I’m thrilled that I get to see not one but TWO films by talented filmmaker C.J. Renner this year. Earlier this Summer, TCFF showed the gangster thriller GUNN as part of their Insider Series in June. This time, C.J. and his longtime producing collaborator Sasha Michelle come up with another cool, stylishly-shot film that’s also set and filmed in the Twin Cities.
A Gen Z Bonnie and Clyde, the setting is deliberately simple but done with extended long takes that truly showcase the charisma of the two protagonists Nelle June Anderson and Frank Foster-Bolton, as well as the sharp script. I have to admit the hand-held camera style might make some people nauseous if they have issues with motion sickness, but the story is absorbing and intriguing that you want to stick around to see how it unfolds. The opening scene in the cafe is basically just two people bantering, but it’s amazing how the ‘less is more’ filmmaking sensibility can make quite an impact when done right.
Filmed in the Winter months, the cinematography by Tomas Aksamit (who also shot GUNN) is beautiful. The music by Nick Christopulos (who’s also the go-to sound guy for C.J. and he also did an amazing job in my short film Hearts Want) is also memorable and is an integral part to the storytelling style. After seeing a few of C.J.’s shorts and two of his features, he’s definitely a brilliant storyteller and filmmaker to be reckoned with. I hope he gets to do more films in the future!
She needed a fall guy to frame for a robbery, but when she suspects her partners of setting her up, her sucker is now the only one she can trust… not your average first date.
Q&A with filmmaker C.J. Renner
Q1. What’s the significance of the title?
After the first draft of the script (terribly titled, “Pennies” at the time) the most surprising thing that started to come through was how these two characters are unique to our time and place. Honing that with Frank and Nelle became a big part of pre-production. Exploring the subtleties of the way our young-20s leads discuss race, gender, politics, love became the most rewarding challenge of writing this film, and I think the only word that comes close to expressing that, for better or worse, is “American”. And “tender” hopefully conveys the dual flavor of the movie: both heartfelt (tender) and heist-y (legal tender).
Q2. Gunn was quite a novelty stylistically with the use of silhouettes, color, etc in storytelling. What’s evident in American Tender is the super long takes and that it’s very talky. How did you end up with this particular implementation to tell your story, particularly using the long takes?
I love a challenge, and as a filmgoer, I’m always excited to watch something bold. At every stage: writing, blocking, performing, and scoring- the real time storytelling was a huge difficultly. But at literally every stage, we discovered really exciting and necessary facets of the characters and story that would never have been captured if we didn’t have to perform, move, and rehearse in these incredibly long takes.
Q3. How long was the shoot overall and did you intend to shoot it in the Winter time?
We were firm on shooting in the winter… the visual of our Owen character walking out into the dead of winter, so in his head that he doesn’t consider his body, was a moment I wasn’t willing to give up. The actual shooting was insanely short; we shot the whole film in two weekends, but there was tons of rehearsal and blocking that occurred before that. The dance between the camera and actors was complex, and we didn’t have the luxury of tweaking individual line readings once the camera was rolling, so Nelle and Frank and I had to all be firmly on the same page about the way these characters interact at each step in the story before we started shooting.
Q4. Which part comes first for you… the concept of using long takes and hand-held storytelling, or the narrative story itself which calls out for that style of shooting?
The story and the shooting style feed each other. I have a bunch of feature concepts I’m dying to make, anywhere from a couple sentences scribbled on a napkin to fully polished scripts, so I always feel like I have a healthy jumping off point. For me, the most exciting part of the process is asking the cinematographer, gaffer, actors, musicians, designers to be wildly creative and nakedly honest then doing my best to infuse their personalities into the story.
Q5. How was the casting process? Both Frank and Nelle are relatively new to acting, esp. as leads. Was that a deliberate choice?
