I Want More, I Want Less is Bryce Richardson’s debut feature film and it’s a swooning meditation on contemporary human connection. Rooted in a spirit of collaboration and improvisation, the New York-set drama follows an accountant Vicky (Gabby Grima) who strikes up a friendship with cellphone repairer Gabe (Sam Abbas) when she lets him sub-let space in the shopfront she is fronting when she strikes out on her own. Richardson’s film is beautifully observed and a defiantly slow New York picture. And like many independent filmmakers before him, Richardson has fought a hard battle to get the film seen on a big screen. DN chatted to Richardson ahead of the film’s short run (Sept 9th-12th) at Williamsburg’s Spectacle Theatre and a [hopefully] wider digital release, about improvisation, Cassavetes, Leo McCarey, filmmaking as film school and the value of editing as you go.
How did you come to filmmaking and directing?
I came at it pretty late. I didn’t go to school or anything like that. I was basically self-taught and I didn’t really even know this was an option when I was in college. I was a performer, a stand up. I would do improv in college. I realised I didn’t like doing it. I was in New York and I was spending a lot of my evenings just watching movies or going to the movie theater. So I started reading books on it and reading interviews with filmmakers I liked and made a couple of shorts. The first one I made I will never show anyone. It’s really bad. Then I made a second one and that one got into a couple of festivals and then I decided to go ahead and dive in and make myself a little DIY feature. So I made this.
What were some of the books that you read when you were interested in filmmaking?
I read that Cassavetes book by Ray Carney Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Nathaniel Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema, which doesn’t really help with the craft but it’s good for the theory. The ‘why you are doing it’.
I really love that Cassavetes book. That’s one of my go to reminders of why and how to do it.
That one was really helpful. I’m sure a lot of what Cassavetes was saying was all lies. I remember reading the Buñuel one too and someone told me he was just lying through the whole thing. But it’s still inspiring and after reading the Cassavetes one, just having that drive and anger that he had, that really helps you make films. Because it’s really difficult. You need that insanity that he had.
I was always afraid of working with actors in this way and now I think it’s my favourite thing.
I Want More, I Want Less is your first feature. What was the biggest thing that you learned in making the step up from short film?
It’s very difficult. I treated it like doing seven short films. I would just go out and shoot every weekend. Or I would take a couple of nights and feel, I’m just going to make another short film. Technically I learned about things like continuity. I had as little crew as possible and honestly, the script supervising is something you really need more than anything else. So, I had spreadsheets with what clothes people were wearing and things like that.
My shorts didn’t really have a lot of dialogue so I was trying to teach myself how to work with actors in that capacity and since my background is in improv I used improv. What I came away from it with most was that I was always afraid of working with actors in this way and now I think it’s my favourite thing. I can’t wait to do that again. Maybe it’s a specific kind of a cinephile director who tends to talk more about camera movements than actors but after doing this I realise that the crux of what makes a good film is the people that you put in front of the camera.
I think Paul Thomas Anderson counts as a cinephile and he would say it’s always about performance and one of the things I really loved about your film is the amazing chemistry the actors have. Did you have any prep time and did you do any rehearsal? Also, could you talk about how you used improvisation in the film because that has so many different meanings and connotations.
We did no rehearsals or prep or anything like that. When I auditioned I found Sam Abbas, the co-lead, and I took him in the room to audition for the other lead to see, “How are they going to work off Sam?”. They had immediate chemistry and I knew the chemistry was going to be really important for this film so I was like, “That’s enough for me”. And so I didn’t do any kind of rehearsal or anything.
In terms of the type of improv, there was still a script but I didn’t show it to them until they got on set and then they could choose their own words. That’s basically how it worked. Sam really loved that and that’s how he now prefers to work all the time. Gabby was more traditional. She took it on but it was more difficult for her at the beginning but then she conquered it. She did amazing. Then there are a couple of scenes where we just let the camera go and let people talk.
Did having a script and a structure and going from that tie in with how you were shooting it, because the film does feel like it’s comprised of these sequences which can feel self-contained, like short films as you said?
Yeah yeah yeah. And with that style you can’t really do a plot heavy script, where you need to be talking about the murder that’s happening in the other room. I mean I guess you could, but it’s about what results you want to achieve and what I was trying to achieve was naturalism and capturing people in their everyday lives. I don’t know if I will do this style again if I have a more plot heavy story.
