by Pam Victor
[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of super improv-geeky interviews
with well-known, highly experienced improvisers.
If you like good food, romance set in Paris and Chicago, and improvisation, Open Tables will make all your juicy parts say, “Mmmmm.” Written, directed, and produced by Jack C. Newell, with whom I previously geeked out about Close Quarters, the first improv-chocked film he directed, Open Tables explores the idea that “every table has a story.” In this case, the story-rich table is surrounded by a pu pu platter of delicious improvisers and stage/screen actors - TJ Jagodowski, Colleen Doyle, Kate Duffy, Keith Kupferer, Caroline Neff, Desmin Borges, and Jack C. Newell himself – who play three couples sitting down together to a centerpiece meal from which radiates a banquet of stories about love lost and found, and lost and found again. This films also features Joel Murray (who manages to eat throughout the movie even though all his scenes take place in a doctor’s office), Linda Orr (who is a familiar face from the stages of Annoyance and iO theaters in Chicago,) Gwendolyn Gourvenec and William Prünck (who are both French actors and thus very, very sexy,) Beth Lacke (who has the good/bad luck to fall in love with an amnesiac,) and David Pasquesi (who plays the aforementioned amnesiac lover.) Plus, improvisers will enjoy cameos by beloved Chicago gurus Susan Messing and Bill Arnett.
A picturesque, romantic movie, Open Tables makes eye-love to viewers with its appetizing meals and settings. This movie left me both sated and hungry for good food, travel, and love. It’s no coincidence that Jack Newell first discovered the kernel of the story while he was falling in love with his now-wife during their trip to Paris. (Let that be a lesson to you: Choose wisely with whom you travel to Paris.) Open Tables riffs on the idea that we also would do well to choose wisely with whom we share a meal. As Jack Newell writes, “Once you've eaten a meal with someone you can’t call that someone a stranger. The act of eating is, by definition, an ephemeral experience, but the memory of a great meal stays with us forever.”
Love. Great meals shared together. Chicago. Paris. Improvisation. Open Tables satisfies all our tastes. (Or at least mine. As they say in France, “À chacun son goût.”)
I had the good fortune of sitting down with Jack Newell for this cinematic Geeking Out with… Additional commentary by some of the stars of the movie can be found in the Special Features track.
No. Wait. Blogs don’t have different tracks. Ummm…. Ok …Let’s pretend little text boxes are Special Features. (Wheee! I’m in a movie! I’m gonna IMDB this shit.)
PAM: Of course, I'm most curious about how you utilized improvisation in the making of this film. I get the impression that you used it in a more structured way than in your previous film.
JACK C. NEWELL: That is correct. If Close Quarters was 90% improvised, which I think is safe to say it is, I would say Open Tables is 50% improvised. Though this conversation gets tricky when you use the word “improvised.” In the shooting draft, I had sections that are 100% scripted, 50% scripted, and 0% scripted. So different parts of the film are dealt with differently, and it's hard to say one way of how I approached it.
PAM: What was the process of making this movie?
JACK: I wrote the script for this one. (I did not write Close Quarters.) It started as an idea while my girlfriend (at the time - wife now) and I were in Paris. When we got home from our vacation there, I wrote the script in two weeks. And then rewrote it over the next nine months.
PAM: In this film, you use well-known and highly respected improvisers, such as TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, Colleen Doyle, Kate Duffy, and Linda Orr, but many of your actors seemed to come from the stage. They aren't at all regular improvisers, if at all. And of course the main character is played by you, a "normal" as Susan Messing calls non-improvisers.
JACK: As well as Caroline Neff, and the French couple - Gwendolyn Gourvenec and William Prünck - all "normal" people.
PAM: Yup. They're "real" actors, right? Not improvisers. That leads me to believe you were looking for something different from the actors in this movie. Perhaps something different than the typical improviser's approach?
JACK: I would say like "on the ground" that I was less concerned with the labels. Not to discount your point.
