For all it’s wondrous prospects of a lifetime of love, companionship and family, most couples would have to admit that at times marriage isn’t easy. It is these moments of marital strife that Actor turned Director Marshall Allman has chosen to mine for his new era hopping Marriage (In Short) series of films – fully exploiting the absurd comedy which can be found in disagreement. First up in the series comes the gorgeously styled, 60s set, Make Like a Dog, in which a frustrated couple bicker over their perceptions of who it is that belongs in the dog house, whilst resolving their feelings towards the empty nest they share. Watch the playful short below and then read our interview with Marshall in which he reveals how Make Like a Dog made its way from stage to screen, the role that editing has played in his growth as a filmmaker and how to calm a pissed off ghost who’s causing mischief on set.
Frustrated, angry and infertile, Stanley and Elvira will try anything to pull their relationship out of the dog house.
You’re best known for your TV and film acting roles, what prompted you to get behind the camera for Make Like a Dog?
Well, it all started with me simply wanting to showcase Jamie Anne Allman’s comedic skills. So many people know her for the dramas she done but have little idea that in real life she actually acts more like Gilda Radner or Chris Farley. So when I was looking for material that could show this side of her she reminded me, “I staged this one act that I found randomly at Samuel French a long time ago – I think it could work.” Literally, she was at Sam French, closed her eyes, pointed her finger randomly at a book shelf and it landed on the play. Minus the sword, it was exactly like Inigo Montoya finding the secret dungeon tree knob door handle by ‘accident’ in The Princess Bride. Minus the tree knob door. And the dungeon. Whatever. You get it.
While embodying the essence of Jerome Kass’ play, the film delves deeper into the couple’s relationship problems. How did you approach the task of honing the source material down to a 10 minute running time whilst adding extra depth?
It took me a long time. With no changes at all the play in screenplay format was 30 pages long. Which at a page-a-minute is more an episode of TV than a short. So I edited it down without changing a word as much as possible and got it to 19 pages. Which to get people’s attention in the short film world, I feel like 19 minutes is asking a lot. So the goal became 10 minutes, which meant I knew I had to change Jerome’s original writing. Which terrified me. So one day after much toil, a whole pot of coffee, and a moment of extreme clarity – I found the courage to take some creative liberty and got it down to 15 pages. Then working with my brilliant DP Joshua Lipton we were able to trim it even further to 11 pages a couple weeks before shooting. Then on set my current writing partner (Steve Warren) created the coda and altered a few key moments in the last scene which added half a page. All-in-all the whole process took place over an 8 year period. I hope Jerome approves.
What visual elements needed to be changed to move the story from theatre to screen and how did they in turn inform the film’s rich visual design?
A few things had to change – the first major difference is that the play was not written as a period piece – it was just actually written in the 60s. So when translating it to screen I thought – there is no way in hell anyone would believe a modern married couple would resort to this. Which also informed the location and art direction and coloring of the film – I wanted it to be hyper-real, a place where you suspend your disbelief just enough to believe this could really happen – a farce basically. Which is why it took us a year to find the location. There were other elements like changing the opening so that Stanley fell asleep watching the TV instead of while reading the paper. Which in turn actually helped me get over my fear of changing the original words.
Even after finding the location, there was still a rather unusual situation you had to overcome.
My Producer Christian Sosa would scour the Texas film commission locations website and send me batches of locations he thought could be right. After way too many searches he sent me a final batch and as a sort of joke threw in a “Isn’t this house crazy – check it out.” and there it was, it was the one: The Wilson House. It was built by Ralph Wilson and is currently a museum, owned by Wilson Art (Ralph’s company) and when we got there to shoot, the house curator, Diane, informed us that the house was actually haunted by Ralph’s ghost, which was shocking but I don’t think any of us took it seriously until she showed us a picture of the ghost. Apparently, a janitor one night was bringing in his equipment when someone grabbed the camera flip phone attached to his belt and when he turned no one was there. He was even more surprised later when he was scrolling through his pictures later and saw a blurry odd photo of Mr. Wilson who had long since passed and realized that when the ghost grabbed his phone the camera had gone off. I have to say it’s one of the creepiest photos I’ve ever seen. After she showed it to us everyone took her stories a little more seriously.
I wanted it to be hyper-real, a place where you suspend your disbelief just enough to believe this could really happen – a farce basically.
Then the morning after the first day of shooting we arrived to find that Stanley’s costume (and only Stanley’s costume), which we left hanging in Ralph’s bedroom closet (the only closet space left in the house) next to Elvira’s costume, was missing. The whole crew spent thirty minutes looking for it. Mark Kelly found it under Ralph’s old desk near the kitchen crumbled up with a few wet spots on it. We definitely were believers after that. Especially since there is 24 hour security and no one unauthorized went in or out of the house. So I decided to have a heart to heart with Ralph’s ghost – I went into his bedroom, shut the door and said out loud, “Ralph, I am sure it’s weird to have all these strangers in your beautiful home, but let me reassure you: we are here to honor your house and honor you so please know we are not here to harm you or the house.” After that there were no problems. We decided it appropriate to work a portrait of Ralph into the opening scene where Elvira is vacuuming. You can see him just past Elvira’s shoulder looking over the whole film.
