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INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with 'Alex/October' Writer-Director Josh Hope and Actress-Producer Tara Shayne

Writer-director Josh Hope and actress and producer Tara Shayne speak with Script about their creative collaboration, finding their key team behind the scenes, their individual approach and process in their respective roles and so much more.

Living another lonely Chicago winter, Alex (Brad Hunt) reaches the end of his rope and decides life is not worth living. After several failed suicide attempts, he resorts to drastic measures by placing an ad to have someone do it for him. October (Tara Shayne), is on her own downward spiral with her best friend, Josh (Ethan Cutkosky). As fate would have it, their lives collide when October answers Alex's ad. Alex quickly realizes he made a big mistake when October forces herself into his life and several days change everything.

Indie filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of self-determination. And telling stories that are thematically universal but not fodder for big box office bucks is an even harder sell. But that didn't deter the collective team of filmmakers behind Alex/October. It's a harrowing film about grief and loss but at the center of it all is one unified big heart. 

I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with writer-director Josh Hope and actress and producer Tara Shayne about their creative collaboration, finding their key team behind the scenes, their individual approach and process in their respective roles and so much more.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

[L-R] Brad Hunt as Alex and Tara Shayne as October in ALEX/OCTOBER. Courtesy OGM Productions.

[L-R] Brad Hunt as Alex and Tara Shayne as October in ALEX/OCTOBER. Courtesy OGM Productions.

Sadie Dean: Josh, you also wrote and directed a short film of the same name years ago, was that specifically a proof of concept for this feature?

Josh Hope: Not really. I made that short film, I think almost 15 years ago now, and the subject matter was different. The two characters are kind of similar, there was a generational gap, and I liked that they were both kind of these eccentric kinds of people coming together - these two tidal waves. I really just took the two characters and developed a whole new story from the short film that we had done.

Sadie: For that new story, what was different other than the two offbeat characters?

Josh Hope

Josh Hope

Josh: In the short film, it was actually kind of about online dating before there was Bumble and Tinder, all this stuff. And I remember in Chicago, a lot of my friends were meeting people on Craigslist, and going out, and having these random dates and hookups with people that they've never really seen before. And I thought that was really fascinating at the time. And that's evolved, and now it's become really mainstream to jump on these dating apps – so it wasn't really relevant anymore. I was trying to find a new creative way to bring those two together. And I think it was the perfect choice for these two characters, because I think with October's morbid fascination with death and then I always thought Alex is a really depressed guy who's on rock bottom, so I just used that to develop it further. And with the short film, you know, it's a short film, so I couldn't really go into a lot of stuff with it. With the feature film, I was able to go into a lot of their backstory and Alex's family, and October's world. You got to know who these people actually were a little bit.

Sadie: I love how you develop that over the course of the movie and how it kind of flips especially for October and facing mortality with Alex at the cemetery. It was a nice ending, and you didn't have to go any further than that. You leave it up to the audience to figure out what’s next for these two.

Tara Shayne: I'm so glad you like the ending, because that wasn't the original ending in this script. We actually had multiple endings that really kind of came up during the process, because there was one ending in the script that Josh had originally and it was sort of like a flash forward at the diner again, and I mean, any independent filmmaker can tell you that while you're filming, especially on an indie low budget, you have so many constraints, whether it be budget or location or something, something's gonna happen and you're constantly having to be in the moment and make changes and be flexible. And so that was kind of something that happened. We had lost access to the diner to shoot another day to finish the movie. And so, Josh is literally that night having to go in and rewrite the ending. And then we actually shot an entirely different ending, that ended up not even getting used. [laughs]

Tara Shayne

Tara Shayne

In the editing process, obviously, you see how the story evolves. And so that was kind of where it landed as everyone thought it felt like just the perfect kind of button at the end. And that's a lot of the feedback from the screenings, people are like, ‘I love that the ending is just sort of settled.’ And I mean, settled not in a way where these people are settled. I mean there's so much energy and emotion and all this buildup as far as like emotions going in. Then all the emotion is like a tide, it just sort of settles down – and we understand why.

