Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Geeking Out with...Close Quarters

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]
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“They left us with a very messy now. A sloppy now,” bemoans TJ Jagadowski’s character in the mostly improvised film, Close Quarters. The messiness of life is under investigation in this film, directed by Jack C. Newell and produced by Newell and his partners Ron Falzone and Joe Rosengarten (the team of creators behind the short film, Typing.) Close Quarters is a compelling series of improvised, two-person scenes by an all-star cast of Chicago performers revolve around the lone script-based storyline of a couple of baristas in a coffee shop played by Erica Unger and Seth Unger. (If you'd like to watch the movie before dipping your spoon into this article, you can find it here for a very modest fee.) The stories that unfold in the film cover a mix of sex, birth, death, love, hate, truth, lies, divorce, marriage, friends and enemies. And coffee. The very essence of the “sloppy now” of life itself.

Can we talk about the be-still-my-heart cast, a stellar array of improvisers with whom I’ve deeply loved Geeking Out with… or very much hope to soon?! To name but a few to wet your whistle, the film features improvised scenes by David Pasquesi (TJ and Dave) and Holly Laurent (Second City Mainstage), TJ Jagodowski (TJ and Dave) and Kate Duffy (iO Theatre, Second City), Susan Messing (Messing with a Friend) and Jim Carlson (iO, Second City), Jet Eveleth (iO) and Tim Kazurinsky (Saturday Night Live.) Noah Gregoropoulos….Ohmygod. I can go on and on, but I have to stop myself for the sake of time and over-stimulation.

Due to the fact that I’m a shameless improvisation harlot, I could not resist whetting my appetite a bit with some of the actors of Close Quarters before getting hardcore geeky with the film’s director and co-producer, Jack C. Newell. So enjoy a quick succession of whambamthankyouma’am conversational hors d’oeuvres with Kate Duffy, Susan Messing, Jet Eveleth, Colleen Doyle and David Pasquesi of Close Quarters before settling into Mr. Newell’s delicious main course.

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In Close Quarters, Kate Duffy was paired with TJ Jagodowski in an intimate scene in which they play two friends forced to confront difficult realities of their spouses' affair, played in a separate scene by David Pasquesi and Holly Laurent. While watching the movie, I firmly concluded that Kate Duffy was the luckiest woman on earth during the filming process. The scene, her work, and her scene partner are that luscious.

PAM: I found the scene between you and TJ Jagodowski to be incredibly tender and compelling. I could have watched a whole movie of your story! Can you tell me about what improvising that scene felt like from your end?
Kate Duffy in Close Quarters

KATE DUFFY: Well, it was a very interesting process. I didn't know anything about the scene, my partner, or the movie when I arrived on set. We were given our goal for the scene when we arrived, and both TJ and I thought it was going to be really challenging to accomplish it with honesty.

We improvised for about 2-3 hours with two cameras on us. There were not a lot of takes. They just really let us go and find it, so in that way it felt less like a typical movie shoot and more like long form that happened to have cameras.

TJ and I have a long and interesting history together, so it felt easy and comfortable. I felt like we brought a lot of our friendship to that scene and I'm not sure I could have done that with anyone else. For me, I was worried that we would not be able to find the arc of the scene in a truthful way; but once we started, it just happened naturally. Two hours felt like two minutes, which I find true for any good show. You lose yourself in it and time seems to stop.

Ms. Messing
Even with a performance confined to the monitor a computer screen, the incomparable Susan Messing succeeds in blasting exuberantly through Close Quarters with her acting, improvising, and soaring spirit. She and Middle Age Comeback’s Jim Carlson play warring spouses receiving a virtual therapy session from their shrink, played by the fantastically deadpan Bill Arnett of iO Theatre mainstay team 3033, who is in the café wordlessly watching Messing and Carlson explore their hatred and love for each other via individual computer screens. (Just watch the movie. You’ll get what I mean.)

PAM: Congratulations on your Best Actress win for this movie at the "Best of the Midwest Awards." You often quip about how you weren't a good actress - guess the world disagrees! What was your reaction to the nomination and the win?

SUSAN: It confounded me that I was nominated for it. I thought Pasquesi, Kate, Holly, and frankly anyone else, did as good if not a better job than I did. And I am not being modest. I remember when I walked out of the first screening thinking that I was grateful that I didn't seem to fuck up their movie. Seriously.

