Chad Darnell & Mackenzie Ambrose in Birthday Cake
Chad Darnell incorporates the gay community with great writing/directing and a star-studded cast in his sequel to his award-winning short, Groom's Cake. It's called Birthday Cake and it hits the film festival circuit this week. Twitter: @ChadDarnell & @BdayCakeMovie
The LGBT community has a new film to be proud of! Birthday Cake relates to all people around the globe. It's about family, love, sacrifice and how crazy life in general can be.
BIRTHDAY CAKE revolves around a gay couple, Dan and Steven, who, while planning their wedding, find out the adoption for their baby has come through earlier than expected. Serious issues such as not understanding homosexuality and emotional family breakdowns are smoothly integrated while at the same time showing the humorous side of life.
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect but when I saw the movie, I also dreamt about it for the next week. I just couldn't get the film out of my head! I had to talk to the man behind this genius indie film - writer, director, producer Chad Darnell. I also had a quick chat with lead actor and associate producer, Rib Hillis and actress Jane Badler who has a stunning cameo.
You were an extras casting director early in your show business career. How/Why did you get into casting?
I fell into casting by accident, while I was in college. I was a stand-in on the television show I'll Fly Away and they called me in on a day my actor was not working, so they sent me to the casting office to help make phone calls. It was a total accident. The next thing I knew, I was working for Cynthia Stillwell, the extras casting director. That was in 1991 and 22 years later we are producing movies together.
I loved doing extras casting because you're part of the crew and working every single day, as opposed to principal casting, where your work is done before filming ever begins. I also learned invaluable lessons in storytelling and producing. Working on Alias and Crossing Jordan was like getting a doctorate.
Please talk about the funding process for your films.
I'm grateful to my friends and family who donated to our campaign for BIRTHDAY CAKE and for my web series, Project: Pheonix, but at this point, everyone is doing a crowd-source and it has really drained the pool. For Birthday Cake, I had an investor who saw Groom's Cake in Atlanta, loved it and invested 90 percent of the money for our budget. It was so nice and easy to deal with just one person for the money. We shot the movie over six days for $17,000, not including our post production.
Are you cancer free?
I should be getting the "all-clear" cancer free in December, which is my five year point. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a few days of thinking, "I'm going to die... this is it." But then I woke up one morning and realized, I just don't have time for this. I did chemo, showed up for all of my appointments and fought with insurance every single day, but I couldn't focus on the disease. I couldn't allow it to run my life. At one point my oncologist said, "I wish you would stop treating your cancer like it's just a major inconvenience for you" and I said, "but that's EXACTLY what this is. A major inconvenience for me." And I fired him the next day.
Why did you want to do two films about the lives of gay people?
Because Groom's Cake got such an amazing reception and praise, we decided rather than do a full length version of the same movie, to make a sequel and incorporate aspects of the first one into it, so if you haven't seen the short, you won't miss anything. I wanted to see where these characters went a year later and explore their families. This is a movie about families: the ones your are born into and the ones you create.
We're in an interesting time now with LGBT film. We've gone from a time when most all gay films were about someone dying of AIDS or an abused drag queen to low budget soft core sexplotation comedies (and not to knock those films, because they all have an audience). There seems to be a feeling that you have to have gratuitous nudity to sell a movie and I don't believe that to be true. I think if you have a good story and a good cast, you will find an audience. You don't have to have three seconds of a flacid penis.
With the DOMA decision right around the corner and so many states welcoming marriage equality and more and more gay families are popping up, I think they want to see themselves represented in film. One of the biggest complaints I've heard at film festivals from older audiences is that there aren't many films that represents them or their interests.
And I think it's important to show the world as Rib Hillis' character says in the movie, "Gays... we're just like you."
How did you choose your cast?
I cast everyone. Most of the original cast were my close friends who were in Groom's Cake. Lee Meriwether also appears in my web series, Project: Pheonix (as does James Logan and Nick Bolton). I worked with Helen Shaver on Judging Amy and I've been friends with Peter Paige for years. I really admire the work that he has done as a writer/ producer/ director and I'm so grateful he took the time and come and shoot with us. The day we shot his scenes, he was on the phone in between "cut" and "action" with his producing team on his new series The Foster's trying to staff the writers.