Sadie: Right, and then they're ready for the next part of their journey.

Tara: It's almost like one big exhale. Like just one emotional breath.

Sadie: It's a nice release. Was the dialogue the same as the originally written ending or did you rewrite it to fit the location?

Josh: I mean, mostly the dialogue was the same, we still had that cemetery scene. It just wasn't the ending of the film. So, when we were kind of looking at options, and coming up with a new ending, I did tweak some stuff, hoping that if it worked out, then maybe that could kind of be the conclusion. But, you know, like Tara said, we didn't really know exactly how it was all going to come together until we started editing it. But it worked out really well.

Sadie: The beauty of filmmaking. For you, Tara, how did this project come across your radar? Or was it from a casting standpoint? Or was it you were already attached as a producer, and you're like, ‘Hey, I could also be the co-lead on this, because I'm awesome. So, let's do this.’

Tara: [laughs] Well, thank you. So, Josh and I met at a film festival actually, in Sedona, like years ago, and I had a short film that I had wrote, direct produced and starred in. And he was working on his last feature film that he had made. And we were both doing the festival circuit and we got paired together at a few different festivals. My short film was like the opener for his feature, and we just hit it off right off the bat. We have a very similar style of storytelling and similar character interests. We really bonded over our love of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and some other really cool movies that we just had talked about. And so, it just kind of evolved naturally.

One of the last days of the festival I was like, ‘We got to work together on something. What are you doing?’ and he was like, ‘I have a bunch of scripts that I've been writing, I'll send you some.’ And so he had sent me a bunch and I stayed up all night reading all of his scripts, and he's such a talented writer, the dialogue flows so naturally, and I noticed that in his last feature that it's so effortless, and his characters, the journey that he takes you on with his story with the characters - they're so effortless. And it's a part of his writing, and a part of his directing, that allows actors to really feel like they can be this character. And it's not forced in any way. You’re really just kind of watching people's lives and their journeys. 

My co-star, Brad likes to say, ‘We want you to be a fly on the wall coming into a blip of these people's lives and then exit.’ And that's how his writing is. And so, I stayed up all night reading all of these wonderful scripts that he has, and this one I immediately loved. I'm very drawn to dark wounded characters. [laughs] I saw it almost as a challenge. I saw October and on the page, she's really not very likable - actually both characters, I think aren't really likable. And I'm just personally drawn to characters and stories like that, especially from an actor perspective, I want to take it as a challenge of how can I make her relatable and likable and see the humanity in her past, because in life we encounter people maybe that you might not like at first but you don't know what's hidden underneath, and layers that people have and why people have outbursts and so for me that's why as I was peeling back the layers reading her in the script, I was like, ‘I just I love this girl, I have to play her.’

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I called him the next day and I was like, ‘OK, I want to make this movie.’ [laughs] He goes, ‘Oh, OK.’ [laughs] ‘Take it, it's yours.’ He let me really kind of run with it. And then I mean, we had been working on it for a while. And finally, when we got Lisa Freberg, our executive producer and my co-producer on the film onboard, it all kind of really took shape, which was totally by chance that we got her. So, everything I really feel like very serendipitously came together to make this film.

Sadie: It says a lot about the material, but also the people behind it, right? I mean, not everybody jumps on board to make a movie, especially like what you said about unlikeable characters. But how do you make them relatable and make the story feel more universal? And also tackling a theme about loss of self and grief, and how does someone grieve and it's not the same for everyone. For you Tara, what was it like wearing two hats as both a producer and a co-lead on this film?

Tara: Yeah, that was challenging. [laughs] I really did kind of all of it, I guess, but really, when we got on to set, and we were actually filming is when I really put the producer hat aside and tried to just really focus on the character. And luckily, we had assembled such a great crew of people. Josh and I spent a lot of time ahead of time talking about all the small detail stuff. So, once it kind of came to it, I was able to put that aside and focus. And we had our DP, Yash [Khanna] who is incredible.

