Director's Cut: Todd Berger ('It's A Disaster')

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Although we know him best as the writer/director of "It's A Disaster", Todd Berger was attending SXSW as an actor in Sean H. A. Gallagher's "Good Night" when we caught up with him. The unassumingly devastating ensemble drama takes place in one night, at a dinner party to celebrate the 29th birthday of Leigh (a heartbreaking Adriene Mishler). But after Leigh announces that her bone marrow transplant failed and her cancer has returned, it becomes apparent that this birthday will also be her last, and she & her eclectic group of friends have one final beautiful evening together. The Anti-Cancer-Movie Cancer Movie, "Good Night" avoids sentimentalism and cliche at every turn and was absolutely one of SXSW's hidden gems.

Berger plays Charlie, the only dad amongst this group of friends, who is forced to bring his baby when he and his wife can't find a sitter. As the film progresses and the characters imbibe, ingest, smoke and snort till they can do nothing but pass out, Charlie loosens up more and more and his rapport with Alex Karpovsky's Jake in particular creates the films most laugh out loud moments. We spoke to Berger about "Good Night" and "It's a Disaster", which took the internet by storm when it was "distributed" on Vine, and finally arrives in theaters this Friday.

Film.com: How did you become a part of "Good Night"?

Todd Berger: I went to school here, at the University of Texas in Austin. Hook 'em Horns! and I met Sean in my first film class, so we've been friends for 16 years. He was always a good arty guy, his undergrad thesis was supposed to be a 20 minute short film and he decided to make an 80 minute feature, like an an experiment, about a wedding reception, it was called "Steady". And he started working on ["Good Night"] 10 years ago and I remember him sitting me down and interviewing me cause he went around to everyone he knew and asked them a bunch of questions about death, like, what would you do if you found out your sister was dying, asking them questions about death and dying and cancer, and then he used that and wrote a novella, then he started working on the script. He called me in like, 2008 and said hey, we're gonna start shooting this -

[We're interrupted by a woman who just saw the movie yelling at Todd "You're fabulous!" Berger thanks her warmly.]

So yeah he called me and was like, we're finally gonna do this, we found some money, we're gonna shoot in July 2010, would you come to Austin for five weeks, and I was like sure. So I drove to Austin and lived there lived in that house [in which the movie was shot]. I was roommates with Alex Karpovsky. We both slept on air mattresses next to each other for five weeks.

What was the shooting schedule like?

We would shoot from sundown to sunup everyday, so we'd wrap at like six in the morning, go to bed, wake up at noon or one, have the day free to do whatever and then start working again at like 6:30 and it was really fun.

Did Sean know all of the actors beforehand, the way he knew you?

No, Jason Newman was cast through a casting agency, as well as Laura (Clifton). Adriene he saw in a play. Alex he had seen in a movie and thought he was really good so they just called him and said hey would you come be in this. He knew me, and Jeff (Benson) and Parisa (Fakhri) knew Johnny Mars, so half of us are old friends. And then Lizzie (Riley) is a teacher who worked with Sean, she's not an actress, she had never acted before, he just liked her being, her thing that she had going, and thought she fit the character, so he just went to her one day and was like, hey wanna be in this movie?

That's actually another way it's similar to "It's a Disaster" - not only taking place at one party with one group of friends, not only facing the end of something, but how the cast is half made up of old friends.

Sean and I were talking about it cause he saw "It's a Disaster" in October and he was like, "We're like Cezanne and Pissarro, the french painters, who both would paint the same forest, but completely different impressions" and I was like ooh, I like that.

Which did you shoot first and how long did the shoot take?

Berger: I made this movie before I shot "It's a Disaster", we started shooting this in July 2010 and now it's March 2013, so it's been two and a half years

Was that on purpose? So in the three flashback vignettes we can really see how Leigh and Winston changed physically during her fight with cancer?

Yeah, I mean I don't think they wanted to take 2 and a half years, but when we shot the movie they were like, yeah, we're gonna be shooting for a while longer cause we're gonna shave Johnny and Adriene's heads, and then Sean while working his job as a teacher also wanted to edit at the same time, so he really wanted to devote time to it not like, rush to meet a Sundance deadline. They've just been working and editing and wanted to wait until it was ready. He was in no rush, it was just like, wait till it's done.

You're normally a writer/director, but here you are just acting - what was that like?

I've acted in some people's short films and shown in like, a scene of a movie, but this was my first real experience of just going to a location and being an actor. It made me realize I really like acting in other people's things and doing "It's a Disaster", where I'm in one scene for two minutes, and I was the writer/director and I was like, I really like writing and directing other people and acting in other people's movies, but I don't know how much I enjoy writing, directing AND acting at the same time, Kevin Costner style. But it was great to not actually have to worry about, how are they covering this? Or what's the continuity here? How are we gonna distribute this? And all those shenanigans, it was great to just show up, and it made me respect actors on a whole new level and understand you have to put a lot of work into this, and that was great.

The relationships in the movie are incredibly specific, we as an audience can infer a lot just from visual cues and body language. Each and every relationship between each and every character is not spelled out, but is absolutely present, which was wonderful. How did you guys achieve that chemistry as a cast?

