Ahead of the US indie comedy's release on Amazon on Friday, read about the trials and tribulations of making the film in a Q & A with Newly Single's creator Adam Christian Clark...
Writer/director Adam Christian Clark steps in front of the camera for the first time to play Astor Williams Stevenson, a character loosely based on Clark himself, in his meta-dark-comedy Newly Single.
Recently dumped by his long term girlfriend, Astor finds himself alone and prowling; looking for love, sating his lust, and searching through the darkness of downtown Los Angeles. Following Astor on a series of dates with a never ending parade of women, Newly Single explores the inner workings of Astor's heart as well as the modern, urban world of dating, independent filmmaking, and the desire to be anyone but one's true self.
Astor attempts to deal with his personal demons while in the midst of making his second feature film. Carefully balancing his pain, his fear, his insecurity, and his dreams, Astor finds himself struggling to compartmentalize the many facets of his life, until his barely restrained acerbic nature, fueled by insecurity and sadness, boils over into his personal and professional lives, leaving both in a flaming pile of ash.
Newly Single is a story of dating, manhood, feminism, dreams, and the universal desire to be loved.
Here's what Adam Christian Clark had to say:
What inspired you to tell this story? How much of the film is inspired by actual events in your life?
To date, Newly Single is the most cathartic and personal story I’ve ever written. The conditions that both inspired it and lead to its filming were somewhat extreme. In the years leading up to Newly Single my entire focus was on writing, preparing, and then almost filming my second movie. It was something very different from Newly Single - a pretty optimistic feel-good love story. I was fortunate enough to have cast one of the most-respected and well-known young actresses on the planet and rehearsed with her for months. This was an enormous jump up for me coming off of a very small first film. It felt life changing.
As you can probably guess from seeing Newly Single, she dropped out of the movie a few days before we shot. This cost me quite a lot, not just emotionally, but financially I personally had to cover some real losses. This coincided with me breaking up with a tremendously kind and supportive girlfriend who I had depended on for a long time, losing a long-term TV job I’d been living off of for years, and then subsequently existing in a financial space I had never before inhabited. I was alone, angry, increasingly isolated, and for the first time in my life in actual real financial peril. I was pretty convinced at that point that an eviction was just around the corner. Reality was just encroaching on me, and I really saw no other choice than to quit this whole film-making thing and start focusing on who’s sofa I would soon be sleeping on.
That said, the thing I desire most in life is to make movies. So put in this desperate situation, I got more extreme with my storytelling than ever before. In these brief, hard weeks, I sat down and wrote a movie I could film in my apartment for whatever little money I had left in the bank. My intention was to use what I had for rent to pay for this new film, and then get evicted, have un-rentable credit, and have nowhere to live... But at least I would have a new movie to edit for the next year. That plan, no matter how extreme, gave me real hope. It pulled me out of a debilitating place and gave me a reason to wake up again in the morning. So that’s what I did, I sat down and wrote a story that didn’t need a big actor who could drop out on me, that didn’t need a location I didn’t have, and that I could probably film on my iPhone if I had to. That was my plan.
Thank god it didn’t fully go down that way, because even though this was made for an extremely low budget, what I didn’t anticipate was how many people would end up getting behind it and how magical it would be to film with far greater resources than I was imagining. The guys at Divide/Conquer literally pulled every favor they could, and all of a sudden this very small, and angry, but often funny, and brutally honest story was being shot.
Have you ever acted before?
I’ve always had a great reverence for actors. I love them, and really at my core it’s the love of acting that draws me to film-making in the first place. I’ve just always held it in such high regard that I never even considered doing it myself. I just simply never thought of myself as an actor, so I never attempted to write for myself or be in anyone else’s work.
Then about a year before writing Newly Single, a friend asked me to be in a short film. She’s a director who almost always casts real people, so I didn’t think much of it. The short starred Elizabeth Banks, and after seeing the finished film she was recurrently complementary to my performance. I wouldn’t say that made me want to act per se, but it was a kindness that caused me to consider acting for the first time, even if just in a very passive way.
