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Filmmaking Trance: Director Matt Perry Interviewed

by Jesse Shanks

Writer, filmmaker and sometime dOc contributor Matt Perry recently directed the short film Trance, which will debut at the Sacramento Festival of Cinema on October 5. Recently, he discussed the making of the film with digitallyOBSESSED. The film is notable for its wide-open collaboration between the director and his 30 actors. Perry invited the actors to create, from scratch, an entire movie in a single day. The actors not only starred in the movie but are given writing credit—they created their own scenarios on the morning of filming, with Perry acting as shepherd for the project.

dOc: What was the genesis of Trance?

MP: A year ago I made a short film here in Sacramento called Sac Noir, written by a very talented local writer, Jeri Weiss. It was basically a knock-off of film noir set in the most unlikely of noir settings, Sacramento. It was very short—only 10 minutes—but had all the classic noir elements of crime, the femme fatale, hidden identities and double-crosses. Really tight.

We held auditions for the four main characters and it was the first time I had cast here in Sacramento for something that wasn't corporate. And I thought, Man, there is really some talent here. Some of the auditions were terrible—you know, the kind of actor who keeps doing it the same way no matter what direction you give him—but on the whole it was quite good. And I started thinking of a way to make a film with a lot of characters that wouldn't take years to make, like it would on a feature.

Several years ago I'd read about some filmmaker who created, basically, a recurring troupe of local film actors. I can't remember if it was here in the States or overseas, but I'm leaning toward Europe. And he would keep making films using the same people over and over again. I've always been an admirer of Fassbinder, and he basically did the same thing. He was incredibly productive that way. God, he was turning out one or two features ever year, at an alarming rate. He said in an interview once, "I'll be dead in 5 years. But most people are already dead." So he kept churning out films using the same people with whom he'd already developed a lot of trust, like Hanna Schygulla as his lead actress and Michael Ballhaus as his cinematographer.

I thought it would be great to do the same thing, but with short films. It would create a sense of community in a place like Sacramento that has too little community, only little islands of filmmakers.

So I devised a film that would use a whole mess of actors ("mess" is the official term for a group of actors just like a gaggle of geese or a murder of crows) and that was totally fluid. We could shoot it all in one day and it wouldn't matter who showed up and who didn't because there was no script when we started.

dOc: Where did you film?

MP: At The Studio Center here in Sacramento, a place where I often freelance.

dOc: What were the biggest technical issues?

MP: Well, the film takes place in a rave club—you know, that plays electronica and industrial music—so we tried to get a place called The Rage here in town that would have been perfect, but the owner is very skeptical of cameras so he basically ignored us.

(Courtesy River City Free Fall)

However, there were a couple of very cool guys who worked at the club that gave me lots of information about the electronica scene.

For simplicity's sake—and that's what Trance was all about—we decided to shoot at The Studio Center. Everything was controlled that way on a day when there were no controls on anything creatively.

Technically, I thought the film would be done in one continuous shot with a moving camera. No edits. Logistically that would have been a nightmare because we really didn't have the equipment to do it—no Steadicam. And blocking it out so we could do it in one continuous shot without anyone flubbing a line or the camera missing a mark would have meant we'd probably be there all night. The whole point was to create the film in one day so I threw out the "one shot" idea right away. We just shot each part of the film separately and cut it together like an Altman film, where everything's happening at once and we just bop around from one conversation to another.

I imagined what it would be like to be a fly on the wall at a dance club—any dance club. Just think of all the little soap operas going on out there on the dance floor. So I thought it would be a perfect setting for our film. By the way, we arrived, rehearsed, and shot the entire 14-minute film in only 10 hours. That's faster than the B movie directors back in the 1940s and 50s who would make a 65-minute film in just six days, like Edgar Ulmer did with Detour. They just churned those things out. He was fast, but we were faster!

dOc: Was the film shot on DV?