It was an ensemble film start to finish, and I just felt fortunate to participate. So to be acknowledged was awkward and made me completely reevaluate what "good" is. As improvisers, we certainly don't look back and view what we've done and if it's good or not. Rather, we move on and try to capture once again that great feeling we had from having an awesome time on stage.

PAM: Your scene with Jim Carlson seemed particularly challenging since you were basically improvising into the camera rather than playing against him. During the shooting, were you in the same room or really improvising virtually? How was that experience for you?

SUSAN: It was absolutely painless on my end. It's the poor editor that I worried about. (Ask Jack, but I think that there was over 500 hours of stuff to sift through and decide what to put in. Yikes. Almost insurmountable!!) 

My part was easy - no more than a little over an hour. Jim was seated across from me, and we both had computer screens in front of us. I think that the only weird part was making sure to look at the screen and not at him. Jack gave us some simple direction of basic plot points and then just let us rip. Staying within the context of what he wanted was pretty easy since I assume if we went way out of bounds Jack would have reined us in. Both Jim and I left the experience saying that it was one of the easiest and most fun scenes we've ever done. Like I said before, I assume the horror was in the editing.

I was happy to have had the experience and simply wish that my hair looked nicer.

Jet Eveleth
Known and loved for her rubber-faced, limber-limbed cast of characters, Jet Eveleth of iO’s supergroup The Reckoning gets to play against type in Close Quarters. Jet inhabits the role of a dour, suicidal woman who may find something to live for after all when she encounters a stranger, enchantingly played by SNL’s Tim Kazurinsky.

PAM: First of all, I have to say that your scene with Tim Kazurinsky was one of my favorites. It was so tender and authentic. You two seemed to develop a real connection in the scene, which I found especially intriguing given that so many of the other improvisers were working with people they've improvised with many, many times. Did you know Tim before the movie? Had you ever worked together before?

Tim Kazurinsky in Close Quarters
JET: I had not worked with Tim before, but he was so warm and present, it made the process really enjoyable. His talent and experience are so evident and the scene unfolded very naturally.

PAM: Given that you were improvising in front of a camera, you two did an impressive job making the "discovery" aspect of improv look natural and authentic. Can you tell me about that part of the process for you?

JET: We were given character descriptions and the basic arc of the scene, but overall Jack really trusted us to find the moments through improvisation. I loved this process of creation and I hope this is the beginning of a larger movement in film.

PAM: They gave you a juicy challenge to play a very depressed person in comic movie, which I think you did successfully without seeming kooky or over the top. Can you tell me about how you approached the character?

JET: My material was dark, and lucky for me I don't see comedy as only the light side of life. I've always been attracted to tragic clowns like Chaplin and Ball and to the dark comedy in a show like Deadwood. I view comedy as a unique entrance on the full spectrum the human experience.


Colleen Doyle
The immensely talented Colleen Doyle, of iO’s acclaimed duo Dummy, plays a woman coming from a funeral with three other friends of the deceased, played by Gregory Hollimon (Second City, Strangers with Candy,) Linda Orr (Carl and the Passions/iO, Chicagoland/Annoyance,) and iO foundation rock and legendary improviser and teacher Noah Gregoropoulos.

PAM: What was your experience of improvising from a plot outline as opposed to the usual purely improvised work you do on stage?

COLLEEN DOYLE: The scene had a very loose outline. We truly just had a conversation. It was incredibly easy to do. The other actors were so funny and their points of view were so interesting that it was easy to just react. We riffed on each other's honest opinions and experiences.

PAM: Can you tell me how you approached your improv for this movie?

COLLEEN: The basic tenets of good improv: listening, agreement, having a point of view, and making choices all helped to make it work.


David Pasquesi
Improv heavyweight David Pasquesi goes toe-to-toe (and groin-to-groin) with Holly Laurent in this movie. They play lovers trapped in the bathroom after an illicit encounter, while their spouses await their return upstairs in the coffee house. Their scene together brings to life an emotionally tragic path of errors.

