Interview with Alexander Engel - Director of THIS IS IT

The short film This Is It by Alexander Engel had us laughing and cheering in equal measure. The (seemingly) simple device of employing only questions as dialogue allowed us to watch the relationship between two roommates, that might have been an indie feature in another universe, play out in under three minutes. I had to get in touch with the filmmaker to try and learn more about the short film.

In case you missed our last edition of Weekend Watching, here is the film again.
And my interview with Alexander Engel – the director follows right after.

At what point did the idea to use only questions as dialogue enter the screenplay for This Is It? Was it always intended this way?
I’d love to take credit for originally constructing it this way, but that wasn’t exactly the case. The story was always meant to be fast one-liners between two irresponsible roommates; when I finished the first draft I noticed more than half of the dialogue happened to be in question form. So I said, why not and gave it another go. And then voilà— draft two— all questions.

Tell us about coming up with the situations Kip and Jules find themselves in.
Oh man…it all came from personal experience. It’s amazing how ill suited for domestic living college grads can be.

I’m notoriously bad about dishes. I had a roommate who’d take my dirty dishes from the sink at night and leave them on the floor just outside my bedroom. Come morning, I’d open the door and trip over them on my way to the bathroom. I always thought that was pretty funny. Didn’t really curb my habits though.

He was no saint either— that same roommate came home drunk one night with a cat he found on the street, somehow convinced its owners abandoned it. But trust me, that cat was straight up feral— and this, I did not think was funny. After a week of failing to domesticate it (ie, teaching it to use a litter box), he took it to an animal shelter. He wasn’t halfway out the door before the cat scratched his face and ran away.

Watching the ‘making of’ the short reveals that you were very specific about how various objects were held or presented in the film. Tell us more about that.
Yeah it’s pretty ridiculous. This was tough. I knew most shots would last maybe two seconds in the edit. When you’re dealing with content that short, economy of information is key— you have to help your audience absorb everything as fast as possible. This meant being particular about where and how an object was held.

This effort extended well beyond the spacial blocking of objects. For example, it was important the characters’ framing was consistent from scene to scene; so aside from the opening, Kip’s always on the left and Jules is always on the right. The edit then cuts back and forth from left to right, over and over, creating a visual rhythm for the viewer, which I think, makes it easier to keep up.

How did you find your actors?
A producer friend of mine hooked me up with a great casting director here in New York, Eve Battaglia. She then introduced me to all the actors, except the new roommate at the end— that was our gaffer. I got him on my own.

Storyboard sample for THIS IS ITHow long was the shoot itself? And how long was pre-production, and post-production?
It was a pretty full three day shoot. 82 set-ups. Two locations. Lots of hustle to get all the shots.

The writing was pretty quick— maybe a month. Followed by a month of prep and three more in post.

Did you have funding for this film or did you make it the old-fashioned indie way—credit cards and favors?
Funding…ha! This was all out of pocket— though it really didn’t cost that much. Working on set the last ten years, I’ve made a lot of friends in the filmmaking community. I was super fortunate to have a great crew, who all donated their time. I was able to borrow most of the equipment. And I’m also indebted to my friends who let me shoot in their apartments for free. I don’t know what they were thinking.

I noticed that the film has been ready for about a year – did it do a festival run? If yes, what was the response/feedback/outcome of playing the circuit?
Really the movie’s been finished since January 2013. It played 16 festivals, including the LA Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, and the Aspen ShortsFest, and won awards at three others.

Going to festivals, for the most part, is pretty fun; I love watching the movie with an audience— that’s always rewarding. That being said, at the end of the run, I’ve got 16 laurels and a small plaque with my name on it, but nothing that’s directly had an impact on my career.

What were you hoping to achieve in terms of career goals when you made This Is It?
I’m not a big fan of shorts. For me, they have two functions— they’re a way to publicize yourself as a filmmaker and a way to practice your craft.

I know a lot of people trying to make shorts, who make a big deal about it— not about the movie they’re making— but the fact that they’re making a movie. They put a lot of stake in it. In fact people say my short, like it’s their one shot at a career, but that’s totally backward.

I’ve made two more shorts since This Is It, and really, I don’t envision anything of consequence regarding them— I just want the practice and a portfolio with which I can demonstrate competence to financiers for future work.

The film is doing well online: has there been a change in your life as a result of this online success?
It’s doing great online. At the time of this writing though, it’s only been six days since it went live and four since Vimeo posted it to Staff Picks, which really led the charge. That being said, no change in life yet.

Oh… I did sign up for Facebook (it’s a website for social networking). I was hoping to advertise the movie there, but quickly regretted that decision and had to turn it off. I did get a friend though. Michaela. Hi Michaela!

Tell us a little about yourself: how old were you when the filmmaking bug bit? Who were your early influences?
I was…what…15 when I joined my high school Film Society. That’s a pretty impressionable age. I was really into symbolism at the time— stuff where I knew there was so much more to the story beyond what the filmmaker was showing. Kieslowski was huge for me then. I think Magnolia came out that year. I loved easter eggs like that 82. And I got really into Evangelion as well. Really into it.

What were some of the lessons you learned at film school?
Everything I learned during those years happened on set. I’d crew every shoot I could and would skip class to do so. For me, film school was good for two things— the first was exactly that— crewing student films. These were projects where everyone was super green, working for free, yet somehow had access to pretty significant stuff. Some of these shorts were made for $100k, which is insane. What was so important, was you could fuck up— at length— with no career consequence.

The second thing is contacts. Three of the crew members from This Is It were classmates of mine and there were a dozen more in the thank you credits. Beyond that, a large part of my professional network is composed of old classmates, all of whom I work with regularly.

Alexander Engel (left) was on the crew for the indie feature Bluebird

Alexander Engel (left) was on the crew for the indie feature Bluebird.

You’ve been part of the crew on some interesting indie films – what did you learn on the job that no university could prepare you for?
University doesn’t prepare you for much in this industry. Having crewed so many projects, I got really good at seeing how time and money were spent on set. Time is the most precious resource and it’s real easy to waste.

Execute as much as you can in prep— that time is free. For example, if you can see the location before shooting— make a shot list. Know what you’re going to shoot, to avoid that half-hour conversation on the day. That’s called vision— that magic “vision” directors always go on about.

This ties directly into knowing what’s going to be in the movie and what’s not. I see a lot of time wasted worrying about things that either won’t be in frame or won’t be in the edit. Don’t do that. The better you get at seeing the actual movie in your mind’s eye, the faster it’ll get made and for less money.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a filmmaker today?
Getting your content in front of the right gatekeepers.

No, I’m gonna go back on that— that part is hard— really hard; there’s so much crap out there and people only have so much time to watch it, but the truth is if your content isn’t any good— then it doesn’t matter who sees it.

So the biggest challenge is actually making something good. And honestly, striving for good is nonsense— it’s about making something Great. Learning the craft of filmmaking— of storytelling. Knowing when to compromise and when to fight. Collaborating. Collaborating with assholes. Staying committed to your vision through an unyielding sea of influence. And having the grit to follow through with your work

The biggest challenge is finding something worth saying— then learning the language with which others can understand it.

What’s next for you?
Featuretown USA.

Filmmaker Alexander Engel

Related Links:
Alexander Engel Official Website