Plus, a sneak-peek of the film!
One thousand years ago in March of 2020, filmmakers Blaize Hall and Ian Mark decided to do the exact thing Hollywood Studios had abruptly stopped doing: shoot a feature film. Immediately. Hall and Mark, like many young creatives these days, are actors, writers, improvers, and directors, but no previous project in their past comes close to the one they decided to dive head first into. So why did these multi-hyphenates decide to go this big?
As we all know, the early days of quarantine were flooded with creators of all kinds abruptly adapting to stay-at-home orders by putting short-form content on Instagram pages, Zoom play readings, monologue challenges, the list goes on. For better or worse, young artists who emerge into the artistic and media landscape today were in many ways prepared for this shift, as being a young creator today is virtually synonymous with hustle culture. Initially, Hall and Mark did the same thing — live streaming their improv practices, making short videos, posting on social media… But very soon, they realized they wanted to take a different approach. “There’s nothing wrong with content!” Hall assures me, “I still share some of my short pieces and ideas with my followers, and we didn’t decide to do this project because of a disdain for content!” In fact, it didn’t have to do with being averse to ‘content’ at all, but a reckoning with the stakes of this global catastrophe, and a foresight on the part of the duo that the ramifications from COVID-19 would last far longer than even many experts predicted. “I knew pretty early on that this was going to last a while, a year, even,” Mark says, and it was that belief, and subsequent confirmation of that belief, that launched them on the path of making a project a bit bigger than the confines of social media.
Another factor that contributed to this desire to tell a deeper, longer, and more intense story was the ways in which life was continuing on despite these stay at home orders. Particularly, NSA trials that Mark learned were still happening virtually. “People are having their lives determined over a Skype call, just like you and I are having, so the gravity is intense. Ultimately, we knew that we wouldn’t be the only ones making a pandemic inspired film,” he continues, “but I’m willing to bet a whole lot of money we’re the only ones making a film about an NSA whistleblower and a future doctor advocating for universal healthcare forced to quarantine apart while dealing with surprising news of their child’s biological parentage and exploring ideas about gender, polyamory and sexuality.”
Together, Hall and Mark are weaving their personal convictions, beliefs, and emotions into what’s sure to be a powerful, intense, and rewarding film, A More Perfect Union. The duo, who are in a polyamorous relationship themselves, have already been challenged in ways both artistic and strategic. I spoke to the two collaborators about their ambitious idea, making art in times of crisis, and what they think might be at the root of society’s problems today.
This project is totally informed by COVID-19. Right off the bat, tell us about what you are doing, and how you are doing it. How did you come up with this idea, how were you able to write a script?
IM: Yes, it’s 100% because of COVID. Most movies have a much longer time scale in production, but in March 2020 once the lockdown happened, in the acting world everything was gone: auditions, meetups, reading groups, improv… People started churning out content, “here’s a 2 minute sketch!”, like we are told repeatedly to do as creators. I looked at that and thought, ‘Blaize and I can definitely do that, I just don’t know where you go from that: Nobody wants to see them a year from now’.
The mentality of everyone at that time was “we’re gonna be in lockdown for a few weeks,’ but I’m a realist: I was listening to experts, saying that this was gonna be a year. And if I’m out in LA, I need to work. If I’m paying the same amount of rent I want to make it count! So I thought, ‘Can we do a full feature?’ If we can’t hire anyone besides ourselves and a few others, what story can we tell? We wanted to stay away from the paint by numbers “COVID stuck inside story” though, because we knew everyone was going to be hitting those obvious beats in the next 3, 4 years.
Something that has always interested me is: Why is America so much worse at dealing with catastrophes than every other 1st world country? We’re the richest country [in the world], anyone should be prepared to handle it. If any country can afford to pay its citizens to stay home, it should be us. We wanted a film that had big enough ideas that even if we’re only seeing two characters in their residences it still feels like we’re in a whole world. In April and May we finished the first draft, then had a table read in May which went really well so we went straight into pre-production.
How did you hire your team? How did you approach them about their inevitable health and safety concerns?
BH: I like to say that the universe provided for us… but basically we just put out a lot of asks. We started fundraising, and a DP (Director of Photography) friend of mine gave us 20 bucks in that fundraiser. He said he believed in us, so I asked, “Well, how much [do you believe in us]?” (laughs) So he came onboard that way. There’s a trust level we needed to have, and of course people want to know we’re taking it seriously. [Our DP] is from Italy and his family had [COVID-19], so having that level of predetermined trust was super important.
IM: In terms of the safety of the production, the only safe way is to limit — have as few people involved as possible, which means we need people who can wear a lot of hats. We have 4 people on set: us two [Hall and Mark], our DP, and our sound guy who is doubling as a gaffer. On one of the first days of shooting I said “This is truly a once in a lifetime experience” and our sound designer said “yeah, I hope so!”
What has been the most difficult part of this? Any surprises?
