As a filmmaker, there’s such a rush once you’ve locked your film and begin submitting to the big film festivals. For some, they immediately hit it out of the park and premiere at Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca. But for others, hitting the film festival circuit can be a total wash and leave you feeling incredibly unmotivated as a filmmaker after countless rejections. And then success! You finally get that email from a festival that congratulates you on being accepted, and you're beyond excited. Well...almost.
The new comedy feature Film Fest, from writer/director Marshall Cook, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the journey every aspiring filmmaker goes through, with hints of autobiographical elements throughout. Starring Matt Cook ("Man With A Plan"), Diona Reasonover ("NCIS"), Jason Genao (“On My Block”), Will Sasso, Ellen Wong, Rachael Leigh Cook, and Laird Macintosh, Film Fest tells a story about struggling indie filmmakers who travel to an obscure festival to sell their movie "Unknown Unknowns".
I had a great time speaking with Marshall and digging deep into the spirit of his new film, the creation of the medley of characters, and practical advice in navigating film festivals. Plus, Marshall shares a bit of wisdom on how to keep your eye on the prize as a storyteller.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Your film Film Fest rings very true for us filmmakers. It was like a little documentary on what we go through.
Marshall Cook: I had to do something with all of that pain. [laughs] I appreciate that. Yeah, you know I'm so isolated from all of it, and all I have is just like when people reach out and say something on social media or something. We didn't get to tour any festivals, which was a bummer because I would have loved to see this play at the festival.
Sadie: Was the film supposed to go out this last year to hit the festival circuit or was that put on the back burner?
Marshall: We did a cast and crew screening in Los Angeles on March 3rd and it was kind of when, you know, we heard, oh yeah, there's some people that are getting sick, we didn't really know about it being like airborne and it definitely was all still kind of being held from everybody, or at least nobody was worried about it at that time. We had a really great screening at the Chinese Theatre and then we were going to do a festival circuit. But I'll be honest, a lot of the bigger festivals were not interested, and even some smaller ones where I thought they would, you know, I don't want to say be lucky to have us but that smaller festivals I usually wouldn't go to. I was wanting to put it out there for people to enjoy it. We got Austin Film Fest to premiere there, but even that was virtual. So, I really haven't shown it to anybody.
Sadie: That's very meta full circle for the theme of this movie too.
Marshall: [laughs] Yeah. The movie itself wasn't supposed to be like a hit piece on festivals, it was kind of like a love-hate, you know, a bittersweet relationship.
Sadie: Absolutely, and there is that charm of going to a film festival, both as a filmmaker and also as just as an audience member. Seeing that behind the scenes look into what happens at least on the filmmaker side was enjoyable. I did look you up on IMDB and saw that you were nominated for a Best Actor award at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. Am I getting close to home on where this idea may have sparked for this movie?
Marshall: That was the last festival we went to where I said you know I've been going to festivals since I was twenty-three, so I had about fifteen years of banked-up scenarios and just said yeah, we have to write this down. I called up a kind of recent friend Paul Alan Cope to co-write it with me because he's actually the true cinephile. And I really wanted to have not only a writer but like a real movie geek on board with this thing.
Sadie: You have these zinger moments in the movie, especially in terms of story development and character motivation and journey where you actually have the characters calling out story beats and act breaks, kind of like a wink to us. Was that something that was pre-planned and outlined beforehand in the script?
Marshall: Yeah, we did a lot of drafts on that script. Are you the same Sadie Dean that’s the Script Supervisor or is that somebody else?
Sadie: I am a Script Supervisor, yeah.
Marshall: Okay, yeah. So, you really know scripts, I’m going to be intimidated. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] I hope not, but that thank you.
Marshall: But, yeah, I mean we didn't want to have him have a Save the Cat moment because we don't know if we like him, you know? So, yeah, we tried to throw it all out there without being apparent. Fun little insights.
Sadie: You and Paul did such a great job in grounding your characters and building that world, that it works.
Marshall: Yeah, I think the actors really, I mean, across the board, we were punching above our weight with this, working on a super low budget feature. I think we're really fortunate to get everybody ready, they were all very enthusiastic to be a part of it. But, you know, nobody did this movie for the money, obviously.
Sadie: What was that casting process like for you on this film?
Marshall: We only actually cast a few roles. I've been going to the Groundlings theater, just to watch shows for a while, my wife's a talent manager, and she represents a couple of Groundlings. And so, I’d just go to shows and I’d just make little mental notes on these Groundlings that I really wanted to work with in some ways someday. So, we had them in mind when we're writing some of them. And then, some like Ellen Wong we cast, we just sent her an offer, but nobody knew her, and then Jason Genao auditioned for the movie. I wasn't really aware of him until I looked him up after his audition because the audition was strictly on merit and I'm like, “Oh, this is kind of a big deal.” You know from On My Block on Netflix. But most of them were just people that I knew or friends of friends or I’ve seen at some capacity. Oddly, Matt Cook, CJ who played the PA and Diona Reasonover, they were all on a sitcom called Clipped that went one season on TBS.
