Short Film Spotlight: ‘Classic. Becky. Party’ + Q&A with writer/director John J. Kaiser

Just two days away until Twin Cities Film Fest’s MN Shorts Showcase event! Today we’ve got yet another Q&A with a talented MN filmmaker whose film Classic. Becky. Party will be screening on Wednesday night (more info below).

I met first met John at the TCFF Gala in September 2017, thanks to his creative partner Jay Ness (one of the excellent camera crews who worked on my short film Hearts Want). John and Jay are the owners of CutJaw Film Co., a Minnesota-based film production company that’s done a number of short films such as Curse of the Invisible Werewolf and Bobby’s Run Off.

Check out my Q&A on his female-led comedy drama starring Rachel Weber, Larissa Gritti, and Anna Stranz, filmed entirely in Minneapolis.

Becky has arranged every detail for what’s supposed to be the perfect party. The food, the ambiance, the decor is all set, all that’s missing are the guests.

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Q: What inspires you to write Classic Becky Party? The premise sounds quite personal. Was it?

Classic. Becky. Party. really came from an insecurity that a lot of people I think have which is what do you do when you throw a party and no one shows up. It has happened every time I’ve thrown any sort of party. Fortunately none of those have ever been as disastrous as Becky’s party. But it’s definitely a kind of funny kind of sad scenario that lots of people identify with. An empty party is a level of loneliness that audiences can really empathize with.

Becky is the kind of person that desperately wants everyone to think she has her shit together, so it was fun to see how much she could unravel and lower the facade she presents to those around her. Having her sisters arrive to witness her embarrassment just adds fuel to the fire.

Q: You’ve written quite a number of shorts and you often direct your own work. What’s the biggest challenge for you as a director to do that?

The biggest challenge to being both writer and director on a project is you have one less person to bounce ideas off of. Film is a collaborative medium so it’s good to have input from your cast and crew, experts in their field, so when you’re directing your own script it’s even more essential to listen to those collaborators. Of course it’s a two sided coin and there’s something incredibly liberating and fulfilling about taking an idea to the page and then taking that page to the screen.

Q: Who are some of your filmmaking influences? Specifically for dramas.

When tackling a drama I think it’s incredibly important to find moments of levity and catharsis for the audience, so any writer/director that can incorporate that balance into their work is someone that I gravitate towards.

A few filmmakers that come to mind are Billy Wilder, Mike Mills, the Coen Bros., and on the writer front definitely Greta Gerwig and Aaron Sorkin. I’m sure there are a million more, but those are the first that come to mind.

Q:Your film was set in a single location (an apt), what’s the challenges you faced in filming in one confined space like that? On the flip side, what are the main biggest strength?

The biggest challenge of a single location film is finding ways to keep the location feeling fresh. Luckily the loft we filmed in had a few distinct areas, such as the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. This allowed us several options for us to block out the scenes in. It was also important to keep our characters moving around the space so that the audience doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

The biggest benefit of a single location though is saving on time and budget.  Once we “moved in” to the space we were able to stay put for the two days it took to film.  We didn’t have to worry about loading out and loading in to another location.  Using a single location also brings a theatrical quality to the film. It’s a script that could easily be adapted to the stage.

Anna & Larissa in between takes

Q: I love your three all-female cast. Would you tell us a bit about the casting process? Is it especially tricky since they’re playing sisters?

Top left: Rachel, Larissa & Anna on set | Top right: Filming the lead actress Rachel Weber

The casting process for this film was remarkably simple. I was familiar with the work of Rachel, Larissa, and Anna and knew instantly that they would work well as sisters. From our first pre-production meeting, it was obvious that the three of them shared a rare bond that was going to translate well to the screen. I was more interested in finding three performers that shared chemistry than three performers that looked like sisters. For me it was all about creating a believable relationship and rapport between these characters and Rachel, Larissa, and Anna were an essential part of that process.


This Is Home is screening on
Wednesday May 30th at 7:30 PM

Many filmmakers, cast and crew will be present representing their films and answering your questions.