I treated it like doing seven short films.
Continuing on a practical level, how long was the shoot? How many times did you go out to shoot those ‘short film’ sequences? Where the actors almost ‘on call’, where you would let them know when you were getting ready to go out again?
Yeah. We started in October 2016 and then our very last scene was shot the next April . We would just block out weekends. I blocked out probably six or seven weekends. Then there were a couple of sequences I just called them up and said “Hey, let’s go”. I was trying to make a story where I had a little more freedom to be able to do stuff. Sort of like letting my weaknesses be my strengths. So there were a couple of times where I called them up and just got a camera and we went out and shot.
Most times we did plan. My DP Rafael lives in Pittsburgh so he had to drive up to shoot, so we had to plan in that way. We’d shoot for two weekends and then take a month off, then shoot another two weekends, and take a month and a half off. Then another weekend and then the ending we didn’t shoot for two and a half months. There was a freedom with that because I was able to edit as I went along. I was able to reflect on what we had done and also how I could be a better filmmaker. I treated it like film school.
Did you shoot chronologically to spend time with the characters and let it evolve as you went along?
Not really. I mean in a way we did. The phone repair/accountancy store and other locations we shot chronologically but we still had to jump around a bit, just to save time. But, that ending was not in the script. Once I saw that they were putting that [protest march to get Donald Trump to reveal his taxes] on I was like “well let’s just make the ending that makes sense”. That was the level of freedom that I wanted to give myself.
That seems like a big ask for the actress, because it’s very verité in style, putting an actress in that kind of situation. Was that a conversation you had to have before, about what was expected?
By the time we were shooting that scene she had been with me for a while so she was going with the flow. I was nervous about it. Always before we shot we’d sit down and ask if she had any questions and she said “nope”. She was totally fine with it all so I didn’t have to worry about a thing with Gabby. All I had to worry about was monitoring what we were doing around all this chaos. One of the actresses in the film did a scene and then she went off to go help on another short film that was happening at that same protest. It was a zombie film and they were shooting somewhere else so I don’t think I was the only one that had the idea of doing this. With technology today you have a little more freedom to use your real life experiences and environments and respond to that.
It’s great to have a cast who are on board for the project and who jump in for that kind of thing.
Yeah, I specifically wanted people for whom it would also be their first film so we could all experience it together. When I looked for people I wanted to make sure that they had only been in shorts before that so we could all be on this adventure together. No one’s being a know-it-all on set. That part was pretty nice.
You mentioned there about editing as you went. The film’s got this really wonderful languid rhythm, of time passing and being in the city, and it feels like a nice New York film in that sense. How did that come about because it felt very intuitive to the performance and the tone you were going for? And you edited it yourself?
Yeah I edited it myself. Rafael would say on set too “you’re actually making a slow New York movie and people don’t really do that”. But I did want it that pace, of life just happening, as you were saying. You said it much better than I could say it. How I decided to do that? It’s my first movie and I don’t have to worry about appeasing financiers. I was gonna make something where I didn’t have to worry about making my money back and people don’t really make slow films like this in America, because you have to give money back to investors. I thought this would be my one opportunity to really make the type of film that I’d like to watch. That’s part of it.
With technology today you have a little more freedom to use your real life experiences and environments and respond to that.
The other part is that there are lots of long, one-takes in my movies. I’m not really a fan of one-takes if it’s just about showing off but I really like that it can be about actors bouncing off each other. When you do something like that you are slowing down the pace of the film and so it’s about embracing it. But you know, I like my long takes like the movies I watch on TCM, more Leo McCarey than Béla Tarr. Knowing that scenes are going to be that way and that you’re just watching two people interact, this kind of pace lends itself to that and when you embrace it, it’s great.
I saw an interview where you mentioned the lineage of Bresson and the Safdie Brothers in terms of the cinematic legacy of the pickpocket but I wondered if there was also a formal lineage that you’re stepping into there as well? You mentioned McCarey just there and I wonder who are the filmmakers that you like to watch?
I think when I mentioned Bresson it was mainly that I had a pickpocket in my film and had a realization that there are a couple of filmmakers where their first movies are about pickpockets. I don’t know if that’s necessarily an accident. I think if you make a social realism movie a pickpocket is a good choice because it’s inherently cinematic to watch someone steal. It’s the most cinematic crime there is. I know when people are watching the movie Bresson really comes to mind because of the pickpocket.