PAM: Bringing improvisation to the screen is particularly challenging for many reasons. Your movie with TJ Jagodowski, Trust Us, This is All Made Up, successfully captures the magic of an improv set, in my opinion. Now that you've had the experience of shooting two improvised movies, what elements do you suggest filmmakers incorporate in order to be most successful in bringing improv to the screen?

DAVID PASQUESI: I have had some experience in improvising on camera. Trust Us was really just us doing our show for an audience, and the camera was not the primary observer. I did a show with/for Mitch Rouse and a couple other guys called Factory. It was a six episode comedy series for Spike. All dialogue was improvised, very much like Close Quarters. We had a rough outline of the story points that needed to be addressed. In Close Quarters, I found it easier because Jack was there, watching and guiding both the story and emotional tone.

As to suggestions for directors for improvised films, Be good to your actors. Like Jack.

PAM: Did you engage different improv "muscles" in your approach to performing for the screen rather than on stage? 

DAVID: I do not think of there being much of a difference between improvising on stage and film. You do a little less for a camera, but I don't do a whole lot on stage either - at least I try not to.

In Close Quarters, I was only responsible for my part of the scene - very freeing. Also, I had the confidence to try stuff because I trusted Jack wasn't going to use the humiliating shit. Only the better things. And trusted that Holly would be game for anything. We had a good time, I think.

At least I did.

PAM: Your particular scene with Holly Laurent was the most intimate and intense of the movie. I understand it was shot in a small bathroom with no breaks allowed. Aside from "hot and smelly," can you tell me what that experience was like for you?

DAVID: I did not know that breaks were not allowed, only that we didn't take any because we didn’t seem to need to. Had I known that breaks were not allowed, I would have insisted we take one. Or two.

I liked the tiny space. It kind of does some of the work for you. We were right up in each other’s business…literally and figuratively.

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Jack C. Newell
Finally, we arrive at our succulent main course, Jack C. Newell, director and co-producer of Close Quarters, director/writer/producer of Typing as well as several other award winning short films that have screened across the United States and abroad, including the 2007 and 2010 Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner, Chicago International Film Festival, Friars Club Comedy Film Festival, LA Shorts Festival, Chicago Outdoor Film Festival, and the Indianapolis International Film Festival. Close Quarters is Jack C. Newell’s first feature film. He currently is at working filming another improvised movie called Open Tables serving up some of the same tasty cast of characters as this one.

PAM VICTOR: What was your impetus for making cinematic order from improvisational chaos?

JACK C. NEWELL: That's a good question and is probably more of an involved answer than Close Quarters because I've been trying to do it since I went to improv classes at Second City and iO.

The simple answer is that with improvisation you get a fearlessness in the performance that I have not seen any one match in more "traditional" approaches to working with actors. I find most acting in most movies pretty bad because I want it to be more out of control, and improvisation gives you the fear in the eyes of  "This is really happening" that happens in real life.

PAM: You were going for a feeling of authenticity.

JACK: That is the much simpler way to say what I just said.

PAM: It is HARD to capture the magic of improv on the screen, I find. And half the time, the dang audience doesn't appreciate that it was made up on the spot.

JACK: I am less interested in that. Charlie Chaplin didn't let any photos or anything leak about how he did anything on set, and I like that idea of maintaining the illusion of film. There's some magic there still.

PAM: Tell me about your improv training. Did you go through all the levels at iO and Second City?

JACK: Yep. I performed but never got onto a team. Wasn't that good, ;-)

PAM: It takes a long time to get good. But it sounds like you got the bug. You became addicted to improv?

JACK: Addicted has a different spin on it than I would say. I really found that what it was trying to teach was good for me. Improv has way more applications than getting on stage or making a movie. It's a way of life. It made me a better director and actor and writer.

PAM: What shows were you watching at iO and Second City that made you think, "I need to make an improvised movie." (I'm sure the words in your head were different...and probably not in my voice.)

JACK: When I was a student at Second City Training Center, you could get into shows for free, so I went to Mainstage all the time. The show was Red Scare, and I must have seen it 30 times. And then stayed for the improv sets. The cast was Brian Gallivan, Mary Beth Monroe...I'm blanking on the other folks, which makes me a dick, but you can Google that. [The cast was Brian Boland, Brian Gallivan, Antoine McKay, Maribeth Monroe, Claudia Wallace and Jean Villepique, and the director was none other than Mr. Mick Napier, founder of Annoyance Theatre.]