Jane Badler was amazing. I sent her a message on Twitter and she said she would look at the script. I wrote the role for her and sent her the script and she wrote me back, "I have to say, I read a lot of shit, but this is one of the funniest scripts I've read in a long, long time." We worked around her schedule to shoot her. I was a huge fan of "V." That show made me want to work in film.
You play "neurotic" very well. Is anything in this movie drawn from your personal life experience?
I started off acting as a child. I was blessed my parents paid for acting, voice and dance classes from six years of age till I was in high school. Then in high school, I joined the Drama Club and we did plays every six weeks. When I graduated, I went to work as a casting assistant and a few years later, started my own theatre company in Atlanta. I moved to LA in 2000.
I was really lucky to study the techniques of Meisner, Stanislavksi, Uta Hagen, and improv from a really young age. Actors have to take a script and develop a character for performance based on their relationship to that character and how that character relates to the other characters in the story and how that character is seen by the audience. And while all the other actors on set were crafting a performance for one role, as the screenwriter and director, I had to create the entire world of those characters starting with the words "Fade In." That's what made playing, "Dan" so easy and I could slip in and slip out of him. I didn't have to ground myself with "what did Dan have for breakfast..." because I already knew what everyone had for breakfast.
A lot of people have said, "You're basically playing yourself" which makes me laugh because I'm nothing like Dan. He's in a happy, stable relationship with a child and I can't even find good date material. Dan is extremely co-dependent and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Dan is also a product of what he perceives to be a failed childhood and I had a great childhood. Dan also doesn't take responsibility for his actions and I'm the first person to begin apologizing profusely if I've made a mistake. Yes, we're both writers and both might be a touch snarky, but that's where the similarities end.
As far as the crying scene goes, that was just connecting to Helen. Acting is about connecting. If you're not connected to the other actor in the scene, then it's not organic or real. But it's of course a huge challenge in a scene like that which is eight minutes long and is an emotional roller coaster, because 50 percent of you is connected to the other actor for your performance and their performance, but 50 percent of you is also having to watch the scene with a third eye as the director to make sure you're getting what you need for the scene and that the crew is doing their job of capturing it.
With indie films having smaller budgets than studio films, for Birthday Cake, what did you find yourself having to cut down on?
80% of our budget was cast (under the SAGAFTRA ultra low budget agreement) and crew payroll and insurance. We fed everyone and shot with two cameras. The only people who worked for free was my producing partner, Kathy Weiss and myself. I invested about $10,000 of my own money into the film.
We did a lot of beg, borrow, steal and a lot of my post-production editors worked for cheap, but received points on the back-end.
What TV shows and movies do you enjoy?
I loved, loved, loved "V." I loved the characters and I loved Jane's character Diana. She was unlike any character I had seen before. She was a bad guy that you loved to hate. I also loved Twin Peaks. I loved the storytelling that Lynch created. But really nothing can compare to my five years on Alias. I think I was the biggest the fan of the show on the planet. I loved the cast and crew. I loved the challenges J.J. and the writers created for us every week. I ripped through those "limited" scripts (the first versions released to the department heads) with such glee and excitement. Those scripts were usually released after midnight on a Friday and I would sit in my car in the parking lot at Disney Studios, reading them with my dash board light.
What bad habits do you have?
My absolute worst habit is allowing people to take advantage of me. My parents raised me to always help people whenever they ask for help, but unfortunately in Hollywoodland, people take advantage of my kindness and then when I wise up and try to extract myself from the situation, I am made out to be the bad guy. I've put people in my films and given them opportunities and suddenly, I'm the villain when I want to work with other people or don't want to be taken advantage of anymore. And if I'm going to be working for free, then I'm going to be working for myself. It took many, many years to realize, if you want something done, do it yourself. That's why I write, produce and direct my own projects. But inevitably you'll run into someone who gets angry that you no longer want to deal with them.
What dreams do you have for your future?
I am super excited to get my film X-Rated back on track. I started researching and writing the film over three years ago and I'm finally at the point where I can do the film. Three years ago, I'd never directed even a short film. But three years later, I've directed two multi award-winning shorts and a web series (that premieres in three months).
X-Rated is about the legendary "porn brat pack" of the early 90s and the death of Joey Stefano. It's an incredible story about addiction. Just starting casting up again.