MP: Yeah, we shot it on DVCAM and then bumped it over to Mini-DV to get into the editor's computer.

dOc: What technology did you use?

MP: A Sony DSR-200 to shoot it in DVCAM. We copied it to a Canon GL-1 to get it into Richard Angert's PC, where we edited in Adobe Premiere.

dOc: How did you get the actors?

MP: We started with all the people we auditioned for Sac Noir, especially the ones we DIDN'T cast. That was the whole point—to invite people we liked but couldn't use for that film. And my producer Laurie Pederson had worked on a couple other films and invited some of those people, and these actors told their friends. If everyone we invited showed up we would have had 60 or more actors. We got 30.

dOc: What instructions did you give them?

MP: Before the shoot pretty much all we told them was the basic idea. Electronica club, dancing, come ready to improvise. Bring three sets of clothes and ideas for three scenarios you might want to do with a dance partner. For example, I suggested to my friend (and fellow Kings fan) Steve Orcino that he and his wife might be having their first date after meeting online. But mostly I wanted to see what other people came up with.

dOc: What was the biggest hurdle to overcome?

MP: Everything went pretty smoothly during the day. We tossed around ideas in the morning as the actors presented their scenarios. Some were great right off the bat and others had to be shaped a little, so we worked on them. But for the most part I went with what they created. The actors are all given writing credit on the film. At the end it states "Written by and Starring." I don't get a writing credit at all, nor should I. This was everyone's film.

dOc: What guided you in directing scenes?

MP: Fear. Just kidding. We did everything very quickly so I didn't do a whole lot of directing. Sometimes great directing is NOT directing. Paul Thomas Anderson said his actor friends would just get mad at him if he tried to tell his actors what to do, and to a point that's true. With good actors—and have I mentioned that I am totally in love with Julianne Moore and hope this film gets me a meeting with her?—you don't have to do much. A little tweak here or there. Most of what I did the day of the shoot was make very fast decisions and keep things moving because it was really hot inside the studio. We went through a lot of beer. I made the mistake of telling the actors—and this is at 9:00 in the morning—that what we were doing was "Having a party with a video camera." They took me literally and said "Well, if this is a party where's the beer?" I think the final count was 138 beers.

dOc: How did the final film emerge from the raw footage?

MP: Well, originally I didn't think we'd have to edit anything because I wanted to do it in one continuous take. But suddenly we had 15 or 20 different scenarios happening at the same time so we just started cutting. The scenarios last around 30 seconds or more and what we discovered right away is that this film would be boring as sh** if each scenario was kept intact and we played them beginning to end. So we started intercutting furiously. "Let's try this scene first, cut to those guys, come back here, oops, we can't go to that scenario because this actress is in both of them." It was trial-and-error. But then we got a rhythm going that was very fast. We would stay on a couple for 5-10 seconds and get a taste of what's going on and then cut away to someone else. This was great because it also allowed us to cut out any dead time in the scenarios. We snipped out bits and pieces everywhere.

Richard and I decided early on that there were literally millions of ways for the film to be cut so we didn't stress too much about the organization. My only rule was that we had to introduce new characters and new scenarios as the film went along. For instance, we weren't going to show all the scenarios first and cut between them. We started with six or seven, took one or two or three to completion and then introduced a new one. It keeps it interesting that way. The film is 14 minutes with the credits but it goes by really fast because of that. There's always something to keep your attention.

The biggest crowd-pleaser seems to be The Spankers. It's a married couple that has watched a relationship video—"Pain is love and love is pain!"—and they're trying to spice up their marriage by spanking one another. And others. They get a little carried away. It's very funny.

dOc: What recommends this technique to the filmmaker?

MP: There are three great things about a collaborative effort like this. First of all, there isn't the same kind of pre-production involved that there is with other films. We invited, they came, we conquered. It can be done quickly, which is something I've come to appreciate very dearly.