BH: It’s a double sided coin — what is so hard is also what’s making it work. It’s so hard to wear all these hats. When you get into the emotional situations in character, it’s hard to be objective when I’m not in my objective mind and look at the shot setup, etc. So our DP serves as another pair of eyes. But although we’re pretty burnt out, it makes us able to bang out a lot of scenes in a day because we don’t have to wait for 16 people to set up a shot: the two of us just bicker for a moment (laughs) and then we go into it!
It’s all about having to find the balance of our shared intense commitment, and the fact that both of our voices matter… but also that we aren’t going to have the same visions, so compromising and knowing when to push for the right thing.
In the synopsis there’s a lot going on here, and many themes you’re grappling with. One thing we know at KNOCK, and is helpful to me as an organizer in the face of so many catastrophic problems, is that all of these issues are connected. Why did you want to tackle so many things, and what is the thing that ties it all together, that makes it possible to talk about so many issues at once?
BH: The heart of the story is these people, these characters. We all think that we are so different, but we need the same things: security, love, connection with other people, health, safety. And we all need a voice and an identity. The goal [in the film] is to show how we all struggle with these challenges, and how that can lead to compromising ourselves for the wrong reasons. My character (Stella) is very unhappy in her life, so she has to compromise repeatedly. She’s struggling with intra-personal identity challenges. She’s gender fluid, polyamorous, and she’s put a lot aside struggling with mental health, whereas Henry (Ian’s character) is more struggling with the overarching “fucked-up-ness” of the world.
IM: As far as tying it all together, yes, all of these issues are connected: it’s not like we have vignette after vignette with like “this political issue” and then “that political issue”, we have characters that are very politically informed. Our generation takes the internet very seriously, we don’t get just one point of view, we get all different views. My character (Henry) is obsessed with national security, you know, the things Snowden warned us about that have now gone by the wayside. Stella, meanwhile, is struggling more like Blaize said with interpersonal struggles, but also dealing with the healthcare aspect [which brings it all together].
If there’s one theme that would tie it all together, it’s isolation.
Isolation can lead to people being susceptible to disinformation?
IM: More-so, like, we’re all isolated in quarantine, but this isolation is compounded by a lack of a shared truth that we all have — half the country says it’s a hoax, half the country says it’s not. No one knew what was true, no one knew what was going on. Communicating only via phone calls and texting, you’re not getting all the context. That really warps communication and it warps your relationships. Zooming out, this couple has had issues for years. My character’s efforts to fight back against mass surveillance is our window into looking at America as a whole. The pandemic is an opportunity going forward: we can go back to the way it was before, or we can say we have a clean slate, and we can throw out all the trash and rebuild a world where the 1% maybe doesn’t have all the power!
BH: It could be a more perfect union for the country, and also a more perfect union for Henry and Stella. You’ll have to watch the film to find out how that works!
I wanted you guys to answer your own question: the pandemic has given us the opportunity to either go back to the way it was, or rebuild our country and learn from our mistakes. What do you think America is gonna decide to do?
BH: Well, we’re going to New Zealand so let us know! (laughs)
IM: I don’t know, I could give you a hopeful answer where we start taxing the rich, defund the police, end mass surveillance, and give us universal health care. All this we could do if we close tax loopholes for the rich…
BH: And corporations…
IM: But my real prediction is that the Orange Man is gonna successfully rig the election and refuse to leave. We’re already in a fascist government and everyone’s kind of accepting it.
Circling back to isolation — do you think that’s part of why people aren’t mobilizing in certain ways? How do you think isolation is affecting people on a personal level? It resonates with me that your story grapples with isolation and its effects, but also yourselves as millennials during this time being politically aware, what is it doing to you?
BH: As a millennial, there were parts [of the lockdown] that were seamless. We already live so much of our lives on social media, so especially in LA, you get it! Most people don’t want to drive anywhere! But, we were so used to it at the beginning, we were flooding each other checking in, having each others backs, but the last few months have been… (looking to Ian) Well, this is my only friend in the entire world!
IM: As to how it affects activism, with the George Floyd protests there was this moment, we all were sitting at home, we all saw the footage. White people who were like “Wait, Black lives matter?” who haven’t been paying attention for the past 7 years dialed in. But the pernicious effect of it, because we are all connecting through media and social media, is that we are reliant on big corporations to filter things. And they stick their fingers in the news and control it, because their data science says “Oh we don’t want to talk about defunding the police, we want to talk about confederate statues. And we wanna take this whole debate that’s about defunding the police, and not letting Black people get murdered and turn it into symbolic bullshit about whether or not we have a statue of Robert E. Lee in West Virginia.”
The reason protests aren’t going anywhere is because the media does this dog-and-pony show with a shiny thing, and refuses to pay attention to what actually matters. The media is as invested as anybody in keeping the power structures the way they are. They profit off it. In 2015, they realized that putting that orange man on TV brings profits. Capitalism is the problem – we’ve accepted the notion that if something is profitable, our business, our lives, our relationship it is inherently good and moral. And that’s just not true at all…. We need to reckon with that.
It took us being home in front of a TV seeing George Floyd to get white people on the streets.