I have two horror films, Hell House and The Marked that will begin shooting in Savannah late fall and early next year. I have a series that I developed with Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner (the producers of Hot in Cleaveland, Sean Saves the World and Grimm) called Mortified that we are trying to sell. And I'm developing two other biopics right now as well.
Where can people see Birthday Cake?
We start the festival circuit next week in Kansas City at the KC Gay Film Fest and then play Philadelphia Q Fest next month. Summer is really the start of the LGBT film festivals, so people can check out our website for updates. As soon as we set a distribution deal, we'll announce the plans for a theatrical run and DVD release. Probably early next year.
Rib Hillis plays the gay Steven who is in a commited relationship with Chad Darnell's character, Dan. Twitter: @RibHillis
How and why did you get involved in Groom's Cake and Birthday Cake?
I have known Chad Darnell for several years. We met through a mutual friend and fellow producer, Krissy Lindquist. Chad asked if I would be interested in doing a project with him and I immediately said yes. Both Groom's Cake and Birthday Cake were extremely small crews so we all wore many hats (Chad of course wearing the most). In general, Producers/Co-Producers/Associate-Producers do whatever needs to be done in order to make a successful film, from casting, finding locations, hiring crew and department heads, making sure crafty (craft services/food) and meals are set up, overseeing editing and post production, etc. It's an ever changing job description, always new challenges, but also always fun.
What did you do to prepare for your role as the gay character Steven James?
For me whether Steven was in love with a man or a woman didn't matter; the story is about relationships, family, love, dealing with fears and doubts. These are things all of us can relate to. Chad does an amazing job writing characters that are real, with real emotions and thoughts. It makes it a lot easier as an actor to do our job. When I play any character, I try to find the humanity in them. Gay or straight, as long as you can find those things that make us all human, the character will live and breath as a real person.
I may be old fashioned, plus I don't own a tablet, so I still like to use a paper copy of the script (I know, save the trees!). Learning dialog has never been terribly difficult for me. Again, if it's well written and you are committed to living as the character in that moment, the dialog should flow naturally. All I need to do as the actor is listen and react as the character would. But fortunately, for those times when the words just don't come, there is always someone off camera willing to lend a hand...or line of dialog. LOL!
Do you have an acting coach?
I have studied with several acting coaches over the years. Usually, I sought out coaches from recommendations from agents, directors and producers. These are the people who can attest to an acting coaches abilities to help create great performances from their actors. If I had to pick a best acting tip ever received it would be to listen. It sounds simple, but it can be extremely powerful. In life we are constantly listening, thinking and processing before we speak. By listening and thinking about what you are hearing before you just recite your next line, you will bring life and realism to what ever character you play. Just listen.
Is Rib your real name?
I got the nick name Ribbit while catching frogs in a pond when I was six years old in upstate New York. I moved to Newton, MA shortly after getting my new nick name. My first day at my new school I told the class to call me Ribbit. They liked it and it stuck, ever since then I was called Ribbit, Ribbie or Rib. My whole family calls me Rib as well, except my mother. She has only ever called me Robert, which is my given name.
Jane Badler plays a warped version of herself in Birthday Cake. Twitter: @JaneBadler
How did your part in Birthday Cake come to be?
Chad contacted me on Twitter. He said he was a fan and asked if I would be interested in being in his new film. I said yes. He emailed me a script which I loved, loved. I immediately fell in love with the role of myself. Ha! Yes, that's right - it was me playing a version of myself starring as Elizabeth Taylor in the musical of her life. Now who could say no to that?
Please tell a behind the scenes story during filming.
I only filmed for one day. It was very quick. I had two big scenes with lots of words and a song. I spent a lot of time making sure I was very prepared as I knew it would be done in one day and wanted to be very free. It all went very smoothly. It was lots of fun and I loved all the actors and crew. Yes, I know actors say this all the time but it really was a very special group of people.
What on Sirius were you thinking when you accepted the role in Birthday Cake?
Ha! Yes, it was a bit of a crazy role and I suppose some people might think I was a bit mad to take the piss out of myself that way. But It was so well written and so funny. I had a ball and have also made a new friend with the very talented Chad Darnell (writer/director/actor).