Getting one indie feature made—let alone two—is a Herculean feat. Usually what a writer/director goes through in making the first one gets compounded in the second. The vision most often times is grander, which means a bigger cast, more locations, and more ambitious scenes, which of course rely on a bigger budget, which comes with its own set of headaches…
Writer/director David Spaltro’s second film is “Things I Don’t Understand,” a meditation on life and death and the many layers in between, starring Molly Ryman as a grad student whose personal problems intertwine with the relationships she forms as she writes her thesis, which is based on interviews with a dying hospice patient.
While making his first film, “…Around,” presented its own challenges, Spaltro readily confesses that the making of “Things” severely tested his will as a human being and a filmmaker. He faced the never-ending battles of funding, actors who occasionally were at cross purposes and one production issue after another. He emerged believing that he was a born storyteller with a renewed passion for the art.
The New Jersey native found success with “…Around,” a self-professed “love letter to NYC” he made two years after graduating from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA in Directing. He took “…Around” on the festival circuit, securing distribution through Cinetic Media, VOD, and Netflix, and the film had its debut on PBS in 2010.
Spaltro has plans on taking “Things” on a festival run; he is also working on a TV pilot and the third movie in his NYC “love letter” trilogy, “Wake up in NYC.”
Film Slate Magazine recently talked with Spaltro, finding a filmmaker that was brutally honest about the filmmaking process—from fundraising to post production—and how he came out at the end of the production with a different perspective of what it means to make movies.
Film Slate Magazine: What was the inspiration behind making this film? Was there any personal connection to the themes of the film, or was it something you approached from more of a fictionalized standpoint?
David Spaltro: The idea originated in late 2003 when I was still attending the School of Visual Arts and toying around with ideas for my thesis film. I’d done some hospice work and the original idea was just the scenes between the two women in the hospice and their debating thoughts on life and death. It read more like a one act play and I didn’t really have any energy of story behind it and I was too young.
I shelved it until about 2008 when I was going through a bit of a dark and lonely time after finishing my first feature. I’d found some old pages and what became a bit of a cathartic exercise to get out some demons and feelings became a story and a possible vehicle to work with Molly Ryman (‘…Around’) again. I thought it would be a good chance for her to stretch and have her play against type. I developed it a lot more while living in LA for a spell in 2009 and spent most of 2010 casting and hiring the various production team members whose own thoughts and contributions helped shape further drafts. People often ask me what fascinated me about doing a film about death, but it’s always been more about living and life and finding connection than about death and the afterlife.
FSM: What were some of the challenges in getting this film made? Budgetwise, production wise, etc.
DS: This was maybe the hardest undertaking I’d ever done. I needed to prove myself with this project that I could make another quality feature film and do it better in every aspect, but we were still working at a very similar budget. Creative thinking, utilizing resources and working under time and money constraints meant the shoot at times was very grueling for myself personally and professionally. I enjoyed making ‘…Around’ during actual production far more because I was so young and oblivious and not trying to do anything as particular as with this film.
During this shoot I was constantly fighting different personality types who didn’t agree with my vision to get the story I’d intended to tell in the can. I also worked with one of the more bitter, sad and destructive actors I have ever encountered on this project that was just so negative throughout production. She had originally wanted the lead role and never got over the fact that she wasn’t going to play it. She made her character so over the top (to the point of self-sabotage), refused to listen to direction and constantly complained to the point where the character’s arc had to be completely trimmed down and re-edited in post to save the story because audiences hated it during early screenings.