I started actually to put together a feature film then, completely improvised based off a scenario-driven script I had written. It was an outline. We started rehearsing and all that. Then we lost our funding, and the movie catastrophically fell apart like a gigantic clusterfuck. And I had a good cast too: Mary Beth was in it, so was Molly Erdman, Joe Canale, Brian Galivan, Bob Kulhan. It was an ensemble piece, but was just way too much. And when we lost our money, everything else fell apart with it.

I really liked the Second City experience because they are working towards improv to a scene, right? Filmmakers are control freaks, so the idea that I could take improv, and then write something that was controlled was very appealing.

PAM: The cast of Close Quarters! (Dreamily sigh.) Dude, you scored some of the best and brightest of the Chicago improv world. How did you know who to ask? And how did you get them to say yes? (I suspect the answer to the second question simply was to ask. Improvisers are game for almost anything.)

JACK: I've been doing a lot of short film and short film work and that kept me in the world. I directed a couple years with MPZ (Maximum Party Zone) with Bill Arnett, Bobby Mort, and Danny Mora. We made a lot (A LOT) of videos - all on YouTube [Check ‘em out.]  People saw that, and saw that we were doing funny work.

For Close Quarters, I knew and worked with most of them before. I had worked with Tim Kazurinsky on a short film in March of 2010 [Typing,] and he and Dave Pasquesi are friends. When I knew I wanted Tim in, we also wanted Dave, and he put us in touch. And then Dave got us TJ.

Dave and TJ are in my next film too. We are filming now. 

PAM: I love love love TJ and Dave.

JACK: Everyone does.

PAM: But I like to think that I love them a little more.

JACK: I bet there's someone out there who hates them.

PAM: I am shuddering at the thought.

JACK: I am excited for the work Dave and TJ are doing in my next film. We wrapped Dave’s scenes earlier this week, and he brought some stuff I have not seen him bring in any other performances.

PAM: I just watched TJ's other movie, No Sleep Til Madison.

JACK: How is that? I haven't seen it.

PAM: TJ calls it “No Need to See It.” I enjoyed it. It was like looking at his baby photos.

TJ and his face
I have to tell you, I love watching TJ on the screen. I would happily have watched his scene with Kate Duffy for 90 minutes. TJ has a FACE.

JACK: A lot of people say that.

PAM: Really? That's interesting.

JACK: Oh yeah. I don't know if it's a compliment or complaint.

PAM: Haha!

JACK: The movie elicits a lot of different reactions, which I like. The idea going in was if we can score on one of these improvised scenarios, then we've really done something. I think we hit it pretty well on a number of them. Then we hit it out of the park with TJ and Kate. So I am pleased. If Close Quarters is an experiment, it was successful.

PAM: Well, one of my questions was a suggestion to make a movie of TJ and someone else or a few other people. He's very compelling. His vulnerability makes him likeable and his face is very, very funny.

JACK: So wait. You question was a suggestion? I'm...not seeing the question. You want me to make a movie with TJ? That sounds like a demand.

PAM: You're not the only control freak, Jack.


Unpack that. You want a movie of TJ? Or his character from Close Quarters? Or what?

PAM: If I could take a moment to add, I am a solid improviser who transmits very well on film.

JACK: Duly noted.

PAM: [after pitching a few movie ideas that basically amount to improv porn for a very patient Jack] Back to your cast, did you audition anybody, or go to shows and cast from the audience?

Baristas in Close Quarters
played by Erica  Unger and Seth Unger
JACK: We held auditions for the baristas. They were the only scripted parts of the film. And actually Sherra Lasley (a bridesmaid) auditioned very well for the lady part. But we ended up casting two actors (who were married to each other) in the barista parts. I had worked with them before and knew them well.

PAM: I’m very interested in the process of developing and capturing the improvisation in Close Quarters. I know the actors were given a general plot outline for their scenes, and then you let them improvise off that in ten-minute increments, in between which you’d offer direction. Making order from the typical messiness of creation involved in improvisation is a quite a challenge. What part of the process surprised you most? What worked best? What would you change if you make another improvised movie?

