Imagine being a twenty something, downsized when the company you worked for is absorbed by an entertainment conglomerate. You go to pick up your final check and go through an exit interview. This was a scene familiar to tens of thousands of citizens displaced by the economic meltdown of 2008. You are confronted by Daniel, a corporate "screw." A narcissistic, psychotic, intelligent, highly manipulative, megalomaniac with a dark sense of humor and a quirky sophistication, Daniel delights in watching you squirm as he asks you deliberately pointed, seemingly irrelevant questions. You become irritated as he plays with you. But you are not alone. There are your other fellow employees who have also showed up to pick up their final paychecks. This before this whole thing goes completely off the rails.
This is the premise of Hillsdale, Michigan director Matthew Gelzer's feature Good News. Categorized as horror, this movie, because of its single stage setting and camera angles, plays like a darker theatrical playhouse production the kind filmed for television in the 1950s-60s. Without wishing to give too much away, let it suffice to say that Good News is anything but for this group of twenty somethings. A deeply unsettling movie that was released at a time when the media blares news stories bringing attention to growing income disparity, break-up of unions and trampling of employee rights by corporations and ruthless politicians bought and paid for by corporate interests alike here in the United States,
Gelzer's Good News will screen at the Jaxon Film Fest, September 28 at the historic Michigan Theatre, Jackson, Michigan. Acceptance of this film and plans for its screening was publicly announced August 22. Gelzer permitted me this interview to accompany this announcement.
The original concept was to have a group locked in a room and given tapes that showed some secret and told the order in which they were to be killed off by a mysterious killer. Much more straight up slasher with kind of deconstruction, meta-twist.
That story led to the idea for the interview sequences, which started as kind of a writing tool for me to get to know the characters. Though we didn’t use a lot of what was written, the set up for the characters provided the foundation for the actors to develop the story as it ended up on screen.
Writing and making the film, the directors who influenced me most were Jean Luc Godard and Lars von Trier, specifically inspired by Godard’s La Chinoise and Pierrot le Fou for pseudo-documentary style, intellectualism run wild, and awesome color schemes. Von Trier’s the Idiots had a big influence and the Dogme approach of using available light and handheld camera only gave me the freedom to worry about the performances as opposed to spending a lot on technical detail.
Though I think the film still ended up looking quite good !
Overall, I draw most inspiration from John Cassavetes’ work. My sense of visual style comes form the first two directors, while my technique for working with actors and writing comes straight from Cassavetes.
Before this I had made three shorts, one narrative, the other two kind of experimental documentaries. I made a forty minute short feature that kind of bridged the gap between those projects and Good News.
That was shot largely on a Flip camera and gave me my sense of what handheld shooting and editing was capable of.
Time frame for film
Writing the film took about 2 years, six months writing like a ‘job’, twenty to forty hours a week to get through the first four or five drafts, another eight months or so doing drafts based on feedback while putting together financing, hiring actors, building the set and doing other pre-production work. Ultimately, I’d say there were about ten drafts on the script before we actually got to shoot.
The shoot itself took three weeks, one for rehearsal and blocking and then ten days to actually shoot. I’d planned to run longer, but once we got going we just kept rolling and before I knew it we were done. Shooting most of the film at a fast pace with few takes allowed me to focus on some spots where we still had things to figure out. Like the gunshots and some of the more emotionally complicated scenes.
And so far, it’s taken about six months on and off to edit and color correct.
How did story-line develop ?
As a writer, I’m kind of playing the movie in my head as I go along. I started with the interviews, which helped me build the characters and once I had them in my brain I kind of live the movie in my head, trying different things until I get to the end. And in revision, I just read the script over and over, adjusting things that don’t sound right and if I find myself getting bored and wanting to skip a part of the script then I know I need to re-do the sequence to make it more interesting.
The biggest change was Adamantha. She wasn’t in the first few drafts. Daniel was all by himself. That was the biggest single improvement that came through writing alone, the film really didn’t come alive until she showed up. Daniel needed someone to keep him in danger.
And during the shoot, the film changed almost entirely. There was a lot more dialogue that just didn’t fit once the actors did their jobs, the actors ended up basically inventing the film for themselves as we went along, which was a thrill for me. Though I ‘knew’ the story, I couldn’t have told you for sure how the story would end until we got there.
How did you find the cast ?
The actors all submitted through online casting calls posted save for Rebecca Booth who played Adamantha and came on as a replacement the first day of the shoot.
Originally another woman had been cast, but I fired her the first day. I decided that we weren’t going to get along and she had to go. I had met Becca a few weeks before and she had been hanging out on the set just to get a feel for it.
