Q & A with Director Matt Aselton

Gigantic’s Director Matt Aselton

Gigantic’s Director Matt Aselton

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to first time director Matt Aselton, whose background is in shooting commercials, about the making of “Gigantic”. Aselton says he made “Gigantic” as a “mostly comedy” rather than a traditional comedy because he felt if he focused too much on getting laughs he’d risk losing the film’s emotional core.

The R rated “Gigantic” opens Apr. 17 in Los Angeles via First Independent Pictures. Directed by Matt Aselton, it was co-written by Adam Nagata & Aselton and produced by Mindy Goldberg (Epoch Films) and Christine Vachon (Killer Films). The film, which premiered in New York Apr. 3, will expand in the coming weeks to play in between 25 and 30 major markets. Executive produced by Paul Dano, Scott Ferguson, Jerry Solomon, Jeff Preiss and John Wells, it stars Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Jane Alexander and John Goodman.

“Gigantic” won the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival in late March.

The Story: Dano plays Brian, a mattress salesman, who meets Harriet (Deschanel) when she comes in to take care of purchasing a $14,000 bed that her high-powered and very obnoxious father (Goodman) stopped by to test earlier that day. Harriet falls sound asleep for several hours on this mattress while Brian’s charging the purchase to her dad’s credit card. Brian is the afterthought child of elderly parents (Asner and Alexander). His brothers include a shady oilman and a surgeon. For years Brian’s passion in life has been trying to adopt a baby from China. It hasn’t been going too well because he’s 28 and still not married. On top of all of this, there’s a crazy homeless guy who’s trying to kill him.

Q: How did you get the project made?
A: We (Nagata and Aselton) finished writing it in 2006 and gave the (script) to Mindy Goldberg. I’ve been shooting television commercials for her production company for years. So she took the script to Christine Vachon at Killer and we all met and decided that we wanted to go forward. I met Paul Dano not long after that and we sat down and had a long discussion about the film and the tone. It’s a unique (story that) I think Paul was just right for. After Paul came on, the next step was making sure that the girl opposite (him) made sense. I’d never met Zooey before. We had tea in L.A. and she was great. She had a really sweet perspective on it and I thought she got all the proper mechanics of the (character’s) dysfunction.

John Goodman was somebody that we had written the role for just because his is such a recognizable (artist’s) voice. I’d never seen him play a bombastic art dealer and we just felt that he could do it. I just pestered him for months. He was making a series of studio movies and then finally agreed to meet me. We sat down and chatted and he liked the script. Those three (actors) together sort of galvanized the project and made it real. Fortunately, Ed and Jane came on afterwards. We shot last year around this time. I spent about five months editing in a cave in Los Angeles. We premiered at Toronto (last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival) and now we’re here.
Q: How would you describe “Gigantic” in brief?
A: I think it’s about exploring the depths of family dysfunction for many years and what that means to the modern family.
Q: You’ve shot the movie using mostly medium-long lenses, which gives us the feeling that we’re observing the action and, in effect, eavesdropping on the characters.
A: It’s such a personal story with a lot of subtleties and strangeness that I felt we didn’t really want to present the movie so much as observe the movie. I feel a lot of comedy gets presented that way and we didn’t want it to be just a pure comedy. We wanted to make sure that it had some emotion to it. We wanted to stay away from funny looking lenses and go for more cinematic looking things. I generally think that backing the camera up and being on a longer lens helps that. It’s just a better look for me.
Q: I know you had a very right shooting schedule of just 24 days in New York and one day in L.A.
A: It was extraordinary. Everybody, thank God, knew that that was the movie and we were all making the same one. We all knew that there were not going to be a lot of takes and that we had to get these characters right early on. Thankfully, I thought my actors did a beautiful job.
Q: Did you storyboard “Gigantic?"
A: I did as much location scouting as I possibly could. I thought that that was really the most important thing — finding locations (where) I could at any moment turn the camera (in some direction) and find something that I liked. A storyboard is (good for) a different movie than this one, I think. It kind of locks you into a few certain things and you’ve got to have it right. We needed to be a little more nimble.
Q: Was your background directing commercials helpful to you in making your first feature?
A: I think it was an extraordinary tool just from a camera standpoint because you know your camera and you know your lenses and the ones you like and you know how you like things lit. That freed me from having to worry about any of that (because it’s) something that I’ve been doing for six or seven years. That let me focus more on performance and working with actors, which is something I loved to do but had not had the chance to do (with such top actors before). It was really, really fun for me to have that.
Q: Did you rehearse with your actors?
A: We rehearsed with Paul and Zooey because they’re the couple and we needed to make sure that they made sense together. But the rehearsal was really just the three of us walking around New York City. They read lines a little bit, but I was anxious not to dilute the process with a ton of rehearsal because I just wanted some naturalism to it and I think that sometimes over rehearsing things can turn it into a movie read.
Q: And yet there are some directors I talk to who say they always try to get a week or two of rehearsal in with their principal cast members.
A: I guess it’s just a matter of your preference. I can see the benefit in it, I suppose, but it didn’t really hold much appeal for me.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced in production?
A: It was a pretty ambitious schedule that we had to try and do all this stuff with all these locations and moving all these actors around, so there’s a pragmatic challenge to that. But having really no time to breathe and come up for air and step back and look at the story and make sure that everything was tracking the way that I needed it to track was something that I missed. I wished there was more time.

