A Conversation with Alethea Root
By Jeff Wood
Alethea Root, Director / Co-Writer / Producer, is making her feature film debut with PART TIME FABULOUS. Root is also in development on MUMBET, the true story of the first African American to win her freedom from slavery nearly 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Root directed Episode 2 of the comedy web series EVIL SHRINK, starring Taylor Negron and Hamish Linklater. She has also directed several short films including UN PETIT JEU, BEAUTIFUL, HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS, and a documentary short, CRASHING CARS. Before moving to Los Angeles, Root directed and taught theater in the Berkshires, co-directing Eric Begosian's SUBURBIA with Tony Award winning director Julianne Boyd to expose the dangers of drug abuse in their hometown. She has also tackled such issues as suicide in SENICA'S CHILDREN, rape and abuse in EXTREMETIES, and fun in HUCKELBERRY FINN with Barrington Stage Company.
Part Time Fabulous is an interesting mix of documentary, drama, and improv acting. For you, which element of the film stands out more? Why?
I think they each stand out for different reasons. The documentary interviews are very strong and raw and so is the drama. They are both speaking honestly about what it is like to live with clinical depression. It's not every day someone talks about themselves so honestly, and both the documentary and the drama explore that truth in a different way. Jules acts out the drama of living with clinical depression so perfectly, and even though we filmed the interviews after the drama, its uncanny how similar the experience of each person's illness is to the story of Mel.
How much of this mix of elements was a conscious choice to go in a unique artistic direction and how much was dictated by constraints such as time and budget?
We always set out to create a narrative improv drama which we would be intercut with interviews of people living with clinical depression. Jules had the idea to make a movie like "When Harry Met Sally", the shape of it grew and changed as we wrote the outline for the script, but the intent remained the same.
Assuming the story was filmed on a shoestring budget, do you find that low-budget filmmaking adds to the creative process? Do you find it freeing rather than constraining?
No, I don't think it adds to the creative process in the romantic way some people like to make it out to be. Not having enough money to achieve a certain look can be very binding. So I don't agree with that idea because I would come up with a very creative shot and because I did not have the tools I needed I would have to come up with another way to shoot the scene and still get the same emotional value, is that more creative, I don't think so, I think it's more clever. Did we have to get creative/clever in order to achieve our desired look, yes, but to me making low budget movies means you have to be more resourceful in how you achieve what you want, but does not mean you are more creative. I guess it also depends on how you define creative. Of course its hard for me to really know as this is my first feature length film. Ask me again when I have a bigger budget.
With all the improv involved, what did the script for the film look like? How long was it? Did you map out all the beats within a scene? Was any dialogue written? If yes, how much?
Jules and I wrote the outline of the script together, and each scene was mapped out in the sense that we knew what we needed to create our story and what key element needed to be expressed. Within each scene we knew what beat needed to be hit and we would shoot it until I thought we got what we needed. For example, each actor knew what they needed to say or do to the other actor, but because they did not know each others motive, we would not always know how they would react in a scene. Both Jules and Bjørn knew their parts so well that they figured out how to push each other's buttons to add to the drama of each scene. There were a couple of scenes that ended up going in the opposite direction from where we originally thought they would, but still hit the beat and gave us the information we needed. If this happened we would talk and make sure the improv was going to work before we moved on. To answer your first question the script was about 15 pages with each scene numbered and beat mapped out. When we scheduled the film I gave a certain page count to each scene based on how long I thought each beat would take, and I was surprised how accurate I was at the end of the day.
Since improv is usually associated with comedy, were there any major differences between comedy-style improv and dramatic improv for you?
My first paying directing job was directing an improv group that dealt with dramatic issues, so for me doing drama as improv was no different then the improv I had done before. Using improv to create a whole movie rather than short skits, that was more of the challenge, rather than comedy vs drama.
You've directed many theater productions. What is the main difference between directing theater and directing film, in your experience?
The main difference for me is the control you have in post. When you direct a play you get a lot of rehearsal time where you explore the roles, and dynamics, and shape the play into itself. Then when the play opens, as the director you step back and enjoy how the play takes on a whole new life of its own as you give the play over to the actors. On dress rehearsal night I would always tell my cast "the play is yours now, enjoy it." In the film process you get very little rehearsal, if any, so its almost like each take is a rehearsal and then I get to re-direct the scene/movie in the edit. Without the benefit of rehearsal, preproduction for film becomes more about how the set design, shots, and lighting are going to serve the story so when your actors step onto set they step into to world of the movie. In theater you start with a bare stage and your actors and the world of the play builds around them.
What was the mood on the set like? The subject is quite heavy and drew on the lead actor's life story. Did the spontaneity of the acting lead to much levity?
The mood on set was very good. We had a lot to do in a little amount of time and we all helped each other accomplish that. It always amazed me how Jules could be crying in the scene and be is a very dark place, but as soon as we cut and moved on she was smiling again. Everyone was very respectful of the work we were doing and we moved very fast. While we were shooting, most people did not know how much was coming from Jules' life story, so it was just like any movie where the actor is acting.
You've described yourself as an "issue" director. What are some issues you haven't tackled yet, but that you would like to?
Well, I guess I would have to say that I am not sure I am want to be labeled as an "issue" director. I do think as a filmmaker I have a responsibility to entertain and inform and I do like to tackle big issues. The most important issue for me has always been the understanding of the other. To show and explore how similar we all are, that the other is just like me and I am just like the other. If we could all see our similarities I think it would end much of the trouble we have in the world. If I truly understand you and you truly understand me than it is much harder to hate or hurt each other. This issue for me is at the core of all the other issues like poverty, racism, sexism, religion, politics, war, you name it. For me it all stems from thinking I am different from you, I am better than you, I deserve more than you, my needs out weigh your needs. To me that is the biggest lie. My favorite word that I live by is UMBUNTU, which is the Zulu word for Humanity and it translates to "I am because we are, We are because I am."