We sat down with the very friendly Stephen Elliot, to talk about his new film, After Adderall…
When and how did After Adderall come about?
When I saw The Adderall Diaries premiere at Tribeca, in April 15th 2015, and that inspired me to write After Adderall, which I wrote in about 2 weeks, following that screening, and shot it in 8 days in August. It all happened very quickly, because I used 10,000 dollars of my own money. That’s all the movie cost. I had a cinematographer friend who was free if we shot right away. I thought it would take me a year to find the actress – it’s a very hard role – but then I found Mickaela [Tombrook] almost immediately and so I really just wrote it and shot it in just 3 months. It took a long time to edit though.
Did you ever consider casting someone else to play the lead role?
No, I don’t know that anyone else could have played the lead. It’s a movie about me, and it’s a movie about making a movie about me. It’s so meta and self-reflective. Also, I don’t know if we could have done it for the budget we did it for if someone else was playing the lead. It’s much easier to make a movie when you’re playing the lead yourself. You can have pickup shots if you want; if you suddenly decide ‘this scene isn’t working, I’m gonna do a shot of me walking into the ocean in a slip and heels’, you can just call your camera friend and go ‘do it’, because you’re the lead. Or if I want to change the story a bit I can just do a voiceover, because I’m the lead. So it was much easier that way. I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’d never acted before. But actually I found I enjoyed acting quite a bit, I felt really comfortable in front of the camera.
“It’s like those games, where you guide a marble down without falling, or an etch-a-sketch; you can’t do it exactly, that’s what making a movie is like”
After Adderall has a very distinctive visual style; what was the reasoning behind its look?
Well, it’s 3:4 aspect ratio, that’s a big part of it. The other movie that I made, Happy Baby, also had a 3:4 aspect ratio. It’s the academy ratio. Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, those movies are all in 3:4. Before we had widescreens, it fit the original TV screens. You know, the Mona Lisa is 3:4. It’s the perfect ratio. I don’t know why that is, but everything looks better to me. 3:4 focuses you on the character more than the environment. You don’t pay so much attention to what’s around the people, and more to the people themselves. It makes every shot look like a painting. We don’t realise, but many paintings are in 3:4 aspect ratio. Which also signals to the viewer that they’re watching an art film. Which is important because it’s very French New Wave. Many Goddard films were also in 4:3, and Goddard is an obvious influence on the movie. You want to signal to the audience the kind of movie they’re watching. Because they’ll enjoy it more if they know what they’re getting in for, and they won’t be so surprised by the surreal nature.
How did Michael C Hall get involved in the project?
I had been at a party of his one New Year’s Eve, and he was working on a TV show with my friend Matthew Spector, the great writer who lives in L.A. And then Michael moved to New York because he was working on these plays. He ended up moving two blocks from me, and we kept running into each other on the street. One day we ran into each other in a coffee shop, and we were talking and he was telling me how he didn’t have anything to do in August. And I was like ‘Well it’s funny you should say that, because I have something for you in August. I’m shooting this scene, and it has Lili Taylor in it, and you guys were together in Six Feet Under.’ So I kind of used Lili as bait. I sent him the script, and he thought it was funny, so he did it. I find that actors, if you can get them to read something, if they like the script, they’ll do it. I’ve never met an actor that’s cared about money, or who you can deter from doing a movie if they like the script. Every actor I’ve ever met has been an artist. Not every actor has been a good artist. But they’re all real artists. The only thing they actually care about is doing something good. That’s what I like most about making a movie, is working with actors, because they’re actually very inspiring that way. Even the most famous actors I’ve worked with have that same quality.
Do you know if James Franco has seen the movie?
I don’t know if he’s seen it. We’re on good terms. He knows about the movie, obviously. I don’t want people to watch the movie on vimeo, you know, so I haven’t really given many people the opportunity to see it outside of screenings. I don’t know. He hasn’t seen it. I think he would like it. I don’t think he’d find it offensive.
Because in places the film tends to prod him. I’m thinking specifically the scene where he is on the phone and you have a meeting facing his picture.
