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Austin Film Festival '05 Interview: 'Backseat' screenwriter and star Josh Alexander

Stars Alexander (left) and Rob Bogue (right) in 'Backseat'
by Laura Kyle

Josh Alexander answers questions about his experience writing and starring in Backseat, a refreshing and original comedy about two buddies who take a road trip to Canada to meet actor Donald Sutherland.

How did you get involved in the film industry? What ultimately inspired you to write a screenplay?

How does anyone get involved in the film industry? I wanted to impress girls.

No, just kidding. But Iíve always been acting and always been in love with movies. It started when my parents put me in an opera class in the San Francisco Bay Area when I was seven or eight (this is the truth) and Iíve been performing ever since. I studied philosophy and drama at Vassar College. And then spent a year right after school as a company member at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. A couple of shows on Broadway and in regional theater followed before acting for television and film became a logical next step. I had written plays in college (my senior thesis at Vassar was a play called "Dreaming of Titus" about a young lawyer in New York whose dreams are being haunted by the biblical Titus Adronicus who destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 80 A.D). I had always loved movies and when I first moved to New York, I decided to sit down and write a screenplay. I was a complete neophyte, but it was possibly the most organic process Iíve ever had writing a script. Those first, early, convoluted, yet energetic, attempts at throwing structure, dialogue and character on page ultimately became Backseat.

When did you start writing Backseat? How long did it take for the film to be completed?

It was a long process. I wrote the first draft of the script in early 2000. Though the characters and the overall themes were present in the very first draft, a lot of the structure and arc were changed dramatically in subsequent drafts. We did a reading of it in 2000, which was attended by a novelist named Beverly Coyle who asked me if I would collaborate with her on a screenplay. What resulted was a difficult, yet exciting exercise in collaboration over three years on two other screenplays.

When I returned to Backseat it was with a much deeper understanding of form and story. I was then able to lay in some of the structural elements that had been missing in the first draft. But it was always essential to me to hold on to the original organic energy that grounded the script. There is a kind of found quality to the story; an evolving narrative, which haphazardly progresses these characterís arcs forward and I never wanted to lose that. I wanted it to feel almost like a documentary -- even though it clearly has elements of a comedic yarn thrown in. I always felt it was imperative that the audience felt like these were real guys they were watching, struggling to make sense of their lives, regardless of the comic circumstance (or the more serious ones) that arise in the story. I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching their friends.

All told, the script probably went through six or seven drafts before we arrived at the shooting script. The last few weeks of pre-production saw a lot of rewrites with the director as we tailored the script to some of the actors we had cast and to the limitations of shooting on a small budget. As a production, from the completion of the first draft to our world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, the entire process took 5 years.

Backseat could be called a "genre" film in some respects Ė did you have that intention or was that more incidental?

Thatís an interesting question. I actually think Backseat kind of straddles a few genres Ė which has been one of the struggles weíve had in positioning the film. I was a little tired of films that so securely flaunted their genre specificity. It seemed like the films that were being made independently either fell firmly into high concept comedies or these very dark, dreary dramas about child molestation and drug abuse with nothing in-between. Possibly a reflection of these politically Manichean times? Or of the compartmentalization that is seemingly endemic in this industry? Neither of those extremes felt very authentic to me and my personal take on the world.

Iíve always seen life as a mosaic of the tragic and the humorous. The movies that always moved and entertained me embraced this duality. Films like The Heartbreak Kid, The In- Laws, Five Easy Pieces, You Can Count on Me, Swingers, and more recently, Sideways and The Squid and the Whale. But they are very hard films to sell without stars or studios behind them.

Backseat is very much a commercial film made without stars competing with commercial films made with stars. Itís not an easy calculus. But more than anything I wanted to make a film that spoke to my generation and looked at our struggle towards adulthood with a sense of humor and seriousness that was an accurate reflection of the world as I saw it.

You originally were to play Rob Bogue's character Ben; what was it like transitioning into the character of Colton?

Terrifying, absolutely terrifying. Essentially, three weeks before production was to start, the other lead actor (Rob Bogue) and myself were rehearsing with our director, Bruce van Dusen, in his apartment. Bruce didnít know Rob very well, but Bruce and I had been working together on the project for over three years. Rob and I thought the rehearsal was going great. But then Bruce got very serious and suggested that we try an experiment and switch roles for a second.

What happened was amazing; all of a sudden the scenes came to life in a way that none of us expected. I had spent so many years preparing myself to play Ben that I knew the role far too well. I think Rob had a similar experience with Colton. And suddenly we were thrown into characters that were way outside our comfort zones. All we could really do was try and muster the courage to simply be alive moment to moment in the scenes. We were both so off balance that neither of us could emote or indicate any more. At the time, we both thought that Bruce was either clinically insane and needed to be put on meds, or that he was onto something. It was a big leap of faith for us, but in retrospect it was by far the best decision he could have made as a director.

I think from a story perspective it was essential, since if I had played Ben it would have been too easy to dismiss Ben as a Woody Allen archetype. But when you have a soap star playing the hyper-analytic, hyper-verbal guy in the dysfunctional relationship, he suddenly deserves a second look. The same thing was true with Colton. Instead of Colton being the typical good looking, strapping frat boy, he became almost a kind of yapping, lap dog. And what it revealed in Colton was that beneath the bluster was a very intelligent, hurt boy who has put on this persona as a protective mechanism.

Ultimately I think thatís the key to both of them and ultimately what makes their friendship believable. If Colton had just been a good looking, obnoxious jokester, he would have just come off as a dick. And theyíre relationship wouldnít have had the same verisimilitude or authenticity. It was a very insightful and nuanced decision on Bruceís part and the movie benefited greatly from it.