JACK: This next one is similar in that there is improvisation in it done is the same way, where I wrote the scenario and they play with in that. The biggest things I want to change for the next film are do more with camera to tell story. For Close Quarters, we set up cameras and that shot is what we got. And, for me, it becomes a little stagnant, so, how do I use improvisation to get the best performances AND use camera more deliberately to make a better FILM? It's a tightrope because film and improv, in a lot of ways, are diametrically opposed, even when working with the best.

PAM:  Talk more about how film and improv are diametrically opposed.

JACK: Film is manual labor. It's obsessive and repetitive and heavy on the details that just take time to pull off. Improvisation is also about details, trying to capture them, but you can miss a moment because of the issues with film, like focus, lighting, camera moves, etc.

PAM: Plus film is forever. The magical part about improv is that it is momentary and not meant to be saved.

How did your original plot and vision change once the improvisers got a hold of the story?

JACK: Not much. For TJ and Kate’s scene, I knew when they came in their characters were friends, had little crushes on each other they never acted on. And they thought their significant others were cheating on them, but didn't know for sure. That's what I told them.

What I didn't tell them, but directed them towards, was the discoveries that make up the beats, and that at the end I knew they leave the coffee shop "in love.” What I didn't know, and what I wanted to use improvisation for, was the color of those beats and arc. We have the skeleton, now please fill it in with details, character, etc. So plot was known. HOW was not.

There’s a thing for directors, at least film directors, the script tells you when, where, why, who, and your only job is to fill in HOW. The big thing here, my HOW, was to really just find out on set…which is scary for producers and planners, etc. because if HOW had turned out SHITTY, then that'd be a problem.

PAM: The parallel in improv is that the only part the audience is really interested in is the "how." How people feel about each other. Relationship. Emotion.

JACK: Yeah. HOW is character.

PAM: So you got lucky that the “how” didn't turn out shitty?

JACK: Let's say we did all of what I just typed out, and the improv was shit. That's why it could have been scary.

PAM: Definitely. Though you stacked the deck with the cast. Did you know the personal history between TJ and Holly, who used to be a real life couple, when you cast her as his presumably soon-to-be estranged wife?

JACK: I think I knew, but it was deep in the back of my brain, and I did not do it because of that. And once cast was in place, it came up, but they are all pros, so it wasn't an issue. Plus they never share a scene together, so whatever.

PAM: Other couples with personal histories – Noah and Linda as spouses, TJ and Dave as close friends – parallel the characters of the movie. I assume that was intentional?

JACK: Noah is insanely good…and Linda brings such a fucking awesome approach to character. The funny thing about that scene was we had actually filmed that scene once before with five improvisers on the first day of filming. It wasn't shit, but it was too blue…They did a great job, but it was tonally incorrect for the rest of the film. It was raucous. So we reshot that scene and couldn't get everyone back, so Noah was actually added in then because he couldn't make it the first time. And it just so happened they were married. It wasn’t intentional really.

For TJ and Dave, the idea was that more people know "TJ and Dave" than know TJ or Dave, and I find that really uninteresting for my movie. I don't want people watching to be like, "It's a TJ and Dave show" in the middle of my movie. That’s not to say that I wouldn't put them in scenes together, but you know what I mean?

PAM: I think it's a more interesting choice to use their real life relationship as subtext.

Visually, the “picture frame” seemed to be a thematic element in this movie. For instance, the baristas serve through a frame. There are empty picture frames on the wall. The computer screens literally enclose the actors in that scene, Jim Carlson and Susan Messing. As the movie progresses, many of the actors are released from their frames. Can you talk to me about the picture frame as symbolism in Close Quarters?

JACK: Frames are one. Mirrors are another. And lenses/prisms too.

PAM: Hey! I had a mirror question! Now I can't use it and look like a smartypants.

JACK: Sorry.

PAM: I forgive you.

JACK: The plot of the movie is a romantic comedy, and romantic comedies at their heart are really about seeing someone in a new way, right? They hate each other and then they see them in a new way, and then they fall in love. So the idea for the movie was, how do we present that idea and make it more visual? Frames, mirrors, and prisms all change context and are metaphorical for reflection and understanding yourself and others. Each scenario has one or more of those working based on what I thought they were doing to the main barista plot.