PAM: Go ahead. Discount my point. The night is young.
JACK: Hahaha! My interest in improv is the fear in the eyes of the unknown, which is almost impossible to replicate.
PAM: And very difficult to capture on film.
JACK: I think one thing that sets my films apart is a level of performance that is very "real" or "believable." Improvisation, if used right, can do this very well; actually, better than anything else outside of real life. My tolerance for unbelievable or fake moments is incredibly low. I can't stand it. It turns me off immediately. That's not to say it has to be REAL as in POSSIBLE, but REAL as in BELIEVABLE.
Case in point, Pasquesi: Ridiculous story line. Totally believable.
PAM: Dave Pasquesi plays a man named Dean who has a sort of amnesia. And Hannah (played beautifully by Beth Lacke) falls in love with him.
JACK: If you breakdown Hannah and Dean's story, it's ridiculous. But in the end is believable and reveals something true about human nature.
PAM: Hannah is an interesting character.
JACK: Yeah! I love Hannah.
PAM: Me too. And Beth Lacke is pretty wonderful too.
PAM: Can you tell me about-
|David Pasquesi and Beth Lacke|
in "Open Tables"
JACK: Can I ask a question first?
PAM: Of course.
JACK: Is Hannah's storyline scripted or improvised?
PAM: Hmmm … I think it's scripted. It is set apart from the other stories, and I think you were trying to make a point about a certain type of relationship. A commentary on how women approach romance. The general story is scripted. Her exact words seem to be improvised.
JACK: Good, good.
PAM: You are about to tell me I'm wrong, I assume.
JACK: No, you're very close. The only alteration is that it's 100% scripted. There are some ad libs, but nothing improvised. She's a great actor.
PAM: Ah! She really is a great actor.
JACK: As is Dave.
PAM: Yeah, he’s okay.
JACK: Hannah's character and situation are something I observe in my friends and people I know, who bounce from relationship to relationship. And you see them for coffee or a dinner or something, and they're telling the same story over and over and over, but the characters change.
PAM: But there seems to be something specific to that story. It's more than just “we broken real humans re-living the same tired storylines in our real broken human lives.” Number one, the situation with Dave's character changes the pattern, in a way. Number two, I think the story is about this woman approaching men in a stereotypically male way.
JACK: That's interesting. I hadn't thought about that. That's the first time anyone's said that to me. It's a good point, and I don't want to discount that. I think your analysis of Hannah is great and valid.
PAM: Aha! We're 1 to 1. A discount tie.
JACK: Here's how I see it, all of the storylines are in service of Ryan [played by Jack Newell] and Cassie [played by Caroline Neff]. So Hannah & Dean, Jon and Dana, and the Paris story - all are different points of view on love and relationships, etc., and they are all to push forward, or put obstacles in front of, Ryan and Cassie getting together. OR NOT getting together.
|Caroline Neff as|
"Cassie" in "Open Tables"
PAM: No spoilers here.
JACK: The stories exist independently, but they also all talk to each other on a thematic level.
PAM: Like a Harold.
PAM: I win a point! 2 to 1.
JACK: But not intentionally. I wasn't trying to make a Harold, which is just a story structure. You could say all of these things connect like a Harold does,
or at least any other good story.
PAM: I do see Open Tables as an improv structure - but like that kid in the Sixth Sense who sees dead people, I see improv. But seems like the "source scene" is the dinner table. And all the stories branch off from that table. Ebbing and flowing from that scene.
JACK: That's intentional. It's either a Dinner Table or a Living Room.
PAM: A Living Room structure! Exactly!
JACK: Right. The first, like, 10/16ths of the film is a Living Room, and the final 6/16ths is a La Ronde.
PAM: La Ronde ....woah. Mind blown. Hold on. I have to process that Is it really? Wow. Ok. I popped an improv lady boner.
