Jack C. Newell is the program director at the recently launched Harold Ramis Film School at Second City and an award-winning filmmaker whose most recent feature, the locally shot romantic comedy Open Tables, will be available to watch via iTunes beginning Friday, December 2. I recently spoke to Jack about the film, improvisation, food and amnesia.
Open Tables is frequently referred to as an “improv comedy.” Tell me about your process: Did you have a treatment that you worked from or did you write a script based on improv exercises with the actors?
On the spectrum of the completely written film where you don’t change a single word on set to “We’re just gonna make it all up,” we hit different points along that entire spectrum. There is a script—it’s like 60 pages. The section in France was all written but we got there and then threw it all out. Is that scripted or is it improvised? I don’t know. Sometimes, like in the dinner party where they’re talking about having three-ways, literally the text in the script is: “They make jokes about three-ways.” One line. And it goes on for three or four minutes. Hannah and Dean, the guy with no memory—that’s almost completely scripted because I had to make sure he said the exact same thing. And then T.J. [Jagodowski]’s scenes, the four-way couple scenes—all improvised. The other thing we did was that I wrote and we shot all of the stories that are told at the dinner party before we shot the dinner party. And then I gave transcripts of the scenes to the people who are telling the stories. So Kate [Duffy] and Keith [Kupferer], the couple that tells the story of Hannah and Dean, they are the only ones that had seen and read that part of the film. So we told the story twice: once to get real reactions—because Colleen [Doyle] and Desmin [Borges] and Caroline [Neff] are all incredibly witty—and then we would do it again if we missed a moment or if someone found a discovery then we could elaborate on that. We did it all the different ways you possibly could. And we shot over nine months. We had forty production days, which is crazy.
The word improv to me has a negative connotation in terms of cinema. When I hear that word I think that means a film will be sloppy. But your film is cinematographically very sound; the overhead shots of the plates give it a structural elegance.
It’s very formal. The improv thing is so fucked up. I really hate it. I agree with everything you’re saying. I think mumblecore ruined it. Improv or scripted, all that matters in the end is “Is it good? Is it successful or not successful? Does it make you feel something or not?” A lot of people say, “improv is like jazz,” because they think jazz is about making shit up but that’s not what jazz is. What makes jazz work, and how it fits into continuing the language of jazz, is people constantly calling back to other songs; they go here and it’s like, “Oh, I see what you did there. Or I thought you were going to go there but you went over here.” And that is actually the better definition of improvisation. There are jazz standards like “Sunny Side of the Street” or “Summertime” or whatever…
Or Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” which starts with the familiar melody and then takes off.
Exactly—15 minutes long. He elaborates and then he comes back. These songs are: “This is the song. But it’s still jazz because what we’re going to do is have some fun in the middle.” And that’s how I think about improvisation and how that can work with cinema: What is the jazz standard that we’re playing here? In a scene with T.J. and Desmin and Colleen and Linda [Orr], the four-way scene, that was like—a lot of time I would just give them the beginning line of a scene or the last line of a scene and they would either play towards the line or away from the line.
What is it about the act of congregating to eat that’s conducive to good cinema?
That’s a good question. When people go out to eat and they have good food, one of the things that happens is people get transported. You can take a bite of something and food has this incredible ability to elicit memories. So does smell. Smell maybe more than taste, you know? Film is very dreamy and the borders of it are not super-rigid. So the associations you can get through food, and what that creates in terms of conversation, I feel like connect to cinema pretty well because you can very easily in an edit be transported to Paris or wherever and it’s not weird.
Let’s talk about the subplot of the amnesiac. That will be the most memorable part of the film for a lot of viewers because it’s so funny. How did you come up with that storyline and what does it mean to you?
That one means a lot to me. Here’s the story of how I got this idea: When I was 11, my dad had an aneurysm. I went into the hospital room and he didn’t know who I was. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty big moment. He recovered from that somewhat and then he passed away. He was older. We had a good relationship and he knew who I was. But I definitely had that moment when I walked in and he was like, “Who are you?” That’s hardcore, you know? There was a Radiolab podcast and they did a story on Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). It’s a real thing. I had some fun with it in the film but I basically did it right: You lose your memory and then you kind of get it back. But the thing is you get it back a lot quicker than I (show). You would never go three months. It’s more like in a day you get it back. You just get stuck in a loop. I heard that and I was like, “That’s really fucking interesting. I like that because of my history with my dad.” And then my friend had just gotten divorced and he was telling me about all these dates he was going on. We were having tacos and he was telling me about another first date and I kind of got confused. I was like, “Is this Sarah or is this, you know, Tracy?” And he was like, “No, this is Donna.” I feel like I heard the same story; he took these people on the same first dates. I was just kind of like, “Whoa, I have this idea: What if this person kept going on a first date forever?” That idea could be a movie in itself. So I write it and I’m like “Dave [Pasquesi] would be perfect for this part.” He can do it, he’s an improviser, he’s an amazing actor. It’s a hard part; if done poorly, it could not work. He’s not remembering and that’s not the easiest thing in the world to play. So I write it and I email it to him one night and he emails me back: “Oh, I didn’t tell you. I had TGA.” I emailed him back and I said, “No, you must’ve forgotten.” Ha, ha, ha. ’Cause I thought he was joking ’cause improvisers are always fucking joking, right? And he doesn’t email me back. I had to go pick up [my wife] from a comedy show. So I went and picked her up and Dave was there, oddly. I don’t see Dave that often. And I’m like, “Hey man, so your email?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I had TGA. I was in L.A. doing yoga. I called my wife and said ‘I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.’” He hung up his phone, walked two steps, picked up his phone, called his wife and said “Hey, I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.” And his wife was like, “Dave, what the fuck is wrong with you?” But he went to the doctor and they’re like, “We don’t know what causes TGA. It’s this weird thing. It may be stress.” But he had it. Super fucking weird. So he was my actor and adviser.
Learn more about Open Tables via the film’s official website.
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