If you've ever pined for an ex years after the fact and wondered what could have been, you should see Ex-Girlfriends at the Austin Film Festival this weekend.
The first-time feature from filmmaker Alexander Poe, Ex-Girlfriends follows Graham (Poe), a Columbia writing student who's been dumped yet again and finds his thoughts returning to a different ex-girlfriend. Graham dated Laura (Kristen Connelly) years ago, but suddenly he can't get her out of his head. When he runs into her at a party and discovers she's committed to a man who's secretly dating Graham's friend, Kate (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter) — who's also Graham's ex — the story takes off.
Ex-girlfriends has a subtle, dry humor where small roles shine just as well as the large ones. Carpenter's wounded self-centeredness makes Kate vulnerable and funny and Michael Zegen does a small turn as Graham's friend who can't shut up about his well-reviewed novel that's both hilarious and frighteningly spot-on.
CultureMap caught up with Poe and producer Jennifer Gerber this weekend in the midst of their packed AFF schedules to talk about the movie, shooting guerilla-style and how to interest an established actress in being in a very low budget film.
CultureMap: So where did the idea for the story come about?
Alexander Poe: I’m fascinated by relationships and figuring out why people make the choices they do. I take a lot of inspiration from things that happen in life that stick out to you as moments that you’re confused by or can’t place. Like: Why this person? Why this relationship at this point in my life? The movie and the writing of the script coincided with a moment in my own life where I was trying to figure out where I was going and what the hell I was doing.
I wrote it incredibly low-budget, so that we could control everything and have it really done the way we imagined it.
CM: Relationship movies are great for low budgets — there’s no explosions.
Jennifer Gerber: Just explosions of the heart. [This film] is Saturn Returns, with a vengeance.
CM: And what’s that?
JG: It’s an astrological phenomenon. They say that when you turn 30 that it’s a year of unrest, redefinition, rebirth. I think the film reflects a character who’s in a period of unrest trying to sort out his life. Alex’s life was mirroring that, and the core creative team that worked on the movie was going through the same, “Okay, we’re getting older. What does this mean? What is my life even about?”
The film came together because it was a whole group of us working on it that had that same angst.
CM: And there’s this theme in the movie about realizing that people aren’t what you made them out to be in your head.
AP: Absolutely. It’s about distinguishing from your expectation and the reality of where your life is and who these people in your life are. I don’t know if you call it a coming-of-age. What do you call it if you’re 30?
JG: It’s still coming-of-age in that the character learns something about himself.
CM: How did you get Jennifer Carpenter involved?
AP: We were about a week away from shooting, and I’d cast the movie all with friends I’d worked with before. I had someone cast as Kate and [the actress] had a scheduling conflict. The entire film was falling apart at that moment — we didn’t have money, we didn’t have the equipment we needed. Then we lost the lead actress and everything was doomed until Kristen's manager said, “I really feel passionately about this project. Let me just give you a list of our available clients who I think would be good for this role.”
The list was absurd at this moment of not having enough money to rent a camera and I was just in total disbelief, like why would any of these actresses be in this tiny little movie? But, good actors like good roles.
I picked out Jennifer, because I love her on Dexter. She was in town running the New York City marathon — in fact, had just run the marathon and met me afterwards. She was still limping. She was into the role and into doing something a little different from what she normally does. I was like, “Just so you know, we don’t have trailers.”
JG: She was a perfect match for that, though. She was into the adventure. She’d walk to set.
AP: She was into that aspect of shooting it fast, guerilla-style. I mean, we went and shot in Grand Central Station and got kicked out.
There’s a long, still shot where I’m walking through an entire crowd in Grand Central and literally just off to the side, there's a security officer talking to Joe [Varca, Poe’s other producer], and he’s like, “Yeah, we’re shutting it down right now,” as we’re secretly recording this shot.
CM: Have you always written comedy? The humor in this film has that subtle, dry vibe, almost like a Wit Stillman movie.
AP: My other work is comedy, but it is a little bit more dramatic, like Stillman. The movies I was thinking about while writing Ex-Girlfriends weren’t comedy at all. They were more comedies that are still dramatic, like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel movies are what I was thinking — comedy about relationships that doesn't have to be super broad, that's kind of sharper and is a little dry. Manhattan was a movie we looked at a lot.
CM: It's evident in the characters, too. The guy who keeps babbling about his novel just kills me.
AP: Michael made all that up! Every take was a different novel. He’s hilarious. He also plays Bugsy Siegel on Boardwalk Empire .
CM: So this weekend is the premiere, but you're also already set up with distribution for this movie, which is unusual for a film just hitting festivals.
JG: The way the film was handled in distribution is the same as the way we made it, which is we didn't wait for anyone to tell us we could make it, we just decided to go out and do it. The same thing happened with the distribution. We were submitting to festivals but at the same time we weren't going to wait for festivals before we tried to figure out what to do with the film beyond that. Because festivals aren't going to solve that for you. They're a place to screen and start it, but you still have to hustle it.
Ex-Girlfriends premieres Saturday at the Austin Film Festival at the Bob Bullock Texas Museum at 8:30 p.m. It screens again Sunday evening at 6 p.m. at the Austin Convention Center, Screen 2, Ballroom E. A Q&A will follow each screening; both Poe and Carpenter will be in attendance.
Ex-Girlfriends releases on Nov. 27 on cable and broadband viewer-on-demand available everywhere, from Comcast and Time Warner Cable to iTunes and Amazon Instant View through FilmBuff.