Back to the process for one sec, aside from the Dean-Hannah (Pasquesi-Lacke) story, did you give them a general outline scene-by-scene of moments they had to hit, while leaving the actual verbiage up to them?
JACK: The Dean-Hannah story is fully scripted except for an ad lib or two. The dinner party is all improvised. Paris is all improvised. The Dana-Jon (Colleen-Desmin, TJ-Linda Orr) storyline is all improvised except the ending. That's the simple breakdown.
PAM: TJ did scripted work?
JACK: That was interesting. So I had read all the “TJ doesn't do scripted work” stuff. And when we met to improvise, he was like, "Is it cool if we don't rehearse any scenes at all?"
And I was like, "Yeah!" I just gave him the pages for the final scenes and didn't even talk to him about it.
And when we shot, he did all of the lines as written.
It's part of the environment I try to create on set. And he had the pages, he knew what I was going for. I don’t know if he even read them. And I wasn't a dick about every comma and period. The other actors in the scene did what was scripted, and he did too - but perhaps without ever reading anything at all.
PAM: Wait. Are you suggesting he intuited the script? Just by listening carefully and reacting honestly?
JACK: I have no idea what he did. Here's my guess: He read the script, understood it, and then improvised it. Or not. I honestly don't know.
So one day on set, we're shooting the scene at Trencherman [Chicago restaurant], when "the look" happens between Desmin and Colleen. In the script, all that it says is something like, "They talk, and have an amazing time, and then this look happens during The Look Away Game."
On set, they improvised everything up until The Look Away game, which I taught them on set. The Look Away Game and the outcome is "scripted." Everything before that was "scripted" in that it was - "Have the best time ever." So anyway, I'm on set feeling pretty proud of myself, like I'm this genius improv filmmaker who is creating a whole new form. Like no one has done this shit. Ever.
And TJ comes up, and we're chatting and I ask him, “Do you have any questions or anything?”
And he says, "No, I get it - very simple: First Line, Last Line, right?"
JACK: First Line, Last Line - you're familiar with?
PAM: Yes, Jack. I am.
JACK: You don't call it something different on the East Coast?
PAM: Not to discount your question, but I get another point for knowing the game. The score is 3-1.
Yes, we call it First Line, Last Line here. It’s the rare improv game name that sticks universally.
JACK: WHOA! Well, I had to look it up. So, you have 4-1 points now?
PAM: I think I have three. You have one.
JACK: So, the outcome of the scene or more like the emotion of the scene is the "last line." And they just played to that.
PAM: Everything good about art and life can be summed up in an improv game.
Tell me more about the environment you create on set so you can get improv-quality (that is, natural language) out of a scripted piece.
JACK: And the opposite of that question, How to get improv not to feel meandering and listless but on point and ‘scripted'?’”
PAM: Burn. Ok. Two points to you, three to me.
JACK: I think filmmakers probably get too caught up in the words, which is odd. And I think comedies nowadays are a.) not very funny and b.) too wordy all about witticism. But what matters is subtext … so, directing from the underneath.
And if there's a line you really love, you do it all the same way, but just make sure they say that line.
PAM: That's the thing about this film: It's about the relationship. And that's the thing about good improv: It's about the relationship.
PAM: As the brilliant Mark Sutton says, "I guarantee you that nobody in an improv audience anywhere has ever turned to the person sitting next to them and said, ‘Man, I sure hope they fix that bike.’"
JACK: Exactly. The fool looks at the finger sort of thing, right? Like someone is pointing at something? Wait. Maybe that doesn't work …
PAM: I can't answer. Too busy looking at my finger.
JACK: MY FINGEERRRRR!
PAM: My nails are a mess.
JACK: Everyone has zero points now.
PAM: I like this game. All or nothing. It just got interesting.
JACK: High stakes, Mr. Bond.
So, to go back to an earlier idea, I think I am landing on the side of improv as a tool for creation and maybe not an end to itself. At least in film.
