This is Happening – Interview with Film Director Ryan Jaffe

Ryan Jaffe is an independent filmmaker who has recently put together his first feature film titled This Is Happening [2015]. This is a family dramedy about a brother (James Wolk), a sister (Mickey Sumner) and their surly grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his film and his work. It may contain minor spoilers for his film. (This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
So how are pancakes and mayo? 
I wouldn’t know. I would never try such a thing. [laughs]
C’mon. I feel like somebody needs to make you try that. You created this delicacy. 
Somebody should make me try that.
But no, my first question is actually pretty basic: how did you get into filmmaking?
I was a working writer for about ten years. I came here two weeks after I graduated college. Many years ago, I started working in a mail room and stocking fridges and delivering packages for famous people in a managing company. [I was] proving my worth and worked as an assistant for four years, which was sort of my graduate school. [I] then left that to write and it took me a few years to figure out how to write well and get good at it and hone my craft. I finally sold a movie called The Rocker in 2005. And then directing was—you know, this project was something I had written years prior and it worked well for me as a writing sample. It was a very personal story. I would always come up with excuses as to why I wouldn’t attach another director to it and it was because it was important to me. If I was going to direct one this was gonna be the first one. About two and a half years ago I just decided that I was going to make it. I set a date and just sold all the blood that I have to try to put it together and it happened.
Do you remember what the first movie that made a big impact on you was?
The first movie that made a big impact on me was The Jerk with Steve Martin because I was like five years old and my dad took me to see it in the theatre. And I’m sure I had no idea what I was seeing other than that it was funny and I was laughing and getting to see a movie, with bad words, with my dad. So that was the first movie that, if I think all the way back, that really—it didn’t drive me to want to make movies or anything, but it definitely planted the bug early on.
You mentioned that the story for This Is Happening is a personal story and so I was wondering how did you conceive of this story: What’s your personal connection to this script?
It began as a short story that I wrote: I quit the business. I failed in an attempt to write a script. I didn’t know what to do. I moved to San Francisco. I got a regular job and I was taking fiction workshops at the Cal-Berkeley Extension and working on my writing, just for fun at this point, because I love to do it. And I wrote a short story about a trip that my brother and I were sort of forced to take because our grandmother was sort of dying. None of us had a very tight relationship so it was odd to be placed in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida for 10 days with my  younger brother and my grandmother and that was the impetus for the story. I never thought of it as a screenplay at all. And then a friend, who became my manager, was looking at my material to help me get my career going— and you know, I was trying to write things that I thought would sell—and he was like: Don’t try to write something that sells. Just try to write something that comes from you and shows that you can write great characters; and, the short story will accomplish that. So, together we sort of crafted it into a movie.
What was the hardest scene to shoot and what was your favourite scene to shoot and why?
The hardest scene to shoot was the first scene we shot, which was the shot outside the mini-mart. It was the first shot I’d ever directed that wasn’t a short film. It was like real movie making—not that shorts aren’t by any stretch, but it was the first thing I shot and it was the most, quote unquote, action-oriented scene in the movie. I hadn’t even got my feet wet and there was just way more moving parts than I was really prepared for and because of the schedule, that was the first thing we had to shoot. I wish it had happened a little bit further down the road, but we couldn’t schedule it that way. 
My favourite scene to shoot is the scene with my daughter and Cloris Leachman next to my wife and father in law. So when I look back at the movie, that warms me up. And also the scene with Cloris when she removes her make-up. I thought that was the best scene in the movie. It was the one [scene] that I had a clear vision for the day that I wrote it. Then when it came to life it was really sort of this surreal moment because it was everything that I’d ever had in my head about what it was going to look like; and it looked like it! which was a really weird feeling, it’s a really weird sensation. I think it saved the movie. I think it shows how great of an actress she is to everybody on set: like really reminded us that we’re dealing with a legend and an Oscar-winning actress and an all time Emmy-winning actress; [that] it’s not an accident and everyone’s like: Okay, I’m on board. I’m on the team of this ragtag tiny movie to make sure that it gets done well.  
