SXSW '09 Interview: "Breaking Upwards" Director Daryl Wein
By Erik Childress
Posted 03/07/09 08:11:45
The “Breaking Upwards " Pitch: A young couple strategizes their break up.
What was the impetus for this project after taking on the subject of early AIDS awareness with your last film, Sex Positive?
DARYL: To anyone familiar with my documentary, "Sex Positive," seeing or reading about my new film, "Breaking Upwards," must seem like a stark contrast. One is about a gay S&M sex worker who invented safe sex and the other is about a young real life NY couple battling codependency. Am I a gay documentarian or a hipster making heteronormative romancaes? The world has yet to find out. As a filmmaker, I launch into a project as soon as it captivates me. As long as it is interesting and relevant, I'm in.
I actually had written a version of "Breaking Upwards," while I was making "Sex Positive," so it was already in the works. I continued to work on it when I had the chance with my two writing partners, Peter Duchan and Zoe Lister-Jones. The reason I wanted to make "Breaking Upwards" was three fold. Firstly, and most prominently, when I began writing the script, I was in the midst of an open relationship with my girlfriend (and co-star) Zoe Lister-Jones. So in many ways, at its inception, it was a way for me to process the harsh realities of my own life. But its mirroring reality was kind of serendipitous, because the story I began to tell was the exact kind of story I had been aching to watch on screen: a fresh, articulate romantic-comedy among twenty-somethings that felt authentic to the demographic it was attempting to represent. And thirdly, it was a story that was small enough in scope to realistically make as a narrative debut and within a meagre budget.
Both you and Zoe Lister-Jones are listed as two of the film’s writers. What was your writing process like or was there more improvisation between the both of you than what actually got down on paper?
DARYL: When Zoe and I were in an open relationship I started writing down scenes between us that reflected what we were going through. After a couple months, I wrote an entire draft, which needed a lot of work. I felt like I needed someone to be objective about the story, I was too inside of it. At that point, I took it to a dear friend of mine, Peter Duchan, and asked him if he would re-write with me. We spent many months fine tuning the characters, the story, and the structure. Through out this period, Zoe wasn't involved because it was too weird for her. I think she felt like it was exploitative in many ways. This was long before we knew we were going to play the roles ourselves. Originally, we were going to cast other actors to play our parts. As we neared completion, Zoe began to warm to the project. The more we talked about it the more she was able to accept that a version of our life was going to be immortalized and that was okay, maybe even healing. So she began working with us, re-writing scenes, and really fleshing out her character and making it something 3-dimensional. That was something that we were really struggling with on our own. I knew my side of the story well, and we are both men, so her character was lacking. She was able to really deepen a lot of the female storylines. Especially, her relationship with her mother and my relationship with my mother. When it got to shooting, we stuck almost entirely to the script. If we wanted to improvise, we could, but most of the time it was pretty close to what we all wrote.[br]
When it comes to romantic comedies or dramas, do you have a preference between happy endings and break-ups, even if the former is beyond the realm of logistically and emotional plausibility?
DARYL: Honestly, it totally depends on the story. I love happy endings and sad endings. When "Dancer in the Dark" ended, I felt like killing myself. But sometimes you need to feel that way. When "Wall-E" ended, I was so happy. I love that little machine.
I’ve always been fascinated with the “time apart” concept of relationships. There always seems to be a greater appreciation for the other when they are, forced or otherwise, into missing their company. If the couple are able to keep their wits about and not stray from the path, wouldn’t it be a more realistic form of monogamy than marriage?
DARYL: I am all for polyamory! Theoretically, at least. Honestly, I don't think I have enough experience to know if it works in practice. It's definitely complicated. But then again, so is monogamy. I think what's interesting about exploring the two side by side is that in both lifestyles, you are constantly compromising and sacrificing. I think we're just not trained to cope with the issues that polyamorous relationships bring up, whereas, we're ostensibly raised with the tools to cope with the difficulties of monogamy. I think the most challenging aspect of multiple partners is jealousy. Knowing your partner is not only fucking someone else, but in an intimate relationship with them. Zoe and I didn't talk about it while we were doing it, but we were also living in separate apartments. I don't know how you can be polyamorous if you live together. The other most challenging part of it is being able to satisfy two people equally at the same time. Oy.
This was a nice role for Andrea Martin. Always great to see her in more than just a scene or two. Can you give a little hope to all the indie filmmakers out there and how you were able to snag her for such a great part as well as smaller roles for Olivia Thirlby and the too-underused Heather Burns?
DARYL: I met Olivia Thirlby years ago when I was still auditioning as an actor at NYU. I cast her in my first short film, "Unlocked," which was at the Tribeca Film Festival. You can watch it on my website. She's awesome because she's always game. While we were filming, Zoe was acting in a play with Heather Burns off-Broadway called, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," and they became fast friends. Andrea was someone we got just by approaching her agent. We loved her work, and thought she was hysterical in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." We had a lot of big theater actors like Julie White, Peter Friedman, and Pablo Schreiber, all of whom Zoe had worked with or knew professionally. And we made the offer for Andrea after a lot of our other actors had signed on, so I think that was also an incentive for her to work on the project. That and we wrote her a pretty good role!
On a famous Seinfeld episode, Jerry and Elaine concocted a set of rules that would enable them to have sex without interfering with the friendship. They consisted of: (1) No calls the day after and (2) making spending the night optional. If you were able to add to that or to completely rewrite the rules, what three would you come up with?
