How would you react to being asked by someone who you held dear to end their life? Would you run to the hills, commit said person to an asylum or would you balance the love you felt for them and their need for your help? These are the questions asked by Raphael Gonzalez in the irrational camaraderie depicted in his short The Living. The writer, director and actor was urged by the stillness of the pandemic to create something with meaning, which also happened to parallel a similar experience in his own life. Set in the sparseness of a luxury desert retreat, The Living dives into the toxicity of friendship while also managing to highlight the mundane and serene moments of calm between two individuals who know each other so well. The film’s fine tonal balance leads us to lighthearted moments which perfectly punctuate the gloom and gravity of the situation as it unravels. DN invited Gonzalez to talk to us about the importance of divergent influences in his work, from photography to architecture to the dysfunctional friendship of Withnail & I, and the joy of working with an actor who was able to help shape the film from the ground up.
When was the light bulb moment for making this film?
The Living is a product of COVID-19. Back in early 2020, my producer and I were planning to make a short film that would work as a proof-of-concept for a feature I wrote. But as the pandemic grew, we quickly realized that the ambition and scope of that film would be impossible to achieve safely so we canceled it. Afterwards, I felt stuck both artistically and professionally. We were all locked in our homes, and it was hard for me to come up with a story that I felt mattered as the world was falling apart.
Separately, I was going through some troubles with a close friend of mine. We were beginning to argue a lot, and the disagreements we had eventually turned into resentment. I felt a burden to remain this person’s confidant, even though that pressure didn’t seem healthy for either of us. I eventually decided that I wanted to make a break-up movie but between two friends who haven’t realized that they’ve outgrown each other. I was interested in exploring what happens when someone you love asks you to do something that you don’t feel is right. What do you owe that person in either saying yes or fighting back? By making that friend’s request be a suicide, I was exploring my own mental health and how deeply it was tied to my relationships.
Setting the narrative in a single house touched on life in quarantine, without ever making COVID a plot point. I was heavily inspired by the 1987 British film, Withnail & I, which follows two alcoholic actors and their vacation to the countryside. There was something strangely empowering in that movie’s ability to find humor in some of its saddest moments. Although the two leads are miserable, the film never dives into self-pity but instead treats both characters with empathy and respect. I wanted to find that same tonal balance but move the narrative to the California desert and have it be with two friends who don’t know how to communicate with each other.
As this was a proof of concept, even though you decided not to make the feature, how did that shape the short?
Funnily enough, I wrote the short before the feature! But I do think that the two informed each other. What I discovered in writing the longer narrative was the characters, which I was then able to go back and apply to the short script. To use an industry term, this has a pretty ‘high-concept’ pitch. I feel that phrase often comes at the expense of characters, who get turned into clichés. By building Ezra and Gavin out in a longer narrative, however, I was able to discover who they were and then apply that to the short.
I was interested in exploring what happens when someone you love asks you to do something that you don’t feel is right.
One thing I like about the shorter script is its character ambiguity. Less backstory is given, particularly for Gavin, so the audience has to fill in the blanks on his life. This works as a fun thought experiment but also makes him a little more threatening. We’re not quite sure what he is capable of. That opaqueness allows for there to be more suspense while watching. That all said, I do love the feature version I wrote. It dives more into both leads and expands on a lot of elements that were touched on in this film. I hope this short works as a good proof of concept for what we plan to do in a longer form.
You mentioned the epic Withnail & I, where else do you draw inspiration from in your creative process?
One of my favorite things to do while writing a script is to come up with a playlist. I love finding songs that match the tone of what I want to make. For this film, I had artists such as Elvis Presley, Playboi Carti, Roy Orbinson, and Lana Del Rey. Music that is very nostalgic but also feels a little weird. This was important for my composer, Alex Twomey. We talked a lot about using warped, electrical instrumentation to separate these characters from reality as the narrative progressed.
Visually, I’m always inspired by photography. For this film, I included a lot of references to Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. Much of that work has this drab aesthetic that I was attracted to. It felt very naked and visually honest. Other film references for me were Michael Mann’s Manhunter, The Incredibles movies, and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. All of those works incorporate architecture and landscapes into their films. I felt that this was important to emulate since the house we were in had this post-modern, 70s aesthetic that externalized Ezra’s state of mind well. The home’s jagged walls and hard corners emblemized Ezra’s state of mind. I also wanted to establish a small but unspoken class difference between the two friends. By putting Ezra in a Palm Springs, modernist estate, it separated him from Gavin financially.
I need to shout out my DP on this project, Emily Tapanes, I knew it was important to have a woman’s perspective in a film that was going to be dominated by male characters and ego. She provided a tremendous amount of technical insight to help visualize the narrative. Her experience working in documentaries was key since this film didn’t have a lot of equipment and we relied heavily on natural light. Emily did an incredible job of taking all my references and applying them to the film. Inspiration is great to have, but Emily also brought a technical understanding that was imperative to this shoot. There were only 6 people on this set. The fact that we were able to get everything we did in 3 days with 100-degree weather is entirely indebted to them. I couldn’t be more grateful for all who were involved.
