When Casey Wilder Mott was a boy, he was a bit suckered into watching “Hamlet” for the first time. His mind had been blown by the fantasy of John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” and the promise of more swords, castles and a brooding Mel Gibson on the VHS box cover led to a rental of the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version of the Shakespeare tragedy long before he was ready to understand it fully. Still, he was transfixed.
“I remember that experience very vividly of being totally enchanted by it and also really mystified and challenged, so I started reading the plays when I was eight or nine years old,” says Wilder Mott. “Because I was introduced to it so early on and I was introduced to it as a film as opposed to the theater, which can seem somewhat more inaccessible, it always felt like this thing that I didn’t need to be intimidated by. It always felt inviting to me.”
Mott has extended that feeling to his feature debut, an adaptation of the Bard’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which remains true to the the original language and spirit of the wily comedy, but relocates the mystical forest full of dark corners in which it’s set from Athens to the dream factory of modern-day Hollywood. While love is all around, signals become mixed as well-wishers come from all around to celebrate the wedding between Theseus (Ted Levine) and Hippolyta (Paz de la Huerta), ranging from a troupe of actors to perform for the bride and groom led by Bottom (Fran Kranz) to mischief-making fairies Titania (Mia Doi Todd) and Oberon (Saul Williams), and the nuptials are threatened to be overshadowed by the prospect of another exchange of vows as Hermia (Rachael Leigh Cook) aims to get out from under the thumb of her father Egeus (Alan Blumenfeld), who has picked out a husband, Demetrius (Finn Wittrock) for her, while her heart belongs to Lysander (Hamish Linklater), as her best friend Helena (Lily Rabe) hopes Demetrius might become available.
A game cast ensures that the classic line “what fools these mortals be” is delivered with authority as all kinds of silliness commences, but Mott’s film is filled with clever touches, cheekily bringing in the acting troupe from the AFI – in this case, the Athens Film Institute, and pitting commerce versus art in the battle for Hermia’s heart in casting Demetrius as a lawyer and Lysander as a fashion photographer. The highly original reimagining was likely only possible because of the way Mott and co-producers Kranz and Joshua Skurla went outside of traditional Hollywood means of production to offer up such a shrewd satire and shortly before the film hits theaters after a well-received premiere at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Mott and Kranz spoke about how they pulled it off, untangling the traditionally complicated dealmaking process as well as the knotty dialogue of Shakespeare to make a film as fun to watch as it was to make.
Casey Wilder Mott: Honestly, a lot of it was Fran Kranz and Joshua Skurla, who I know professionally, but are also both very close personal friends. My background in Hollywood was much more on the transactional side of the business. I’d worked in film acquisitions and I started out as an agent trainee at a big talent agency, so I had a very different path to directing, but when I had finished the screenplay, I knew if I could get these two guys onboard, not only Fran as a cast attachment, but also someone who could come on and bring other actors into the project and then Josh as a financier, we’d have a really good shot at having a real film on our hands. Fortunately, they both really loved the material and once I had those two guys in my corner, it was really the three of us that produced it. We just put all the pieces together ourselves — we never really brought it to a bigger, more seasoned indie film producer or put it through any of the big agencies or production companies, and it came together faster than any of the three of us had anticipated. I think a lot of that was the material. There are a lot of people out there who love Shakespeare and love this play and a lot of it was the enthusiasm and passion that Fran showed for the project. He was really out there championing it as an actor and as an artist and that really helped us a lot.
Fran Kranz: From script to screen, we were shooting within a year. I couldn’t believe how quickly we were shooting. But Casey and I went to college together, and when he sent me a script, I didn’t even know that he was a writer. I knew it was a Shakespeare adaptation, [with] original text, but a modern setting and normally, I’ve very wary of those things, but I read it and was kind of blown away. It forever changed how I look at the play, so I was all in and he also asked me to play Bottom because he said, “Bottom’s a loveable jackass” and I guess that’s how he perceives me. [laughs]
Casey, was directing something you always wanted to do?