When I initially had the idea of a pickpocket, but for cell phones, I knew that wouldn’t be enough for a movie. I wanted something a little more than that. Asian art-house films are really what inspired me to make movies in the first place and it probably really started when I discovered Tsai Ming-liang. And then Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Jia Zhangke. I wanted to try making something in that spirit because those are the ones that made me want to do this in the first place. Those are probably the filmmakers that inspired me the most.
I was trying a bunch of different stuff with the film though. I think sometimes a filmmaker can obsess about one person and then they make a film like theirs and those films get very popular because they’re easier to market because you can go, “Oh, it’s like this filmmaker”. I watch a lot of different types of movies and I would hope that whatever I come out with was unique. I hope it’s as much Leo McCarey as it is Tsai Ming-liang.
How was it learning about cell phone repair? Were you a big expert on cell phone repair before? I love the minutiae of the character and with the accountancy as well there’s a real sense of authenticity. Were there things you had to get up to speed on?
I read some stuff on it but when Sam got the part he actually found someone on Craigslist to show him how to repair cell phones. Someone who did it professionally. Most of the curiosity came from my experiences with those stores and how someone would walk in behind me with a handful of phones and be like, “Hey, you want to buy these?” and they would buy them when they were clearly stolen. I spent a lot of time in those stores because I always lose my phone or I always break it or crack it or something goes wrong and I end up getting to know my cellphone phone repair person. So being in the store watching other people was enough of an idea for me. But Sam actually learned how to fix a cracked phone. He was able to open up an iPad or a phone and start repairing it and I would film it.
Filmmaker to filmmaker, it’s hard out there for an indie drama with no stars that’s about everyday people just living their lives and sharing time with them. How have you found it trying to get out there with an indie drama?
It’s hard. It’s not a good time to make these movies unfortunately. Even 10 years ago it was a better time. I think programmers are a little more scared about filling their seats. I don’t think it’s a very popular form, especially in the States. They don’t take a lot of risks so when you do see films selected it’s pretty risk adverse material.
I think also there’s a heavier emphasis on documentary, especially documentary as an art-form. People really take it seriously so dramatic narrative fiction filmmaking doesn’t get taken as seriously anymore. Tacoma Film Festival was the first one that took. It’s a programme that tries to challenge the audience and they try and find films that have experimental stuff in them and films that take risks that aren’t just documentaries. It’d be nice if there was a festival like True/False that had that respect for the art-form, that was actually for independent dramas, but there just isn’t a lot right now.
If you make a social realism movie a pickpocket is a good choice because it’s inherently cinematic to watch someone steal. It’s the most cinematic crime there is.
It’s weird isn’t it? There’s this idea that festivals have that approach to their programme but it’s ultra-rare. And, it’s ultra-rare to find programmers with a cinephilic sensibility or wide sense of cinematic history.
It’s not a meritocracy. If you just sort of like movies and you want to start a film festival you can do it. There’s funding for it. There’s no one gatekeeping the gatekeepers, so it can be a little frustrating. The only way it will really change is if there’s better education. Some people just don’t know how to watch movies or value them. If more people actually cared I think the problem would fix itself.
We won’t go down too far into the negative aspect of it. I hope you keep making these kinds of films. I know it’s hard and frustrating but it feels necessary. You talked a lot about how this was your film school and that it was a collaborative effort in terms of everyone learning together at the same time and I wondered if you had plans to work with those performers again and what were the biggest things you learned that you’re going to take forward on to the next project?
I would love to work with them again if there are the parts for it to work. The acting style is something I’m going to take and try to apply if the story works for it. The level of freedom I was able to give myself was nice. For the next one I’m going to try to be a little more traditional and put it together with, hopefully, financing and things like that. I’m originally from Texas so my next story I want to shoot there. I’m curious about going back and making a story around that area. There are enough New York movies.
Well there are not many New York movies paced the way yours are so I think it definitely stands out. Then again I don’t suppose there are many films in Texas paced like that, apart from maybe Paris, Texas.
Yeah that’s true. Also, I realised I could never make a story about my childhood because Tree of Life and Boyhood came out in the last 10 years and I’m not going to beat those, so yeah, my childhood has been explored enough. But I like the urban landscape of Texas. I find it interesting and whenever I go down there to see my family I’m always fascinated by the environment and the people.