Tuesday, April 17, 2018

TwoOhSix Interviews: The Creators of "Say You Will"

Say You Will is a film that enjoyed its world premiere during the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival and director Nick Naveda along with producers Nancy Taylor and Taylor Grabowsky were more than happy to make themselves available for an in depth discussion on what it took to put this film together. After a round of hearty hugs and hand shakes, we snagged a table outside a cafe to take advantage of the perfectly sunny Seattle weather and, before we knew it, our conversation was underway.

Taylor Grabowsky, Katherine Hughes, Nick Naveda, Travis Tope, Nancy Taylor, and Sam Trammell

To start off, I'd like to know how you all found each other and how this project came about.

Nick Naveda:
I moved out to L.A. four years ago and I was working for a writer/director at the time. It was my first job out of college so I was missing my home town and all the people and family I had left behind. Thinking about how that chapter of my life had closed made me want to write a movie about that experience and I was hoping it would be relatable to a lot of people. After writing the first draft of the script, I shared it with a few people and they really seemed to respond to it. Every time I met up to get their notes or thoughts, it always ended up being like a three hour meeting where we would talk about our lives, where we're from, our childhood crushes, our families, and things like that so I just knew that the script had that quality where it made people feel comfortable talking about those aspects of their lives.

After writing a couple more drafts, the script was where I thought it needed to be so I started casting out a broader net and getting it out to more people. I had a connection with UTA (United Talent Agency) so it started to get read by a lot of assistants who were typically people in their mid 20's, working their first job, and also looking in the rear view at that portion of their lives. The script had a bit of a life that way because it just connected with them and that's how it eventually found its way to Nancy and Taylor.

Nancy Taylor:
Nick and I were both working as Hollywood assistants during the time that I was with the agency (UTA) and we were always emailing back and forth, setting things up for our bosses, but had never actually met. A mutual friend of ours told me that I should take a look at this great script that Nick had wrote. After he sent it to me, I read it straight through then immediately went home and read it again that night. The first thing I did afterwards was call Taylor who I had met about five years ago at a film festival. We're always on the same page with everything so I was like Taylor, you have to read this right now, you have to literally drop everything that you're doing!

Later on, I was living in New York and a financier got in touch with me wanting to make a movie with Taylor and I. We had a few projects we were working on within the horror and thriller genres but she said she wanted something more like a coming of age, young adult movie because she had a 16 year old daughter. Once we got rolling, she was really the definition of an angel investor because she let us do what we needed to do to get the movie done, she was very hands off and was very emotionally, and of course financially, supportive. That's basically how it got started.

Taylor Grabowsky:
Just to give you an idea of the life cycle of this film; I read the script in February of 2016, we had a table read in May, and then went into production in August which included a 15 day shoot so it all happened within pretty much a calendar year which is unheard of. We had some amazingly talented people who were resonating with the material and they were willing to work with us and bring their expertise despite our indie budget. For example, our DP (Jac Fitzgerald) worked on Lord of the Rings and our gaffer (Jesse Jaraczewski) worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button so we were just thrilled and kept wondering how we were able to bring them on board.

Nick, you mentioned the story is somewhat autobiographical. What did it mean to you to be able to create something that feels so natural and authentic?

Nick Naveda:
In terms of the naturalism that you're talking about, I grew up like a lot of other film makers my age watching those early Richard Linklater films like Before Sunrise and other indie films from the 90's that have the same type of feel to them. That was a big jumping off point for me in writing this script and because I love movies that just feel true to life where you can sit and watch and really, truly see yourself and the people in your life.

The most autobiographical aspect of the movie is that I lost my dad when I was younger so I feel like a big part of my growing up was centered around me, my mom, and my sister kind of navigating those tricky waters. It's a particular feeling that I'm trying to get at in the movie because I feel like it happens to everyone at a certain point in their life. It's when they stop seeing their parents as parents and they start seeing them as people with really complicated inner lives. That was a lot of my experience at a very young age and I wanted to convey that on the screen. At its core I wanted it to be a story about a mother and son who come together and process through their grief and get to that next chapter in their life.

What was the casting process like?

I remember a few years ago, Taylor went to a table read of American Beauty that Travis Tope was a part of. I remember him calling me and texting me saying he just got out of this amazing table read and there was this actor, he was so brilliant and all of these types of things. Then there was my mom who was watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and she literally took her cell phone and sent me a blurry pic of Katherine Hughes on her TV screen saying she should be Ellie which, at the time, I thought was just funny.

Now, cut to Taylor's brilliant friend Charlene, who was our casting director, sending the script to both of their managers and asking if they'd like to participate in a table read. Little did we know, Katherine was actually on a vacation somewhere for her birthday that was like a 10 hour drive from L.A. She read the script, I think she was with her friends or her boyfriend or something, and she drove back the morning of the table read and it turned out to be this magical experience.

