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Sam Neave

Sam Neave

Everything you've wanted to know about the art of filmmaking

Even Sam Neave is quick to admit that the material of “Almost in love,” his latest romantic dramedy, is shared by countless films that have come to disenchant him with their overdone depictions of the afflictions of yuppiehood. And yet, ten years later Neave returns to the universe of urban sophisticates his debut “Cry Funny Happy” depicted in 2003 intent on exploring the depths of the everyday.

Working with a cast comprised mostly of friends–both actors and non-actors– Neave found himself revitalized when revisiting that familiar territory, thanks to the wide range of possibilities “Almost in love” could exhaust with its shooting scheme, which rests solely on two protracted, uninterrupted forty minute-long takes. The film examines a messy love triangle between Sasha (Alex Karpovsky), Mia (Marjan Neshat) and Kyle (Gary Wilmes), all of whom pursue their own private passions in very public settings during the course of one sunrise and one sunset.

Neave spoke with Screen Comment about the artistic liberties his chosen cinematic conventions allowed him to take, establishing viewers’ sense of presence in real time, managing an ensemble without the luxury of multiple takes, and his own philosophy.

SCREEN COMMENT – “Almost in love” opens up with the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.” There are a lot of gazes and glances in this film.
Sam Neave – [Laughs] My take on that, and the reason I put that up there, is that it’s more for the audience. It’s the way the audience looks at this, and the way that we, through the film, try to show the action. We were halfway through doing the film, and I read that quote, and it just sort of struck me that a lot of what we were doing is related the idea that sometimes you don’t see things most clearly when you look at them head on. If you see things from the side, or in our case, in our movie, you see one thing, but you hear another, then sometimes that can be more revealing than just looking at something straight on.

The film is full of these kind of asides and glances and gazes but it’s mostly about this relationship that the audience has to what they’re seeing.

Beyond the film’s obvious use of the long take, your sound mix plays a crucial part in establishing the here-and-now trope and strengthening that relationship between the spectator. How much did you consider the use of sound to dictate the film’s pacing and camera movement?
A lot. I always knew that sometimes we would look at things and not hear what we’re seeing. It was less about the long take in itself, and more about trying to give this sense of the environment. Give this sense of you being in that space. The long take obviously puts you in this real-time atmosphere and helps to make you feel like you’re another member of this party. But with the sound, it goes back to the fact that you can be in a gathering, and you’re talking to one person, and then out of the corner of your ear, you catch something that is a snippet of a conversation, where suddenly, your attention drifts over there for a moment. I wanted to play with that idea of putting the audience in the two spaces.

There’s one moment where everything drops out, and we go inside, not just hearing what other people are saying, but you just kind of lose track of everything that’s being said, and you hear the music for a minute. That was a big part of it. And obviously, the edit was exclusively a sound edit, because the picture was really easy [laughs]. So I knew going in; we had everyone on separate mics, everything was done with that in mind. I knew I was trying to piece together a kind of collage of different sounds from different places. Some of it was specifically planned; you would hear this story when this thing was happening. And then some of it was me going through the takes, and thinking, “Oh, that would actually be interesting over this” and using it that way.

Alan Cumming in a still from "Almost in love"

At times, it seems as though each character is married to his or her own predispositions and motivations. At others, the spontaneity of the events affects their behavior, in ways that crucial to the plot. Aside from your job of facilitating the environment, were there moments when you felt compelled to steer their paths yourself?

That’s obviously a huge thing but happens beforehand. A lot of that is discussed with the actors, depending on the actors, and the extent to which they like to talk about this stuff. It’s getting a sense of who that person is, and then plugging the actor into what their circumstance is at that point. How are they getting to where they’re going? What are they looking for?

Often, I’ll write the script, then we play it out and rehearse it, and then there are moments which seem fake, or don’t seem to be working. And usually it’s because we’ve tripped up on something. I’d thought that the character should do this, but then I talk to the actor, and I thought, “Well, actually, maybe it would be better to do this. In this person’s shoes, I would do this.” Usually, most of the times, they’re right. Or, my sense of that person was stuck in the past, and no longer applied. I can’t tell you how many times how much stuff changes. We would get in the editing room, and it was constant. I wasn’t happy with the ending for either part until I think the day before the last shoot. I knew certain things would happen, but there was a lot of figuring out along the way. In that sense, it helps not just for me to identify with the characters, but also the people playing them to have a strong sense of where they’d like to go.

The story had elements that I had lived through years ago, so I knew things that I felt about these people. The characters are characters that I have met at parties, and I feel like I know them. Most, probably all of the actors, whether professionals or non-actors, were friends of mine–so I also was able to use these people in the way that I wanted. Even with the people who aren’t necessarily actors, I knew what I wanted them to do, what I wanted them to add to this party. So that helped, too. It wasn’t like I was working “cold.”

The backstretch of your first take makes a dramatic and abrupt shift, in which you trade a naturalistic cinema for a more rooted type of cinema. The segment pays attention to nuance and character, then suddenly breaks into this standoff between Sasha and Kyle, and makes a spectacle of that conflict. Was that transition achieved organically, or was it planned beforehand?
We were always building up to the moment when they all have to face what’s happened. When you’re doing something in real time, there’s the challenge to get the exposition and all the backstories of these people in a manner that doesn’t feel forced. So a lot of the first twenty minutes or so is set up, in a carefully disguised, choreographed way. As soon as Kyle, in his motorbike, arrives on the scene, I think everyone knows, “Okay, now that set up is about to be paid off” [laughs].