DARYL: I guess I would add a rule that states there are certain days they don't see each other. Maybe a day or two out of the week. That's what Zoe and I did. Independence is really important when you are in an open relationship. You have to be comfortable without the other person. Elaine can't just call Jerry whenever, and vice versa, because then she/he would start relying on the other person emotionally. That's why setting specific boundaries at the start is essential. And being really clear to both yourself and your partner about each other's expectations. Codependency is one of the hardest things to avoid in a relationship, and I think sex, especially for women, creates expectations that men too often disappoint. So communication is key.
One of your characters refers to being “happy enough.” Do you think this is a fundamental problem with relationships, both married and not, that people get into a comfort zone where they weigh the fear of being alone against an acceptable amount of negatives in being with another person?
DARYL: Yes. I think it's easy to get stuck in a comfort zone. It's scary to think about breaking out of it. That's why not many people do it if they are "happy enough." You don't know if the grass is greener on the other side. If you do venture into the unknown, what if you get there and it's brown grass!? Shit smelling and brown! That sucks. Then you ruined a great life with someone. Or maybe it's liberating and you get to discover a whole new world. Who knows.
Zoe is credited with writing seven songs on the soundtrack. Can you give us a little background on her music and where people can hear her music?
DARYL: Zoe wrote the lyrics to all of the songs on our soundtrack. She's an amazing writer and a genius lyricist. There's a reason Kelly Clarkson's songs are a hit. Just kidding. Zoe didn't write her lyrics, but she could! Her very good friend, Kyle Forester, who is an amazing musician, composed the entire score for the movie. They have collaborated in the past and are a pretty great team. In 2004, Zoe self-released a covers album entitled "Skip the Kiss" in which she converted pop and rap songs into piano ballads that Kyle composed. They also began working on a one woman musical that Zoe wrote called "Crying for Cash" which is still in progress. But if you're itching to make a purchase, the all original Breaking Upwards soundtrack can be downloaded on iTunes. Zoe sings on a bunch of songs, as well as Guster's Ryan Miller, and Gary Olson of The Ladybug Transistor. And Zoe and I sing on "Fan of Shades," our finale song, which is a real tearjerker!
What are some of your personal favorite relationship movies and what would you say is the single best break-up film you’ve ever seen?
DARYL: Oh, this is a tough one. Some of my favorite relationship movies are: Manhattan, Jules and Jim, Casablanca, Annie Hall, Water Lillies, Brief Encounter, Good Will Hunting, Amelie, Badlands, Days of Heaven, Moonstruck, Eternal Sunshine, Me You and Everyone We Know, and Let the Right One In. I can't pick one favorite! Is that enough? The single best break-up film I've ever seen...Breaking Upwards! Don't front!
Did you learn anything moving from the documentary format into narratives?
DARYL: Well, I had already made a few short narrative films before the documentary, so it wasn't really a new transition. I think starting with a documentary was quite helpful because it's a much simpler process. The challenge there is to make it less formulaic and more poetic while still telling a clear story. But I do think that in terms of structure and story, and learning to tell a person's story in the most efficient way possible was something that I really learned from the documentary process, especially in the editing room. Another thing that I took from Sex Positive was the importance of test screenings. I have really smart friends, and because I direct, edit, and produce it's easy to lose perspective. So once we had Breaking Upwards in a place that we felt proud of, like Sex Positive, we began a series of test screenings for the people in our lives we most respected. I think it's an asset to be able to discard one's ego and take constructive criticism head on. And apply what makes sense to you aesthetically and artistically. Because ultimately, my job is to affect an audience, so their opinions are essential.
Any particular subject matter you would like to tackle in another documentary?
DARYL: Yes, many, but I can't say what they are out of fear of someone else going and doing them before me!
Speaking of reality replacing the written word, it’s a trend we’ve been seeing recently with film critics. Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics?
DARYL: I guess I like Manohla Dargis of the NY Times the best. Critics are hard. It's there job not to like things. And the things they do like often feel arbitrary. But they're quite essential to a film's success. So it's tricky.
What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?
DARYL: Hmmmm. Both would mean a lot to me in different ways. I would love to get a great review from some anonymous critic because it's fun to read someone who really gets what you were trying to say. That's the best feeling. A constructive review from a big critic would mean a lot because their opinions are well respected. And would generate buzz, which is great.
It was nice to see the cast recall at the end. Do you miss movies having that?
DARYL: Sometimes it's cool. I felt really proud of all my actors, they're brilliant and added so much to the film, and I feel like they're largely under appreciated by the industry so I wanted to give them an extra shout out.
Sex Positive was originally getting a theatrical release the same weekend that SXSW begins. Do you feel any different about it then you did last year here at the festival?
DARYL: Sex Positive actually got pushed back until June, so I won't have to freak out about premiering two movies at once, thank god. I think it will be better for it to come out during the summer. You have gay pride, people are in a happy mood, it's going to be the anniversary of Stonewall, so I'm hoping those things will all help its success. I feel just as good about it as I did when it was at SXSW last year. It's an extremely important story that's never been told. I hope people come out to see it!
What was your experience like here compared to other festivals and what are you looking forward to most upon your return?
DARYL: SXSW is a really fun, well-organized festival. I think the best part about it is everyone goes to everything together. It's not super exclusive where you can't get into parties, and there's some sort of hierarchy of talent and celebrity. Everyone is at the parties. Everyone goes to the movies. Everyone eats BBQ. Everyone and everything is super accessible. It feels like a community. They have great panels. They have Guinness milkshakes at the movie theaters. It's rad. I just can't wait to see what the reaction to the film is going to be. I hope someone buys it!
Daryl Wein's Breaking Upwards will have its world premiere at the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 14, 9:30 PM at the Alamo Ritz. It will screen again on Monday, March 16 (4:30 PM) at the Alamo Lamar and again at the Ritz on Friday, March 20 (11:30 AM). And be sure to check out the film’s website