In writing Newly Single, I can’t say my original intention was to write a role for myself. It’s true that the character is similar to me in some ways, but that’s something I feel all writers do. Ryan for instance, a character from my first feature Caroline and Jackie, might be closer to me in real life than Astor is, but I never considered playing Ryan. It wasn’t until finishing a second draft of Newly Single when producer Adam Hendricks, who also produced Caroline and Jackie, suggested me playing Astor. To be honest, I was very much leaning against it - not because I was scared, but rather I was not convinced that I would be any good. After more insistence from Hendricks and his producing partners Greg Gilreath and John Lang, we committed to screen testing me in the first scene. We did this with Jennifer Prediger, who was so great that we ended up reshooting with her when we filmed the real production. Things sort of gelled during that test instantly, and we just never really considered doing it any other way afterwards. I remember standing around with Adam Hendricks late that night and just sort of saying, hey, I guess I’m acting now.
Did you find any unique challenges in acting/directing simultaneously?
It was harder than I thought it would be. I’ve directed a movie before, so I knew what that was going to be like. And even though I had never acted to this extent before, I also was sort of able to wrap my head around what would be required of me as an actor. What I wasn’t able to anticipate was how difficult the two would be to do simultaneously.
There were all kinds of small challenges I didn’t see coming. For instance, as a director one of your main jobs is to kindly encourage those around you to get the best possible performance out of the team. But that said, Astor is completely miserable and belligerent most of the movie. I can’t stress how difficult it was to be in character and to scream at another actor, and then call cut and instantaneously not be screaming at the team you’re directing. The kindness and understanding that was bestowed upon me from the crew in regards to this was remarkable because I often times failed.
Another difficulty was the emotional strain in regards to a loss of control. There’s no other way to put it, if you’re acting and directing at the same time you have to give up some of your control as a director. There’s just no way to direct with the same intensity as you would otherwise; you can’t see the shot and be in it at the same time. So you just really have to put that much more trust in your DP, in your producers, and in all of your department heads to do what they do great, and trust their opinion more than your own when they want to do it again.
Then there’s the sort of cheesy stuff you’d expect, for instance, yes, it’s super embarrassing to act naked in front of your friends. And yes, it’s extremely difficult to let go and act without inhibition in a sex scene when as a director you’re internally focused on being professional and making sure the actress in the scene is comfortable and feels safe. All I can say is I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be, because had I known, a lot of the edge would have been taken out of the script.
How did you find the rest of your cast?
I’ve had the fortune of working with some great casting directors. Angela Demo and Barbara J. McCarthy on Caroline and Jackie, and now Amey René on Newly Single. I mention all three because I don’t think people often understand how hard casting directors have to work and how much value they bring to a film. They’re there to not only find great people, but also to sell you. They’re your first line in convincing an actor and an actor’s reps on why they should be in your movie for far less money than they would normally earn.
Most of this cast came from Amey Réne, and she did an awesome job, not only in finding them but also in convincing me to take second looks at people when she believed in them.
Barbara J. McCarthy was casting a previous film for me (which was never made, but which is alluded to in the plot of Newly Single), and it was through her and that film that I first met Molly C. Quinn (Valerie, Astor’s ex-girlfriend) and Anna Jacoby-Heron (Madeline, Astor’s sister). Both of them struck me as really unique and talented, so even though that film wasn’t made, I was happy to find a place for both of them in Newly Single.
I first noticed Jennifer Kim (Izzy) in Ben Dickinson’s First Winter. It was a small part but one of those I just never forgot. After writing Newly Single, she was probably the first person I thought of for the part, but was concerned if she would be comfortable taking the kinds of risks the role required. I remember calling Ben first to get his opinion and it was really his insistence concerning her work ethic and hunger for quality material that urged me to reach out. Both her and Rémy Bennett, who I also loved working with, are New York based, so they both came out for the shoot.
The only truly unconventional casting was Greg Gilreath (Lawrence, Astor’s producer), who is also one of the producers of Newly Single. This is a part I specifically wrote for Adam Hendricks to play, who like Greg has also never acted. I wanted him to play Lawrence because so much of what Astor and Lawrence go through is based on reallife things I went through with Adam. Adam’s an amazing producer because he always puts the project before himself. He’s really a very humble guy, and in his true fashion, he quickly convinced me he would not be great at playing himself. But liking the spirit behind the idea, he suggested his producing partner Greg. I think Greg did an amazing job, so I’m very grateful he took that risk. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him and he showed up every day off-book, like a pro.
Have any of the characters based on real people seen the film? What are their thoughts?