Travis was so perfect for the role and none of us could have imagined anyone else and Charlene was like "This is the best table read I've ever seen." We left and I thought I had no idea what we're going to do if they didn't want to do it. Thankfully, Katherine was so forthcoming and told us she wanted to do it which was a great confidence booster for us and we're like, okay great, she was feeling it, too. Then we were like, Travis please!

When I heard Katherine and Travis reading for the roles, it was a certainty that I felt in my gut and I told the two of them later on that it almost felt like unrequited love. I felt like I was in love with these people as the characters and I just didn't know what I was going to do if they said no or if their schedules didn't work. Luckily, they were both super excited and ready to jump right in. I knew Katherine wanted to do it, she actually told me the day of the table read. She came up to me and it was so sweet, she said "I will do whatever it takes to honor this character" and she did it.

With Travis, I was very unsure, I think we all were unsure, and we didn't know where he stood. When we finally met to discuss the role, I feel like we both were kind of feeling each other out and then we finally cleared the air and we both sort of realized that he wanted to do the movie and that I wanted him to do the movie, we just didn't know that we both wanted the same thing. Once we figured that out then he was immediately in.

When you're filming, how much are you informing the actors of what you want and how much do you let them just do their thing?

Fortunately, we had a lot of time to prep and a lot of the actors were so generous with their time, we would spend hours working together which was good because we didn't have a lot of time to shoot the film. We had 15 days and we were lucky to get five takes for any one scene so we had to hit the ground running. After all the prep work, everybody knew who the characters were and everybody knew the kind of movie we were making.

There were a few moments where we would have side conversations about things to adjust but other than that, everybody was completely on the same page so it was really great. If there was time, we would try a few different things with particular scenes like letting them riff off of each other and improvising and there was a ton of stuff that was left on the cutting room floor.

Even in the editing process you wax and wane about different scenes like, maybe that's too harsh, but then you realize you have to go there to get the dramatic tension and the emotion and raw nature of the performances. When a character gets hurt, the natural reaction for them is to go on the defensive and protect themselves so I think that level of emotion is a strength of the film.

Nick's writing, and also his directing work, is seeing truth and making sure that how people are realizing their scenes is truthful. An anecdote that we've shared before is that we had the option of doing a crane shot in the video store where we could see everyone playing hide and go seek and it was all prepped and ready to go. Boman Modine, our assistant director, told Nick we have the option of either going for the crane shot that's really cool or you can do one more take of them in the aisle. Nick decided that we needed to do one more take in the aisle and that turned out to be the take that was used in the movie which is a credit to his eye and attention to detail.

Was everything shot on locations or were sets used as well?

There were a couple of sets, the classroom and the clinic as well as Sam and Ellie's bedrooms, but everything else was shot on location.

Our production designer, Paul Luther Jackson, specializes in set building so I think he was really excited to take the blank spaces of the two bedrooms and do his thing with what we gave him. What he built for the two of them was so brilliant and I remember seeing Sam's bedroom for the first time and we both started crying because it was so beautiful, it's exactly what it needed to be. As a young woman, I would give anything to have Ellie's bedroom because it's such an effortlessly cool and complicated space where you can see her tastes in music and movies.

I love the two moments when we watch them discover each other in those spaces because your bedroom is so personal and it's something we even talked about on set. With Sam's room in particular, it felt like our production designer was able to build this entire character of Sam's dad and we really got to know him intimately through that space without having met him on screen. That was a really beautiful and successful manifestation of a character that was so important and was always kind of there even though we never saw him.

That's a really good point because we don't ever see Sam's dad and I never wanted to. That was a note that I got early on in the script, it's not something that I wanted to show and I didn't want to do flashbacks. In so many of the conversations about Sam's room it was just like what is this guy like and how do we build out this person through what the room looks like. I'm a hoarder of reference so when I'm writing something I have a whole hard drive full of reference photos and things from my life and things that I've seen in art books and things that I've scanned. When I got together with all the department heads I just unloaded on them a bunch of material and they went to town with it.

Is there anything specific you want people to get out of this film?

What I think is so beautiful about this film is how everyone we've spoken to, they're emotional responses have come at different points of the movie. It's like all of these different moments can resonate with people at different points in their lives so I think that's a really beautiful aspect to it.

There are so many interesting junctures when you are a teenager so I think the story is something everyone can relate to and why there has been such a response. It's like everyone has been through that period in life. It's difficult and it's tough and it's just such a pivotal time.

I'm always of the mentality of letting the work speak for itself. My ultimate goal was to tell a personal story that could be relatable and for people to see themselves. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones that ooze with empathy to the point where they verge on healing people. Hopefully that doesn't sound cheesy but that's just something I really love in movies so if people can walk away with that feeling then I feel like I've achieved my goal.

TwoOhSix.com review of Say You Will.

Say You Will is an official selection of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

TwoOhSix.com coverage of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

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