Jamie Anne Allman and Mark Kelly’s dynamic back and forth battle of barbs is a joy to watch. How did you come to cast them together and then build that energetic sniping exchange?
Well one of the actors is sleeping with the director so… you know how that goes. Since this was originally intended to be a vehicle for Jamie all we needed was to find her a leading man. I knew I was not ready to direct and act at the same time, especially since the material was so challenging and given the fact that I still look like puberty is around the corner for me, I knew I was not right for the part. Jamie had done a short film with Mark Kelly called 146 Questions and they were excellent together. I also saw Mark do a great version of Fool for Love on stage shortly after and he killed it. Mark is a fantastic actor and is naturally comedic. It was a no brainer to cast him.
On set it was all about just keeping the adrenaline high and then trying to back off the actors. The only hard part was making sure we were hitting the rhythm of the dialogue while still being natural. So we really had to push to get it spot on. They are so talented it’s easy to let them just rip. Though it was a fast shoot we had a ton of fun. In fact, I am thinking about releasing a whole cut of outtakes of the role playing scenes – Mark and Jamie improved a ton and there is some hilarious stuff that didn’t make the film.
You shot Make Like a Dog in 6K, what informed your choice of gear for the shoot?
We chose the Red Dragon both because it is a great camera and because my DP was able to source one for no cost to the production, so it made financial sense for a small production like ours. Its sensor captures natively at 6K, and we chose to maintain that resolution for shooting primarily so that we wouldn’t crop the sensor but also so that we could have a little bit of flexibility in post for minor reframing and effects. As for the lighting, we used A Serious Man as inspiration and wanted to have it be as natural as possible to help accentuate the time period and ground the ridiculousness of the whole thing.
You unintentionally took on the role of editor for the film. What was that stage of production like and how did Jay Duplass get involved with Make Like a Dog? Has the experience of cutting the film adjusted how you’ll approach directing in the future?
Editing your own films is always the most cost effective way to go but not always the easiest. Good, Fast, Cheap: pick two right? Well I was definitely cheap. Before this I had edited some homemade documentaries and a narrative short film but neither were as complex and nuanced as this one in terms of density of story or razors-edge comedic timing. I spent almost a year cutting this. Had a ton of help and critical feedback from some very talented people and close friends. Even brought on another editor (Tyler Glodt) to help which took it to another level… so I definitely did not do it by myself. The whole process really stretched me and made me a better editor.
Jay got involved because our lead, Mark, worked on Jay Duplass’s first short film and also was the co-lead of their amazing film Do-Deca-Pentathalon so he reached out to Jay on our behalf to weigh in on the cut of the film. And he did! – Twice actually. At extremely critical times. In fact we had already picture locked and were screening at our first festival when I got his first notes. They were so mind-blowing that I re-opened the film and incorporated them. It was a huge deal for me because their films are what inspired me to want to make films at all. And I must mention that Jay took time to give notes in the middle of juggling both acting on Transparent and post-production on Togetherness. He is a saint. Never even met him in person but has radically affected my life.
My hope is to make art that serves to encourage people that marriages can and should be resilient.
For sure, editing has completely changed me as a person. Seriously. I am so conscious now of rhythm and economy in story telling in all facets: writing, acting, directing – no matter what context, including life – editing has changed all of that for me. Not to mention all the times editing rescued me from my mistakes on set. Too many to count. So yes the value in it is immeasurable to me – especially in the context of making the next film in the series, A Tribulation!
Which brings us to the happy fact the Make Like a Dog is actually the first of five films from your Marriage. (In Short) series for which you’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign. How are the films connected and what can we look forward to seeing in the remaining four parts of the collection? Is there anything people can do to help?
Yes! If you like this short please help us fund the next one: A Tribulation! Our Kickstarter is live at marriageinshort.com, so check our video and incentives. Hopefully we can earn your support!
The basic concept is to have the same actors playing different couples in different decades dealing with different socio-political issues within a marriage. This structure is fun in that it allows me as an artist to express a higher concept about marriage all while exploring completely different worlds as a filmmaker. I have been married now for just over ten years and I love it. It’s the most challenging thing I have ever done. And also the most rewarding.
One thing I have noticed is that so many couples’ marriages don’t work simply because of expectations about what a marriage should be. A lot of people don’t understand how hard it can get and when major challenges arise they see that as a sign to call it quits. My hope is to make art that serves to encourage people that marriages can and should be resilient – now obviously that is not to shy away from the reality that no marriages are alike and I could never suppose to say what marriages should survive and which ones shouldn’t, but if I can help in any way to better prepare someone for their future marriage or encourage a couple in a rough patch through the humor in these films then hey, I consider it worth every challenge this series can throw at me. Ghosts and all.