It looks like most of your work thus far is comedic in nature. Can you speak about what or who are your comedic influences?
Sure. This movie, I think it’s more of a dramedy and the two influences that were greatest—one was a drama, one was a comedy—which isn’t a total answer to your question, I’ll answer your question better in a second—but [this movie was] sort of my version of two of my favourite films: One was Flirting With Disaster by David O. Russell and the other was You Can Count on Me by Kenneth Lonergan. I tried to combine and do my versions of those movies and to use those as benchmarks. I think Flirting With Disaster is one of the funniest movies. Otherwise, Woody Allen’s always had a big influence as a filmmaker—not necessarily as a human being. And John Hughes. Huge influence. Probably John Hughes more than anything… [pauses] When I was ten years old and I was going to camp, I was on the bus—and it was a boy’s camp but the girls and the boys rode up together—and there was this counsellor that was like the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my entire life. You know, she was probably like a college student and she looked at me and she said, ‘You look like Farmer Ted,’ and I had never seen Sixteen Candles so I was like, ‘Is that cool?’ and she was like, ‘Ya, that’s cool.’ So from that moment on I was like, ‘Call me Farmer Ted!” and I was all obsessed with Anthony Michael Hall and Sixteen Candles and then I found out he’s the geek in the movie and I didn’t care. It didn’t matter because she’d already given me a nickname so I was hooked.
I noticed that your film’s score featured music from artists like Hanni El Khatib & Haim and so I was wondering what the process of getting licensure to use that music was like? 
As I, over the years, have been wanting to do this, I created a list of some songs that I knew I wanted to use. Older [by They Might Be Giants] was one. I loved Hanni El Khatib and the couple others that were there. We got a great music supervisor in Nic Harcourt and I remember when I threw in my original [list of] songs that I liked, prior to Haim and some of these other bands, he was was like: I know Hanni El Khatib and Hanni El Khatib owns all of his music by himself outright. He’s a very sort of staunch indie artist and so we were able to license it from him for a price. The really nerdy answer about how we were—or the technical answer—was we set a very low price because we just didn’t have money and it was Favour Nation. Everyone got the same thing except for the opening song [Older by They Might be Giants] and it was, I think, once some of the cooler bands agreed to it, other bands were cool with it. 
Another thing was [that] I got connected to a band that represented Panama, which is the [band whose] song we used at the end of the movie. I was desperate to use it; we couldn’t get it; they rejected it; [but] I had fallen in love with that song and I couldn’t find anything that was better than it. I was writing them letters personally, to Australia, and the Record Exec [had] gotten back [to us]. He connected us to their management in the US and it turns out that one of our producers knew that manager. So, as soon as that connection was made and they said okay to letting us use it at the price we were able to pay, I then personally went through their entire catalogue. I went through literally every song in their catalogue to find stuff that they represented that I knew I could get for this price. It was a miracle some of the music we got in there. We should not have some of these bands in there. We pulled off a major coup getting that. I almost wanted to make a movie just so I could make a cool soundtrack because I love music so much and I’m heavily influenced by music in great movies. I get very envious of directors that make movies with great music. Rushmore is sort of a benchmark for me in that regard. I slaved over the music and got amazing music. You’ve got Haim; you’ve got The Budos Band; you’ve got Hanni El Khatib; Panama’s very good; Courtney Barnett has just blown up and we have one of her tracks in there. And They Might Be Giants. A lot of really cool bands are in there. 
And we got a great score too from Adam Crystal.
Yes, can you speak a bit about what it was like to work with a composer to create an original score for your film? 