6:30pm – Red Carpet Interviews and Photos
7:30pm – Screening
9:00pm – Q&A

Selected films include:

  • The Great White Storm – Directed by Jon Thomas
  • Deep Cover – Directed by Keith Langsdorf
  • Bite the Bullet – Directed by Ryan Huang
  • This is Home – Directed by Jason Schumacher
  • Classic.Becky.Party – Directed by John J. Kaiser
  • The Burial Plot – Directed by Chris Fletcher
  • Zomburbia – Directed by Nathan Wold
  • 2Bullets – Directed by Brandi Harkonen
$10 Earlybird*
$12 At the Door

*TCFF MEMBERS RECEIVE FREE ADMISSION!

Get your tickets! »


John is a Minneapolis, MN based screenwriter and film director and co-founder of CutJaw Film Co. His directorial debut, Bobby’s Run Off, premiered at the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2016 and has since screened in multiple film festivals and featured on filmshortage.com.

In 2017, John was awarded a Jerome Foundation Artist Grant in support of his first feature length film Only Dance Can Save Us. Slated to begin production in 2018, aiming for a 2019 release. CutJaw Film Co. is currently working on a sci-fi thriller feature film Dark Cloud, also scheduled to be released next year.


Thanks John for chatting with us!

Indie Film Spotlight: GUNN + Interview with writer/director C.J. Renner & four cast members

It’s always fun being able to wear my film journalist hat once in a while. So whenever there’s an opportunity to chat with a filmmaker, whether locally or from other parts of the world, I always jump at the chance. This time, we’ve got something special because I get to do the interview on a different format… on video! Thanks to Minnesota-based filmmaker C.J. Renner and producer Sasha Michelle, as well as four of GUNN cast members for taking the time to chat with me last Friday afternoon.

I always love a good noir. GUNN is a gangster crime drama unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the way the story is written to the deliberate surrealistic production style, it’s so refreshing to see a classic story done in an unconventional way.

All Elston Gunn ever needed to survive was a little luck and his Tommy gun. But when he discovers his whole world is just a staged play, he must dodge not only cops but stagehands… he must save not only his crumbling empire, but his last hold on reality.

There’s a lot to like about GUNN. The film is quite stylish with great camera angles and lighting for maximum effect. Despite the limited indie budget, Renner and his team are very creative and resourceful in constructing the minimalistic sets to support the narrative. Right from the fantastic Mondrian style opening credits, this is a cool, stylish film. I like the deliberate dreamy/surreal quality which fits the themes and storyline well, and he’s got a terrific ensemble cast to bring his story to life.

Andrew Stecker as Elston Gunn

Andrew Stecker portrays the inner conflict of Elston nicely. The fact that he doesn’t look like a typical gangster works in the story’s favor, and I like the vulnerability he brings to the role. Amanda Day and Anna Stranz are two wonderful talents I’ve seen in previous films before, glad to see each have a decent character arc in the film. Richard Keats as the mob boss and Noah Gillett as Elston’s closest crony, as well as Peter Christian Hansen and Tyson Lietz as the two cops hot on the gangsters’ tail, are all terrific in their roles.

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Some films that are shot mostly on set sometimes felt constricting, but that’s not the case here. Once you accept the surrealistic nature, the film flows quite nicely. The creative use of lighting and camera work create some striking imagery on screen. Because of the minimalist set, the costumes play a huge part in conveying the Prohibition era and boy, do the cast look fabulous in 1930s outfits. I love the satin dresses, fur accessories on the women… and the guys look oh-so-dapper in vests, suspenders and Fedoras.

I can’t write this review without mentioning the wonderful music by Travis Anderson, one of the biggest strengths of the film. The jazzy score and some of the songs performed in the film are not only catchy, but they add so much to the mood and atmosphere.

The pacing could be a bit more dynamic, some of the heavy-dialog scenes, as the scene between Keats and Stecker in the middle of the film felt a little too long. But really it’s a small quibble in an otherwise a smart, enjoyable debut film. Kudos to C.J. for coming up with such a cool story, but also in executing it in such a clever way.