Our post phase also became a lot more of a war than had been anticipated because even though we completed the shoot on budget with the support of an amazing crew we had new hiccups. A producer with some personal problems completely flamed out, leaving us with a lot of undone paper work, unpaid invoices and various other issues. We had to contend with a large bi-coastal post facility that had originally offered a gratis color correct bailing on us because they were imploding and overbooked at the time. It became a fight to crowd source and raise the funds, but once again the support of several cast and crewmembers and a family of people I’d worked with or built up over the years came to our rescue. They believed in the project and we raised $5,000 in two weeks and were able to work with an amazing colorist: Blase Theodore at Contact Post-DI in NYC who gave us so much energy and skill, doing far better than what we would have gotten if that company had actually come through for us. We were short of a few personal deadlines but managed to get the film completed and out without missing some other important opportunities due to lack of funds and other assorted craziness.
FSM: Was there anything in the final film that came out differently than what you had with your shooting script?
DS: I edit my films and I think sometimes of it like a final draft. You find things you cull together in performances or in pacing with cutting, as well as making changes because of budget while shooting that influence the final version. Score and other music also adds so much to the finished version of the film. I’d say this is the closest I’d ever gotten to have exactly what was in my head come to life.
One of the final scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge is probably my one regret that if I could have a “do-over” I’d go back in time and just fight harder and redo. It was our last night of a long shoot and we were in overtime, the actors weren’t meshing as well, and there was also a lot of friction with Molly on how she wanted to play the scene compared to what I wanted it, just a communication breakdown. So, it just falls a bit short and didn’t come out the way it was written and what it was meant to do, to me at least. A lot of it was reworked as best as I could in editing. It’s a little more anti-climactic and forced to me than I wanted and might be something that’s more noticeable to me or someone who read what the scene originally was, but it’s probably my one regret and mostly because so much was done so right and so well you kick yourself to let that happen.
FSM: What do you hope audiences will take away after seeing ‘Things I Don’t Understand?’
DS: I really hope they enjoy the story and the characters and are entertained or taken out of their own lives for two hours. The spiritual themes and ideas in ‘Things,’ the journey Violet goes on, is something that’s very personal and different for every individual. I tried my hardest to throw out the questions and the ideas and represent as much as I could on my thoughts for family, faith and finding your own meaning, but also wanted to leave it open for dialogue, just put it out there. I also hope those who have seen my previous work can see ambitious maturation of my voice as a filmmaker and myself. If they’re engaged throughout, care about these characters and think of the story or the ideas in it even a day or week later than I’ve done my job.
FSM: What were some of the lessons that you learned from ‘…Around’ to this film?
DS: I taught how important the people you surround yourself with and work with, not just in ability but also in personality can make or break your film. I believe in making my set a home environment filled with creative energy and the team I have is a family. No matter what struggles, hard work or long hours come there’s this desire to push yourself.
I try to give everyone a canvas to do the thing they love and put their best work forward for the good of the film and everyone involved and let them know how much it’s appreciated. I also learned how much you need sometimes to fight for your vision and what you believe in but also how important it is as a director to be the communicator of that vision to all these different artists and departments. They all bring their own ideas but it’s up to you to corral them and make them work in harmony. That can be a battle and a half when under the pressures of time, money and different opinions but you find a way to get through it and get it done. I’m much more comfortable in the role of “Director” and what my job on set really entails as well as all the different phases of production and producing then the first time.
FSM: Any final thoughts about “Things I Don’t Understand” or the filmmaking process?
DS: The full experience of making ‘TIDU’ was a really important and sometimes agonizing life lesson I had to go through. I think the pressure I put myself under to get this film made, unexpected obstacles that arose and the fights I had with individuals throughout kind of broke a part of me by the end of it. It made me withdraw a bit, take some time I might not have and ask some really important questions about why I do what I do and what I really see for the future and myself. I’d considered at one point this project being a bit of a swan song and summing up everything I wanted to say and do with film. It was during this time and completing it that I’ve recently realized that it’s not something we just DO, we’re storytellers and it’s who we ARE…
So as always I encourage anyone that has a story they really want to tell to pick up anything; a flip-cam, a cell phone, a bunch of markers and construction paper and just tell the story. It might sound a bit hokey but just put it out and the world and just let it be and free yourself.