This has been something that’s been very difficult for me to broach. Every character in this movie that’s based on a real person is, without exception, based on someone I truly love in some way or another. That said, the movie is filled with conflict and abuse and more than once these confrontations are based on something that happened to me in real life. I’m hoping that doesn’t put a further strain on my relationships with these people. Though if it does, I understand.
I think anyone is entitled to their opinion in regards to this kind of art. All I can say is that’s all it is: art. It’s become evident after doing this with two features in a row, that part of my process as an artist is writing about real things that are going on in my life. But this ends up manifesting itself through subjective amalgamations of many people. This is not a documentary or even close to one. Also, one thing I can say is that in all these instances, Astor always looks the worst, and that’s the character one would most likely assume or falsely assume is based on me. So if anyone is offended, I hope they can see it from the angle of the joke’s on me.
The one exception to all of this is my parents, who I did ask to watch the movie before it was finished. And that was for one simple reason, I’m really harsh towards the parent characters in this film in a way that’s just undeserved - and it’s in a way that’s mixed with some truths, so I was very concerned with how deeply it might cut. For instance, my father is an artist and we have often not seen eye-to-eye on life goals; and my mother is often supportive of him to a level which I admire but often struggle to relate to. What’s wonderful about my parents, which is in great contrast to Astor’s, is they have always been extremely supportive of my ambition to make films and for being truthful in art. My mother for instance would never nag me to get a job. And after watching this film, they continue being ultra-supportive. I’m sure it was painful for them in certain ways, but they really put that aside and made no effort to change what I was doing, and I’m very grateful to them for that.
My sister also viewed it, but I think that’s a different situation because the sister character really is the highest portrayed of anyone in the movie.
What was it like to have a film fall apart when you were so close to shooting?
It was completely devastating. Without exaggeration, it put me into a depression far greater than anything I’d experienced before. But life goes on, and I’ve since learned that it’s almost a cliché. It’s literally something every director goes through in some form or another. So I think there’s just a naiveté you have to work past that happens after making your first film.
The reality is, and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers about this, making a second movie is much more difficult than making your first. First, making a small movie requires innumerable favors both of time and money from countless people - and most directors want to make a movie so badly that they pull out every once-in-a-lifetime ask they have to make their first feature. So, a lot of these resources simply aren’t there for you your second time around. Secondly, I think a lot of us aren’t honest with ourselves about how long it really took to make our first film. Because there’s the objective answer of: it took two years, or one year, or whatever the time frame was from script to screening. But there’s the subjective evaluation that says it’s probably something you’ve been working towards since you were a teenager. I think most importantly though, we all miscalculate how our value is going to change after making a first feature, especially if it does well critically. I think we sort of think that some magic producer fairy is going to show up at our world premiere and offer us whatever money we need to make our next film. So when that doesn’t happen we get discouraged because it often appears like it’s happening to everyone else. But the fact is it’s a big fight to make a movie, it was for your first one, and it’s going to continue to be for your whole life. Just owning to that struggle can give you a big advantage, and I just hadn’t yet owned up to it when that film fall apart on me days before it was about to shoot.
Astor displays some pretty toxic behaviour. Are you and Astor the same person?
Oh god, of course not! I guess there are going to be people who will think that, and that’s unfortunate. But that’s okay because this was my choice and it was a cathartic experience. That’s the short answer, the complete answer is more complicated because Astor may not be me, but a lot of the situations that happen to Astor did happen to me. And where I may have not reacted to them in the brutal way Astor does, Astor oftentimes does represent an emotional extreme of how I had been feeling as a result of insecurity, or guilt, or shame.
Astor does some awful things, but I hope there’s a second layer that comes through to the audience, as Astor often says things that are different from how he feels. I hope this is evident when you see him interact with his sister. He’s a guy who going through a lot of hurt, and not dealing with it well, and I think that can at times cause us all to do things we later regret. There’s an honesty to Astor that’s not true for just bad people, but for all of us. That’s sort of both the greatest pain and greatest gift of the fragility of the human condition.