I did a lot of the creative and a lot of the putting stuff together and finding the people and so I helped a lot with that just through my network of friends. And then a lot of them just happened to fit exactly - like we had been looking at DPs for a while, and it was either they were unavailable, or they just didn't quite fit the aesthetic. I had worked with Yash on a film previously, and I was like, ‘This guy is always either in India, or the Philippines, filming stuff. I have no idea if he'll even be available, but he's fantastic, you guys should check his work out.’ Josh immediately was like, ‘I like this guy's style, color, and tone.’ Yash is really big on telling the story through color and through these massive wide shots of the cityscape like he just immediately had ideas of like how to bring Josh's story to life.

It was a lot of piecing stuff together to get there. And we got so lucky with some of the people I mean, like Brittani Ward, who was our casting director, amazing - she found some of the most incredible talent in Chicago, hands down. And could not have been the same film without her cast. And I love to say this because every single character in the movie down to characters that have no lines, the characters in the AA scene, like a lot of them don't even have lines, they speak so much with just their eyes, and with their expressions; and the accordion player, my favorite guy in the movie [laughs] just sitting there playing the accordion. She just found these incredible people that really brought the world to life.

I would say it was for me, putting together the people in their departments that we fully entrusted to do their job to the max, and that way when we got to filming, I was able to just be like, ‘OK, everyone's got it. Now I just need to focus on the role and doing her justice and making sure that I'm doing my job on set.’

Sadie: What was that collaboration like for the two of you in terms of bringing October to life and was there any further discussion on character development once Tara was on board?

Josh: I mean, we definitely talked about it quite a bit early on. Tara gave me some of her notes about what she thought. I liked Tara as an actress and as a person, I could totally see her playing this part. Once she took over and was going to become October, she could do whatever she wanted with it, I think, as you know, as I said, to a few other people before, but whenever I write my script, I kind of look at it as like a blueprint. But once we're rolling, the actors can do and say whatever they want, as long as we're all going towards the same endpoint, the same journey. But with Tara, and then when Brad got involved, I had no worries about these two becoming these two weirdo eccentric characters and really kind of bringing them to life.

I remember early on, we were talking about bringing Brad in. And I didn't know Brad at the time, I think I had seen some of his work, because he's done a lot of stuff. We went out to dinner, and I was watching them across the table, talking to each other, and kind of rib each other sometimes. And I was like, ‘This is going to be so great.’ And I could just totally envision it. And I remember going home that night, and I pulled the script back out and just read it again for the first time in a long time with Tara and Brad in mind. And it really popped for me. And I remember getting kind of like chills and getting excited about the two characters.

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Sadie: They made your job easy, and that's so cool that they inspired you dig deeper and write to their voice.

Tara: He made our job easy too because he gave us the freedom. Like day one we all went in, me, Josh, and Brad all went in with kind of like a pack together, we're all here, we all trust each other. And if any one of us is like veering off or whatever, pull us back in and Josh was just like, ‘Take it and run, I trust you to do what you do.’ And I was like, ‘OK and I trust that you're gonna tell me if I'm not.’ And so I think just that ability of knowing that I can just take this and run, for me, the freedom of it was everything and to be able to just do that, because then Brad and I all we had to do is literally just relate to one another.

Sadie: You definitely see that come out, especially the range of emotions you’re going through. Josh, do you have a writing process or a routine? And do you usually write knowing that you're going to direct as well?

Josh: Normally, I write stuff in mind that I'm going to direct it. And it's something that I'm learning to do a little bit better now. Because a lot of times in my descriptions, I put a little thing - I know in my head exactly what I want. And then I realize, once you start passing that script out, it's like, oh, people really need to fill that stuff out. I always tend to really work on the dialogue a lot more than descriptions. But even with newer stuff now that I'm writing that I may not direct, I've had to kind of learn to do that a little bit more. But in the past definitely, I've always had it in my mind exactly how I wanted to do it, and then it's just about translating that to the cast and crew once you're rolling.