Second, it takes a lot of pressure off me. I don't have to be "the creator" like I am when I write and direct. I can be one of the creators. In my spiritual practice I've been working with "loss of ego" and this was a very good exercise.

Third, and this is really the best of all, it creates a sense of community and belonging. It's everybody's film and there is a group mind that gets established with a creation like this.

dOc: What is the biggest drawback?

MP: The biggest drawback is that the whole thing could suck. The actors, who are really the writers, might not come up with anything interesting. But that's unlikely. A bigger risk is that there's nothing to hold really the film together, no common thread. I don't know if there's a "point" to this film but it sure was a lot of fun to make and it's a lot of fun to watch.

Next year, though, if we do it again I will definitely give it more shape before we shoot. I'll have a basic plot structure roughed out so the actors will need to create the story within certain confines so there is still an ebb and flow, some sort of dramatic rise and fall. But within that I'll let them do pretty much whatever they want. I just think it will be better because it will have some actual plot development rather than the scattershot approach we used this time. Don't get me wrong—I like what we've done a lot, but there are a lot of vignettes strung together without an overriding story.

dOc: What is the funniest moment that happened during filming?

MP: Well, my favorite moment was when two of the actors are screaming at their buddy who has just "hooked up" with a woman named "Antonia" who is really "Antonio" and they're like frat boys, screaming and drinking and "Whoo-whoo!" and when they were done with the scene I said "Why do I think you guys are not really acting when you do this?"

dOc: What was the most frustrating?

MP: I can't tell you that because it was a technical issue that shall stay out of print. Let's just say that what I wanted to do to one of the crewmembers, who had obviously partaken of the aforementioned beer, would have put me in jail for a long time. Is manslaughter involuntary if you don't think about it ahead of time? I can never keep those homicide laws straight.

dOc: What memorable sequence didn't make the final cut?

MP: There was only one scenario that didn't make the final cut. I liked the idea a lot—the actors were thinking up old TV show theme songs—which was funny in this electronica club, but it just didn't pan out well enough to include in the film.

dOc: How did the name become Trance?

MP: Electronica music. Trance is a type of electronica. I just like the name. You are getting sleepy.

dOc: Do you want to make a film like this again?

MP: Yeah, we've already talked about doing it once a year. My favorite suggestion for the 2003 film is a hostage situation on the Delta King, which is a docked riverboat here in Old Sacramento. I imagine the kidnappers are trying to take over the boat and crash it into the Tower Bridge but they're foiled when they discover the boat doesn't move. It's really a great opportunity for comedy and drama—and I mean that seriously—because there would be so much to go through your head during an actual hostage crisis. The one thing I wish we'd had more of in Trance were serious scenarios. Most were comedic. The only serious one was a guy teaching a blind woman how to dance.

dOc: Who were the other key figures in the production?

MP: Our production company is called "River City Free Fall." Laurie Pederson is my stellar producer and sticks by me no matter what a jerk I am. Richard Angert did sound, and we edited together. Frank Casanova did camera. We had this great guy named Scott Rothwell who brought in his portable nightclub lighting kit for free and he had a great time. Terri Burns and Karen Jacoby are great assets to any set and helped out with whatever needed to be done. Terri helped act as Assistant Director and Karen cued the music. Joe Horning and Deacon—that's all he goes by—were grips and gaffers and did a great job. My favorite part about filmmaking, at least on my sets, is that everybody seems to get along really, really well. Since nobody gets paid I guess they leave their egos at home.

dOc: What kind of festival is the Sacramento event?

MP: It's still getting off the ground. They need more corporate sponsors and some big celebrities to turn it into a serious festival. It can be done, but not without financial clout and star power.

dOc: Are you participating in any other of the events?

MP: Just the wrap party after the festival. I hope there's beer.

dOc: What's next for you?

MP: I'm working on a screenplay and a novel. And that we hope to make this collaboration an annual event. I'll be lecturing on screenwriting at the 14th Annual Sacramento Writer's conference in November.