Q&A WITH CHARRED OAK FILMS
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: My biggest concern was getting the tone right. Rich’s script is full of some really serious questions, and it portrays incredible pain. At the same time, it has jokes, and physical comedy, and it has to highlight the absurd qualities of how we deal with grief in modern America. Creating something that contains those extremes was a challenge, especially because I wanted the movie to have a cohesive look and feel. Casting was hugely important, so although the central roles of Jake and Jonathan were written for Rich and Kent, we spent more than a year finding the right people for the rest of the ensemble. I wanted people who were technically skilled and could play Rich’s verbal and physical comedy really well, but who were also able to be very still, very simple, and very true. Luckily, I ended up being blessed with a cast who did precisely that.
Otherwise, I worked with my fantastic DP Christine Ng and my favorite designers Meg Zeder and Katie Irish to develop the right look for the film. We have a very quiet and deliberate camera, with lots of carefully-composed lock-off shots. It’s very different from the way most films are shot these days, but I think it allows you to observe these awkward, funny, and sometimes awful moments without telling you exactly how to feel about them. Meg and Katie are both wonderful at building subtle clues about character into the production and costume design, as well as adding some really great comedic elements. A smart design like that allows me to take a slightly ambiguous approach while still communicating a lot about who these people are and how they’re struggling with their grief.
Rich Lovejoy, Writer/Actor: You have to be willing to experiment and play in theater, because “safe” choices are deadly. I think I’ve carried some of that over to my film writing, particularly in how I handle structure. Additionally, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to write anything that doesn’t make me question whether or not there is something deeply wrong with me. I’m proud to say that not only are the questions raised by The Widowers utterly terrifying to me, but when I first sent the rough draft to Scott I was legitimately worried he might attempt to get me institutionalized.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: I certainly wasn’t looking up institutions, but I was both troubled and amused…and therefore excited. Mostly I just had a ridiculously long list of notes, which Rich is always eager to tackle. That’s what I think is key about Rich’s theater background. He’s a real collaborator who’s always willing to grapple with new ideas and perspectives, while staying true to his unique voice.
Rich Lovejoy, Writer/Actor: Comedy is incongruity. Whenever you have two things that don’t go together, that can be comedy. I’d say that the way contemporary society, America in particular, thinks and talks about grief is wildly incongruous with the reality of grief. Grieving people don’t really want to “get better.” When you’ve lost someone, that pain is all you have left of them and no matter how awful it feels you don’t want to let it go. Yet the goal of grief therapy is so often to assist people in “moving on” and “healing.” When you think about that, that’s both ridiculous and heartbreaking.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: I also think the best comedy has incredibly high stakes. In this film, there are a group of people trying–desperately–to figure out how to live after losing their partner in life. Pam, the grief counselor, is trying to give her own life meaning by helping them in that pursuit. And they’re all just failing miserably. To me, that’s comedy. Those awkward, confused moments, and the rank inadequacy of our society to deal with real loss.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: I do. Much more than I expected it to be, actually. In working with Rich on the script, I realized that little pieces of our personalities and relationships were ending up all over the place. No one character is based directly on any one of us, but there is definitely some self-awareness there. And we chose to set the story in the context of what is, essentially, our daily existence in Brooklyn.
Frankly, the movie also became uncomfortably close to the bone for me, and it happened in the middle of production. During a break in shooting last year, my wife and I lost our baby girl. I’m actually really ambivalent talking about it, but the fact is it’s now an essential part of the story of making the movie for me. And, of course, the parallels to the script we’d already written are eerie. I can’t say it changed how I was directing the film, or how I felt about grief, or the story we were telling. It certainly deepened my engagement with the material…perhaps to an unwelcome degree. But now the process of finishing and releasing the film tracks, inexorably, with my own developing grief in a way that is crushing yet somehow empowering. My wife and I have experienced countless instances in our grieving process that we have found darkly, awkwardly funny. At the most horrible moments, we have talked about hearing Pam’s insistently perky voice in our heads, or identifying in a new way with certain aspects of how our characters are grieving in the film. I don’t know if that’s just a filmmaking version of transference, or what, but I know deeply that The Widowers has something to say about loss and grief, and it tries to address it in an honest way that avoids easy reassurances. Although that doesn’t sound like a typical comedy, I have to say I have come to see our very dark little film as oddly life- affirming.
