"Everything was improvised, but heavily directed – so it felt like Suzi, Becky, and I were all just improvising together."
TNC Archive 2020
In a reality where gum doesn't exist, Anne (Suzi Barrett) pitches Becky (Rebecca Drysdale) an idea that could change the world.
Hi Jacob thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?
Thanks for talking with me! I'm hanging in there. As you know the times are particularly strange here in the United States, but I'm trying to stay focused on positive change.
Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?
Absolutely. I just finished up a documentary shot entirely over video chat during a five-day film challenge. It's about a friend who has used a wheelchair since she was six, but with everything happening over video chat during the pandemic, she was experiencing a new opportunity: getting to decide when (or if) to disclose her disability. It's such an interesting and powerful short and I'm very proud of it – and we never would have had the idea if it weren't for the pandemic.
Congratulations on Gum European Premiere at this year's Raindance Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing lineup of short films?
Thank you! I am so thrilled to be a part of Raindance and to have Gum premiere in Europe. It's such a cool festival and I'm honoured to be amongst so many wonderful films and filmmakers.
Do nerves ever set in when you're part of a film festival?
Oh, for sure! The anticipation of getting audience feedback for the first time always makes my heart race – even more so when things are in person, so I'm a bit off the hook this year.
Can you tell me a little bit about Gum, how did this film come about?
My background is as an improviser and I've been teaching and performing at The Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles for about a decade. As a director, I use improv here and there as a way of keeping things fresh on set and to get more authentic and nuanced performances from actors – but I'd always wanted to make a completely improvised film. I'd seen Suzi and Becky do an improvised bit about pitching gum to someone who didn't understand what it was, and thought it was a perfect idea to try out a fully improvised short.
What was the experience working with Suzi Barrett and Rebecca Drysdale on this film?
Suzi and Becky are two of the smartest and most creative comedic minds around and I feel so fortunate to have gotten to play and learn from them both in our time at UCB and in the making of this short. Everything was improvised, but heavily directed – so it felt like Suzi, Becky, and I were all just improvising together. We'd all riff as both characters, then Suzi and Becky would (brilliantly) take ownership of their characters and funnel the collective ideas, viewpoints, and lines through improvised dialogue.
What was the most challenging aspect of making Gum?
The hardest part was shaping all of the improv into a cohesive narrative. We went on so many runs of ideas – How is gum made? Who names the flavours? Why would you ask a stranger if they have a piece? – If someone was interested in watching 2-3 hours of deconstructing every bit of minutia about gum... the footage certainly exists. To pare it down I made a rough assembly with my favourite parts, then used a transcription service to create a paper edit out by slicing, dicing, and remixing 90 minutes of the funniest material. At one point, I was too close to all of it and brought in a friend of a friend (and a brilliant director in his own right) Jason Gudasz to take a pass at the edit and give me some perspective.
How important is the collaborative process in filmmaking to you?
Extremely important. I'm drawn to improvisational comedy because I love collaboration, but it's also a little chicken/egg because now my two decades as an improviser has certainly impacted how I approach directing. Building on ideas together and playing as a group is so rewarding collaboration creates new connections that wouldn't be possible with only one perspective. I know there are writers/directors who work in a bubble and I admire and respect them but, for me, it's all about the collaboration.
In a film like Gum how flexible as a director did you have to be?
Extremely flexible. The entire process of the short was building something together from nothing. Actually, I guess that's the process of any film, but it really felt amplified with this because it was improvised. I had a pad full of notes from the shoot that looked like I was a detective with a bulletin board, pushpins, and string, trying to connect all the different riffs to each other thematically, tonally, and as far as specific subject matter.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I grew up in a very creative environment – my mom is a ceramicist, and my dad is a landscape architect – so thinking visually was always part of my childhood. I'm passionate about telling stories and exploring the often unarticulated connections or reasonings behind the mundane across any medium. Sometimes – like with this short, Gum – the best way to tell that story is with a film.
How has your style and approach to your films changed much since your debut short?
That's a hard question. I think as you get older you know have a better idea what you want out of life, and filmmaking is part of that. I have a much better idea of what I'm looking for when I show up on set. Even with something like this that was totally improvised, I had a specific plan about how we would capture coverage and what I called "stems" to connect different threads. The story and the dialogue were made up on the spot, but the process was planned.
Do you think filmmakers should push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Yes, but only if it's authentic. I see a lot of boundary-pushing that feels exploitive and hollow – shock for shock's sake, and I think it's kind of gross. That said – we absolutely need to open up the boundaries around what stories are told and who gets to tell them. Film, and most art, has traditionally been most accessible to people of privilege and those people have mostly been straight white guys – which means the 'boundaries' are limited to a very homogenous world view. If historically underrepresented groups are given the platform and support to tell stories authentic to their experience, the 'boundaries' will be expanded to be more reflective of the true human experience. I know, I know... that's a lot coming from the straight white guy who made the chewing gum comedy.
Are there any tips or pieces of wisdom you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
My favourite advice is the advice I wish I listened to more myself: just make stuff. Keep making and finishing art. Don't second guess yourself, don't veto your projects when they're still in the idea phase, just keep putting out art. Also, add captions to your films so people who are hard of hearing, or just are trying to watching things while their baby is asleep (like me) aren't missing out.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Gum?
That everything is interesting and ridiculous if you look at it with a fine enough microscope.