All of the scenarios are essentially RIFFS off of what's happening with the barista, so if the baristas fight, then we build that with improv scenes, (i.e., Jim and Susan in therapy.)

PAM: In a related question, I am interested in your choice to utilize frequent double-frame shots. (I’m not sure what the technical movie term is for those side-by-side shots?) To me, it seemed to simulate the effect of sitting in a theater audience and being able to look where we want rather than being restricted to the one point of view given to us by the movie director. The mirrors serve that same purpose since often they allow the audience to see multiple angles, as they wish to change their focus. Is that close to what you were thinking or am I seeing it strangely? (Your answer could be “Both.”)

JACK: Yeah. Both.

There are a couple of answers. The split screen gives you two frames within the film frame, so it’s more on that. I use split screen a lot. I just like it. This split screen stuff makes the audience a more active participant in the movie and is more like the theater experience.

PAM: A parallel thematic element seems to be the idea of “watching.” The big-eyed cat clock is a recurrent transitional shot. The baristas are watching all the action unfold. One even teases the other, ease-dropping barista, “Take a picture. It will last longer.”

JACK: Oh, yeah. The baristas are voyeurs. And so are we.

PAM: I read that what started as a 40-page script expanded into a 500-page script once the improvisers were left to have their ways with it, resulting in forty hours of footage. Did you know how much of a bitch the movie would be to edit when you set out about the project?

JACK: No, I didn't really realize the scope until decisions were already made. It was like we shot a documentary. But that 500 page script is a bit of a misnomer. It was transcripts, like you do for docs, and from that we turned it into a paper edit. But the 40 hours of footage is right. And Jill, my editor, and myself had to go through all of it.

PAM: Brutal. That's intense.

Jet and Tim seemed to be the only ones where you used an over-the-shoulder shot. They seem, for the most part, un-framed. Ironically, they are the most optimistic relationship. Is there a connection there?

JACK: Yeah. The idea of them sharing frame is to tell the audience they are connecting. They have the car lights and glass behind them. Theirs is more complicated then the rest. It's "nuanced."

PAM: I found myself very charmed by Jet and Tim’s scene. The connection that evolved in front of the camera felt very authentic and genuine. Ironically, it was the most hopeful scene. Can you tell me about the development of that scene?

JACK: That came the furthest from the first edit of the film to what's in there now. The first passes on that scene just didn't work. The scenario is pretty wild and it just felt odd and not dramatic enough (which is weird because she was going to kill herself.) And his backstory is that he was also going to kill himself that night. And they met. It's a very movie-conceit idea.

PAM: Oooh. I didn't pick that up.

JACK: He actually dropped that in the improv, so it's not there. And I am glad and didn't push him to do it because what they DID do was sweet and touching and different.

PAM: But I got that there was something "off" in him that made him able to empathize with Jet's character.

JACK: Oh, yes. He's a mess.

PAM: But so sweet. They had a very nice connection. That scene was a lot about relationship, which I found delightful from an improviser's point of view.

JACK: And by the casting, you remove a sexual angle from it. (No offense to either of them.) But it's more about humans having a moment.

PAM: Interestingly also, they had never worked together.

JACK: That was the 'riskiest' casting because Tim is known for a certain style of play, "The Police Academy Effect,” and he's really good at it. But he's a director, a real REAL actor, a fantastic writer. He’s a renaissance man, so I wanted to do something different with him.

And Jet is also known for a very physical and weird (can I say weird?) style of play,  and I wanted to see her do something different. I have worked with Jet a bunch and think she's the bee's knees.

PAM: She is the bee's knees.

JACK: You can put that in your article. BEEs KNEEs.

PAM: Very funny.

On a very different note, let’s talk about the process of shooting in the bathroom that very intimate and intense scene with David Pasquesi and Holly Laurent.


PAM: Ha! I hope you mean sexually, but I assume you mean physically.

Holly Laurent in Close Quarters
JACK:  Not sexually. At all. That scene was the hardest to shoot because it goes so dark. It screwed me up for a few days and put me in a bad mood.

PAM: Why?

JACK: Well, we shot for an hour and a half.

