Interview: Rob Spera’s THE SWEET LIFE
Crossfader Film Editor Sergio Zaciu sat down with director Rob Spera about his latest feature film, THE SWEET LIFE, a charming, transfixing road movie about a down-and-out ice cream salesman who makes a suicide pact with a stranger, agreeing to travel to San Francisco in order to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Over a cup of coffee in Toluca Lake, Sergio and Rob discussed the nature of road movies, the trials and tribulations of indie filmmaking, and LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD.
Rob, I watched your movie two days ago and thought it was lovely!
Oh great, thank you
First off I’d like to get started on the title. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, so I wanted to ask what the intention behind the title was?
Right! Well, the original screenplay title was GOOD HUMOR, and we reached out to the Good Humor ice cream company in hopes of using their name. But of course we didn’t expect to get the name since the film is about two people who agree to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and even though it’s a love story with a life-affirming message, we didn’t get it. So we kept searching for ice cream companies and found a firm in Colorado called THE SWEET LIFE, and they let us use it! But this title seemed much more appropriate, so it ended up working with the story.
What would you say is the intention of your lead being an ice cream salesman?
Well, this predates my involvement, but I’d say that it’s a job that we usually identify as something done by a college student, someone just getting started in their career. There’s nowhere to go with a job like this. It has no real purpose but brings small, temporary pleasure to people. The fact that there’s some positive [side] to the job is part of the design. What I added to the script was how the ice cream job pays off down the line. His ice cream suit helps him get away with some stuff by posing as a medical technician and other things. So we were able to use the suit to move the story forward and help our characters bond.
The road movie has a long history with existential ennui, and when we think of the most contemporary road movie, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, it also features a character who tries to commit suicide. In classical cinema, we have films like FIVE EASY PIECES. What do you think it is about the road movie that lends itself to this type of story?
It’s just inherent to the physical nature of the story; it’s a search. We can categorize all films as a search, but the physical process subtextually speaks to that need.
So what makes the road movie different if the characters have a destination or not?
It’s irrelevant, because there’s always a destination. It’s about the journey. Sometimes the destination is literal, sometimes it isn’t. In our film they’re physically moving to the Golden Gate Bridge, but putting a concept around the motion is where the evolution comes from.
So how did this specific screenplay come to you?
A very good friend of mine, Jared Rappaport, wrote this screenplay for himself to direct. It came close to being made multiple times, but never did. And eventually I came to him and said I’d like to take it on. We spent a good four-to-five years reworking it. We deconstructed it. It started as a great idea with really witty dialogue, but lacked a real precision on two levels. First, the love story, how they unfold and get together. Two, what are the underpinnings? What do they learn on the trip? What was missing was a clear arc of them understanding their value. Building [in] their arc was what the rewrite was about.
The lead actors do a phenomenal job. Chris Messina does a great job with this comedic vulnerability. A lot of indie films stay relatively atonal, but thanks to your leads you have this somber, sad story with a lead actor who’s very funny. Would you say that’s something that was in the screenplay or was that Messina?
Thank you, that’s very acute. I’d say it was a number of things. We have these characters who are very disillusioned and despondent and decide that suicide might be an answer for them. The initial dialogue was very intellectually witty. And this dialogue was like a coping mechanism for the characters, fencing off their feelings. But what we quickly realized on set was that the actors struggled with that, and day one it was obvious, so on day two we pushed back on the boundaries. Where was it coming from, y’know? So we started losing some of the witty dialogue that was making the actors uncomfortable. We trusted their instincts. I trusted that we’d have a lot more emotional movie if the humor would come from circumstances [and] character differences, and not the dialogue. We were scared we’d lose the humor, but we realized the situation is ripe for comic possibilities. So the tone was shaped in those first two or four days as we shot. We had a 16 day shoot, 27 locations, three cities, and two states, so not a lot of time, but that tone really evolved and we moved forward with it. It would have been slightly different if we’d have stuck to the screenplay, but the emotional base the characters brought to it was shaped in those first couple days. It was intimate, personal, touching, and funny, so it worked!
One thing I noticed about your scenes was that they’re very classical in [terms of] compositions. You stay in these big wide masters and let your actors navigate the space. You only seem to cut when you absolutely have to. Was that a decision you clearly made on set?