PAM: WHAT???!!!! A million points for me. Black hole points for you.
PAM: Are you familiar with the age-old argument between Bernie Sahlins (founder of Second City) and Del Close (co-founder of iO Theater)?
JACK: Hit me with it.
PAM: Mr. Sahlins believed that improvisation is merely a tool for creation, as you said. That's why - or so I'm told - the improv set at Second City is free. He believed that improv is not worth the price of admission
JACK: Yikes. *neck collar pull*
PAM: Del believed otherwise and spent his life proving it. They even argued about it at Del's deathbed, or so the story goes. I would suppose Del met Bernie in the afterlife to continue the debate.
Anyhoo ... that's the pile of dog doo you just stepped in.
JACK: Well, I don't really think the argument or both sides is mutually exclusive. Why can't improv be it's own art form over here, and then also this other thing - improv be a tool for creation?
PAM: Of course it can.
JACK: I would also throw in there, as a filmmaker, we are like mixed media artists, and we borrow from photography, music, dance, acting, improv … and so my view point is weird when put next to someone who is just an improviser.
PAM: You said, "Improv is a tool for creation and maybe not an ends to itself,
at least in film."
JACK: Or the other way to say that is "Of course I think it's a tool.” In film, everything is a tool to tell story, to evoke emotion, to reveal truth, etc.
PAM: Yes, yes, of course. I see your point. It’s the same with improv. Supposedly, Del said to go out and live life, then bring it to the stage.
JACK: I love that.
PAM: Yup. It's a good one. I can see the challenge in an exclusively improvised movie though.
PAM: I just take issue with your point that improv is not an end to itself. I don't think it can be limited in that way. But what do I know? I'm, as you say, “just an improviser.”
JACK: I don't know. It's interesting, I think you'd talk to some improvisers, and I could explain the film process and they would respond either a.) Your work is not improv at all, too much "scripting,"or b.) It's totally improv because improv has games, and bits, and "rules", and etc, etc, etc.
The Harold is scripted in my viewpoint, and any good player knows the script. Just like someone's ability to recognize a game; once you know "the game," it's what I would call scripted. And then you have a chance to either subvert or play out the expectations.
PAM: Let's have this conversation again after you read our book [Improvisation at the Speed of Life.] As TJ and Dave view it, improv is about human nature, and not at all about game.
JACK: People get real bent out of shape about "game." Jeez.
PAM: You have no idea.
JACK: I have some idea!
PAM: Ok. You can have a pity point. 2-1.
Cinematically, I see influences of Woody Allen in this movie as far as the visual rhythm of some scenes. Especially in the scenes between TJ and Colleen in their kitchen.
PAM: Is that intentional or unconsciously intentional? It's very pretty.
JACK: I would say that Woody Allen is a big influence for me.
PAM: I love Woody Allen. As a filmmaker.
JACK: (Am I allowed to still like Woody Allen?)
PAM: (I'm pretty sure we're allowed to like Woody Allen, but we're not allowed to like Bill Cosby.)
PAM: That scene in TJ and Colleen’s kitchen made me think of Annie Hall.
JACK: Sure. I'm more of a Hannah and Her Sisters fan, so I'm thinking more about that.
PAM: I haven't seen that one in years. I'll take another look.
JACK: There's actually a bunch of direct references to Hannah and her Sisters in this film.
PAM: Seeing them through the doorway/window, as they're talking. But then when they argue, they're in the same frame. To me, it feels like how relationships can be.
JACK: Yeah, totally. That kitchen, I loved.
PAM: You see your lover in isolation, your projection of him/her. Then when it gets real ... it’s all right there, so real and in your face.
JACK: And I loved how Stephanie [Dufford, Director of Photography] shot it. That is all improvised. And TJ is so fucking good in it. I love that he gets to be the asshole here.
JACK: How many millions of negative points do I currently have?
PAM: I think we're tied again. Two bananas each.