PAM: Would it be fair to say you wouldn't allow them out of the room until the shoot was finished? That's what I told Dave, so I may have lied to Mr. Pasquesi.

JACK: That's right. I didn't want them leaving because i wanted it to be a pressure cooker. But remember, it's them in the room, then me and Stephanie (the DP) each operating a camera. And two lights. And the bathroom is small.

So we closed the door, and an hour and a half later walked out and it just got very dark and very negative. I mean, in the film it goes dark for the last 30 minutes, but we only go back to them a couple of times. So it’s like four minutes or so of them being assholes to each other. We were in that negative space for a long time.

David Pasquesi in Close Quarters
PAM: Dave's character was a dick. I mean, he forces her to out the relationship and then dumps her.

JACK: Yeah, I think it's real what he does. I think it reveals character.

PAM: It's the dirty underside of a romantic comedy.

JACK: It's not clean because it never is. But the direction for me in that scene is, "Be meaner, cut deeper." And then about three-quarters of the way in, Dave was like, "I don't think we can go any meaner." And then I kept rolling. And they did. That's where we got those last lines for them in the movie.

Interestingly, they were the only two improvisors we let read the script. No one else was allowed to know anything at all - they all agreed to do it, without seeing anything. Then on set, I told them only what they knew coming into the shop, and then directed as went.

PAM: I wouldn't want to play against Dave being a dick. I give Holly a lot of credit. That had to have been tough.

JACK: Yeah, she's great. I love how she played it. Some people have told me they think she's not active enough, but I think her inactivity and 'stuck in the middle-ness' works. Their scene breaks my heart.

PAM: It's real. It's one of those moments in life when you think back on and wish you had said or done this or that. And you beat yourself up for being such a pussy.

JACK: Totally. I love it when she says, "This was just a regular night." And it's silent for a moment. Because we all have that, when we have a moment of perspective and you see for a moment over the clouds, and you say, "How did I put myself in this position? This mess?" Their scene is purgatory. They are in limbo, stuck between choices.

Holly is great. Love her. She and Jet have been in a bunch of my movies.

PAM: Oh yeah? That's cool. I love them together. The Reckoning. Amazing group.

That leads to this question....Some of the scenes, like the two couples after the funeral and the three bitchy girls, are “slices of life” scenes. Others, like TJ/Kate and Dave/Holly’s, are “Today’s the day” scenes. In improv, we sometimes evaluate each scene by asking, “Why are we here today? Why are we in this moment now?” Holly even says in the movie, “Everything changes from now on.” Did you use that idea in the development of the story lines?

JACK: I think of Close Quarters as a meal. We are trying for the perfect meal in every movie. You have your cuisine choice, French or Italian (baristas,) and the improvised scenes are the food of the meal. Kate and TJ, Dave and Holly are the meat. Potatoes are the mourners. Your broccoli is Jet and Tim, and then for garnishes and sauces you have the bitchy girls and the old guys. So cutting the film is like eating your way around your plate. “I want to eat a piece of meat with some potato. Now what does it taste like with just a garnish? Now some broccoli.”

PAM: I'm hungry now.

JACK: I am too!

PAM: Your movie is a pu-pu platter. I get it.

JACK: The less flowery answer is that some of the storylines were meatier and it was obvious. We expected them to be as such in how we filmed them. The bridesmaids are a one trick pony scene. The trick is to just do that one thing really well with them.

PAM: They play the "game" of the scene, which is being bitchier and bitchier.

JACK: Yeah, their job in the film is to allow laughter release for all the heaviness of the other scenes.

PAM: (I swear, my heart is still hurting from remember the Dave and Holly scene. Can you please make a behind-the-scenes cut when they love each other?)

On a brighter note, I loved Bill Arnett in this movie. Did you write his lines or was that his invention?

JACK: Hah! I have thought about a sequel: Bill Arnett is the male character. He has zero lines.

PAM: LOL. It would be a hit. He could pull it off.

JACK: In the script, the character is given some lines, but not enough. So I said, "He should either speak or not." Similarly, it'd be weird if Harpo Marx talked in some scenes but not others.

PAM: Yeah. There is a show like that at iO West. It's called Middle Seat. It takes place in a three-person row of an airplane. The people on the end seats know each other. The guy in the middle, who is always played by the same improviser, never says anything. It's fantastic.