But I think that that’s the lament of every single person (making a low budget independent film). I imagine you hear that all the time (talking to filmmakers for this column). The movie’s never done. You just run out of time. I think that’s the hardest part of making something like this and, hopefully, on the next one there’s (going to be more time). And I’m not asking for tons more. It’s just like if we got 20 minutes behind on this movie we were in trouble.
Q: The weather in New York can pose problems for filmmakers. Was it a problem for you?
A: We got really, really lucky (with the weather and) the late winter light (looked great). Everything clicked for us in that regard and we were fine, thank God.
Q: How was it shooting in New York?
A: What we did was, we shot a fair amount in Brooklyn and a little bit in Manhattan. We shot a bunch of nights. I think that the smart part in planning this was just location scouting various neighborhoods in Brooklyn because they’re a little less on the radar. There’s not a lot of big Hollywood movies that are trying to shoot in DUMBO (the section of Brooklyn where the Brooklyn Bridge is located).
Q: Any other challenges in production that you recall?
A: I met with John Goodman before the movie, but I didn’t get a chance to meet with Ed Asner. I met him the day he showed up. We got 15 minutes to talk before we jumped into it. I think on another movie, at least, it would have been a little bit more than that. And (with) Jane Alexander, the same thing. Thankfully, they’re just intuitive actors that have done a very impressive volume of work so they are pretty adept at just showing up (and doing a great job). But that is a huge challenge, just not being able to sit with the person for a little bit and say, “Okay, this is the movie we’ve been making for the last two weeks. Welcome."
Q: Was it intimidating as a first time director to be working with well established stars like these?
A: I think so. I only have fond memories of it now. It’s hard to go back to the day, but the fond memories I have are mostly just because everybody showed up and was, for the lack of a better word, very professional. I think if there were bigger egos involved or there were people who had agendas it would have been very hard. You know, John Goodman has done a lot of work and he’s an impressive actor. He is as open as any young actor I’ve ever seen. It’s just like he’s searching like anybody else and looking for somebody to be paying attention while he’s working.

I’m not necessarily sure that I was telling these people what I wanted so much as I was helping them get to what was the best thing for the character. I can’t work in a way (like) “This is the way it is and this is the only way.” I feel like you’ve got these great minds and great actors and you have to include them in the process. If you don’t, I think you’re trying to force something that doesn’t belong. I know there are directors who hear it in their heads and that’s the only way it can be. I don’t work like that. Frankly, I think it’s kind of insulting (to the actors).