I don’t want to call this a romantic comedy because it would be misleading to what the genre has become, but I would like to say that historically the romantic comedy is my favorite genre because of its extreme brutal honesty. By all accounts we can agree that the modern romantic comedy is not great. For me, it’s because they stopped being honest sometime in the early 90’s. I’m just saying this to say, Astor’s not me, and I’ll never be Astor, and yes Astor is really awful, but at least there’s some honesty with Astor that sheds light on some of the awful realities of men and women and dating today. It’s often brutal out there.
The film has several very-intimate scenes with you and different actresses. How did you shoot the sex scenes? How did you work with your co-stars to make them feel comfortable?
This was one of the most difficult parts of making Newly Single. I’ve directed nude scenes before. And if you’ve been on a set with nudity, you already know it’s a very strict environment with a smaller crew than normal, modesty garments, and robes between takes. Still, since I was both directing and acting, there was an extra layer of pressure this time around.
On one hand, the most important thing for me was making sure the actresses were extremely comfortable, and that they understood and agreed with the mechanical elements of the scene. There was a professionalism here that was ruled by a necessary rigidity. At the same time I’m a non-professional actor, concerned about my own performance not coming across as rigid. Also take into account, it’s not just the actress I’m having to be naked with, but also the crew which consists of some very close friends. Honestly, I feel like it was terrifying most of the time. Luckily, I had tremendous support from two female crew members, and it really was only with them that I was able to figure this out.
Lindsay Monahan, our costume designer, played two crucial roles. She did an amazing job at creating modesty garments which were totally unnoticeable on camera. Secondly, and more importantly, during some of the most intimate moments we created a safe space where the actresses and Lindsay would not only do garment adjustments but would touch base to make sure everything was continuing as planned and expected. This took a big weight off my shoulders because it lessened my worry that an actress might be in a situation where she would feel uncomfortable speaking up in front of me and a crew operating on a tight time schedule.
The second person who really helped with this was our producer Jordan Michaud Scorza. Jordan was amazing in a million ways but she was a huge help during these specific moments by standing next to me and keeping things professional and comfortable for everyone. That played a huge role for me as an actor because I trust her judgement so I was able to let go enough to not act terribly nervous on camera. I have to also mention that it was Jordan’s suggestion and influence that ultimately lead to the decision for me to be fully nude in the film. And I appreciate her insistence on this matter because I think it helped me realize what a disparity there continues to be in movies between female and male nudity.
How big was your shooting crew?
So small! The smallest I’ve ever worked with, including even directing reality TV. The core group was only 6 people for most of the shoot. At times I thought it was going to be impossible. I’ve worked with a crew as large as 200 before, and even Caroline and Jackie was about 40, so it certainly was something new to get used to, but ultimately I absolutely loved it. Next time I’d like to make it a little bit larger, maybe something like 12. But I think this experience was so positive that I would never use as big of a crew as we used on Caroline and Jackie for a movie this size again.
Did you find the low budget limited your abilities to tell your story?
In a lot of ways, I feel like it enhanced my ability to tell the story because it forced me to streamline things. I only feel like there was one thing I would change if I could go back. We chose to not have daily hair and makeup, but rather for actors to do their own. This was my call. It was motivated by wanting to keep the crew as small as possible but also because I’ve had some conflict with makeup departments in the past. It takes a very sensitive person to fully understand when it’s best for them to walk in for touchups, and if they lack this extreme sensitivity they sometimes can be a destructive force to performance. So, I sort of had this fantasy of cutting them out of my process, but ultimately, they are a valuable part of the team, and it was a mistake. Two things happened as a result. First, I had to cut around some great moments in a few scenes because of makeup inconsistencies, and second, there was just a major overlook on my part because I was focused on so many other things - I always wanted Izzy to wear fake eyelashes, and because we didn’t have someone tasked to apply them, after we shot her first day, we realized we never put them on.
Will you act again?
I hope so, it was a lot of fun. Though, I’d especially like to act in someone else’s movie now, as opposed to my own. I have this ambition to do an Astor trilogy, one in middle age, and one again towards the end of my life. But besides that, I really look forwards to going back to directing actors again. To really focus on someone else’s performance, the nuances. That’s really what I love about filmmaking the most, and you just don’t really get to do it at the same level when you’re acting yourself. I also hope that I have more to bring to actors as a director now that I’ve spent this time in front of the camera.
Newly Single is out to buy on Amazon UK from December 7th and on Amazon Prime for Valentine’s Day February 14th
Images - Photographer: Christopher Hamilton