That actually happened. Except for the picture, that scene happened exactly that way. That was a completely factual recreation. I think he would like the movie a lot. It’s not meant to be mean to him. I think he’d get the joke. I think he’s really into that kind of stuff, really into meta stuff. Nothing in the movie was intended to disparage James Franco. I think it’s a movie he would like.
Your film has a strong kind of transgressive, noirish element. What was this inspired by?
The main inspirations for the movie were Pierrot le Fou, Contempt, and then The Maltese Falcon. But particularly Pierrot le Fou, the classic movie by Jean-Luc Godard. The style that Godard has, kind of a tough guy style. The only really fictional element in the whole movie is the police officer character. I had a roommate who had gone to Stanford. She was working as a sex worker. She was a poet. She did not have any interest in being an actor or a part in my story. She had her own story. So that’s all true. And then I have this scene where she’s working as a sex worker and a client comes in and says ‘how do I know you’re not a prostitute?’ and she says ‘how do I know you’re not a police officer?’ which is the first thing you’d think to ask, as an escort. And then, of course, he has to be a police officer. Once you’ve written that. It became obvious as I was writing. And then as the crimes happen, it becomes a metaphor for their relationship.
“Not every actor has been a good artist. But they’re all real artists”
What are the differences between writing for film and for print?
This is my third movie actually, and my first two movies were entirely different from a book, because you don’t have any control on a movie. It’s like those games, where you guide a marble down without falling, or an etch-a-sketch; you can’t do it exactly, that’s what making a movie is like. You really just encourage people and try to guide them but you can’t force it. You don’t have total control. Every part of a book, you are 100 percent responsible for it. If you miscast a movie, it doesn’t matter how good the script is. Casting is the most important thing in a movie. It’s different because it’s a collaboration. Though in this movie, it was much more like writing a book because it’s a movie about ideas. Most movies are not about ideas. Most movies are passive, about action, things happening. You just sit back and watch things happen. This is a movie that’s only about ideas, really. Nothing really happens. It’s just people thinking ‘what is this story? Who owns a story? Is it possibe to tell a true story, or does it become fiction the moment you tell it?’. It’s very similar to The Adderall Diaries, the book, which is only ideas. The Adderall Diaries the movie has no real ideas in it at all, it’s all action.
This focus on ideas over plot was particularly evident during an extended scene on a writer’s panel Q&A. What was your thinking?
Well, I wanted to have a conversation with people who had had similar experiences. What we did was just organised a panel. In order to shoot in a bookstore we just did a reading. In order to shoot the panel, we just hosted this panel. We had a few scripted lines we shot in advance and the rest of it is just an actual panel, edited into a scene. This enabled us to have this discussion of the perspective of a lot of writers who had been through this similar thing. I didn’t know what they were gonna say, neccesarily. That’s some good advice for guerilla filmmakers. You wanna shoot somewhere but don’t have any money… You wanna shoot a bookstore, have a reading. You wanna shoot a panel, do an actual panel. Create these things that get you into the places you need, and you don’t have to pay the location fee.
Any future projects on the horizon?
I have a collection of essays coming out next year, which I’m doing edits on. I have an article that I wrote recently being made into a television show. I’m not involved with that yet. A pilot which is making the rounds. I’m at a place where a lot of projects are done, but I don’t know what the next big thing is that I’m gonna write. I’m not in the middle of writing anything. I’m not sure what that’s gonna be. That’s the big question in my life right now.
How are you finding the Festival Circuit?
Well this is the first big festival I’ve been to. I went to the Five Film Festival in Tennessee. That was amazing. All this energy. And we put together our own film festival to premiere the movie – the Rumpus Low-fi Los Angeles film festival – because I wanted to do it myself. That was really cool. There’s like four more festivals we’re going to now. Hopefully we’ll get invited to others. I don’t have any more money to apply to festivals. We can only go to festivals that invite us. It’s way too expensive to apply. I paid to apply to Raindance, but now I’d ask for a waiver. If you make a movie for 10,000 dollars you can’t spend 5,000 applying for festivals. But I’ll screen the movie anywhere that wants to screen it.