Actually, they stole the roles in the auditions. We had two fantastic actors in mind (who we definitely will work with in the future), and we auditioned them and several other pairs. We could have made this with any of the pairs actually… they were all great in their own way. But there was genuinely something electric with Nelle and Frank… even in the quiet moments during auditions. It was a surprise, but a very exciting surprise. The first time we’d seen Nelle she was the lead in an opera… the casting director and I were blown away by this very young woman who was commanding the stage of all these huge, seasoned opera performers. But opera is so big, we didn’t expect her to be able to go to the subtle places she’d need to in this… but we discovered amazingly she brings that authority with even just a tiny look or a small movement.
Q5. Music is very effective here, just like in Gunn. As a filmmaker and musician, can you tell me a bit about the process of integrating your music into your film?
Huge thanks for the compliment! I’m really excited for people to hear this score. The guy who did the score, Nick Christopulos, was on board this project from its inception, so we had the luxury to discuss the score during blocking and production, to actually be able to say to an actor, “don’t verbalize that line, the score guy here is confidant we can accomplish that with a look and the music” is such an asset. Also, as soon as we had a lead with incredible opera pipes, Nick ran with the idea of using her voice as an instrument in the score of the film. Because music unashamedly crafts your mood when watching a film, having the voice of our lead in the score really adds an exciting window into her character’s headspace.
Q6. What’s been your cinematic inspirations in terms of story and style for this film?
I was able to have a long talk with the cinematographer of Victoria about the nuts and bolts of extreme long take filmmaking, he challenged us to change the scale (close-ups, long shots) as much as possible, which was fantastic advice. Band of Outsiders was another huge influence… it was a reminder to keep our characters playful with each other. And the current political climate had the whole crew feeling very rebellious… looking back, the production feels like a “f*ck you” to authority and filmmaking conventions.
Q&A with lead actor Frank Foster-Bolton
Q1. How do you prepare for your role?
Because we knew our shoot was only going to take place over two weekends, we started prep work months prior to production. At first it was just the four of us (me, Nelle, CJ, and Sasha) talking about the characters outside of the events of the film – motivations, insecurities, strengths, etc. After that the main focus was rehearsing the script to death and finding moments that would be special. The biggest leaps for me happen when everyone’s working in the room together, so preparing for that is super important. I like to start that process solo – taking a bunch of notes on every scene, getting the tone down, all that – so when we have full rehearsals and we’re exploring different ways to do the scene, I have a strong base to work from.
Q2. There’s a ton of dialog done in multiple long takes. Was there a lot of improvisation happening during shoot?
Dialogue improv was very limited on this project. Because the takes were going to be so long, and we were only going to get so many cracks at them, CJ, Sasha, Nelle, and I worked really hard on getting the words right. With the words set in stone, we didn’t have to worry about them. The idea, at least in my head, what that because we didn’t have to worry about the words, our body posture and movement came across as more natural. If anything I’d say that movements in the blocking were what we improvised the most.
Q3. What’s been the most challenging as well as most gratifying part to shoot?
As it most often is, the most gratifying thing on this project was entwined with the most difficult. The takes were very long, and because we weren’t going to be doing any cutting, everyone had to get everything right for a usable take. As you can imagine, it took a lot of hard work from the crew and the cast to get a 15-minute “sweet-spot” take. When it came together, and everyone was firing on all cylinders, it was such a reward. Those takes transported everyone on set to the world of our story, and made the end product all the more special.
Q4. How was working with CJ as writer/director?
Awesome. Traditionally we’ve worked together behind the camera (most recently I edited his film, Gunn, and he and Sasha produced a project I directed), so we have a pretty good understanding of each other’s taste and style. It was great getting to springboard off of our previous relationship into a new artistic dynamic. The big thing I learned about CJ: He knows what he wants to see in his movies. He has a big goal with each scene. Once you figure out how to accomplish that goal he kind of lets you loose on the character. So it’s a good balance of structure and freedom.
Q5. If you were on a first date playing the same game as in the movie, and your date asks you to do something way out of your comfort zone, what would you do?
Eat potato salad with raisins in it.
TCFF Screening Date:
Wednesday October 24th at 2:45 PM
Thanks so much C.J. and Frank for chatting with FlixChatter!