Ok … Paris. We have to talk about Paris. First of all, I would give my left ball to be in a movie in Paris. That's not a question. Just putting it out there.
JACK: I understand. Left ball. GOT IT, PAM - LEFT BALL.
You don’t want to hear about my homage to Hannah and Her Sisters?
PAM: Of course I do. But Paris awaits and time is short. Also, I HAVE BALLS.
JACK: I'll save it for next time. Hit me with your questions.
PAM: Can I be in your next movie in Paris?
PAM: The score is tied. The game hinges on your response.
JACK: If I do another one in Paris, we'll talk.
PAM: I speak French.
JACK: I do not.
PAM: And I lost my virginity to a Frenchman in France.
Boom. Five points for me.
JACK: Whoa! Okay.
PAM: So, given all that, plus my love of wine and chocolate, I'm basically French.
JACK: I came up with the idea for this movie in Paris and wrote a thing in Paris. And I was like, "We gotta try to shoot in Paris. It's one of the most rewarding film experiences I've had.
PAM: How can you not be thinking about love in Paris?
PAM: And you actually were in love in Paris?! That's the best.
JACK: I was! That's when we FELL IN LOVE.
|Filming "Open Tables" in Paris|
PAM: OMG. THE BEST.
JACK: Yeah, I mean, we were definitely in love. But going there over New Year’s Eve … it was like LOOOOOVVVEEEEE. LOVE. All the feels.
PAM: So many feels in Paris.
Anyway, tell me about how you were falling in love in Paris and how these particular ideas about relationship were formed. Because Open Tables is not really a rom-com here. These aren't the same tired old ideas about boy-girl romance we've seen a thousand times. (And I love rom-coms.)
JACK: The simple idea is playing on what you are talking about. But it is much sadder: What if you were the loneliest you've ever been in the capital of love? And so, that's ultimately his story.
PAM: “His” being the character you play, Ryan, who is set up with Cassie. When he later tells his Paris story at the main table, she’s really turned off.
JACK: Cassie's character is motivated by the truth and a desire for it, and she can tell when people are full of shit. And that's what she responded to. (Like Mark Sutton’s bicycle thing you mentioned before.) One of the points of the film is that if you are truthful and open and vulnerable, you can or could find love.
PAM: Maybe to apply it to the theme of relationship, lies are the deal breaker for her. And as long as he's telling the truth, she doesn't care what it is. Maybe it's about how we set these litmus tests for our love interests, which maybe valid or super duper random?
JACK: Right on.
I actually feel like I am most like Cassie in the movie. That is me, if you were gonna ask, "Who are you most like?" I identify with Cassie.
PAM: I am most like Beth Lacke's character. Tough on the outside. Big ol' open hearted marshmallow on the inside.
JACK: Nice. AND CRAZY. (Just kidding.)
PAM: Everyone is crazy, Jack. Everyone.
JACK: Double true.
PAM: The score is 6 to 2, if you were wondering.
JACK: Shit. Unless I am the six? In that case: In your face!
PAM: No, I am six.
JACK: Oh. Okay ... COOL.
PAM: I don't know how to announce points properly. I am sports-challenged. So that’s one more point for you. Now we're 6-3.
JACK: “Pam 6, Jack 3” would be one idea.
PAM: Ok. That's one possible way, Jack. The obvious choice …
JACK: Jack "Obvious Choice" Newell.
PAM: That's what she said.
JACK: "Really, you're going to put it there? Such an obvious choice."
PAM: Speaking of which, one topic that comes up in this movie is the question, "Are women 'better than' men?"
JACK: Sure. They do actually talk about that in the movie.
PAM: I knew I heard that somewhere!
JACK: And I think all of the characters come down pretty strongly on the side of, "Yes, women are better than men."
PAM: In bed.
PAM: (I was playing Fortune Cookie, which is an improv game I just made up.)