Yeah, I mean, first of all, I was the most naive about scoring. I think it was the hardest thing to do. The whole process. I think a big part of that is because composers speak a different language in a lot of ways. I had a hard time communicating just in terms of expressing myself. You know, he would use very basic music terms like, ‘So what you’re saying here is you want a falsetto type sound?’ and I don’t even know what that means other than I guess high. You know? Like, I don’t know. And it would get more technical than that. And we have different ears. So I would say: I want something sort of like this; and he would say: well when I hear what you’re saying I hear something else; and so, being able to communicate and connect in terms of just even a sound is really difficult. He was doing it out of New York. I was in LA. He would send me tracks. It was very frustrating to get through the process because I really just didn’t understand [firstly] all that well how a composer’s mind works and [secondly] just how much more I should know. I was way more amateur in that regard than I thought I would be because I thought I knew a lot about music—and I do know a lot about music—but I don’t know anything about composing and they’re just totally different. It was frustrating. It was a struggle. I know Adam was frustrated. 
And what happened was, we didn’t have a score for the movie, [but] we had an idea about what we thought was cool. I had some scores that I was using and we had a test screening and one of the issues with the movie is that the movie is just not that realistic. Like, the odds that they’re gonna run into their grandmother five times or just miss her is not—l know it’s implausible, but to me, it was more about the journey than necessarily if it was totally real or not. So what we did was we started to try to create a score that had a little bit more of a fairytale quality to it, with a little more bells, and just sort of a little more whimsy to it. Once we tapped into that idea, the movie got a lot better; the score got way more focused and it just improved from there. And I thought he did a great job with that, but it took a lot of finding to get that right and to understand that that’s what the movie needed. 
Can you talk a bit about how you came to assemble such a great cast?
Ya, Jimmy Wolk did a short version of the film that I shot just to prove that I could direct so we connected there. When the movie came back around, he was willing to dive in. The rest of it is directly attributable to Billy Hopkins: who is an amazing casting director; who doesn’t really do movies of my size; and who’s prolific and renowned and was able to represent our film to the acting community. That, I think, combined with the script is what got us great talent. I got to meet with them and everything, but it was really Billy. I learned to listen to people, on this film, who knew what they were doing better than I did; and I listened, a lot, to Billy.
Do you have any favourite behind-the-scenes moments?
I would say that, for me, the whole experience was about family on every level: it was a movie about family; I had my family around me all the time; there was family involved in financing the movie; friends; the exterior of [the] Cloris Leachman [character’s] house is my house. It was important for me to have family around just to keep the vibe fun and [to help keep in mind] that we’re getting to make a movie and I don’t want you to take it too seriously. I want you to enjoy it. So, that sort of culminated on one night when we were going late: we didn’t have any overtime and one way you can compensate a crew without cash is food because crews like to eat the food. My wife is Indian and her family is Indian and we put out a big Indian meal after the day’s shoot. It was a very long day and everyone just really came to bond and it typified what kind of an experience it was.
What were some important lessons that you have learned between making your short to now having made your first feature?
One thing I learned was that you can sort of do anything. If you really want to. Like my budget for this movie was $1.5 million. I didn’t have anywhere close to that amount of money raised. I managed to raise $100,000 and I had a producer tell me: You could make this movie for $200,000. And I said: There is no way I could make this film for $200,000; you can do it for $200,000. And so I decided [that] I have to leave him. I found a producer that gave me a budget that fits. She was a great producer, but she understood how to work in this world—you need someone who knows how to do that—and she showed me how I could make it for $200,000 and then I did. So the lesson, I would love to project to filmmakers who are trying to do it is that: it can be done. We made a road movie; there were a lot of locations and we shot 10.5 pages a day over 11 days and it’s possible. You need to be super organized and you need a lot of people who are really on board. You cannot have anyone slip up in terms of, even just, morale: even a slight change of morale will permeate to everybody else and slow things down. [But] it can be done. 
The second lesson was I knew what my shortcomings were going into this. And, at least being willing to acknowledge them and embrace them—still be confident—but know that I’ve never shot a film before so trusting my DP, trusting my editor and just making sure there were really smart, talented people around me to compensate for what I didn’t know—and to be humble enough to know that they’re better at their jobs than I could be at their jobs—that made a big difference. My philosophy going in was that I couldn’t pay these people a lot of money, but I know that there are a lot of really talented people that are looking for breaks, to get a feature credit under their belt. I found that hiring people who may not have had a feature credit under their belt, but had worked on so many things—I mean it’s insane how many assistant editors have worked on huge movies but haven’t gotten that feature credit—so by deciding to hire everybody whose first shot it was, everybody was so much more into working really hard; and doing a great job; and, on proving themselves to everybody who hadn’t given them a shot before. There was an enthusiasm that we needed to get it done. 
