Films based on comics such as Ghost World, Persepolis and American Splendor have been highlights of film festivals of the past decade, but now, indy cartoonist and friend of Newsarama Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Incredible Change-Bots) is enjoying considerable festival buzz for an original film he co-wrote.
Save the Date, the tale of two sisters dealing with relationship woes, features a cast whose fan base consists of something like half the Internet with Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, True Blood), Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men), Martin Starr (also Party Down, Freaks & Geeks), Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Geoffrey Arend (Body of Proof).
With the film premiered at Sundance this weekend, we e-mailed with Brown to talk about how Save the Date came about – and a look at some of his artwork featured in the film.Newsarama: Jeff, tell us about the story of Save the Date.
Jeffrey Brown: It's the story of two sisters, one of whom, Sarah (Lizzy), is busy breaking up with her boyfriend and beginning an intense new relationship, while the other sister Beth (Alison) is focused on getting ready for her wedding.
Nrama: Will you be heading to Sundance, and what does the film hope to accomplish there?
Brown: I will be heading to Sundance, and we're hoping I guess to find distribution for the film... I'm probably not the person to ask, being a bit ignorant of how this whole movie business works.
I'm more accustomed to Xeroxing and stapling my own comics and handing them out to friends, which is a much simpler distribution process. Probably not practical with film.
Nrama: How did you get into doing this screenplay, and what was the inspiration for the story?
Brown: Back in 2006 I got an email from producer Jordan Horowitz basically saying he liked my books and asking if I'd ever thought about film. I've always been a fan of film, although I hadn't seriously thought about writing for it, but I figured I might as well try.
I didn't want to adapt any of my autobiographical work, or even try and make an autobiographical film, but I took how my current relationship had started and used that as a starting point to develop into a story.
Nrama: What was different about writing a screenplay vs. writing/illustrating a graphic novel or graphic short?Brown: There's an immediate gratification that comes from the way I make comics - they pretty much appear shortly after conception, just as I planned, whereas film is much more labor intensive and involved to get from the idea stage to final product.
The biggest difference, obviously, is the collaboration - my comics are almost entirely me; maybe a little editorial input or proofreading, and obviously the physical production is other people.
With film, there's basically a hundred times the people involved, and so it's much harder to have a vision for a final product that's going to be achieved. I went into it with the mindset that what I was starting would become something else, and wouldn't just be "mine."
Nrama: How did you get involved with your collaborators on the project, and what do you feel they brought to it?
Brown: Jordan put me together with Egan Reich, who's a playwright and knew how to take a story and not only put it into the proper format for a screenplay, but structure it for film, and construct it in way that would work for film, as opposed to how I might pace something for comics.
The director, Michael Mohan, was already a fan of my comics when he approached Jordan about the film when he knew the script was without a director attached. Actually, Michael and his wife had simultaneously, and unbeknownst to each other, commissioned me to draw a wedding gift for each other.
Michael and Egan both added a ton to the story, and yet the amazing thing is that the end result still feels very much like the story I first had in mind, with all the emotional beats and feeling I wanted to get in there. The whole thing is a product of so many people, and I feel like in terms of contributions, it's truly a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Nrama: Did you get to be on-set for the filming, and if so, what was that experience like?Brown: I visited the set for a few days of shooting and it was a great experience, and fascinating. For one, it reminded me how hard everyone works to make a film - long hours alternating between mind numbing tedium and flurries of intense, pressure filled activity.
Everyone was incredibly upbeat and friendly, and mostly I tried not to get in the way too much or knock anything over while I soaked it all in.
Nrama: A disturbing amount of the press for this involves that the majority of the cast are objects of strange, obsessive Internet crushes, as well they should be. I suppose a more reasonable question is to ask if you were familiar with their work prior to this project and if you got psyched when you realized you were inadvertently hosting a Party Down reunion, but
I do have to ask what your reaction is to such comments as New York magazine's "Save the Date is basically our god now."
Brown: I was aware of their work, but I'm horrible with names so I didn't realize how many things I'd seen them all in - I knew Mark Webber was just in Scott Pilgrim, of course, but didn't realize he was also in Jesus' Son, or that I'd watched Lizzy in Cloverfield.
I'd even watched the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community a half-dozen times as well as Mad Men, but was a bit slow on realizing that Alison Brie was, you know, Alison Brie.
Wow, writing that out makes me feel incredibly out of touch with contemporary pop culture. I blame having a kid. As for New York magazine, there are far worse gods to have, for sure.Nrama: Obviously, a lot of your work comes from autobiographical observation – well, maybe not Change-Bots -- but what was it like experiencing actual actors saying lines you had written and bringing their inflections to it? Also curious if any of them were already fans of your work...
Brown: One of the great things was seeing how the actors delivered some of the lines. There are plenty of times where their delivery is totally not what I would've done, but it makes their characters that much more real. Seeing what depth they managed to add to the characters and scenes is really rewarding.
I'm not sure if any of them were fans of my work beforehand - I felt it was best to avoid me awkwardly telling them how I liked them in that movie that I didn't realize they were in before.
Nrama: Tell us about Wolfbird, the band-within-the-film.
Brown: Wolfbird is the fictional band played by Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend - who actually learned to play their instruments (or possibly re-learned), and Wolfbird's music was written by Hrishikesh Hirway, who is in a real band called The One AM Radio. I liked his music even before the film, and I like it even more now.Nrama: Will your comic art be featured in the film?
Brown: I spent most of June making all the art for Lizzy Caplan's character, Sarah, which was split between artwork created for Wolfbird and then small drawings from her life - not quite full comics, but little scenes and moments captured on paper.
Some of the drawings were on loose paper, but I also filled a sketchbook that she would draw in during the actual film, and then bits of scrap art, like drawings on envelopes and whatnot to spread around inconspicuously. Some of the drawings were even half-finished in the sketchbook, and then I did completed versions separately that could be hung up for the scene in the art gallery.
Nrama: Would you ever want to adapt this into a graphic novel, or would that just get too meta for you?
Brown: What would really be meta would be if I did adapt it, and then I got some kind of residual money for the graphic novel adaptation because I co-wrote the movie. I don't know if the universe would allow it.
Nrama: Overall, what's the biggest thing you took away from this experience?Brown: It took away a lot of the skepticism I had about movie making... I feel like the film is as close to replicating what I try to do with my comics as possible, and the fact that everyone working on it came together on the same page the way they did seems almost too good to be true. Doing something from the heart in film is still very much possible.
Nrama: Are you currently working on any other screenplays/films that we should know about, or have you found this has opened up new screenwriting opportunities for you?
Brown: I'm kicking around some ideas, including a couple horror films. It hasn't necessarily opened doors yet, though I'm guessing it might. In the end I still love drawing comics more and I'm more interested in following my muse for whatever ideas I have regardless of the medium.
Nrama: Hard-sell our readers (and potential distributors) on this flick as hard as you can.
Brown: I'd say the cast on paper alone is a hard-sell enough, but having seen a rough cut of the film, their performances are really great - they're funny and sympathetic and real. I found myself laughing and feeling at things I wrote, which was a little strange to experience.
Nrama: What else do you have coming up?
Brown: The next book I've got coming out is an official Star Wars book called "Darth Vader and son", which will be published by Chronicle around May 4th. It's basically a collection of one page comics where Vader is trying to raise a four year old Luke Skywalker - teaching him how to ride a bike, getting ice cream for him, telling him to stop playing in the trash compactor. It was a ton of fun to make.
Save the Date screens at Sundance starting on Jan.22. For more information on screenings and times, visit the Sundance website.