That tone shift is what sort of twists the party over. It turns it around, and allows for this moment which becomes much more dramatic at the end–as you say, the standoff, but also after the standoff, the kiss and everything else. It’s this very excessively-romanticized version of events. What I was trying to do with both takes in the film, was trying to have these perfect moments, and big dramatic things, but undercut them with this notion that they don’t quite resonate either. Sasha and Mia’s kiss is this very romantic moment, but it also has hollowness to it, for me, when I look at it. It has that feeling of “Oh, I don’t know if this is really going to last. I don’t know if this is gonna work, in the end.” I was trying to undercut those moments.

As you say, Kyle’s motorbike helmet is a big signifier, and there a few like that throughout the film; Sasha’s spatula, Alan Cumming’s character’s inseparability from his guitar. There are lots of objects to associate with each character. Was that something that came from your written treatment?
No. It just became things that people gravitated toward. And also, actors always love their props [laughs]. People like to have something that they can hold onto, so they can work through with. The motorcycle helmet became this big thing, of course.

During shooting, was there conscious calculation on your part for a certain couple’s relationship to work out or not work out?
I had a very different thing in mind for the second half. I had originally planned for the second half, in the script, to be Sasha and Mia’s wedding night. I didn’t intend for what ended up happening. As we started to rehearse it, there were a couple things that happened. That moment became what it was–-I wasn’t going to force it to be something else. It was clearly what it wanted to be. Also, I felt like we weren’t done with Kyle. At the end of the first half, I felt like this wasn’t resolved, in a way. In my mind, and in the original script, it had been. But one of the few advantages of doing the movie this way, is that you can take some time and watch the footage, and look at where it wants to go next, and actually follow it. Normally in a film, you don’t have a chance to do that. You’re committed to whatever idea you had to start with [laughs]. So this was a huge bonus, that what I had in mind really hadn’t worked at all. That came about just from following the actors, and seeing where they seemed to want to go next.

One of the experiments that’s carried out throughout the film is this tension between what the audiences presumes is going to be the fate of these characters versus how their triangle relationship ends up actually panning out. Are you a fatalist?
I don’t know if I would say fatalism. The film has elements of fatalism, I suppose. But I’m interested in how one reacts to circumstance, and interprets events. There are people for whom every circumstance, every event, is riddled with meaning, and there are others for whom it has none. When I was younger, I would try to negotiate my life around these sort of idealized, perfect moments, even though I knew that they don’t constitute the long story. They don’t tell the whole story but they’re addicting.

Sasha has that “perfect moment” on the balcony. He’s finally gotten his girl; he’s gotten to kiss her in front of all these people, at the party, in this glorious sunset moment on the water. And in the end, it doesn’t lead to him being happy with Mia, but what it does, is it releases him. He has created such an overly idealized notion of Mia over the years, that could never live up to his idea of a perfect moment. This is why he has that conversation early on about baseball, in which he says, “baseball is the only sport in which perfection is a possibility,” whereas it really isn’t in any other sport for him. It was really important for me to understand Sasha, and for him to get it, too. That this idea of “perfection” doesn’t hold up in real life. There’s that old line in Woody Allen, where he puts on the play at the end of “Annie Hall” and he says to the camera, “What do you want from me? You can’t make everything perfect in art, because in life it’s real hard.” It’s that thing, essentially.

I don’t know how you feel about this, but I think Sasha has more of a shot with Faye at being happy than he did with Mia. That’s sort of what he’s trying to communicate, in his drunken, exuberant way in the kitchen, to Mia and Kyle. There’s a simplicity now that he’s come to learn, which wasn’t there before.

I wasn’t so sure, at least in the very beginning of the second take, if Sasha was in fact happily married. There’s a very messy instance with his new bride, and then he’s listening in on his friends, who are speculating about whether he’s happy or not.
I think that’s a fair point. I don’t think that initially you have that closure. Part of it is misdirection of the audience, and not “setting them up.” Because, again, you’re stuck in this real time. You need to give some room for people to be wrong, and for people to figure things out. Someone once came up and said to me that when the second half started, they were convinced that this had happened sometime in the past–that it wasn’t in the future. I had never considered that, but you could read it that way, for a while anyway. The thing is, I was very deliberate about not saying “18 Months Later,” or whatever. It was very important to throw you in there. One of the challenges, but also enjoyments, of watching real time, is piecing it together without any real trickery. You learn as you learn. As the clock ticks, you learn more and more and more and more.

Now that you’ve offered your take on the long take, what’s next for you? Are there any other film conventions you’re considering tackling?
[Laughs] I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. I don’t know, maybe the next one [film] I do will be totally conventional. I really don’t knowI don’t think I’m gonna do this [genre] again, in a hurry. That’s something that I can say “Okay, I’ve done it.” That was part of the appeal to me, to be able to say in this art form, “I’ve done something, two shots timed in a sunset and a sunrise. I’ve never seen that before.” Before very long, you can’t start to say things like that about an art form, because much of what you will do has been done a number of times.

Maybe the next one will be floundering, affluent middle-class zombies.
[Laughs] Yes, exactly!

Max Weinstein, a new contributor to Screen Comment, is the web editor at Diabolique Magazine.

BE CURIOUS, find out more about “Almost in love” by visiting the film’s site

WATCH a scene from Sam’s previous film “Cry, funny, happy” on YOUTUBE

Alex Karpovsky, Marjan Neshat and Gary Wilmes