IM: For like, 6 weeks! And the vast majority of white people have gone back to not care about it. Our attention spans — “Well that was May, so for sure racism [has been ]solved by then!”
But, as you mentioned, we’re up against multi-billion dollar corporations that are intentionally shifting our focus to problems that can’t be solved.
BH: So our best bet is to make this change profitable.
How to square all of this, your production within Hollywood itself, and how Hollywood makes movies? As you were saying, it takes 10 years to make a movie with hundreds of people touching up a script, directors attached and fired, etc. Can you touch on what is dissatisfying about that model, versus what you’re learning doing it this way?
BH: Ian originally pitched a film that was more “Oscar Baite-y — White America,” but at the end of the day, we kept becoming more impassioned with this story. We’re committed to telling stories that aren’t getting told, so our story morphed into a film very political, social justice-y, queer, poly…
IM: Very Blaize and Ian. (laughs)
BH: We do hope that it attracts a large audience, but we know there are a lot of things in this film that will turn people off, that they’re not ready for. [Audiences] don’t always want to do the emotional labor of wading through a story that’s not a clean, ‘perfect-for-each-other’ romance.
IM: In a pandemic it doesn’t matter how right you are for each other. You’re going to fight, you’re going to have different opinions, it’s gonna be messy even if these people have lots of love for one another. Now to connect it back to the question of Hollywood, I think what we’ve seen in all industries, but especially Hollywood, is the invasion of the data crunchers who come in and say “well I don’t care what the artistic merit of this film is, all I know is that the production art should look like this, and when it’s on the landing page it needs to have these things because that gets more clicks, and more clicks, and all we want is click click click click click!”
The advantage of doing it this way, we’re taking nonprofit donations, our own money, and independent funding, is that we’re making the story that Blaize and I are happy with. We will watch it and say that we were true to its message.
BH: We want people to walk away with something to grapple with. It’s not a cute, happy story.
IM: My character is obsessed with looking forward into the future, and is alarmed that these massive corporations are amassing a power that no one has ever had in human history, where they can record and store everything and have access to it later. Right now, people don’t think that’s a big deal, but that’s because we don’t know what that can be used for. The possibility is that we have an unheard of size of database that can be used by anyone the state decides is an enemy. Having this repository and [being able for the state to say] “In this email from 8 years ago you said this thing: you don’t have that record, but we do”. We’re creating a 1984-type society where anyone who has power has access to this repository. My character comes off as paranoid, because he’s seeing this –
BH: You’re a little paranoid, too, Ian…
IM: I know! But someday I’ll be sitting in New Zealand and you’ll think, “huh that crazy bald dude was right!”
Can you tell us about your fundraising strategy?
BH: We are working with Media Alliance, a Bay Area democratic communications advocate. They’ve offered fiscal sponsorship to new not-for-profit organizations and temporary media projects that are compatible with their values for over 25 years.
IM: I found Media Alliance on a list of plaintiffs that sued the NSA after Edward Snowden revealed their many crimes in 2013. I reached out and connected with their executive director Tracy Rosenberg. While they’ve largely focused on documentary films in their previous sponsorships, the message of our film and its strong focus on privacy rights resonated with her and she encouraged us to apply for sponsorship. They’ve been a pleasure to deal with and their support has allowed us to secure corporate partnerships with Blackmagic Design, DZO Films, Letterblue Productions among others.
Last question: What is your advice to young filmmakers who are like “I need to make something but I don’t want to make content” and secondly, going back to March, would you redo this process?
BH: 100% I would start over any day. If there’s something you feel compelled to make, and it speaks through you, just do it. There is always a way. It will always seem harder than it is. When you are actually in it, it’s just the nuts and bolts picking stuff up and putting it down. It’s hard, and exhausting. and you have to be willing to make sacrifices, for example, I’m having a hard time balancing my mom life and production life, but my daughter is a bright star in my life and in this film, so you make it work.
IM: My advice is to write a script you’re happy with, find someone else who you’re happy with, plan, plan, plan and then just do it. [In a way] we worked backwards on our project — instead of thinking as a writer and then putting on our producer hats, we started with a producing mindset — what locations and actors are available to us? What scenes can we craft that don’t require background actors or extensive crew support or actors in close quarters with each other for prolonged periods?
BH: Don’t be afraid to be moldable. Stick to your guns on your political views, your message, and the things you can’t sacrifice. But this script has been so moldable since the beginning. We’ve had so many people give us tough criticisms and tough feedback that we had to work back in.
It sounds like you’re saying that if you stick to your values and political beliefs, those should remain firm so that you can then be flexible with everything else.
BH: Absolutely. Even on the budget, I kept thinking “we needed to go bigger!” but at the end of the day, we found people who were willing to help us make this possible [at the budget we had]. It doesn’t have to cost a million dollars to look like a million dollars!
IM: Make something you’re happy with. Be collaborative, be open to change, but at the end of the day you need to be happy. You can take the criticism you get for your next project!
Check out a featurette of A MORE PERFECT UNION here: https://vimeo.com/475759368