So I asked her, do you want to play this part and she jumped right in and as bonus happened to fit the wardrobe I had bought for the other actress. It couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.
Another late addition had been Laura Kriss, who actually had auditioned first for Rita and Adamantha. I thought she was good, but didn’t fit for those parts. She ended up coming to pinch hit at a rehearsal and really did a great job and made me regret casting someone else in that role until the actor who was supposed to play Lori ended up backing out. When she finally ended up in Lori’s role, I kind of slapped myself and wondered why it had taken so long to get her there. She ultimately shaped the Lori character a lot and I think Laura brought a lot more force to her character than what I had ever written.
And all the other roles, though others, tried out, for Rita and Roger and Daniel, Erika and Revon and Adam were just, flat out, the only ones for the job. They all just fit perfectly from their first audition on.
Were the roles written for the actors?
Once the actors had been cast, I tweaked the script to suit how I perceived their strengths. But no, none of the roles were written with a specific actor in mind.
Once we started shooting they made it all their own. I wanted them to diverge from the script. I was actually surprised how they tended to stick to it even when I told them they could do something else. It was a little rocky for some at first., but once we got through the interviews, which were all improv and the very first thing we shot, it was amazing to watch them just be their characters. That set the tone for what I wanted and as we went, in scenes that just didn’t seem to work as written, I gave them the difficult task of figuring out something on their own to make it work.
That might be bad directing, but I don’t want to treat actors like meat puppets. Usually what they come up with is a million times better than what I originally intended !
Had you worked with the actors before ?
Nope, I met everyone a few months before we shot and we got to know each other on shoot. I think that may have helped a bit. With no baggage , you can just sink into the work, especially when living together and on set for a month.
Is this a signature film, would it be one you want to be known by ten years from now?
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot about this film that’s ‘me’. I love genre films and creature features and sci-fi, but I think the films that affect me most are dramas where you get involved with people’s lives, so I think in the future I’ll try to avoid these kinds of contrived fantastical situations.
I’m a nitpicker. I’m the one who watches TV and thinks, hold on, that’s ridiculous; that could never happen. So I have little tolerance for fantasy unless it’s very tightly, carefully thought out. And when I’ve tried to do that, I get bored because you spend more time thinking out plot than working on character, which makes for crappy stories.
How many cameras and what kind?
We used a double camera set up, two Canon Rebel T3is. We only had three lenses, so usually one camera would be shooting a wide or middle while the other did detail and close work. I love that style because usually I can intercut shots from the same take. That’s something that bothers me in movies and TV when I can tell a scene is composed from multiple performances. It’s necessary a lot, but when I can I like to do it from the same take, it makes it more real to me.
And the camera looks great because the cameramen were excellent. Eric Nye and Leauangy Griggs have a gift for being in the right place at the right time and I don’t remember a single time where they had to ask the actors to move or adjust performances for their sake. I really couldn’t have asked for better collaborators.
What effect is the last shot supposed to have?
The shot is supposed to mirror the one that starts the film, a simple before and after comparison. Seen another way, it may also be a revelation. The lighting at the beginning was staged and meant to give an artificial feeling, while the end is supposed to be naked and dirty, what the composed surface hides underneath.
Will you work with the cast again?
I would love to work with everyone again. The project I’m developing has characters written for some of the actors, so we’ll see !
Biggest challenge making the film?
Money. I had very gracious financial backing, but it was less than a third of what I originally thought the film might cost. It took some creative thinking, but I’m very proud of the fact that everyone on crew and cast was paid for their work. That’s key to developing new professionals. Otherwise, people think of it like a hobby and treat it as such. You can’t do that if you want to make something well.
Is this a personal statement on the relationship between workers and companies?
Yes. For better or worse, you can’t live without money. The movie’s about how people figure out what that means to them. Where does being pragmatic and taking care of yourself turn into selfishness and sadism ?
The original ending had variations on Rita, played by Erika Hoveland, exiting with the groups’ paychecks before leaving. In one version, she ripped them up, in another version she took them with her. The ripping up ended up feeling snotty to me and by the time we actually got to the ending, it didn’t feel like the checks would even cross any of the characters’ minds.
For the characters, after what they’ve gone through, money is the last thing on their mind. That’s what I wanted to bore down to. What’s left when we stop thinking about acquiring and maintaining.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a concept for another feature that starts off with a police officer burning his house down before going to work, I’m currently writing it in story form to then switch back into a script.
And then I’m working on getting more experience on set by helping out on various shoots around Michigan.
So if you need a talented AD or Sound Guy shoot me an email !