There is a largely comedic and identifiable aspect to family bickering in television and movies. Carl Bessai proves this in Fathers and Sons, the hilarious second installment of his planned trilogy of family-based movies. The film premiered at the Regina Public Library Film Theatre on March 10. Bessai stuck around after the film for a question-and-answer period with the audience to talk about creating films without scripts.
Carl Bessai: [The film] was improvised; there was no script. We had an outline, and every bit of dialogue was made up on the spot. Some of the things when we were shooting the film, I was hearing for the first time, which was kind of awesome.
The stories were organized as four separate pieces. We spent a few months getting together and working out what the narrative would be. We had a sense of the beginning, middle, and end, [but] it was just kind of a free form. It’s something that I find is a really interesting way to work. The actors are really good at improv, some better than others, but some of these guys come up with really crazy stuff, and they got to really jump in as actors and create the movie with me.
If you’ve worked on films, you’ll know that actors arrive and have very specific places where you ask them to go because of the lighting, and you’ve got very specific dialogue that you want them to say because that’s what the script is telling them. They’re more limited in what they can do, and [Fathers and Sons] is a little more of a theatre experience for the actors … it was a really exciting way to explore and experiment with the form. It was a cool experience.
Audience Question: How did you do the casting?
CB: Some of these guys I know, so I had confidence in certain actors that I’d worked with … you sort of get that word of mouth sense for who’s going to work; you take your chances a little bit. I wanted to do this cross-cultural thing, and I had an idea for a Bollywood drag [where] the dad [is] a choreographer – to be gay and do a drag scene because I wanted to do a choreography thing … because the typical South Asian father-son story is the son who’s gay and has to deal with the conservative parent … that was my only idea [for the film], but I didn’t know who [would play the part]. I had a casting director work with me, and she would set up these meetings for me with actors because you can’t really audition them; you’re just sort of feeling it out. I would meet [the actors] and try to figure out who might be good together and if people had worked together, it was always a plus.
We did this already with the women in Mothers and Daughters, so it was kind of a dry run with the same structure and same idea. I got a structure in place so that I knew how to shoot the film, and I also knew what the interviews [in the film] could be used for. The first time I did this, I was really fishing and had no idea how it was going to work. It’s a big editing job.
It’s kind of like making a documentary – you sit there with three or four hours of crap, and you have to go, “What’s the essence?” So my editor is one of the guys I give a writing credit to in the end because just as the actors are making up their dialogue, he’s the guy sitting there with me really shaping what the narrative is going to be. It’s not the normal way to make movies. You don’t have any rules, and you don’t know if it’s going to work or not.
AQ: What will the tone of Sisters and Brothers [Bessai’s upcoming film] be in comparison to Mothers and Daughters and Fathers and Sons?
CB: You go with the tone that the actors are giving you. In Mothers and Daughters it’s a little sweeter, and a little more emotional. [It’s] less crazy – no knife fights. It’s got its quirkiness, but it’s a little more serious, I would say. I think it’s the nature of the relationship. With [Fathers and Sons] there’s just more chaos and misunderstanding coming out of the actors’ story ideas and behaviour.
When we went out to do the siblings film, Sisters and Brothers, and I’m thinking it’s going to be hilarious, I found there’s always so much tension and rivalry in the siblings. You see a bit of it in Fathers and Sons, which has its humourous side, but there’s this genuine, tense rivalry that seemed to keep coming out in Sisters and Brothers. I don’t know; I’m just starting to cut it now. I just have this feeling it’s not super funny, but you don’t know, right?
AQ: How did you arrive at the three chapters (Mothers and Daughters, Fathers and Sons, and Sisters and Brothers)?
CB: You start with one, and you think, “Well, I’m not sure how it’s going to go.” The first film was a total experiment; I won a film prize. It was $12,000. I had never really shot a no-money, lo-fi film since my very first movie. I was, at the time, very frustrated with how it was always about chasing movie stars. I really felt that this process was about working with artists, working with creative people, and not spending all this time chasing money and doing all this nonsense that you have to do to make movies.
It was this kind of personal empowerment, but I had no idea it would work. It was so satisfying to see it actually work … once you get past what the distributors are telling you and what you want to see, once you actually access real people in a theatre and show them a movie. I would get these huge audiences of people [at festivals] to watch this little, improvised comedy with no one in it they’d ever heard of, and they loved it. They were relating to it. Instead of seeing Meryl Streep on the screen, they’re seeing some woman who reminds them of their mother.
There was something about that which was really empowering … the technology is changing to the point where [filmmakers] have way more power than we used to … even when all the funding isn’t coming together, and all the industry we, as artists, ask permission all the time to do our work – “Can I have a grant?”, “Can I have a job?” I’m going to try to do some web-based version out of this three-film project because it’s just sitting there, and I like that. I like that you can find a way to create work even when all systems are “no.”
AQ: Were the actors speaking in character during the interviews in the film, or were they actually talking about their real story?
CB: Theoretically, they are in character. The rule that we had was that they couldn’t refer to things that happened in the movie. We shot all the drama first, and then right after, while it’s kind of fresh in their mind, I would sit them down and interview them. I would be “the filmmaker”, and they were in character, but because they’re having to think on their feet, they don’t know what I’m asking, and they don’t know what’s coming, they always reach for parts of themselves … for me that’s what you make movies about. If you’re a writer, that’s what you write about. I find it hard to believe that anyone creates anything from the entirely from the ether … that’s what I love about the process.