How did you come to cast Taylor Hancock and how did you develop the unhealthy chemistry between your characters?
Taylor is one of my closest friends. We’ve known each other since we were freshmen doing high school theater together. Before I even wrote the script for this, I knew that I was making a film with him. I wanted to make a film that felt like the shorts my friends and I made in high school. Something that we could do quickly and all had an emotional investment in. The only benefit of filming during COVID-19 was that none of my talented crew was working at the time. My friends and I felt lucky to be on a project that briefly united us but, more importantly, we all related to.
There’s a very cliché portrayal of a depressed person: someone who is drab, quiet, forlorn.
I wrote and developed the script with Taylor. I knew pretty early on that we were not going to have the space to bring on another actor, so I decided to play the character of Gavin. Taylor was supportive of this, and we workshopped our performances as I was writing. We’ve done a variety of shorts in the past, which helps a lot now since there’s an implicit trust between us. One of the most helpful things on this project was bringing Taylor into the development process. I would write drafts of the script and then share each one with him. Taylor would go through and provide notes on his character, the story at large, etc. This allowed us to work out all the kinks early so that by the time we were on set he was ready to go.
Taylor was pretty adamant in pushing Ezra to be less sympathetic. At first, I was uncomfortable with this but eventually came around to understanding. There’s a very cliché portrayal of a depressed person: someone who is drab, quiet, forlorn. Taylor wanted to do the opposite by playing a person who is angry, unsure of himself, and hard to be around. The character is struggling but doesn’t know how to express it. So, he instead invites his friend over for this absurd proposition that is actually a cry for help. That informed a lot of our chemistry together. Gavin is a yes man to a fault. He idolizes Ezra and will do whatever he asks, even if it’s dangerous. Learning to say no is Gavin’s character arc, while Ezra’s is understanding the emotional impact he has on his friend.
There is a very dark comedic element to the times Gavin actually tries to kill Ezra. How did you bring the lightness to this very dark subject matter?
The tone was what I worked on the most, particularly with my editor, Liam Molina. We wanted the film to have this very restrained, patient sense of humor that never came off as crude or exploitative. There is a lot of sensitive material in this work that I didn’t want to seem like we were making fun of. We focused instead on finding the comedy within these characters’ personalities and their uncomfortable interactions. The film starts off very objectively, not delving into either character’s psyche but just setting up the stakes. It then slips into Ezra’s POV as he grows paranoid of his friend, before finally switching to Gavin as he decides to poison Ezra. The purpose of this was to sway the audience’s perception. They may not have agreed with either character’s actions, but they could at least understand them.
The humor also comes from a power switch midway through the film. For the first half, it’s Ezra who is in charge and giving orders to Gavin. But as the narrative progresses, Gavin starts taking control of the situation. Not because he’s malicious, but because his friend gave him a task and he’s following through with it. I think walking that fine tonal line allowed us to make a film that was compelling but still emotionally honest.
What was the journey like through production into post?
Filming took place over 3 days and was truly a collaborative effort. We shot on a Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark II 6 Lens Leica R Set. Taylor would provide notes on my performance and vice versa. Emily and I worked off a shortlist but would improvise if we felt a scene was visually flat. My sound recorder, Donavyn Suffel, was also our key grip.
Once we wrapped filming, my editor, Liam Molina, and I got started on post. Besides cutting the film, Liam did all of the sound mixing and VFX work. I brought in my composer, Alex Twomey, to work on the score. We talked a lot about 70’s psychedelic funk, providing a real spaced-out atmosphere that could emphasize the barren landscape. I gave my colorist, Hayley Stablow, a series of Steven Shore photographs that were bright, oversaturated, and even banal for reference. I felt these pictures had the right emotional bareness that complemented our cinematographer’s work on set.
We wanted the film to have this very restrained, patient sense of humor that never came off as crude or exploitative.
To be honest, this was never an easy project. It was made at one of the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided both emotional and logistical challenges for everyone involved. But because of the work my crew did in bringing this film to life (no pun intended), we made something that we are all proud of and excited to share. After watching, I hope that audiences agree.
What can our audience look forward to next from you?
I don’t know! Something kinetic with a lot of camera movements is all I want to do next. I have a couple of shorts written that I need to mull over and see if I can incorporate that energy into. As mentioned, there is a feature version of this film knocking around. I’d love to get the funds together to go back out there and film it eventually. I think it’s a really good script. I also have a thriller written called Ghost Town that I would love to make one day. In between all that, you can catch me in isolation playing Cyberpunk 2077.