Interviews

INTERVIEW: STEPHANIE BENNETT AND HARRY BARRIAL

By • Apr 28th, 2002 •

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There are big-budget Hollywood movies, and there are more personal, smaller films. You can’t get much more personal than Some Body, which explores the often messy relationships of a woman played by Stephanie Bennett—and is based, in part, on events and people in the actress/co-writer/producer’s life. It even features some of Bennett’s old flames playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Some Body is raw and honest about sex, love and loneliness. Let’s put it this way: This may be the only movie this year where there’s a comparative discussion of vagina size. Bennett and director/co-writer Henry Barrial talked about how Some Body went from an idea to a feature film (thanks in large part to the low-budget miracle of digital video) with Films in Review’s Adam Blair. Some Body, released by Lot 47 Films, opens April 26.

Q: What was the genesis of this film?

HENRY BARRIAL: Stephanie and I had been going to the same acting school/theater group, a Meisner-based training center called Playhouse West in Los Angeles. I knew Stephanie, we had some common friends, but I didn’t know her all that well. We were working on a scene from John Guare’s Landscape of the Body, where I’m playing a detective and she’s playing a mother accused of killing her child.

At that time we were starting on the advanced work—the idea of trying to find a parallel to the scene that you can understand and live out. I showed up at Stephanie’s place to rehearse, and interrogated Stephanie on aspects of her life that I thought were borderline, or something. It led to such a kind of cathartic, wonderful experience for both of us, and it was so real—there was something so raw about it—eventually it led to the idea of making a movie based on her life, where we could explore, in that kind of brutal manner, what was going on during that period in her life.

I do need to say that she was going through a particularly rough period in her life, and so was I. We thought maybe there were some universal elements here.

STEPHANIE BENNETT: We had the idea, and the original idea was to make a short film. We started to bring in other actors to do improvisations to help us write the script. Eventually that turned into an outline for the feature. We never had a full-on script. We developed the outline, and then we’d bring the actors in, and heavily discuss the dynamics of the scene, where we wanted it to go, where our story was going, where the scene should go. But obviously this is an exploration, so if it goes somewhere else then so be it—we’re shooting digital video (DV), we can shoot as much as we want. But always the idea was to create something as brutally honest and truthful as we possibly could.

We were talking about this before—it’s so not about being a woman, or a man—everybody, I think, goes through the experience of being alone and a little bit desperate. In the beginning I thought it was more about myself and the people that surrounded me. Once I started writing about it, I started noticing how everybody seemed to be searching for their somebody. They wanted their somebody, and in the meantime they’re drinking or drugging or sleeping around. I’ve seen it in different settings, so it hopefully has universality for everybody.

Q: Maybe the search has universality.

BENNETT: And the vices you deal with to be alone are different for everybody, but I think a lot of people have their own way of being alone. Maybe some people are more comfortable with it than others.

Q: How much contribution would you say the different actors had to the final shape of the piece?

BENNETT:
Lots. These actors, when they were cast, they were asked—just like I was asked and was dedicated to do, was to talk about everything and be as honest with everything, and take it and not be embarrassed and ashamed—to talk about things we normally don’t talk about.

BARRIAL: When I would do the interviews with the actors, I would ask them not to tell me whether what they were saying was true or false. I didn’t care.

Q: So some of it might have been improv, and some of it might have been real life—you didn’t know.

BARRIAL: I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

BENNETT: The whole thing became this kind of weird dirty game—nobody knew what was real and what wasn’t.

Q: There are some scenes where the characters are judging your character, and I wonder if there’s a bit of a double standard at work. Your character is going through a wild period and indulging in some vices, but the next-door-neighbor character admits that he’s a male slut—butthat gets treated as humorous.

BENNETT: We were saying this yesterday—if I had directed this movie and Henry had starred, it wouldn’t be interesting if a man was doing this kind of stuff. Nobody cares, everybody expects that. If a woman does it, people take it so much more seriously, and they’re so apt to look down on it.

BARRIAL: And what does she really do that’s so bad? We’ve had some responses where people just get angry. It’s almost like people would rather see somebody get shot in the film than somebody admitting or saying some of these things.