Rich Lovejoy, Writer/Actor: There still aren’t that many compelling female characters in film and TV right now. Most are regulated to being mother figures, or love interests.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: Or worse, victims.
Rich Lovejoy, Writer/Actor: Yet there are so many interesting, complicated male characters – your Don Drapers, your Walter Whites. One of my objectives in writing Pam was to create a real juicy “antihero” type of role for a woman.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: And Jennifer Laine Williams really fulfilled our hopes for the character. She is fearless in the role, hilarious yet completely unafraid of embracing the darkness. I actually have a lot of sympathy for Pam, which is disturbing when I think about how incredibly destructive she is.
Katie Irish, Producer: It wasn’t our original plan to pay for the movie ourselves, and it took us years of planning and saving to get it made. In fact, we cut the budget three separate times to make it happen, which required rewriting the script and scaling back our scope each time.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: Although I never would have guessed it at the time, I think those budget constraints actually made the movie better, more focused. It turns out there is truth to the old adage that limitations can inspire better and more creative choices.
Katie Irish, Producer: Despite all the challenges, the advantage to being truly independent is that we got to make the movie we wanted to make. The careers of people like Shane Carruth have been inspiring to us, and prove that there is an audience hungry for artists who take risks and really embrace the uniqueness of their story and their point of view.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: We were so lucky with the people who worked on this film. They were all talented professionals, but they were willing to work for deferred and reduced rates because they cared about the story and were looking to express themselves in a new way. We had people who’ve worked on sets for years, but were heading a department for the first time, or working on their first narrative feature. Everyone was unusually driven to make this film something special, pouring their heart and soul into everything. I think that shows up on the screen.
Jonathan Scott Chinn, Director: I take a lot of inspiration from great photographers, and some of my favorites were direct influences on The Widowers, particularly William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld. Of course I love their composition and the way they use light and color, but more importantly I love the way they shoot people, the way they reveal people in a way that’s open and vulnerable, yet sort of mysterious. And their subtle sense of humor. That’s all stuff I strive to achieve in my filmmaking.
Music is also hugely important to me, and making a playlist is pretty much the first thing I do when I start working with a script. For The Widowers, I was drawn to female voices, piano, and stuff that was tender yet dark. I’m thrilled to feature songs in the movie by emerging artists like Lily and Madeleine, Torres, and Deb Oh and the Cavaliers, but I’m also really excited by the stark, quietly intense original score we’ve created with composer Nathan Siler.
My favorite film is Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, which on the surface doesn’t seem to have anything to do with The Widowers at all. But if I look closely, I can see repeating series of quick-cut close-ups that are directly inspired by that film, as well as a very dark, almost perverse sense of what’s funny. And I can’t ignore the fact that we put a very unlikely, full- length dance piece in the third act…
Kent Meister, Actor/Co-Producer: We shot the majority of the film over two weeks outside the small town of Eldred, NY, a very rural area. We were a low-budget indie, so accommodations for cast and crew were modest. Needless to say, we all got to know each other very well. We were all in the same place, with little to no phone or internet service. So everyone had no choice but to completely immerse themselves into making this movie. There was a real feeling that we were doing something special there in Eldred. We all believed in the story being told and bonded in a way that might not have happened on a more traditional set, where you can just go home at the end of the day.
Rich Lovejoy,Writer/Actor: When you’re done watching the Widowers, you might need a good, stiff drink. That’s pretty much us, in a nutshell. The name refers to the barrels used to age bourbon, not to forest fires.