Colton is a struggling actor, perpetually auditioning for jobs. Is this something you can relate to personally?

Yes. Itís a tough industry and as an actor the majority of oneís time is auditioning for projects of often-questionable quality. That kind of daily rejection does weird things to people --worst of which is encouraging a certain kind of self-referential, egocentric narcissism. One of the things I like about Colton is that beneath his protective exterior is clearly an empathetic individual who loves his friend dearly, even if he canít always put that into words.

Colton's idol is Donald Sutherland and the road trip is a quest to meet him. Is Sutherland a real personal hero of yours?

Yes and no. I think heís probably one of the greatest character actors of his generation. (Up there with Alan Arkin and Chistopher Walken.) And there are certain iconic performances of his that have been the source of great inspiration to me as an actor (his work in Ordinary People being high on that list). But from a story perspective, I wanted to settle on an actor that was both iconic and yet also oddly specific.

Donald Sutherland is one of those actors that everyone knows and yet some people, for various reasons, develop very strong attachments to. I like the fact that audiences immediately wonder ďwhy Donald SutherlandĒ and I like the fact that Coltonís reasons are actually incredibly personal and have very little to do with Donald Sutherland as a performer and much more to do with the moment in Coltonís life when he was first introduced to Sutherlandís work. I think for Colton, Donald is definitely a surrogate father; if not in word, at least symbolically. And that is the deeper connection that undergirds Coltonís whole quest to meet him. Though Iím not even sure if Colton himself would be able or willing to make that observation.

How is the Backseat you first drafted different than the Backseat that screened here at the festival?

In too many ways to count. The first draft is actually quite an embarrassing piece of writing. Iíve seen better-written commercials for herpes medication. Because Iíd never written a screenplay before Backseat, that first draft had a very amateur quality in terms of structure and story. And those were elements that came later. But thatís been part of the great joy of this project -- seeing how far itís come and how that initial seed of an idea grew and grew. I often show that draft to struggling writers to remind them that we all write badly at times. And that the real work comes in rewriting and in mining the material over and over again. Writing is very much like sculpture and itís a very slow chiseling away to reveal a story (or image) beneath a lot of messy stone.

You wrote and starred in Backseat -- which role was most difficult: screenwriter or actor? Which are you most interested in pursuing in the future?

By far the most difficult role was that of being the screenwriter. Being an actor Ė when the context is good -- is incredibly freeing and exhilarating. Iíve always been of the belief that acting is primarily an interpretive art and not a creative one -- though, of course, there are creative elements to it. With good material, the actor can really sacrifice himself at the foot of that writerís vision and itís just incredibly fulfilling -- a ďpeak experienceĒ as Joseph Campbell would have described it. Acting in the film was by far the most fun Iíve had on a film project, but thatís a big testament to our director, an amazing crew and a cast of unbelievable talented, funny, thoughtful and passionate actors. The shoot was all joy and over far too soon.

Balancing the role of screenwriter and producer, both in preproduction and in postproduction, was much more complicated, partly because of the difficulty of collaboration in general, but also due to the logistical nightmares that present themselves when making independent films. But I am definitely interested in pursuing both roles again in the future, as they express different sides of myself as an artist.

Backseat has been popular here at the festival; did you expect that reaction?

Well, we were hoping. Itís a very over saturated market and trying to distinguish oneself at a festival among a sea of other films -- many with stars or well known directors in attendance -- is very, very difficult. But we had an amazing local publicist and we put a lot of effort into using grass route means to getting the word out on this film. Ultimately, I think Backseat is really just an entertaining film with a good deal of comedy and a lot of heart. We never set out to make The Hours. We just wanted to make people laugh and possibly be moved a little. And ironically, I donít think there are that many films being made Independently today with such simple (yet often difficult to pull off) goals.

Do you have any aspirations to direct?

At some point in my life -- when Iíve had a lot more time in front of the camera and at the keyboard. Iím perfectly content letting someone else be the ringmaster for awhile. I learn so much from every director I work with and Iím still exploring my craft as a writer. Besides, oneís got to have a life too, right?

What are your hopes for Backseat?

Well, of course weíd like to see the film reach as broad an audience as possible. Weíve had more than a few people come up to us and tell us we have a ďcult classicĒ on our hands. And weíve always felt we have a really audience driven film. But without it being high concept or star driven, itís an up-hill battle with distributors. I think that with a project with our particular set of gifts and limitations, one has to let the distributors find you rather than the other way around. And the only way to do that is to demonstrate that there is a viable audience out there for the film. The Austin Film Festival was a wonderful first step in that process. And to be embraced so enthusiastically left all of us with high hopes that the model will bear fruit, even if it takes some time for us to know exactly what kind of fruit weíre talking about.

What lies in your near future?

Backseat goes to the Starz Denver International Film Festival in November and then we are hoping to use Austin and Denver as springboards into one of the larger ďbuyerís marketĒ festivals later in the year. As a writer, I have a film in development and a couple of other screenplays that have just started making the rounds to some of the larger production companies. And I ím hoping to take a vacation.

What advice can you give to aspiring screenwriters?

Write, write, write. Believe in yourself. Donít waste your time comparing your career trajectory with others in the industry. Use that energy and passion to tell stories. Read books. See movies. Have hobbies. Fall in love. And be curious about everything. And if you really want to do it: make films. Thereís absolutely nothing stopping you.

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originally posted: 10/28/05 15:13:49
last updated: 11/29/05 22:06:14
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