BENNETT: In the long run it’s a compliment to us as the filmmakers—people see this as such a reality, they feel like they’re watching a documentary, it’s so voyeuristic, that they take it so seriously. And they also may be faced with something in themselves that they don’t want to admit they’ve ever gone through.

Q: Well then, here’s the $64 question—how much of what appears in the movie is you, or reflects you at that time period?

BENNETT: The basic outline was certain situations that had happened to me. But once we started developing the story and went into the editing room, we edited for over a year, and if something didn’t work, we could go back out and shoot something that would help a little bit. So we could shoot and edit, shoot and edit—in the end we did things for dramatic effect, switched things around a little bit, and obviously some characters got a little bit out of control. A lot of it is based on real life, but a lot of it is not.

BARRIAL: One of the things we did was cast a couple of people who were really involved with Stephanie—whose work we knew, and who were terrific actors. I wanted to try and get those men in the movie, to play themselves and re-explore the situation, because we were doing a lot of improvising, and there could be a specificity to the improvising. Improvising can bite you in the ass, but if you could get people who really had an emotional stake in what was going on, then you could catch that specificity that you wouldn’t normally be able to catch. I felt that was an important element.

Q: How long did the shooting process take? And the editing?

BARRIAL: It’s tough to say—we both work full time, so we’d edit after work. Basically we shot for two weeks, and 65-70% of what’s in the film was captured during those two 2 weeks. Then we had to wait for [director of photography/editor/composer] Geoff Pepos to move down from Montana with his editing equipment and get set up in his bedroom. Then once that started going, we had 100 hours of footage to look through, which took a few weeks.

BENNETT:
We had the best intentions of being done in a few months, and then of course it ended up being about a year. But the great thing about digital video is, once the year was over and Next Wave Films came on board and gave us finishing funds, we could work with Next Wave to say, how are we going to make this the most marketable movie that we can? So we were even able to change it up to Sundance 2001. And even after we projected digitally at Sundance, we were able to massage a tiny bit the things we didn’t like at Sundance.

BARRIAL:
Because we hadn’t seen it on the big screen until Sundance 2001.

Q: What did you get from the Sundance audiences, or the people there?

BARRIAL: It was nerve-wracking, obviously. But with each screening, we seemed to find the audience that would be interested in this kind of film. So I thought each screening got progressively better.

BENNETT: Another thing that I discovered about the movie was that there were a lot of people who really related to it in a big way and loved it, and then there were a lot of people who dismissed it—the digital video problem, the production values, no stars, and also the story—people saying “I don’t know anybody like this, it’s just the filmmakers masturbating all over themselves,” this kind of thing. This holds true still—people either really love it or really hate it, there’s no in between. Which I prefer. Either way, it’s causing very strong emotion. People have very strong emotions and opinions about it, it’s something that sticks with them for a couple of days, they think about it afterwards.

Q: The film has a very ambiguous ending. I thought it was saying that your character was still in the process of change, and that she might not get back together with Anthony, the original boyfriend.

BENNETT: A lot of people don’t like that, that there’s not a big lesson learned, or that you don’t see the big change happen. We had about five different endings. When we ultimately decided on this ending, I liked it the best, because it’s exactly what you just said. Because big life change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re doing a slice of life movie, so why are we going to do a slice of life movie and then come out with this big Hollywood ending, to tell you she’s made this big change? It would be so fake and phony. This is a woman who wants to change, but it doesn’t necessarily come that easy, it’s something that very very slowly happens as you keep living.

BARRIAL: And here was the advantage of basing an idea on somebody’s life. We said, what’s going on with you now? And Stephanie said, I’m in the process of change. So that’s where we kind of left it.

Q: Do you feel that the independent film market, or side of the movie business, is more receptive to this type of movie, or is it moving towards the more traditional types of stories and films?

BENNETT: Big stars are doing independent films, and winning Oscars for them.

BARRIAL: It is the arena where different films get out into theaters, and people get an opportunity to see them. I feel like, though, there’s still a snobbishness to the independent film world—snobbishness is too harsh a word. There’s a mind-set—if you’re going to make an independent film, make it dark, or violent, or campy.