Casey Wilder Mott: It could go either way, honestly. I actually came to Hollywood as an actor. When I first arrived out here, I did a lot of film and theater stuff in high school and college and like most people when you come out to Hollywood, you don’t really know anything about the business and that all of the sorts of different jobs and careers that there are in Hollywood that have nothing to do with so-called artistry. When I graduated college, I spent a year living in Europe as an actor and interestingly, it was easier to get work as a starving actor in Europe than it was in my native country when I came back and came out to L.A., I got here and was sleeping on a friend’s couch and quickly realized that the struggling actor’s life was not for me. [laughs] So I was out here and [I thought], “I guess I better get a job.” The first thing that came along – and I didn’t have any perspective on this at the time, but I know now what an amazing opportunity it is — was to work at a place like William Morris, so that’s what I did. I ended up making phone calls and trying to meet people and it was one of those one thing leads to another.
Seven or eight years later, I was looking back, thinking “Gosh, I’ve enjoyed all the stuff I’ve done so far, but it’s not what I thought I would end up doing” and I wanted to take a crack at filmmaking. I had gotten really fortunate in that I inherited this project from a company I had been working for called “Hot Summer Nights,” which was a very cool Black List script and was acquired by A24, a very cool script and I worked with the writer/director on that for about a year to develop the project. We worked on the fundraising together and we talked about casting and we met with line producers and we actually initially met with a bunch of directors because he wasn’t totally convinced he wanted to direct it at first, and having gone through that process and seeing all that I had been able to bring to the project, I thought if I can do this for someone else, maybe I can do it for myself.
Casey Wilder Mott: Honestly, that’s a great question because it was not the first thing I took a crack at. I’m really drawn to the darker plays. I love “Hamlet,” Macbeth” and “King Lear” and I was trying to find a way into one of those, but I didn’t know that I’d be able to write the $50 million version of “King Lear” that Sony as going to pick up, so I was trying to find things that were more modest in scope. I also knew I wanted to do something contemporary and independent because I remember just one day thinking, “Gosh, I may only get one shot at this because it’s just the reality of being an indie filmmaker.” A lot of guys just make one and they’re so traumatized by the experience, they never want to go back and do it again. (laughs) So I thought if I can only do one thing, what do I want to do? I wanted to do something that was a little bit more fun and lighthearted and maybe ultimately kind of joyful and celebratory. It’s going to require so much sacrifice and so many different people, I want it to be something that at the end of the day, if nothing else, people can look at it and go, “Well, at least that’s designed to give you a comfort food glow.”
Fran Kranz: Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve been reaching out to some of these people [who we approached to be in the film’s cast] because we’re reaching out to some of those actors about coming out to our premiere and it’s really funny to hear their response, like “What happened to that movie? I really wanted to do that so bad.” The enthusiasm is still there years later, which is really cool, and as an actor, I know that feeling. You don’t forget about certain projects that get away from you. It’s such an actors’ script because so many good actors have come from a theater/Shakespeare background, even if that’s just high school or college. It’s part of the way in which a lot of people become passionate about film and theater.
Casey Wilder Mott: Yeah, we never had a casting director. Like I said, we didn’t package it through an agency, so a lot of [the casting] came from Fran sending the script around with his endorsement, saying, “I’m doing this, I think it’s great and I think it’d be good for you.” There were a lot of great actors who loved it and wanted to do it and ultimately many of these people were on shows at the time, so we couldn’t make it work for everyone who was interested in doing it, but I’m really happy with the cast that we did get. We were in this really lucky, enviable position of figuring out how we were going to make the schedules work for as many people as possible.
Did you have firm ideas of who you wanted? A lot of actors like Paz de la Huerta and Saul Williams really bring their own stamp, so I can’t imagine you can really plan for them.
Fran Kranz: Yeah, so much of it was availability and timing, those kind of happy accidents. There’s something kind of beautiful about Shakespeare in general that there is so much range in a single character. You can throw a lot of different types into a role and I feel like Casey and I talked about really different actors being right for one role, to the point of what Casey was saying of the eclectic nature of the business and Hollywood in general, it works in this play. It’s sort of best if it’s a strange melting pot of cast and characters. That works in this particular world really, really nicely.
