Brennanator Breakfast Briefing - How SUSAN happened!

Every Wednesday on this blog I’m going to take y’all through how a project I worked on came together.  I’ve been very fortunate that both my career and my extracurricular activities have allowed me to work with a wide range of artists and creators, many of whom have shared with me their stories of their past projects.  I’ve always learned something from those stories and I figure it can’t hurt for me to pay it forward, as it were.

SUSAN is a short film I produced, written and directed by my good friend and frequent collaborator Ned Thorne.  It began as a comedy piece for a one minute movie contest, but as you’ll see, it took on a life of its own and turned into something much bigger after we produced it.  Take a look, and then I’ll be back with some more commentary.

SUSAN from Ned Thorne on Vimeo.

Welcome back!  Go pee if you need to, and then we’ll continue.

One of the things I love about working with Ned Thorne as a director is the emotional strength of his visuals.  It’s not just important for him to capture a moment, it’s important for him to capture how a character reacts to that moment.  His camera captures the subtle looks, the changes of expressions and the gut reactions of actors in a moment in a way thatcreates a history to even the smallest character in a piece.  The people become real. It’s especially effective in some of the comedy pieces he and I have created (which we’ll take a look at in future weeks) where the characters in these short, often incredibly immature and crude stories feel fully realized, and it’s because Ned seeks these moments out.

When Ned came to me with this script, I knew two things – it was pretty light and straightforward and that that storytelling space would allow Ned to really dive in and build a fully realized world.  Neither of us were working on much film-wise at the time, so this was very much a “let’s grab a camera and go make a movie!” production.

Actor wise, we were working with Sarah Manton, a tremendously talented actor from England who starred on London’s West End in Dirty Dancing. Sarah has incredible mastery as an actor over her emotions, and can project such vulnerability in her face.  Any actor will tell you how necessary that skill is and how challenging it can be – she makes it seem effortless.  After our initial shooting wrapped, Ned and Sarah worked together on developing the dialogue, pulling from Sarah’s real emotions about the difficulty adapting to life in New York City when home is so very far away.

Rounding out the cast are Sean Duffy, Greta Schwartz and Jane Slater.  They, along with Sarah, myself and the very funny Michael Pasternak (who I’m namedropping to make sure he reads this) had spent a few months performing improv together as part of a troupe named Moscow River Sharks.

Some producers can get nervous about using improvisers for a more subdued film (I’ve certainly been guilty of that fear) but the five of us met in classes at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York City, whose guiding educational philosophy is to use emotion to channel your performances – they argue that jokes, bits and games don’t make comedy funny, but rather your very real, human reactions to an insane circumstance.  I think that focus on our humanity made them a great match for Ned’s story.  Sean, Jane and Greta are terrific performers by night and work in real office environments by day.  They knew the world we were exploring inside and out — in fact, we shot this film in Greta’s office.

So, a couple long F train rides out to Sheepshead Bay and a few hours in an office (with free Pizza!) later, we wrapped up shooting.  Ned generally edits his own work – editing is his steady day gig – and then Samuel Smythe, one of my favorite collaborators who I’ve never met, wrote a haunting score which I love.  I’ve worked with Sam on a few projects now – he scored an entire film for us in about 5 hours once – and he gets what Ned is going for – creating music that’s striking without being overpowering.  Hire Sam Smythe, Hollywood! He’s out there, he’s good, he’s fast and he’s nice. Almost nobody is all three things.

I haven’t talked much about what I did on this film because, quite frankly, I didn’t have to do much beyond get a great cast for a great director and get out of the way.  A producer is very similar to a comic book editor – there job is to help a creator bring their project to life, and if all goes well, they can ideally just get out of the way.  It’s rare that we get that chance to get out of the way, but when it happens, we take it because there’s always another fire to put out somewhere else.  This time the creatives made it incredibly easy for me to not have to work, which I love.

Speaking of not working, I recently lost my job.  This film was written and shot well before that unfortunate occurrence, but when I watch it now, after what I’ve gone through, I am stunned at how good a job Ned’s done in capturing the sense of terror and the sense of freedom losing a job can be.

Back in high school, our art history teacher taught us about the Isenheim Altarpiece, a painting by Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grunewald. This piece depicts Christ on the Cross not in his usual majestic, heroic state as was common of artistic interpretations but rather in pain and suffering, a controversial choice for the time.  The story goes that the piece, which was created for the monastery of St. Anthony, a hospital in the Northeast region of France, caused shock and outrage among the monks who worried the image of a sick Christ would upset their patients.  The monks discovered, however, that their patients were moved by the painting as it reflected Christ sharing their struggles.  They viewed the piece and they no longer felt alone in their pain.

I’m not saying Ned Thorne is as great as the painters of the Renaissance (yet!) nor am I saying Sarah Manton is equal to Jesus Christ (yet!).  But what I am saying is in a world where unemployment is a very real, persistent fear and where our places of business can feel at times cold and hostile, this movie that I was very fortunate to work on moved me and I like to think that for those of you struggling in the work place, this movie might be able to make you feel less alone.

That’s all for now. Have a great day out there and be safe.