it will never come to life. It just stays in an incubator being looked after by its creator, caged up and stagnant, or in “Development Hell” as they say in Hollywood. The only way to bring something to life is to let it out, and then you move on to the next one.
SILVERSTEIN: Lots here to discuss, but I’m curious about getting your team in place and turning “Warren” from a concept to a finished project.
When we did our first interview in 2010, you said a few times that to make a film “you have to hold guns to people’s heads.” It struck me as, on the one hand, an extreme metaphor, and on the other hand as completely realistic & necessary.
What was your experience this time around with holding guns to heads?
BEH: Life is an enrollment game. Arguably, one must hold the proverbial gun of passion, influence and vision to someone’s head in order to enroll them in the journey they are about to take together.
The image of the gun is rather violent though, so I’d like to think that the metaphor is much better explained as a pillow of love that you are influencing people to fall into as you journey along with your vision and passion. You don’t want to have to “convince” people to come along with your vision. Convincing has to happen at times, but I guess it’s best when people are moved toward your vision.
These movies start as notions, and for someone to pay the artist to create the vision, it requires hundreds of “sales meetings” as you gather infantry along the way. Some sign up, others pass, but it’s the people who believe in what you are doing that you hang on to.
This time around, and it seems to always be about this, it was about saying: “Guys, the train is leaving the station. Are you in or out?”
And they were in.
SILVERSTEIN: “Pillow of love” certainly suits you better than gun to the head.
That said, when you’re in charge of a project that is both A. your vision and B. at the whims of so many other contributors, to what degree do you have to be willing to voluntarily fall into the love-pillow of others? i.e. to jump on a train that is being conducted by one of your co-stars or co-producers, or by your cinematographer, your editor, your production designer, etc.?
BEH: It’s all a big fun collaboration, and it’s a dream to be able to make movies with fellow creatives. We get to go do this. Do I side with Coppola who says that “A film director is one of the last dictatorial posts left in a world getting more and more democratic“? Sure.
But I also see it as a necessary hierarchy to casting any vision. The visionary casts the vision and other visionaries in their own craft come along and enhance and expand the main vision, i.e. the heart of the story that came from a writer or two writers or a writer/director or a director who took it from a writer and didn’t allow him or her on set.
So somehow we’ve veered off into this “pillow of love” metaphor, but we all have to fall into each other’s pillows of love per se.
Everyone brings something to the vision. Or, pillow of love?
SILVERSTEIN: Let’s talk about John Heard’s love-pillow.
I loved the quote from an interview you did a year ago where Heard said that you could yell at him from your “throne over there,” meaning that he respected you & respected the process, and despite your respective career statuses you were the director and he was the actor and that was that.
Give me your favorite story of watching John Heard work in this movie, whether you were in the scene or not.
BEH: Yes, John Heard’s love-pillow…
John Heard respects the process. Professionals, Jack, respect the process, or Trust the process. My favorite story were two of them, so yes, two…
One, the golf course scene. The guy was not in a good place that day. He was having a rough one, just getting over a cold and really in the middle of it. He couldn’t have been more strong, and more of a professional. He stuck it out, gave me about seven takes and we got what we needed and moved on. He delivered a very powerful performance, and I was proud. Despite feeling sick, and not “feeling” “up for it,” John went for it because he is a professional.
The other, there was a running scene that was cut out of the movie, but we shot him running along the bridge over off Wacker Drive. I think it was the Jackson or Adams Street Bridge. We had to do that scene a few times to get it, so it was fun shooting John Heard in slow motion, back and forth over the bridge with his traders jacket flapping in the wind.
SILVERSTEIN: That’s good stuff about Heard. We could go on for a while about him and about Jean Smart, but I want to switch over to another area, also about “process” — the process of distribution.
Obviously it’s not enough to simply make a film. You want an audience. You’ve done the film festival circuit for a year now and you’re also on Vimeo pay-per-view as it were. For filmmakers reading this, describe your process of determining how exactly you would get “Warren” in front of as many eyes as possible.
BEH: As of today we are on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo, and we have fully independently made this movie and now we are independently distributing it. The way that happens, Jack, is word-of-mouth. Which is a very, very difficult process, but thanks to people like you and local papers, and national publications and friends and family, we can get the word out.
The good news is, if a festival or screening is sold out, people can buy it right now on any of the major VOD (video on demand) platforms which is where this is all going, and for the most part, already is. It’s a numbers and volume game, and it’s about the long play.
I think what is exciting about these specific platforms, for the film industry specifically, is that its a whole new world. We’ve gotten used to iTunes for music, and for movies as well, but its fairly new for movies, so it’s great to be at the onset of a whole new way of watching movies. Having “Warren” on the platforms is exciting.
SILVERSTEIN: So, when I made my short film in ’07, I got such a thrill during the first rehearsal as I listened to actors give life to my dialogue. You’ve now gone through this on a number of occasions and with more accomplished actors such as Tony Hale, P.J. Byrne, Julie McNiven, and our boy Joe Nunez, but it must have been on another level hearing Jean Smart and John Heard read your words.
I mean, this is the freaking Home Alone dad, not to mention so many other amazing projects — After Hours, Sopranos, etc. And then everything Jean Smart has done, including winning Emmys for Frazier.
Describe watching/hearing Heard & Smart do your dialogue and act your work for the first time.
(And by the way, this is one of Heard’s best performances. I’ll just put that out there.)
BEH: Can I quote you on that? Why don’t you just put that out there: “Heard’s best performance…”
It was a great honor to have seasoned veterans who have worked with so many talented directors, actors, producers, crew, etc., to be delivering my words and to have them brought to life in a movie. It’s a blast working with professionals, and such talented people. Byrne, Hale, Heard, Smart, Whelan, Stowell, Santino, Rutherford, Perroni, Hollimon, NUNEZ! etc, etc… Great people.
John Heard and Jean Smart are brilliant. They are both seasoned veterans and it was an honor to hear them perform lines and moments that had been in my head for years.
SILVERSTEIN: Okay, final question.
For a young filmmaker reading this who wants to get to where you are, what are three keys to success that you did not know about before you had to do them?
Let’s remove keys that are inherently true in any accomplishment — work hard, persevere — and even some keys that are true in any artistic act — have a vision, work to completion, be open to criticism, etc.
I’m curious to know about the nitty gritty of what a person has to do to get where you are, with a feature film that is completed and screening in multiple venues, forums & platforms. Give me three specific, craft/work/business-related keys to your success that younger filmmakers will have to master.
BEH: You have to set clear, specific goals, and dates that you WILL accomplish them by. You must get to the paper and write — no one is going to write for you. You must produce the movie yourself until you get a team around you to produce WITH you, but go, and make the movie. Be RESOURCEFUL.
You have all the elements just sitting there around you. Open your eyes and get after it. Pray hard. Ask for favor. Keep praying. Keep going after it, keep getting up every morning, early, don’t sleep in, stop watching TV, write, and make your movie.
Make a short film, 5-7 minutes. Get $5k-$10k, shoot for ONE DAY, and go make your movie. Stop with these weeklong short film shoots. GO make your simple, fun, accessible story that makes the audience laugh, be moved, and leave with something to look at internally or externally.
Thank God for talent, passion, and the energy to be persistent.
Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.