AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2012
By Don Simpson | November 25, 2012
When everyone arrives at Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete’s (Blaise Miller) house, they have absolutely no idea just how disastrous this Sunday brunch will become. First their cell phone reception goes dead, then the television goes to static. What? No UT football game? Now the shit gets serious! (Hook ‘em!) Cut off from the rest of the world, the four couples are left with a table covered with food and wine, and good old fashioned conversation; yet, in a captivating tip of the cap to Luis Buñuel, they never quite get to the food…
It’s a Disaster is an impeccably-written, dark-as-a-moonless-night satire that hearkens back to the glory days of classic comedy. Existing in the surreal ether somewhere between Preston Sturges and Woody Allen, Berger takes on disaster films as well as the trope of trapping characters in one location; all the while, Berger and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber beautifully choreograph the on screen events to Altman-esque precision.
Smells Like Screen Spirit met up with It’s a Disaster‘s writer-director Todd Berger — who is one of UT Austin’s more successful film school alumni — while he was in Austin for the 2012 Austin Film Festival.
Don Simpson: How did you approach the cinematic trope of having all of your characters stuck in one location for the entirety of the film?
Todd Berger: Just knowing that the whole movie was just going to take place inside this one house and we were not going to leave it, my cinematographer Nancy Schreiber and I really planned out everything ahead of time. How do we make this interesting? We thought about every shot of every scene. How are we going to do this? How can we make each scene seem fresh since the characters appear in the same room three, four, five times during the course of the movie. We needed to make sure that every time we were in each room, we would shoot it differently. Every time we go into the kitchen, we shoot it from a different angle to make it feel like you are in a different room in the house. We only had six or seven different rooms in the entire house; but you feel like there is a lot more going on, just because of the way we thought everything out.
When I shot The Scenesters in 2009, that was real run-and-gun, guerrilla, found footage, so we shot it like it was a documentary. We would show up to a location and just wing it. For It’s a Disaster, there was no way we could do anything like that, so we really thought it out and storyboarded everything.
DS: What impressed me the most about It’s a Distaster is that it is such a well-paced film. There is always something very integral to the story going on.
TB: When we did The Scenesters, it is all plot. Its a film noir, murder mystery, and its all plot, plot, plot… But with this film, there is almost no plot really. You just have a bunch of people who can’t leave the house. It’s like [Luis Buñuel’s] The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or The Exterminating Angel, right? You have to make the plot come out of the characters, and you have to tell a three-act structured story that will keep you interested — and keeps going for 90 minutes — but only with character development. They always say that there are only two kinds of stories — a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town — and we couldn’t do either of them in this situation, because no one is leaving and no one is coming in. So, basically, you have to take the characters and make the story come out of them. And that was really nice and refreshing, and I think that is why the actors really responded to the script. This is a movie about people and acting. That’s something that actors don’t get offered a lot, and that got them excited.
DS: How did you approach the casting and how closely did you work with the actors on character development?
TB: When I was writing the script, I knew there were going to be eight characters, but I didn’t know how to differentiate them. So, what are the typical responses to a disaster? Okay, let’s have everyone respond differently. So, I decided to have each of the characters represent one of the stages of grief. When you know you are going to die, you go through denial, acceptance, bargaining, shock, anger, hope, etc… So, like America’s character Hedy represents shock. She becomes irrational. Jeff [Grace]’s character Shane represents panic. He immediately thinks that zombies are coming and they are all going to die. Erinn [Hayes]’s character Emma represents anger. Rachel [Boston]’s character Lexi goes into denial. And so on… And I was able to take those traits as I was writing and determine where each character is coming from. They don’t stay that way the whole movie, but that’s how they start out.
So, when I met with each actor, I told them, “this is where you are coming from and your initial response, then your character is going to change over the course of the movie into something different.” They start out this way, they end this way. And then we talked about their character, who they really were, where they were from. I remember sitting down with Julia [Stiles], who plays a doctor — most of the characters you never learn their occupation. We needed her to be a doctor, because it was relevant. Julia had the idea, “I am the worst fucking doctor you have ever met. I have no bedside manner and I am just not very good at it.” Well, she’s a good doctor but she’s not really; she’s not a character from E.R. So that’s what she took into her role. That’s not really in the movie, but it is who she is. Then we talked about her relationship with the other characters. Does she like this person? Does she not like this person? And this all informed stuff that you see on screen.