Casey Wilder Mott: I remember specifically we were talking to Finn [Wittrock] about either Demetrius or Puck and he was really interested in either role and he was like, “Wow, I could see doing something totally different with both of those parts. and something different than what’s been done with those parts in the past.” Similarly, Hamish [Linklater] and Lily [Rabe] wound up playing Lysander and Helena obviously, but there was a conversation that we had with them at one point about being Oberon and Titania and how that would be cool to have this very modern Shakespearean couple play this iconic couple from the play, but we ended up with Mia [Doi Todd] and Saul [Williams] because I always had a vision about those roles being inhabited by musicians. I knew the soundtrack was going to be a really important part of the film as well, so that was strategically a way to bring some recording artists into the fold of the production.
Casey Wilder Mott: Hollywood is this funny term that has a couple layers of meaning like Wall Street or Foggy Bottom — it’s a stand-in for a whole industry and a whole culture. Ever since I got here, one of the things I’ve been equal parts fascinated by and appalled by is [how] there is this unspoken caste system. I think of it as a matrix that’s both vertical and horizontal, like the vertical component is obviously how powerful and how famous and how wealthy are you and what are you able to do [with a position of power], but then there is this horizontal component of people — everything from lawyers and accountants to the most hardcore, out there artists that you could possibly meet and they’re all working together to make this product that on the one hand is art, but on the other hand is commerce.
I haven’t really worked in any other field, but I don’t know of another business where you have that intersection of those two very different things and it ends up bringing all these very different people together. The closest analogue I can think of it for is a caste system where there’s the big movie stars and the big directors that are like the Brahmin caste — they’re like this priestly, almost otherworldly class — and then there is like the warrior class, like the studio execs and the producers who are just grinding it out all the time and then there’s the worker bee class — all the people that are struggling and striving and hustling. It’s an ecosystem that has been really fascinating to me and when I saw tendrils of that in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it was just too tempting for me not to try and find a way to make all of those things
For Fran, it’s great to hear you put a spin on the Shakespearean language – I’m thinking of hearing your inflection on “How now” as almost a pick-up line when you’re first introduced. Does staying true to the dialogue actually allow you to get me re creative in your interpretation?
Fran Kranz: This might be a personal mindset, partly from experience doing Shakespeare plays, but I find it very liberating and with a lot of depth, the language. There’s so much opportunity for different choices. I’ve just always found Shakespeare to be so bottomless in terms of text and story and often you see some kind of strong setting or environment put upon a Shakespeare play and people expect that in a way you don’t with other writers in theater. It’s meant to be messed around with and with Casey’s script, [we’d] have these little Easter eggs and different references from other plays and how he took certain liberties with lines or characters from other shows.
The “How ow,” I felt like, alright, if we’re able to play, then I also have the ability to take some lines or Elizabethan dialect or cadence and give myself a little liberty, so the “How now” you’re talking about, which is Bottom’s entrance into the school, I saw it as this being this big-headed guy who’s the big man on campus, and he’s just flirting with all the women, like “How now?” That kind of stuff felt very right to me for the world we established, which is both modern and Elizabethan.
Casey Wilder Mott: Yeah, I always thought the purists who deride modern Shakespeare adaptations are totally missing the point. I can get behind the traditional pastoral adaptation as much as the next guy if it’s a good one, but if you pay attention to Shakespeare’s world, there’s enough indications in there that he meant for his plays to be timeless. It makes me feel sad that there are people out there who can’t approach a property like this without an open mind.
I was just talking this morning to Gil Cates Jr., who did a modern adaptation [called] “A Midsummer Night’s Rave” that came out about 15 years ago and it’s a scripted in modern language and it’s very different, about raver culture, It’s a good movie, but it’s very different from this and Gil and I were saying, “isn’t this amazing that this same underlying property can just as easily support as a scaffold the building of your film, but also my film?”
Since there’s this play within a play idea inherent to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it’s nice to see the clapboard at the start of this film to create this self-awareness of watching a movie – was that freeing as far as how big tonally you could go?