Sadie: They have such great chemistry and dynamic on-screen, that it seems like they've been making movies together for a very long time so that makes sense that they all come from a TV show together, that's really cool.
Marshall: Yeah, and that was important to have that kind of chemistry, especially because we didn't have time to rehearse. And I really wanted to get Ellen and Matt together before the movie, but we just couldn't get together, so it makes it tough when you're trying to shoot seven to ten pages, and somebody shows up like, “Hey, you've been together for you know, three, five years now and you're in love, OK action.” [laughs]
Sadie: You didn't do a table read or anything you just went straight to casting and then right into production?
Marshall: No, we did do a table read. We actually recorded the table read in the backyard of my place. When Paul and I felt pretty good about the script to where we could share it, we just wanted to have our actor friends read it for us and some of the people who read it ended up being in the movie, like Matt Cook. Will Sasso came and read, just as friends. But like we didn't have Diona or Ellen, and CJ, you know Kyle the PA, he was reading Alex's role.
I mean, we went through so many different drafts after that. It was like June, it was almost a year prior to shooting.
Sadie: There’s a lot of writers still trying to fix the kinks in their screenplays, and some may never see the light of day on the screen. As a director, what are the benefits of actually sitting down and doing a table read and hearing the words come to life? Especially as a writer, you're hearing what may or not be working: does this scene land or is this realistic dialogue? What are the benefits of doing a table read?
Marshall: Yeah, I think it’s a lot of what you just said. You know, hearing these characters out loud, not [in] your own head. Having somebody else bring it to life, and then seeing if jokes work, seeing if dialogue is too long or you know like a scene just feels long when people are talking because time is just formed in your brain when you're reading something or writing something. It was really helpful to kind of just work it out and get some separation from it.
Sadie: Working with Paul as your co-writer, could talk about that process and that relationship? Did he ever come to location and help out with any rewrites on the spot?
Marshall: Yeah, Paul was actually a co-producer as well, and he's int it! He's one of the buyers, with the glasses on, talking about drinking Coca-Cola. And at the end, when Will Sasso is like, “She really is all that.” And he says, “I get it.” [laughs]
I came to him with the idea and he was just all about it, he was on board. We just shared everything fifty-fifty. I don't really get into like, all the story by or you know whatever. I came up with the idea, but he really helped shape the story, so it is equally his.
He’s just such a loving, teddy bear, and it was just a really great environment. I've had bad partnerships before where things get like volatile or people hold on to stuff too much or whatever, and it was just a very cohesive, fun experience. And yeah, he was with us the whole time. That was like one of the best first choices I made in approaching partnering up.
Sadie: That's great to hear. Going back to the whole partnerships and relationships, especially in film, it's a toss-up. The partnership between characters Logan and Alex, it definitely rings true where you often forget that in those partnerships that the other person is also sacrificing a lot and putting a lot on the line for your project. Is Alex or that character itself based on someone you've worked with before or just a fictional character that you came up with?
Marshall: Yeah, I never really had it out like that with a financer or producer for myself so that was probably the most made-up part, but we just know that it's true for so many.
Edwin Stevens our financer, executive producer and he was also our DP, we didn't have that thing but almost obstinately I feel really responsible for the investment he made, and I hope that I'm doing everything I can to help promote it and get out there so we can get his money back. I want it to work out for him.
I think a lot of filmmakers don't appreciate that, what risk people are taking on their vision.
Sadie: Speaking of DPs, your character Tomas Jonsson, another greatly crafted character, I feel like he's a full embodiment of what all of us creatives go through working for years hard on our craft and still not getting the recognition that we want. And then we think that we have to put our authentic self aside just to try to get noticed. Creating these characters, how much are you taking from real people that you know while creating these fictional characters?
Marshall: I'm looking at the poster now and all of these characters are some sort of Frankenstein of people I've met or up to five people. So, you know, Logan, he's definitely a piece of me and some of my better and worst qualities. But I probably take him from after I did my first movie, I was in my late twenties and just kind of that whole ride and reality check. And Ellen, her patience and kind of perspective, lent from my wife. Kim reminds me of somebody I met at a festival, although I did not go to her place for the record. [laughs] I actually have worked with a Swedish DP, and he does have a renting a house as well. Absolutely not like Tomas.
I will say to their credit, all of these actors really bring their own thing too. Like with the Groundlings, Laird Macintosh who played Tomas, he wanted to bleach his hair and get that whole look down. They just really take pride in their characters.
Sadie: Ellen's character Amy, there's, there's a very poignant scene and line that she delivers, “Making the movie is the award.” A lot of creatives kind of get lost in the idea of that they're not worth anything until their movie wins an award or makes money, they kind of forget that a big accomplishment is actually finishing that draft or finishing post on a short film. Claim the little wins and the little victories because it does means a lot and it's a lot of work to even get to that place.