BENNETT: When we were sitting in the editing room, I did all kinds of homework on what kind of festival we thought we would be right for. I almost didn’t submit this to Sundance—I thought we wouldn’t have a chance in hell. I thought we would need a star, some kind of beautiful setting, a million-dollar budget, production values. We almost didn’t submit it—we didn’t know anybody. It was kind of a miracle that it was accepted.

There are these big-budget movies with big stars that are becoming ‘independent,’ so to speak, because Hollywood is making such shit, and because big stars can win Oscars this way. At the same time, it’s hard to say, because we were the ones who were given the chance. We were the dark horse that was let into the club, for that year.

Q: Maybe we need a new phrase, beyond independent. Maybe independent has outlived its usefulness. You mentioned the low budget—what kind of budget were you working with in this film?

BARRIAL: We didn’t have any money—this movie wouldn’t have been made without DV. We shot this before The Celebration [the Dogma 95 film] came out—we were editing at the time.

BENNETT: Which helped us to see that it’s all about the story, with the best acting we can get, then who gives a shit what it looks like.

BARRIAL: Right—it’s all about content. But to go back to budget—it cost us around $3,000 to film.

BENNETT: We didn’t pay anybody, we didn’t pay for any locations.

BARRIAL: We owned our equipment—the price of the film was the DV tapes—you can buy them for $7-10 apiece. And since we were shooting in this style, with no lighting, people would just show up. What was great about DV is actors show up and say ‘ho-hum, it’s just DV.’ And that’s great, because they calm down.

BENNETT: There’s no pressure.

BARRIAL: They don’t think anything’s going to happen with this. That allows the actors—I’ve acted before and know how nerve-wracking it can be. And I felt like that attitude, the atmosphere, the banal atmosphere—we could sit around. I told them, it doesn’t cost us anything to shoot for an hour—you can mess up, you can talk, we’ll discuss—so there was an easing of tension.

BENNETT: To get the film ready for Sundance, and make a film print—obviously now the budget is much larger. But to actually shoot it was less than $5,000.

BARRIAL: The philosophy of the school we had attended was, and is, that you explore but you don’t know where you’re going to wind up. That’s how we went at this film—we didn’t know where we were going to end up. We would find out where we were going to wind up in the editing room. The editing room became part of the writing process—almost to compensate for the lack of writing that we had. And with DV, again, you’re editing in somebody’s bedroom—we’re not paying anybody to edit, we’re editing it ourselves.

BENNETT: Of course the editor became a third partner.

BARRIAL: I thought that was an advantage—Geoff, the editor, calls it a garage movie. We got together and did this thing.

BENNETT: But it was a labor of love—lots of blood, sweat and tears.

BARRIAL: Lots of creative arguments.

BENNETT: Lots of passion going on.

Q: So it was developed very organically, but with actors who are all trained in that organic method . . .

BARRIAL: One of the things we studied at this school was the Group Theater. Clifford Odets would write roles specifically for certain actors. That’s kind of what we did. We put this person in and we know what the relationship is, and sure enough when we shot it, although things went different ways, the essence didn’t change.

Q: What’s next for you professionally?

BENNETT: I’m pursuing other acting jobs, he’s pursuing other directing jobs. But at the same time we’re writing another script together.

Q: In the same style as Some Body?

BENNETT: We’d like to keep in that same type of vein.

BARRIAL: Maybe build on what we’ve learned and continue to explore. And also, possibly, although continuing to work in the digital world, bump it up to digi-beta, or shooting high-definition—depending on what finances allow. But we also want to continue to explore in an organic manner. It’s another relationship story, about whether modern marriages can survive our cynicism.

Q: Are either of you married?

BENNETT: He just got married. I have a boyfriend—obviously with this new script we’re drawing on very personal experiences too. I’m suddenly finding myself faced with this kind of decision. I’ve always been so scared of marriage, because I’m the product of divorce. The film will deal with, how does modern marriage work, and is it a smart thing to do?

BARRIAL: People seem more cynical nowadays about it—sometimes people find out you’re married and say, oh. It’s like a death sentence.

BENNETT: [laughing] Oh, I’m so sorry, I hope it works out.

BARRIAL: But the truth of it is I was horrible at being single, and I hated being single, and I’m not good at it. I’m glad that I found somebody that I plan on spending the rest of my life with. I don’t know how people do it—I had a really hard time being single—that was part of why we both related to wanting to make this film.

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