Casey Wilder Mott: That’s probably my favorite part of this film. There’s a lot of things I love and am really proud of about it, but [I like the idea of] the film within a film within a film, because there’s this sort of Brechtian wraparound where we find out that Puck has actually been writing and editing this film all along as we’ve been watching it, that was always meant to be part of the structure of the film and that’s one thing that all the actors that read it really responded to. They’re like, “Wow, I’ve never thought of ‘Midsummer’’s as being done that way before,” taking the concept of Russian nesting dolls and thinking how far can we blow that out.
What was not envisioned until we got to the editing process was using some of the actual B-roll and some of those behind-the-scenes type outtakes [as we were making this] and putting them in the film itself, which I felt was pushing that boundary even one order of magnitude further. So opening and closing the film with Puck’s great monologue with all of these great outtakes of all the different actors giggling and all of these crewhands running around set – that was my way to do that.
I’m sure you’re familiar with “The Player,” the Robert Altman movie, which is also about stories within stories within stories and a satire of Hollywood and the film opens with that great seven-minute-long take and everyone always talks about that opening shot, but they never talk about the fact that you can see the clapboard at the very, very beginning. I can’t know this for sure, but I would guess having been in that exact position myself, it was not something Altman decided to do until they were in the editing room and he’s was like, “No, just leave that in there. It’s kind of cooler that way. It’s a little edgier.”
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Fran Kranz: [The shoot was] 20 days, which is always eventful no matter what and it was always the most fun to have everyone together. The scenes at the house and the wedding party were obviously a lot of fun and the screening room was a particularly wonderful day because that’s when you had everyone on set to watch the film. It’s just all this great energy to have everyone on set. That’s always revitalizing for a shoot, especially a short shoot that in independent filmmaking can be draining, right?
Casey Wilder Mott: Yeah, it was a fundamentally a very challenging shoot because it’s a very unwieldy play. There’s all these different characters. I chose to do it in a way that it would have lots and lots of different locations because I wanted it to feel liberated from the confines of the stage. I love the magical woodland quality of [the play]. I grew up in Mendicino, a magical community in Northern California that’s populated by really weird, out there hippies who all left San Francisco in ’72 “when the movement died, bro.” [laughs] It’s very much a hippie diaspora community. Everyone around us dressed like woodland druids and was smoking pot all the time and building their own magical crystal castles, so I felt [with the Hollywood setting], “Let’s go to the woods” or to Malibu and to Echo Park or let’s go to this big mansion and not just stage them, which I think was the right thing for the film.
It meant longer days and transpo department was constantly run ragged and we had one week of all nights and then another that was kind of half-days and [nights], and also it was right around the holidays, so everyone knew there was this mental finish line. We actually wrapped on the 21st of December and everyone basically got on airplanes the next day to go on vacation or see their family or whatever. And there definitely was an air of exhaustion by the end of it, but because there’s a lot of people who had previous relationships that really helped a lot. Fran and Finn and Lily and Hamish all know each other and obviously myself and Fran and some of the other filmmakers. That’s not unique on an indie film set, but in the case of our cast and crew, that helped get everyone through it.
Fran Kranz: This was such a singular, unique kind of experience for me. Like Casey was saying, we knew each other. Finn and I had just worked on Broadway together, which is a bonding experience, and because of my extra commitment and responsibility, it made each day much more meaningful, much more rewarding and much more intense in a way. Casey was wearing a lot more hats than I was, but it was the first time that I felt that and it has made me want to do so much more behind the camera because of that.
I’m thinking of that very first day of shooting because I was shocked that we were doing it. Because of my pre-production commitment and casting commitment to the film, it was surreal to finally get to set as an actor and to see everyone because the first day of shooting was actually at Casey’s house and we’d been there rehearsing and I’d been [out] there meeting Casey, so it added to the out-of-body experience of is this really happening [and the idea of] art imitating life imitating art moment there that was really wonderful and pure. It was a nice way to start the movie – with that group on that day in that place. It was definitely a unique, wonderful experience.