I’ve never written a screenplay this quickly. At the end of May 2011, I had the funding for another film (Paris) fall through after a year and a half of gearing up. Now, I realize this is not a particularly unique experience for any filmmaker in the present economy - but I was knocked over by it nonetheless. After a few days I decided to just write something…maybe even an outline, get some actors together and make a film come hell or high water. I sat down and started writing and over the next month or so Commencement was born.
From the onset, I was aware that the vision had to match the micro budget so I carefully steered away from battle scenes, extraterrestrials and underwater epics. I wrote about what I know and what I care about: family, relationships and education. Unexpectedly, much of it just poured out, having been gestating (maybe even festering) as a result of the fiscal climate so many of us have been struggling with the past few years.
I was also inspired by a poem by Rumi - The Guest House. My daughter had it on her facebook page when she was in college and I often go back to it as a compass to navigate challenging straights.
While I was writing, I realized I was actually producing and directing at the same time in an attempt to stay within the parameters of our resources. There was a sort of expanding and contracting of the screenplay as creative impulse carried on a tug of war with practical considerations. Ironically, I was now faced with the exact same challenges as many of my students at USC. Just how high can a credit card jump?
I went to some friends to fuel the fire. When I was 30 or so pages into a first draft, I called the wonderful actor Arye Gross, and asked him if he wanted to make a film this summer. “Sure! Send me the script.” “Uh… well, it’s not quite written yet.”
Arye came over to visit and I explained something very vague about a young woman graduating college and three generations of a middle class family. (I cleverly cloaked my lack of story at the time in my admiration for Mike Leigh’s unique blend of writing and improvisation.) We discussed who might play Gillian, his wife. I had an idea that his character’s mother - in - law might be a judge. Arye told me about his friend Marin Hinkle - whose mother IS a judge.
A few days later, I forwarded Marin 40 or so pages and she wrote back enthusiastically. The three of us had lunch and Marin agreed to play Gillian.
Over the next couple of weeks, the three of us would get together every few days and Arye and Marin would read what I had written - all the characters, young, old, male, female. It was great. I asked my long time colleague from USC, Jennifer Warren, to play Gillian’s mother (the judge) and she came and joined the party. This is a woman I adore, not just because of her significant talent but because she has a wicked dry sense of humor -an absolute necessity on every micro budget film shoot.
Now it’s worth noting at this point that I was getting this strange, giddy feeling not unlike a seven year old rolling sideways down a grassy hill. This project had a momentum all its own. We may actually make this film! I was very aware of a growing synchronicity.
Vero Shamo - Garcia, had worked tirelessly with me on producing the previous project. She is a wonderful filmmaker, who somehow is able to juggle a household with two beautiful young children and producing - both with great care and attention to detail. We talked and agreed we would need to bring on another producer to handle the incredible task of pre - producing Commencement in a month. Vero found Charles Uy, a fellow USC alum, who took the reigns on the day to day, while Vero worked from home. Charles would be at my house at 7am and leave at midnight. He was a producing whirlwind.
Joe Pennella, a DP that is always in high demand for pilots and television series, was going to shoot Paris, the stalled project. I told him I was going to do this little film on a shoestring. We talked about how we might shoot a feature film in 12 days. We had to develop an aesthetic that served the story AND our resources. We made the decision to handhold the cameras to capture the moment - to - moment reality of the characters and to allow us to move quickly. Joe came up with a plan to pre - hang the entire patio and backyard with various areas on dimmers. I wrote the lights into the screenplay.
But the serendipity didn’t stop there. Marin Hinkle is not just an extraordinary talent, she is, because of the quality and breadth of work she has done, well respected throughout the business, and fortunately for us, incredibly generous of spirit. She introduced me to casting genie Lauren Bass who brought in Amelia Rose Blaire to read for Christa. In callbacks the room just shook from this young woman’s grace and talent. No matter whom she read with, we couldn’t take our eyes off her. And when Bryan Dechart came in to read for Andrew (two weeks off the bus from NYU) we were giddy with our good fortune.
But we still didn’t have Javier or Peter. No worries, Marin had us covered, she spoke with her management - we met Rick Gonzalez just a few days before we started shooting. We saw some terrific actors for Javier but nothing felt exactly right until we met Rick. He has something very special - a disarming honesty and directness, a feeling that his feet are always planted squarely on the ground. It’s not just charisma - it’s a rare compass, it’s character.
And I couldn’t/wouldn’t settle on Peter. I would sit with Arye, Marin and Joe and we would brainstorm everybody we had ever worked with. All of us shook the bushes to no avail. Finally, I called my old friend Ronnie Yeskel, who cast LA Law many years ago. She did me a favor, a great, great favor and we are forever in her debt, she got the script to the inimitable Alan Rachins on the eve of principal photography.
After shooting (and collapsing for a few weeks), I embarked on finding an editor. I knew it was crucial to find someone special - not just technically smart but heart smart. I called the producer Sean Michael Smith, who had worked with us on Paris, for a reference. He said, “my wife’s the best editor I know”. I met with Cristina Malavenda and hired her immediately. She has been a dream collaborator. She has an innate sense of character and story, the rhythm sense of the Kyoto drummers and just great taste in performance.
So looking back there are many blessings to count and many lessons learned. I often wondered throughout the process why this project came so quickly to fruition. Why did the universe conspire for all this to unfold like a lightning strike? It seems to me that the story of a middle class family grappling with the seismic shift caused by the fiscal crisis struck a chord with everyone involved. All of us came to the work wanting to contribute in our own way to this vital and important conversation.
There is a shift in Commencement that occurred to me as I was writing. It starts in a very Western perspective and then is slowly infiltrated by an Eastern point of view. I think many of us in this country, young and old, are recognizing the necessity of this realigning … or maybe - it’s meshing. When I look at the tapestry of characters in Commencement, I hope that they are all seen as good people grappling with the moment, flawed, but ultimately loving and lovable. Like most of us they stumble, knock into each other, as they try to do the right thing under challenging circumstances. Although I certainly never thought this while writing, the film is a gentle plea for community - to cherish and support each other: lovers, family, friends and the architecture of home in the midst of this time of national unrest.
I am grateful to all my collaborators for sharing their time and talent with this creative adventure. This experience has reminded me of something I almost forgot: when you fling your arms open to the universe a gust of something wonderful just might come and lift you up.