Sean got us together three or four days before we started shooting and had all these little exercise for us to do to get to know each other and establish our back stories, as characters, so one day the whole day you were assigned a different room in the house every hour on the hour with a different selection of people, so I would have to go to like, the kitchen with Johnny and Adriene and we'd talk about, okay how do we know each other, okay Adriene and I are old friends from high school, and then an hour later, Parisa, Alex and I would have to go to the grocery store to buy tonic water (which their three characters do in the movie) and talk about how the three of us knew each other. Certain characters I don't even interact with like, I never talk to Samantha, we established that we don't know each other really well, and we decided no one really likes my wife very much and people don't like when I bring her, Alex and I were like, we're old buddies who always give each other a hard time, but I'm always super nice to Jeff's character just because I've only met him a handful of times, and so we kind of created all of these little things. And then Lizzie and I were instructed to hang out beforehand, before she met anybody else, for like a day, he was like go get coffee, hang out, so you guys will have a chemistry together prior to meeting anybody else, so it was fun and it really helped develop those relationships.

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The massive dinner scene where we get to know all of these characters is filled with small moments, really genuine seeming conversation, naturally overlapping dialogue, and that tone carries through the whole rest of the movie - how was this achieved? Was there any improv, and what was the coverage?

The dinner scene they shot with four cameras, and they had four or five cameras going at a time. Basically we had a script and Sean was like, you need to say most of these words, but feel free, get to it when you get to it, so everything that was in the script is on screen, but you can talk about breakfast cereal for a minute before you got to the point, and then when you were done you could talk about something else, and then he would chop it up and use what he wanted, that was fun and I think it worked.

Was there anything you learned from this that you then brought to "It's a Disaster"?

Berger: Oh absolutely, just giving characters relationship backstories so they know how to relate to each other, I just thought was vital, and when we did "It's a Disaster", I would sit with Julia and be like, okay you know everyone *this* way, you're old friends with Hedy, America's character, you guys met in college, this will never been on screen you know, you're never gonna talk about this, but it's important to know how you guys know each other. Because you wouldn't want someone to read a script and be like "We're all good friends, we're all eight of us best friends and we all treat each other the same!" cause that's not how real friendships work, when you go to a party with your friends, you end up talking to the same people, and you talk to people differently depending on how you know each other, so I thought that was great and it totally was inspired by [the exercises we did for "Good Night"].

Ultimately this stemmed from UT - are there other filmmakers you went to school with that are making movies now and do you keep in touch?

Berger: Oh yeah absolutely, we call it the Burnt Orange Mafia, and I was so busy here at SXSW because my friends are all directing movies! Bryan Poyser did "The Bounceback", PJ Raval did "Before You Know It", Kat Chandler did a couple shorts, Johnny didn't go to UT but he's Austin guy, he's in seven things. Geoff Marslett did "Loves Her Gun", there's a bunch and actors and actresses, I don't know if you saw, the Austin Chronicle had busy actor bingo, you should look for it, it's a bingo card with all these Austin actors and basically it's like, if you see a movie, cross them off and see if you can make bingo! And Johnny's on it, and Jason Newman, it's all these actors that are in two or more movies at SXSW. So it's cool, it's like all of your friends are making movies! And you're like, I gotta go see my friends movie! It's great and everybody is still supportive, Austin is a great, supportive film community.

The whole indie film community but especially here seems to cool and supportive, it seems like it would be better to start in independent film, making your own work for the community alone, rather than hope to jump immediately to studio pictures out of school.

You kind of have to make your own movie cause it never happens, people who wait for someone to give them a million dollars do go back a movie, you're gonna be waiting a long time. And we all come to the realization eventually that if you want to do something, you have to do it yourself, so you might as well do it now. Those few who have had the opportunity out of the gate who directed one like killer short in college then handed the keys to a franchise, those are few and far between, but still you're probably gonna be under heavy supervision of a studio or a financing company, but if you really want to use your first feature film as a business card to show this is who I am, this is what I do, if you it independently, you don't have to answer to anybody and that's crucial.

In "It's A Disaster", was there anything you think you wouldn't have been able to do in it had it not been independent?

Yeah, without giving away the ending, I think our ending is something a studio probably would never let us do. Even if we would have ended up with the ending we have I think they would have made us shoot five different endings and then tested the endings and gone with the ending that people like the best and for me the ending of a movie and how the story and characters wrap up is kind of important. I think the title of the movie might be different, we even met with distributors who wanted to change our title because they didn't get that the title is a commentary, it's part of the satire, they were like, what if we changed it to Brunch Disaster or something? But I'm like, there's a point to the title and a point to the ending. So absolutely it would have been a different movie.

Oh hey, you distributed your movie on Vine!

Yes!

How'd that happen?

Jeff Grace, actor/producer had the idea one day, cause Vine had only been around for like two weeks, and we all thought it was incredibly stupid, cause like, six seconds is so arbitrary and the videos people were making were so dumb, so Jeff said what if as a publicity stunt, we released the entire movie on Vine, like we announce through a press release, we're gonna distribute our movie on Vine. And Oscilloscope, our distributor, was like, we love it, let's do it, so they wrote a total tongue in cheek press release that a lot of people did not understand.

People thought it was serious!

Oh yeah, like I gave an obnoxious quote about Jean Luc Godard that people thought I was being serious about. And so all these websites ran with it and in our press release, it said "we feel this is the future of cinema, to release a movie six seconds at a time" and all these blogs were like, "that's bullshit! movies should be seen in a theater not six seconds at a time!" and it was great, it got a lot of press and the next day Oscilloscope did a follow up press release saying like, our experiment has failed, our bad, we will no longer we distributing things through Vine, we apologize. But some people still don't understand that is was a joke.

"It's A Disaster" is available on VOD now, and hits theaters this Friday