Sadie: How do you approach material as an actress Tara?

Tara: For somebody like this character, because it was so complex, I spent a lot of time making sure that I wanted every moment of hers through the journey to be unique and to evolve. So for me, I did a lot of breaking down of where I saw her character kind of evolving throughout this story and a lot of that came from conversations with Josh and I sitting down and just really talking about, what is her M.O.

You have to chop some limbs off when you're editing a film. And so, there were some more scenes that I wish would have made the final cut. I mean, for me, it added to my character development, having known that stuff. So, I think that really helped translate across what the final product was. Because there was a scene originally in the script in the church that was a little more involved originally and it was a funeral, and she goes and has a whole moment - there's like a casket, and it's a wake and she goes and has this whole moment with this dead body, and I think that just adds a lot to her story. So there were things that we had to cut out ultimately. But that really helped to just even have that backstory myself. And this helped to add the layers to her as a character, why she's so dark and fascinated in this stuff.

I like to do a lot of like the prep work ahead of time, and then the minute we get on, I just fully like embody the character. And then for me, it's just about relating with whoever I'm working on the scene and letting it evolve, because a lot of it is for me, it comes in those moments, like the scene on the step that you mentioned, that is just what I'm feeling in that moment. And it's from a buildup of knowing everything that she's going through and really being in the moment with the character. And then when he comes in and sits down and then just looking at him, I went through a whole flurry of all these different emotions. For me, it's just being comfortable enough to really experience them and let it happen and let the camera experience it with me. That's how I like to act. I want the audience to experience everything that I'm feeling with me. And so, I can only do that if I'm really in the moment doing it. I just wanted her to be just vulnerable and raw. And a lot of that came from the angst at the beginning of being so not vulnerable and raw, that by the time we get to this point, and it does release, they're all experiencing that with me. So for me, it's prep work, but then also just kind of getting in and just going with it.

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Sadie: Being in the moment. And it must’ve been so nice to have someone like Brad to support that rather than try to steal that moment because I’m sure any other inexperienced actor probably would take it in a different direction, focused on themselves.

Tara: Totally. I can't even talk about the cast enough because they're so amazing and everyone down to like Lisa Zane when she came in, we talked about it in our Q&A that we did in Chicago, where she came in ready to give - that's how I think every single actor on the film approached it, ‘I'm here to give, I'm not here to take away the scene, I’m not here to take away an emotion from you. I'm not here to try to do anything else other than be open and just give.’ The more we're all giving on an emotional level, that allows that vessel to just really go through all these different experiences.

Sadie: It certainly translates on screen. And for you Josh being both the writer and director, a lot of writers are usually very precious about every single line and dialogue and movement, but outside of working with Tara, what was it like working with your other actors to make sure they were hitting all the necessary beats for you?

Josh: There's very few occasions that I had to say anything. Every now and then there might be one piece of dialogue that we really need that ties things in later. But no, for the most part, I want the actors to become this person and make them real and make them natural. And so, however they can say it, that makes it feel like a real person, that's what I want. That stuff made the script better, which is always what I love. That's my goal is to have these actors have the freedom to become these people to do something that's better than I wrote, that's a beautiful thing. And that was across the board, a lot of people bring in stuff to it. I was really, really proud of that.

I'm definitely not precious about my dialogue. I tried to make it as tight as possible. I realized in the moment, sometimes things will come up, and it just becomes like a different thing. And I'm totally happy with actors wandering down other paths and trying out different things, because you do find a lot of beautiful moments in those situations. It may not even be dialogue, but just tiny little things that actors may do, it just makes the scene become so real and so beautiful. I love trying to venture down these rabbit holes.