Marshall: Yeah, I agree. It is a shame that people get wrapped up in, you know somebody else's opinion, you know, looking at movies at a festival like, who is that person? Why does their opinion matter? It doesn’t. I think Saving Private Ryan should’ve won an Oscar, not Shakespeare in Love. [laughs] I think that was a moment where I’m like, “This is all bullshit.”
It is something that you have to constantly remind yourself, you are in this to make the thing. And at this point right now, you know everything about my movie exists for me for like the wrong reasons you know? Now it's like, you want accolades, money, praise, but all of these things are not what you should be chasing. It really is just making the thing, and then getting on to the next one, and focusing on making another one and getting better, and all that.
I have to keep telling myself that too.
Sadie: Yeah, it's a good thing to keep in the back of your mind but also it is a business, so you don't want to lose sight on making money, but that's a whole different beast.
Marshall: Oh, for sure, yeah. I made two movies and they're both like ultra-low-budget things, it’s been more of a hobby for me. I haven't really made a career out of directing movies yet, but I think the next one, we'll see.
Sadie: As an actor yourself, how did your craft inform your work as a director and as a writer?
Marshall: It’s funny, I do get called the actor’s director, a lot. And I think it's because I don't overcorrect. I give people a lot of space. I especially don't come in and tell them what I want before they bring it. I always want to see what they're gonna do. And then you know just tiny little adjustments here and there. Just trying to create an environment where people can do their best. Keeping it light, keeping it fun and not confusing the actors. I'm very much in the “keep it simple stupid” camp. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] Writing characters and dialogue, how does that better your writing and character development, being an actor yourself?
Marshall: Yeah, I think it's just [laughs] just very simply just writing the way people talk. I want my characters to exist in the real world and be relatable.
Sadie: What is your writing routine like, do you have one?
Marshall: I’m almost like a binge writer, like I get obsessed. So, I'll just blast out, you know, 40 pages in a week and then I'll come and look at it and it's terrible. Rewrite it, rewrite it. I'm not the guy who gets up and writes five pages with coffee every day. And really, I only write to direct, I'm not trying to be a career writer for somebody else to take the material. I would never sell a script unless I was getting stupid money.
Sadie: Dreadmill, is this a real short film? Please tell me it exists.
Marshall: [laughs] No, I think I just saw too many trailers for, what was it? And then we referenced the film too, there was one where these two girls get caught under a pool cover, an automatic pool cover, and that's like the whole movie.
It's truly an actual movie and they made money. So yeah, we just thought of something real stupid. [laughs] And shot it in my garage. This is the kind of movie where I'm on Craigslist, or Letgo, trying to find a treadmill for two-hundred bucks. Getting it myself and bringing it over to my house.
Sadie: If all else fails, you could go back and revisit that story and sell Dreadmill.
Marshall: Yeah, that will be like the one time I get paid to make a movie. [laughs]
Sadie: Any advice for filmmakers, multi-hyphenate writer-directors, or even the triple threats that are actors, any advice for them coming into this industry and trying to take a crack at making their first film and hitting the festival circuit?
Marshall: I can talk forever about the things I've learned the hard way. I would say with festivals, keep things in perspective. Like lowering expectations, you know, just go in there thinking that you're going to show your movie to an audience and that's it. Anything else is great. And try to meet people. You're going to meet like-minded people. It was always like a discussion, it’s not what a festival is about. It’s about the movie, being around like-minded people and showing your movie to an audience. But just don't chase the results.
And I would also say, don’t ever let anybody be waiting on you. With Film Fest, our executive producer Ed, he felt like doing a comedy - he's been doing you know some heavier stuff - and Paul and I wrote Film Fest, so we were ready. There's so much timing that has to do with this business. You just never want anybody waiting on you.
Sadie: That’s really great advice especially with film festivals and not expecting too much out of it other than meeting new people and networking, which I think a lot of people forget to put their ego at the door and just have a good time.
Marshall: Yeah, it's like you get to put your movie into a theater with an audience, it’s great. I would also say – I did it in the movie - instead of like writing what you think will sell, just write what you want to say. This is all about figuring out who you are and what you do best, you know, why can you do this better than anybody? I wouldn't say that I'm financially killing it from doing it that way. [laughs] I know people will take an existing IP and then slap some updates on it and make a killing. But I would say writing for your soul.
Sadie: For a lot of people, it's a process in finding their voice and I think that's important for people to write what they like and what they want to say.
Marshall: Yeah, Sarah Silverman, said something recently that really struck me, and it was about straight white men making comments about not being considered for work or whatever, which I’m not in that camp of complainers. She said, “Be undeniable.” John Mulaney isn’t having trouble, like he cannot be denied. Just be undeniable and be better. [laughs] Yeah. And I agree with that, like I think you just got to be the best. It's too competitive now, you know.
Sadie: 100%. I love that and ending it on a Sarah Silverman quote, I'll take it. Marshall, thank you so much. I wish you all the best on your future projects.
Marshall: Yeah, nice chatting with you, thanks.