JACK: (We call it First Line, Last Line here.)
JACK: So, you definitely lost points there, right?
PAM: Ok, ok. I lost points with "That's what she said" too, of course.
Nice. You're winning. Jack: 6, Pam: 2.
JACK: Yeah, you're kind of bro-ing out over there.
So, are you asking me if women are better than men?
PAM: I suppose I am, at least in the context of the movie and relationships.
JACK: I'll answer it like this: My Director of Photography and Editor are both women. We had a large female crew and we have strong, good, interesting, female roles in the film. It's ensemble film, but the women stand out. I find women more interesting to work with. I find women interesting to explore.
PAM: (I get points for not saying "in bed.")
JACK: But I didn't directly answer your question. You took it slightly more specific. I don't know how to answer this. I feel like anything I say as a man is in danger of being misconstrued and potentially dumb.
PAM: WHY DO YOU THINK I ASKED THE QUESTION???
JACK: Ha! Fair.
PAM: I think the movie asks the question and comes close to answering it: Women and men can both be the most exquisite creatures … and total asshats.
JACK: I would agree with that statement. Thank you for jumping in there.
I want to say one thing about collaboration - and this is where I might sound like an idiot - but one of the things I like about collaborating with women is that I feel like their priorities are different than men (speaking generally) and one of those priorities or attributes is emotional intelligence and an ability to communicate their emotions. And that is much more interesting than some men. It's just a hard statement because there are people on either side that break that.
PAM: Sure. I think the sticky part comes when you apply it strictly to women and men. But I think if you think of it as feminine vs. masculine sensibilities, it works better.
JACK: There ya' go. And to go back to the movie, the thing you said: "I think the movie asks the questions and comes close to answering it. Women and men can both be the most exquisite creatures. And total asshats." That is right on.
PAM: Oh, please quote me more! I love that. Pam: 10, Jack: 6
JACK: Actually, the "Are women better than men?" conversation is a distraction. In the movie, the characters say women are better than men, right after seeing Hannah be a douchebag.
PAM: Exactly. And that foursome of TJ, Linda, Colleen, and Desmin – they’re involved in that “love square.” (It’s more than a triangle because it’s four people.) They're ALL fucked up.
JACK: Well, yeah. Classic tragic figures.
PAM: They've got that whole "grass is always greener" thing going on.
JACK: They are people you know. You might have been that person. I might have been ... we ALL have been or are those people.
PAM: Another question raised in Open Tables is: What is the crux of attraction? I mean, for Hannah – whose amnesiac lover allows her to re-invent herself each day - it's to have this blank slate upon which to project her desires. Maybe for the foursome, the crux of attraction is what you can't have. For your guy in Paris, it was human contact. For Cassie, it's about truth …
JACK: We have these appetites (food tie in!) that need to be satiated. And they are actually probably a distraction from love - or can be. One thing for sure, they aren't love. Sometimes we think they might be.
PAM: Most of these couples don't find love.
JACK: Open Tables is essentially a movie about why and how relationships don't work. So when you go into that final scene with Cassie and Ryan, the couple who you are rooting for to get together through the whole film, you are presented with the question: Is this their first date or last date?
And that's up to you. There's no answer.
PAM: I think the final score is a tie.
|The Main Meal|
Open Tables by Jack C. Newell
The premier of Open Tables is on July 26, 2015 at the Wood’s Hole Film Festival.
If all goes well, you will be able to see Open Tables soon.
In the meantime, you can now see Jack C. Newell’s first feature film,
crowd-funding for a site-specific light installation under the Wabash El train in Chicago for a very cool project called Wabash Lights.
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Close Quarters
...Jack C. Newell, Susan Messing, and Rachael Mason of I'Mprovising Right
Geeking Out with...Close Quarters
...Jack C. Newell, Susan Messing, and Rachael Mason of I'Mprovising Right
If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series,
which contemplates improvisation and
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity.
Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.