The film is now up on Amazon… FREE for prime subscribers! Just search “gunn” wherever you watch Amazon, or click banner below:

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Interview video with writer/director C.J. Renner:

In my 7+ years covering Minnesota films and filmmakers as a blogger, I’m even more impressed by the local talents we’ve got in this town. C.J. is definitely a filmmaker to watch and I truly hope he continues to write and make more films in the future!

Interview video with cast members Andrew Stecker, Noah Gillett, Anna Stranz and Peter Christian Hansen:

It was so fun interviewing the cast! It was so great meeting Andrew for the first time just before the interview. Peter & Noah are both in my short film Hearts Want, so it was lovely seeing them again. I had met Anna last year at Twin Cities Film Fest and was impressed by her performance in Miles Between Us, surely she’ll have a fruitful acting career ahead of her.

I’m really grateful to everyone for taking the time out of their busy schedule to do this on a Friday afternoon. In fact, Peter had just got done filming another MN indie film shortly before the interview!

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Thanks so much C.J. Renner + Sasha Michelle + the GUNN cast
for the delightful interview!

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Miles Between Us’ + Interview with lead actor Dariush Moslemi

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I love road movies and Miles Between Us is an engaging mix of road trip + inspirational family drama. It’s a Minnesota-made production, and most of the scenes shot around the Twin Cities, so it’s cool to see a sold-out screening of it on Sunday. It also has a Minnesota crew, including one of TCFF staff members Briana Rose Lee who was the assistant director and wardrobe person!


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My review:

The fact that I didn’t grow up without a father, this film certainly resonated with me quite a bit. Interesting too that the father, Scott Dauer, is a film producer, just like my late dad was who was a screenwriter. The relationship of father and daughter (played by Dariush Moslemi and Anna Stranz, respectively) is pretty compelling, starting out testy but they slowly bond as they spend more time with each other.

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The dialog feels natural, peppered with comic moments as well as profound spiritual conversations that is organic to the story. I enjoyed the performances from both leads. There’s humor and touching moments, which makes the road trip far from boring. The only part that I find a bit awkward is the scenes between the daughter and a film star her dad’s pursuing for his film. Overall though, it’s a well-crafted and well-acted Minnesota-made indie drama that should appeal to teens, families and the faithful communities. Props to writer/producer Scott Peterson and director Andrew Hunt, it’s a lovely little story of pain, hope, healing, and redemption.

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Five questions with Miles Between Us‘ lead actor Dariush Moslemi:

Q: Ok so my first question is how did this project first come together for you. It sounds like you’ve met producer Scott Peterson before?

Right. So I worked with Scott and Diane Peterson who are the producers of IIFilms several years ago, and my wife was actually good friends with Diane through my wife’s mother’s work. Long story short. And anyway they’re wrapping up getting ready for their pre-production on the first film The Current, and they were still looking for one particular role a man playing in his mid thirties and I played a father and I was in my mid and on his father and so I really thought that I could do this but my brother is a professional actor in L.A. And so I said I’d pass that on to him, so I did. My brother had to pass it, he had other work going on. Then I told my wife, I said for some reason I really want to just audition for this list. Call it a bucket list or whatever. So I called up Scott. I tracked down his phone number because he didn’t give it to me and I said that Look, I don’t mean to bug you but I like to audition for this. He’s like ‘You know you don’t have the experience, on and on.’ And I said ‘Just give me five minutes, I’ll come to you.’

So I drove an hour into his home and audition for that role. And within five hours, he called me and said I had it if I wanted it, which was a supporting lead role on The Current. And so that’s how I met the Petersons officially in the film world. And I worked with them on that project and then I’ve done a feature film in between. And then Scott and Diane let me know they were doing Miles Between Us. And so at that point I expressed my interest, I said I’d like to audition for it. They brought in Andy, Andrew Hunt as the director. And he was the one who really put me through the paces. So Scott and Diane were pretty much set, they liked me for the role but Andrew wasn’t sure, which is ok. You know he was still getting all his options and had me audition and audition and audition. I mean tons of callbacks, it took months and eventually I got the job. So that’s how I came to be the lead in this movie.

