Interviews

The Rare Short Filmmaker Still Exists

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Writer and director James Alex Warren is Mississippi born but now lives and works in LA. He has made music videos for people like Dent May, Bass Drum of Death and Pell. His new project is a series of interconnected short films titled Sequence. Each short is a picaresque comedy centered around a group of characters struggling to define themselves in a strange world. The film will make its New York premiere on December 18th.

Can you explain a bit about Sequence’s structure? Why did you want to make four short films instead of a feature?
As a longer film comprised of four shorter films, we wanted Sequence to work rhythmically together without intersecting stories or characters. Each movie can stand on its own two legs, but the intention was always to put them together as a “series” or a “movement.”

We produced the separate films over the course of a year and a half. I wanted to create something longer than a traditional short film but knew we didn’t have consistent time or money to make a feature. Plus, I wanted to make short films…not as an exercise or as training wheels for feature filmmaking, but because I wrote these small stories that didn’t seem to have a beginning or ending and I wanted to flesh them out visually.  I mentioned the “series” or “movement” idea. I’m really into art that functions like that: Brian Eno’s Ambient Series, Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, Roald Dahl’s “The Omnibus,” etc. So, we set out to create a body of work with various limbs, so to speak. Working with new actors and tools after months between making the last “sequence” gave us the freedom to explore fresh stories each time and construct them together as a series.

I like how the films in Sequence are very atmospheric as opposed to linear. What directors were you looking to that have the same feel?
I wasn’t interested in telling a tightly mapped out plot-point driven story. I may not ever be interested in that, I don’t know. Plot can be important, but it seems secondary to character. It’s like pizza crust. If you have dough that you’ve prepared and you put it into a hot oven for long enough then eventually it’ll turn into crust. If you have a character that you want to explore and you place him/her in a few different scenarios or atmospheres, an interesting story will come out of that. But the most crucial thing is the character.

I guess I’m drawn to filmmakers who share that sentiment. Maybe some of these guys would disagree, but I feel like Cassavetes, Altman, Truffaut, Rohmer, Haneke feel similar. I was watching lots of  different stuff while making Sequence:  Shadows, Wild At Heart, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, lots of Fassbinder, Short Cuts, Nashville. I also fell in love with a film that came out in 2013: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds. All of of these movies and filmmakers are creating individualistic worlds and the characters they follow are wildly interesting to me.

Talk a bit about the music in the film. Each one has a similar texture but are also distinct.
I didn’t want to have a composer create a traditional score for the films. To do that seemed beside the point for the way we are telling these stories. On the other hand, music is influential in my own life and the lives of my friends. So, I wanted it to feel more like a presence in the corner of the room rather than an emotional force on top of the picture, if that makes sense. Every song that plays in Sequence comes from the radio, a passing car, a person playing music at a kid’s birthday, a soundsystem at a party, etc. It gave me the freedom to explore different styles of music that I’m interested in for these characters, too. Music inevitably changes the flavor of a scene, but for Sequence it’s not so pronounced. It’s subtle.

It’s a lot like playing music. You can’t really improvise a song like “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Thriller.” You kind of can do your own version of the guitar solo or sing it differently, but at some point it’s a different song if you fly too off the tracks with it.

The films strike me as literary. Were you thinking of certain authors when you were working on the script?
I was reading a lot of short stories when I began writing Sequence. I was re-visiting “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver and “Airships” by Barry Hannah. I also was given Roald Dahl’s “The Omnibus” and had never read that before. Those stories are really great. After reading one story and moving on to the next, I’d have anticipation of what awaited on the next page. I wanted my film to feel like that.  There’s great narrative possibility when a story starts after it’s already begun and commences before it’s over.

What’s your relationship to actors when directing? Do you like them to stick close to the script or is there a lot of room for improvisation?
There’s a bit of both. I write and re-write and re-write in the pre-filming stages. Not to be precious with my words, but to try and exhaust lots of different possibilities or options for the narrative. So by the time we get to production, I can begin to lead the actors to a place where we can explore something true and also function as a good manager making sure we’re not flying off the rails and becoming vague or random.

I truly love actors. It’s rewarding to watch a performance unfold from an actor on set. I try to be a good friend to my actors, letting them know I’m on their side, not trying to sabotage them because our work together requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. Once we both know the rules of the game, then it’s a lot like playing music. You can’t really improvise a song like “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Thriller”…you kind of can do your own version of the guitar solo or sing it differently, but at some point it’s a different song if you fly too off the tracks with it. You CAN improvise a jazz solo. You can improvise a drum solo.

So I guess my directing style depends on the story we’re telling, the “song” we’re playing. Certain actors are more skilled than others. They may have a specific way they like to work and I want to be their Phil Jackson, helping them play to their strengths, helping them play the song we are writing together as best as they can. I also like to work with non-actors. We want to craft a realistic performance so it’s up to me to set the atmosphere up in a way that a non-actor can sort of exist in it and not “act” in, you know?

Have you had any weird Uber experiences since moving to LA?
I am moving there officially in January, but I took a lot of Ubers there last week while premiering the film at Cinefamily.

Some of the most notable Uber drivers I’ve come across include Harmen, who is a UFC fighter who drove around the director of the Angelina Jolie movie SALT and has been writing out ideas out to show him. He told me that his best idea is about an Uber driver that drops off his customers, circles the block a few times in order to make the customer settle in at home, then goes in and murders the customer. This put me right at ease as we sat in the lane behind 5 cars trying to make left turns while he stared intently at me. “…Think the right lane may be open…” I’d mention. He wasn’t hearing it.

Then there’s Billy. Billy moved to L.A. to pursue his music career. He’s spending his off-hours in the studio and his Uber money to pay producers and rent gear. Billy is psyched as fuck on this new song called “Beat The Club Down” that sounds like a B-side to a Lil Jon/ Usher collab from ’04. I’m not so sure he’s spending his money and time wisely, but I don’t have the balls to tell him so I nod along and tell him “this shit is DOPE!”