Mark Slutsky is an old friend and longtime collaborator — we’ve written screenplays together and he’s acted in shorts of mine — and his studio, Automatic Vaudeville, has recently released a hilarious comedy under a Creative Commons licence for free download. The Recommendations is a 55 minute mockumentary about the horrible violence bubbling just under the genteel surface of Canadian literature. A showcase for their obvious goofball humour as well as their subtler cultural savvy, it’s my favourite of the Montreal movie studio’s almost fifty productions. To watch a trailer, read a short interview with Mark, and find out how to download it, keep reading.
So with the improv approach to the interviews, what would you say your shooting ratio was? How was the experience with actors vs. non-actors?
Mark Slutsky: We’ve always really liked working with a combination of professional and non-professional actors (I won’t call the latter “non-actors,” but here I’m talking about people who aren’t trained and don’t see acting as their main gig). Movies like The Recommendations really depend on a certain sense of realism that using an entirely professional cast wouldn’t provide; since the film is in a documentary style, you’re not always looking for people who are perfectly comfortable and polished in front of a camera, or, worse, have certain actorly tics that give the game away. Incidentally, it’s also really important for us to involve the actors in the creative process with a film like this. We wrote the story and developed the characters—to a point—but the dialogue was improvised by the cast, with some guidance from us, in response to questions we asked off-camera.
I can’t remember exactly what our shooting ratio was, but we definitely shot a ton of material we were heartbroken not to be able to include in the finished product (we included a bunch of this stuff in the special features included on Your Hi-Class DVD Vol. 2—you can’t download them at this time, though). That’s the thing about taking an improv-based approach; in the best-case scenario you end up generating so much that a lot of the filmmaking takes place in the editing room, even more than usual, I’d guess.
The various books and magazines and even author names are dead-on Canadian lit. Who made them and was there a deliberate decision to keep them slyly satirical rather than some of the broader humour in the featurette?
One of the really fun and exciting things about working on The Recommendations was creating all the supporting material we needed to flesh out this literary sphere where the story takes place. It was really important to us that this stuff look convincing—the book covers, the newspaper articles, the magazines, all of it. Something that had always bothered me was how fake that stuff always looks in movies, even big-budget Hollywood productions with great production values; it’s always obvious when a book jacket is designed for a movie. They always look off.
Of course we wanted these materials to be funny, in their own way, but not a cost to the movie itself. You had to believe that Philip Swan’s book, Susannah’s Wake, could be a bestseller, both in its presentation and in the writing itself. If that wasn’t believable, even if was funny, we’d lose something. We’d lose credibility with the audience and it would diminish the movie.
We all took turns writing the text, the book excerpts you see and hear in the movie. As far as the actual design of the books, magazines and newspaper articles, that was largely done by me, with the exception of the Sandy Anderson book covers, which Seth drew.
The music is such an integral part to nailing the true-crime dramatization sequences. How did you go about scoring this?
It was really, really, really important for us to get the music right. To a certain extent, we realized, this could make or break the movie; it’s so important in setting the deadpan tone. Luckily, we know a lot of very talented musicians here in Montreal, and one in particular, a composer named Chad Jones (who has also performed and released some terrific albums under the name Frankie Sparo), who wrote the music and performed it with the equally awesome Nadia Moss. The idea was basically a little bit Philip Glass (specifically his stuff for Errol Morris), a little bit CBC. It was crucial that the music not be at all “comedy”—anything overtly wacky or jaunty would have completely destroyed the movie and the audience’s suspension of disbelief.