I think that’s my personal taste in general. I much prefer shooting long takes. Especially when you have a two-character drama, oners let the viewer slip into the characters’ shoes much easier. Nothing feels manufactured, and if you got really good actors you should just inform them, support them, encourage them, and let the scene go. I know what I want from the scene. I usually arrive on set with two or three versions of the scene worked out ahead of time and make suggestions, then we workshop it. With that knowledge I know exactly what I want to happen, but allow my actors to own it and figure it out themselves. Master shots that communicate this don’t let actors do whatever they want; you’re giving them a skeletal structure but they keep a dramatic spine. That’s especially important for a two-character drama. After all, there aren’t traditional elements to hook the audiences. There aren’t explosions, gunshots, and so on, so you gotta make the film as accessible as possible.
You have a long history as a film professor, teaching students how to work with actors. What would you want your students to take away from your film?
There’s an authenticity and simplicity in the performances that comes from your creative partnership with actors. Don’t feel like you’re the boss; just because you’re wearing the badge, doesn’t mean you get to force directions. Performances are best when directors make decisions that inform performances, encourage the actor to take it to the next level. As a director you spend all this time at your desk, building this intellectual journey in your head, but your actors have to bring life to it with flesh and blood. In order for them to do that you need to give them room and freedom but still give them a specific infrastructure. That’s why blocking is important, but not forced blocking. So come extremely well prepared, but be ready to let go. These natural sensibilities come from forming a partnership. You need to be clear you know the overall picture, but filmmaking is not as dictatorial as it could turn into.
You’ve had this lovely career where you were able to teach and direct concurrently. What would you say you learned on this set?
I don’t think it’s that I learned new things, but rather that it reinforced things. It reinforced my belief about the director-actor relationship. The nice thing about low-budget movies is that you [have] to make snap decisions since you only have so much time to shoot, so you [have] to trust your instincts, come well prepared, and have the confidence and trust to hire strong actors that grow into those roles. And it’s nice to see those theories validated because I teach them all the time. That’s what’s cool about teaching and directing side-by-side, is that you get to test out these ideas. And it’s similar in TV, which I do a lot of too, because you’re also under a great deal of time pressure there, and you’re able to practice what you preach.
That actually brings me to my next question. You’ve done television, studio pictures, and indie films, which do you prefer?
I love it all. I love directing. You can’t really judge one or the other. They all have different responsibilities. In features you have much greater freedom. You set the tone and have all these people join you on your vision. In television, you have this episodic work where all these people have the box already designed for you, and the challenge is to deliver but still leave a personal imprint on it. Where do I fit into this box, y’know? Some shows are really specific about what you can’t do and others aren’t, but in any case, it’s really different sides of your brain I think, which is why I find it so educational. So if you’re offered the opportunity to direct something and are given the toys you should take it, unless of course you’re morally offended by something in the production. And I did a ton of theatre before I made movies. I did probably 150 plays before I did any work in film, [where I got my] understanding of moving actors, spatial relationships, and how physicality reveals subtext. So many times if a scene doesn’t work the director likes to blame the actor, when in actual fact, the lighting, camera angle, or frame size is affecting the scene too. I had an occasion once where all I needed to do was change the camera angle, and I think working in theatre was really critical.
Finally, I think I speak for the whole Crossfader staff when I say that we are huge fans of LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD!
It’s the most rewatched film among the staff. That’s how we first learned about you. What was that like?
That was probably the most fun I’ve had! I had some great actors and I loved working with Ice-T. I didn’t know what to expect from his career at that point, but I had no idea what a great film actor he was. So the first day I wanted to test him and see what his range was and knowledge of the camera, so I gave him a really difficult night shot where focus is an issue: He had to come blasting through these doors, firing a weapon, run-walk about 16 feet, hit a mark, and deliver a line in a close up. First time: flawless! And I realized, “Holy shit, this guy really understands what he’s doing!” He was totally comfortable, understood the role, understood the comedy, understood the camera, so I knew we’d have a good time working together. And a lot of that we wrote as we went because of the speed that production happened. The last re-write happened during shooting. Doesn’t always happen; I much prefer having a script that you’re locked into. But I ended up flying out a good friend of mine who stayed in my guest house, and during the night I would shoot and I’d tell him what we’d need written for the next day. He’d spend the day writing, I’d sleep, wake up, give him notes, take a shower, get back to writing, shoot. It was pretty much writing as we shot, which I DO NOT RECOMMEND. But it was the situation we found ourselves in because of the production.
But it lends itself to the wackiness of the movie!
It’s the best film in the series, and I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting here with you.
Well, thank you. And I think so much of what happens in and around a film is going to impact it sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. And it ended up having that sense of, “We’re making this up right now.” And we were. It was a lot of fun. I think the actors welcomed it, embraced it, and had fun.
Well thanks so much for sitting down with me, Rob.