Back to the movie, the online therapy element – where Bill Arnett is playing a therapist giving online marriage counseling to two people (played by Susan Messing and Jim Carlson) who are seen on their own individual screens. This dynamic is an interesting structure to lie on top of the coffee shop set up. Why not have the three of them meeting in person? It feels like you laid the premise of online therapy on top of the structure of a coffee shop longform structure.

JACK: The idea is that the coffee shop is this weird private/public space, and what's more private than therapy? (Well, sex - but we got that too.) It’s a sight gag too, for him to pull out one computer, then another. That always gets such an unexpected laugh. It's just a different way of doing it that allowed us to push their characters further because it's in the context of this weird therapy session.

PAM: Susan Messing told me she came downstairs the other day to find her husband watching the movie again. [Susan is newly married to iO improviser/teacher Michael Clayton McCarthy.] He said it’s like a time capsule of the people who came to their wedding. That's sweet and ultimately very complimentary to you and her.

JACK: Yeah, she is in my new movie and told me that, and I was like, "That's really weird."

PAM: Shut. Up. Susan is in your new movie too? You get all the best players!

JACK: Why bother doing it if you don't get the best?

PAM: Please make sure her hair is nice in this movie. That's her request, not mine.

JACK: Hah. It’s actually not. It's kind of all over the place.

PAM: Good, because I think she is wicked sexy when she looks like she just rolled out of bed.

The soundtrack is adorable, featuring songs by lesser-known artists, like Branches and Em and Them. How did you go about collecting these songs?

JACK: I wanted to have it be in real time, an hour and a half almost in real time. Coffee shops play songs start to finish, so we had to get 25 songs or something like that. My sound designer, Marina Bacci is in the music scene here, and she and I worked together on a playlist. We just picked songs we liked, and then narrowed it down to let the songs over all vibe match or play against what was happening on screen. It was actually very improvisationally placed for the music. We just threw it in and a lot of the times. Where things line up is total accident.

PAM: What is the wide release plan for Close Quarters? How will regular, non-festival-goer people be able to see it? Will it eventually be on Netflix?

JACK: Great question.

PAM: Thank you.

JACK: Right now, you can see it on the Chicago Comedy Film Festival website for $2.99. But we haven't gotten anything locked in for Netflix or iTunes. I don't own the film, so it’s out of my hands a bit.

PAM: I hope it comes out on Netflix soon.

JACK: Shit, girl. Me too. I have not figured out how to make that happen yet, even with good festival screenings and nice words.

PAM: What's the name of your next movie with TJ and Dave? And when can I get to feast on it with my hungry eyes?

JACK: The next film is called Open Tables. I am writing and directing. I am hoping to submit to festivals in July/August, 2013.

 [Jack and I start wrapping up the interview.]

PAM:  Thank you!

JACK: I hope I was able to help you to geek out. I have another minute. Do you have any other questions? Don't hesitate.

PAM: Oh great. I do my closer and then you ask for an encore...

JACK: I just want to make sure you are getting what you need/want from me. For your mission.

PAM: Hahaha! Did someone tell you that I view my geek out sessions as good sex? Because you're being very accommodating.

JACK: I view everything as good sex. Milkshakes. Raccoons.

PAM: Ha! ESPECIALLY raccoons.

JACK: Don't tell the raccoon.

PAM: I think I got everything I needed. I am very satisfied. Thank you, Jack C. Newell. 
* * *

To watch Close Quarters
for the well-worth-it price of only $2.99,
The bargain of the century.
To own your very own copy, send a $25 check payable to
Nefarious Productions
6435 West Jefferson Blvd #130
 Fort Wayne, IN 46804
(Include "ship to" address.)

Check out more about Jack C. Newell’s
next improvisationally inspired film, Open Tables 
featuring Kate Duffy, TJ Jagodowski, Colleen Doyle, David Pasquesi, Joel Murray 
and so many more tasty improvisators: 

* * *

Read Geeking Out with...Susan Messing  
in which Susan says,
"I am not for the faint of heart, 
but if you can handle the messenger 
you'll definitely get the message."

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Jet Eveleth of The Reckoning
...TJ Jagodowski of TJ and Dave 
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page! And get it all at 

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