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Q: So what attracted you to the script? Did you connect to the story in some ways?

Well, it was fun to play a lead role [laughs] It’s also nerve wracking because if this thing doesn’t do good we kind of knows what it is but it’s the opposite of everything that I have I’ve done it before I’m playing a character who left his family a long time ago. And in the real world I have five kids with my wife. I met my wife. She had already had four children before we got married and we had another baby together so it’s really kind of the antithesis of who I am, you know. And so it was a lot of fun to dive into kind of a darker character somebody who is not so good and has made some pretty selfish choices in life. Not saying I’m perfect in real life but it was just fun to dive into this because on screen I’ve never played that character before, and it was really intriguing to play something comedic, something fun, but at the same time narcissistic and and just kind of just really self-absorbed. But also the growth in the change through the film of going away from that. The ‘growing up’ into this different person, but it’s not so dramatic of a shift…I’m still me being that character, just a little bit different. A little bit a change that’s not so dramatic that it’s not believable. I like that, very much. It was just a realistic ‘Ok this kind of changed me.’ I really enjoyed playing that character.

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Q: Speaking of that, I kind of like spiritual aspect that seems organic to the story. It’s not that they set out to make a certain story with a particular message. Is that something that is deliberate from the beginning?

I would say yes. And I mean Scott and Diane have a beautiful faith and their vision for what they want their films to do is enormous. And it was really great to play it in such a way that it wasn’t force feeding the audience. It’s almost like you get some films don’t trust the audience to get it. And Anna Stranz (who played Scott’s daughter) and I had a great opportunity to still work with Andy, to still work with Scott, and to take some of our lines and alter them just to make slightly just to make sure that it’s really like a true conversation, not something somebody told us to say. And and that is I think what I hope comes across as I see in the film. But our intention was for it to come across as ‘Yes, it’s a faith-based film. Yes, it does speak about this area [of faith and spirituality], however anybody could watch it and won’t be insulted by it. At the same time there’s truth in it. There’s there’s aspects about it that are along those lines, they’re there, but they’re not forced down your throat, but it’s not beating around the bush, either. It’s not a Lifetime film, you know, it really is what it is. Our whole goal we set out as actors, Anna and I myself, and Anna who played Gaby my daughter did an unbelievable job at this being it’s her first time in film. She did such a fantastic job and we were able to play off each other because I’m the one who’s playing the non Christian father who doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to know. Anna’s playing the daughter who’s going to Christian school. And so the debate is between her and I. I think it’s relatable to anybody. Yes. I think you can relate to it. It’s just that really you’re like I’ve had this conversation before and it’s okay to discuss these things.

Q: Yeah, it resonated with me as in the trailer there’s a conversation in the car where your character said something about that it’s too late. And she said, ‘You mean with you and mom or is it with God?’

Yes, it was kind of unexpected. I hope that it’s enough that it gets across, you know, because that’s what you want your audience to feel. You want them to think about and really walk away like ‘Oh yes I feel like I was in that conversation, I feel like it was in that car.’

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Q: So was this filmed here in Minnesota? I wasn’t sure as there are parts in L.A. as well in the film.

Yes, it was all filmed in Minnesota. It was different parts of Minnesota but all within about an hour or two the Twin Cities. So in order to make it look like we’re going through different states we may have to go south through the cities or North East of the Cities or East or West or whatever. Yeah. And there was that part was just kind of fun. I live in Stillwater so you know a lot of it was still far enough away that I would stay in a hotel.

A lot of this 16 hour drive won’t come in and be like you know on the ball by any means. So it felt like I was far away, but in reality it was here all whole time. While certain they did the car scenes like Scott and his dad did a fun road trip themselves. They literally flew out to L.A. got the same picture car that we have for the film at leased it and then drove across all the way from L.A. from the South Carolina, which is the film, they drive from L.A. to South Carolina. It took them about a week or something like that.

THANK YOU Dariush for chatting with me about Miles Between Us!


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