And I think also the biggest lesson that I’m learning now is [that] I can’t emphasize enough how much you should really try to have a nice treasure chest of cash left over for marketing your film down the road. Put it in a safe; lock it up; lose the combination, and do not touch it; because you will need that money desperately when it comes time to try to make your indie film have some sort of impact on the world. And none of us do it. I didn’t do it either. And even if you get a studio—an independent studio or independent distributor—to pick up your film, they’re only going to commit so much money to you. They’re going to be able to recoup all of it and it’s going to make it that much harder for you and your investors to make anything, to get your movie exposure, or to have any control over it. But, if you have, let’s say, half of what your budget was, or some clean number that you never sought sitting in a safe somewhere, you are so far ahead of every indie filmmaker. That’s what I would do next time. 
And be prepared for having to do everything. Independent filmmaking is not just getting to make a movie anymore. You’re going to be involved in every step of the process—all through distribution—everything. If you want your movie to come out the way you want it to, you have to know that you’re going to be nurturing it far after you finish shooting and editing it. Finishing the film is just another step on the way.
About your Indiewire article—and I did read it, and perhaps this just has to do with my limited knowledge about film distribution beyond the bare basics, so it wasn’t too clear to me the difference between the strategies you mentioned—can you speak a bit about this Broken Window” method of distributing a film and how this strategy may be better for indie films than the “Day & Date” strategy you were going to use? 
Day & Date is very expensive because theatres will not let you into their theatre houses if you’re not going to give an exclusive theatrical window, a certain period of time. Traditionally it’s like 90 days and it’s still 90 days to a couple of theatre chains. Traditionally it’s 90 days before you can go to ancillary outlets. And Day & Date is, say, we’re going to open one night in a theatre, which is essentially a marketing campaign so that you can get publicity and reviews because you can’t without a theatrical release. It’s this weird sort of formula that these platforms have. And so, you release Day & Date, but they charge you a huge premium in order to be released in those theatres for a day to essentially use them as a leaping off point. They’ll charge you like—whereas a theatre might charge you zero or some booking fee—they’re going to charge you $4000 or something like that for one screening, for one night. So, when you’re an independent film, it’s almost impossible [to do that] without some sort of distribution arm behind you covering the cost of that. 
On the flip side, when you’re doing it this way, you’re only going to release in a few theatres, you’re only going to get limited exposure. You’re going to get the exposure you want, but you want to follow it up relatively quickly with your VOD platform release; and so, Broken Window is less than 90 days. For us, we intended to release, I think, it was like 45 days after, something like that… 45-60 days. It ended up not working because we had a problem with our distributor and with some deliverables and it messed things up—but that was the idea with that. You’re not going to make anything in the theatre anyway. This way, you still have enough momentum; it’ll, at least, get you exposure—people still know who you are with the limited exposure you were able to get—and you can then make a difference when you get on iTunes. People will remember who you are. That’s the idea. 
And at the end of the day, I don’t know that it worked because we didn’t get to do the true Broken Window we were intending. So, I couldn’t say to you: go do a Broken Window. It made sense for saving money and it made sense on paper, but I never got to actually see it fulfilled the way the plan was. It ended up delayed. We didn’t come out till January 5th. We opened on October 2nd and the plan was to come out on November 25th and it kept getting pushed and then there were the holidays and it wasn’t really in my control. So, that’s more of a traditional window. We ended up losing a lot of the momentum that we had gained from the publicity we were able to generate from that theatrical release. 
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to talk about?
I’m working on a couple tv things. I’m trying to figure out the right thing to direct next, but I want to do it on a slightly bigger scale than I did with This Is Happening so I’m trying to figure that out. But nothing to say like ‘I’m shooting X in June’ or anything like that.