But, yeah, actors have ideas! That blew my mind when I was in college. They have thoughts and opinions? They wanted to flesh out their characters. We would talk it out, and there were some instances that I actually went back and re-wrote scenes. There is a scene that Erinn and Blaise [Miller] are in the car, and it is probably the most tender and dramatic — well, not dramatic but least comedic — part of the movie. That was the last day of the shoot, and during any free time we would talk about that scene, because that scene needed to work. We would sit on the grass during lunch and talk about why these two characters really broke up. It is a three minute scene, and we have to reveal why they broke up and why they should get back together. Because Erinn and Blaise were spending so much time developing their characters, we were able to approach it in that way. I ended up re-writing that scene the day before we shot it, based on those two weeks of talking about it. There are other little touches. For example, there is one character who may not be what they seem. The person who played that part really wanted it to be set up that the first time you watched the movie you don’t suspect anything is wrong, but the next time you watch the movie you will realize “Oh, of course! How did I not notice this?” because of all of the clues.
DS: Speaking of characters, your cameo turns out to be a very important part of this film. You are the one who steps in, tells the characters what is going on, then you leave.
TB: Yeah. Its weirdly symbolic. My character’s purpose is almost as the director of the movie, to get the movie going. Oh, the first act is over. We have gotten to know all of your characters, now the plot is going to start. It seems like with every disaster movie, the first act is getting to know the characters in their daily lives. You get to know how they go about their normal day. So for the first twenty to twenty-five minutes of this movie, nothing seems wrong. When you watch it the second time — or maybe you noticed the first time — you notice that something is wrong. There are constant sirens, there are fire alarms going off, the television isn’t working. But you have to ask yourself, if you were in that situation, would you know that something was wrong if the power went off, and the phones weren’t working? It would probably take you a while until you began to think, “maybe something happened…”
DS: This film plays like a social commentary on the way our society deals with traumatic events, such as terrorist threats.
TB: I think we as a society are wildly unprepared for a situation like this. If you were actually stuck in a disaster, you wouldn’t know what to do. The question is: Should we know what to do? I am from New Orleans, and watching Hurricane Katrina from Los Angeles, I kept thinking about what if I had been there? Would I have known what to do? Would I have had any food? Should I go buy a gun? I don’t know. Living in Los Angeles, we always talk about earthquakes. Are you prepared for an earthquake? But everyone assumes that they are going to be home. There is a really good chance that you will be at work, or at a show or a movie or a restaurant. You might not even be stuck with your loved ones, but with random strangers for days. So, I wanted to play on that.
And the characters are kind of self-absorbed… When you see a disaster movie, everyone is focused on the task at hand. Like in Daylight, the Sylvester Stallone movie, they get trapped in a flooding tunnel; and they immediately start thinking about how they are going to get out of the tunnel. How about if you are trapped in that tunnel, but you also just found out that your wife cheated on you? Well, we have to deal with that first, honey, before we try to get out of the tunnel. It’s always great to make a Daylight reference!
DS: The time you spent in Austin seems to have a strong influence on this film.
TB: Part of the fun of the movie is that I wanted to make it ambiguous as to where the movie was set. I want you to be able to watch it and think “this could be my town.” So, they reference a park that doesn’t really exist; they mention street names from different cities, like they mention Duval Street because I used to work at Double Dave’s on Duval; and, of course, they are trying to watch a UT football game. The name of the elementary school that David Cross’ character teaches at is the elementary school that I went to. That’s one of the most fun things as a writer, all of these subtle things you can do for callbacks that only your friends will notice. For instance, there is a throwaway line in the movie when Kevin [Brennan] is off-screen and he is talking about how he used to work in an A/C repair shop and his boss was named A.C. Well, Kelly Williams is an old friend of mine, and he and Kevin made a short film for a 24-hour film competition ten years ago called Willie and A.C. -– Kevin’s father plays A.C. and Kevin plays Willie, and the whole movie is about them accidentally being exposed to freon and having a freon freak-out and its like a drugged-out trip sequence. So I wanted to put in a reference that only Kelly Williams would get. Its fun to include things that only people who know you will get a kick out of, but no one else ever would. Even just to mention Austin and UT in that way was really fun.