In its third year, SpeakeasyShorts is a short film competition of teams of local filmmakers who only have 5 days to write, shoot, edit, and screen a film based on stories from local storytellers with a $1,000 cash prize on the line.
Last Friday story tellers performed true, first-person stories on stage and filmmakers were assigned a story they just heard. The eight-minute films premiere this Saturday, November 22 with the audience determining the winner.
BYT asked artists from both camps, filmmakers and story tellers, to ask each other questions. Representing the filmmakers: Tony Lazzeroni and Brianna Lux. Tony has been making short films as Crowded Elevator Pictures since college. Brianna joined up with him in 2010, and they found that her left brain was a lovely complement to Tony’s right brain. Tony also produces comedic sketches with Ugly Hollywood.
John Tong is a local story teller and a two-time Speakeasy DC top-shelf winner who focuses his bad habit of over-sharing into an acceptable art form.
John: So, you have five days to make an entire film about a 6 minute story you hear only once. How could they make this any more stressful?
Brianna & Tony: Russian roulette to determine screening order? Honestly, it’s not that stressful for us. We’re used to 48 and 72-hour time limits, and in those cases, we have to come up with the story, too. This seems like an opportunity to focus a bit more on production value and character development.
And yes, we realize the above statements probably just jinxed the hell out of us.
John: Once you find out which story is yours to film, what are you the first things you do once the clock is ticking?
Brianna & Tony: Meet with our writing team to come up with a script, and then send a shit ton of texts and Facebook messages to lock in our actors and locations. We might get a story that is fully formed, simple to cast and set, and ready to shoot, or we might get the next “Gravity” and be forced to tease out the simple story we can actually tell. Then beer.
John: I write my stories alone, in my underwear, listening to 80’s-era goth music. Movie-making forces you to interact and rely on lots of other people. That sounds horrible. How do you make that work when you have no time, budget or free cocaine to hand out?
Brianna: Pizza is our cocaine. We also work with a fairly small team of people we’ve learned to trust over the years. Tony handles most things production-wise (filming, editing, directing), but on Crowded Elevator, everyone plays multiple roles. Writers do sound, producers are actors, and actors are writers. Despite her improv background, I’m also really good at saying “no” to pitched stories that simply aren’t realistic to produce on no time or budget (or cocaine).
John: What makes a story interesting to film?
Tony: I’d say unpredictability. While I might have a version of the story in my head, cast just the way I would want, set and lit just perfectly, and getting ideal performances out of the cast and crew, that never ever happens. Someone or something is always different than how I imagined it, and I either bend the element to fit the story, or bend the story to fit the element, and sometimes I end up with a totally different story than what I pictured in my head. If you can embrace these differences, then you can make something really good because you can play to your strengths in the story.
Brianna: I love strong, developed characters. We did a film last year, “Parental Advisory,” with a fairly simple story, but the characters and their relationship were so powerful and compelling that it’s been my favorite film so far.
John: I can always tell an audience exactly how I feel about something. How do you express your point of view as a filmmaker?
Tony: That’s a million-dollar question, right there. I think it starts with what we choose to produce. I’m not a fan of horror films, so even if someone plops a horror movie script in my lap, I’m still not likely going to make it, unless there is something in the story that I think I can tell better than another filmmaker could.
John: As a live performer, I get to read my audience and make adjustments to my delivery. Your finished product is totally one-sided; people watch and respond to what they see on the screen. What is your process for anticipating how an audience will react to your film?
Tony: We show it to an audience! Brianna and I, our cast and crew, and our friends and family will often be the first to see our productions, and we take their reactions into account as we finalize the projects. At the end of the day, if those are the only people we impress, then we feel like we did something good.
Brianna: On editing day, Tony sits at his computer while I sit on his bed and look over his shoulder. Usually when I arrive around noon or 1pm (with Chipotle…it’s tradition), Tony already has a pretty solid cut of the film. So I’m the first audience, and then if Tony’s roommates say that it’s “not bad,” then we know we’re in pretty good shape. Then we cross our fingers.
John: Confess something. Tell me an embarrassing story about yourself.
Brianna: Tony and I started working together after I crashed his DC 48 Hour Film Project filming in 2009. I had a crush on one of the fellows helping out with the film, and I was supposed to be on standby if they needed me to act… but they didn’t. I was bummed but still curious about the filming. Tony to this day says I showed up drunk. I still contend that I was just tipsy and naturally giggly.
Tony: She was drunk.
Brianna & Tony: What’s the biggest misconception about storytelling?
John: Lots of people think I tell little kids stories about magical chipmunks or that I do stand-up comedy. My mom asks me how my “comedy talks” are going and friends ask me about my “stand-up.” I don’t do stand-up, which is a different form and really hard. I perform pieces I have written about actual experiences I have had in my life to an audience in an attempt to make them feel something. I try to be funny, but that doesn’t make me a stand-up.
B&T: How did you get started in storytelling?
John: One of my co-workers is a teacher with Speakeasy DC. She was performing a story and after seeing my first show at Speakeasy DC, I was completely hooked. As a kid I used to act but figured I would never really perform again after college. I started (badly) singing karaoke every week as a way to get that rush of performing on stage, but that was a sad substitute.
B&T: How do you know the right story when you come across it?
John: Most storytelling shows revolve around a theme, so I really have to find a story that fits the theme in a meaningful way. Sometimes I just have a really cool story to tell (like meeting James Brown), and I’m searching for a show with a theme that fits. The messier process is trying to find a story that a theme inspires and that can lead to hardcore soul searching.
But whatever memory or event from my past that I arrive at, I try to ask myself, “Why would a group of strangers, who shelled out money, want to hear this?” The story must be true to my own self, but it can never be self-indulgent. The good stories connect to universal human experiences.
B&T: How do you know when a story is finished? Do you have stories that you are still living that you are already telling on stage?
John: Every story I tell has an ending. Period. Beginning, middle, end: That defines a story. It can’t just be a series of events because then it’s just an anecdote and any fool that had something interesting happen to them can do that. So, for me, a story is finished when I’m satisfied I’ve established that the story matters and the story caused some kind of change in my life, or perception or understanding.
But I accept my perspective can change over time. A story about my mother I write today might radically take on a different meaning after her death. So the same events could lead to two different stories, like one subject photographed from two different angles.
I think telling stories about stuff you are still living is a bad idea. Remember how everyone hated how the “Sopranos” ended? It’s like that, on stage, with much weirdness.
B&T: What’s your process? How long do you work on a story before it’s “ready for primetime”?
John: I write the entire story out. I draft and re-draft until I think it’s ready to go. Then I time it and start editing it down. Once I get it to the time limit for a particular show, I memorize it word for word and start a process of line-editing to smooth it out by saying it out loud in front of a mirror. Then I repeat it into my head until it is second nature and then I go on stage, forget everything and try to achieve flow.
Some people can tell stories off the top of their head with almost no preparation. I hate all of those people.
B&T: Who are your favorite storytellers?
John: I don’t know if people in the DC Metro understand how fantastic the storytelling scene is here. Seriously, it’s one of the best in the country. I love to see Adam Reuben, Anne Thomas, Mike Kane, Katy Barrett, Keith Mellnick and Mike Baireuther to name a few. If you ever hear of show and those names are connected to it, you should go because it will probably be really good.
B&T: If you were a filmmaker, what type of film would you make?
John: I would make a shot-for-shot remake of John Carpenter’s “They Live” starring WWE superstar Goldberg and Idris Elba.