Tara: Some of our best moments, I think in the film were completely off the cuff. Those little nuances, it's like one word or like a head nod and adds just so much. Even the whole pool scene at the top of the rooftop, a lot of that was improv. We were all just having fun bouncing off each other. And there were a couple of things in the moment I was like, ‘It doesn't feel right if my character says this, Josh, how do you feel about if Kate says it?’ And he'd be like, ‘Yeah, it feels like that's right.’ There were just natural moments and a couple of lines that were supposed to be originally October's and in the moment I kept missing it. And I think there's a reason why I'm missing this line. And I think because it doesn't feel natural. Josh is so great about just letting us completely go for it and try new things. When you get in post everything is different anyway. And I feel like the more variety you have, the better you can really develop the story anyway. At least that's my opinion.

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Sadie: Yeah, I totally agree. You both have made a number of short films and cut your teeth that way informing your craft - any advice for those dipping their toes into becoming multi-hyphenate creatives or making a short film?

Josh: Short films was my film school - I didn't go to film school. I think I made five short films, and I purposely tried to do different genres and work with different kinds of actors, just because I had been on some film sets before, but I didn't know about the creative part. If you're a director, I would say, go out and do stuff - grab your friends, and go film, even if you don't plan on ever showing it. It's good to build your chops that way.

And as a writer, just write, write, write, write, write all the time, and then go back through and polish it and get your actor friends over and have table reads and do everything you can to make it a really, really sharp script that you want to try to get made. So just keep grinding, because it's a really hard process. And there's a lot of people doing it. So, my only advice is just to keep doing it. Write, write, write. And if you’re a director, try to make stuff and polish your chops.

Tara: I fell into producing just out of necessity, because there were characters I wanted to play that I didn't think were being written or maybe I just wouldn't have the opportunity to play. So that's kind of how I fell into that. And that's when I did my short film, I wanted to break into being on the other side of the camera, because you're on set, and I liked I love watching what everybody is doing on set. I feel like I'm always learning. I did a feature film that I was just acting in, but I remember talking to the camera guy and hearing what lenses he's pulling and just being like, what does that mean? ‘Well, we're going on a close-up now.’ Oh, OK, because that can only make me better as an actor learning about these lenses, and that's when I really started getting into I can only be better if I know what everybody is doing on set. And it makes my job easier. I'm just fascinated by it.

So, for me, that's why I'm just going to kind of do my own thing, because I want to get a taste of every aspect from the beginning and the end from the writing to the editing to all of it and experience every single role. Even when I did my short film, I was helping hanging lights with the guys because I just wanted to learn, I just wanted to know all about it.

The advice I would give is like Josh said, go out and do it and learn as much as you can. And don't let anyone tell you that you can't. We spent so many years trying to get this film made and it's a hard one because a lot of people read it right away and they're like, ‘The content is really dark.’ It was a little bit of a hard sell at first. How do we tell that story? And it was really us trying to explain to people the tone, because it does have dark comedy, and we're trying to make light of it. But we're also not trying to make fun of it. 

There is a balance in making it accessible because you don't want it to be too dark. You still need to maintain a level of lightness so that you can get all the way through with these people. It was a long process, but I just never stopped. I literally was just like, ‘I'm gonna give this to every single person,’ and I heard ‘No, you can't do that. No, you can't do this.’ And I just kept going, ‘OK, I'm gonna do it.’ And so my advice would be don't let them tell you that you can't. And eventually, if you believe in it enough, and you keep pushing hard enough, you'll find the right person and that's the person that is meant to be on the project with you. 

ALEX OCTOBER POSTER 3_22 MasterPNG NoLaurels copy

It was serendipitous when Lisa came in and she was the one who was meant to read this script after the 5,000 people before her that said no and really make it come to life. You just never know like who that one person is going to be that is going to come in and change the trajectory of the project that you're trying to do.

Alex/October is now streaming and playing in select Theaters nationwide.


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