This week, a year ago, Mike Doyle wrapped filming on his feature directorial debut “Sell By” and he’d be the first to tell you he sweated through the whole thing.
“It was as hot as mother-f—in’ hell in New York,” says Doyle, being more polite in censoring himself than the weather was for what was clearly the least funny part of his relationship comedy. “Those scenes in the studio where it looks like, ‘Oh it’s so cool…’ we were dying and we were trying to keep [the actors] not drenched. Everybody was really such good troopers in terms of really working under some conditions that were often challenging.”
It is fitting to find out it was far hotter under the collar than anyone was letting on in “Sell By,” in which a group of friends approaching middle age begin to wonder if they’ve made good use of their lives so far. The seemingly most successful would be Marklin (Augustus Prew), a social media influencer whose site The Detail List offers views of a perfect curated life, but things are messier than they appear behind the scenes with his boyfriend Adam (Scott Evans), who becomes suspicious of text messages he’s trading with an old lover. Meanwhile, Adam is loathe to sell a place he inherited upstate that could afford the two of them a new apartment and lives out his dream of making art, but toils in anonymity by producing paintings credited to a far more famous artist (Patricia Clarkson) so she can keep up with demand for her work. His immediate circle of friends offer little in the way of comfort as they go through growing pains of their own, with his sister Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) becoming restless in her longtime marriage to Damon (Chaz Lamar Shepard) and his friend Cammy (Michelle Buteau) trying to unburden herself of her new beau Henry (Colin Donnell), whose clinginess may have less to do with his attraction to her than her apartment.
When a little generosity between friends in sharing their struggles with one another goes a long way towards giving the sense they’re less alone in “Sell By,” Doyle offers plenty of it to a strong ensemble who vividly bring the characters’ private doubts and insecurities to the surface no matter how much they try to hide it. A longtime actor from such films as “The Invitation” and “Jersey Boys,” Doyle crafts a feature where anxieties can manifest themselves into compelling drama or outrageous comedy, occasionally in the same scene, offering a versatile cast a wide array of emotions to play, and allows the audience to see the abstract obstacles they face as they come into focus for the characters. On the eve of the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Outfest, following well-received bows at Toronto’s Inside Out Fest and Frameline in San Francisco, Doyle spoke about putting together a film that reflected a diversity of experiences (and doing so in a short amount of time), as well as how acting prepared him for directing and the unexpected challenges of keeping continuity.
I wrote and directed a short called “Shiner” that premiered at Tribeca and got some attention and then I wanted to make a feature for quite some time. I had some rather ambitious scripts that required multiple locations and big budgets and then finally I just started honing in on a story about a group of friends, spinning their wheels at various stages of relationships. Some of my influences are Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman, early Woody Allen – these great patchwork ensemble comedy dramedies where a lot goes on with a very small footprint. I also really just to make a film that showed the universality of the challenges of being in a relationship with another human being and that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, black or white, old or young, and in our film, with a home or without. [laughs] Relationships are hard.
Does writing the film start with Adam and Marklin, the central couple, or did you have a variety of characters and situations in mind from the start?
The scene I wrote first was [one of the opening scenes] in the restaurant, so it started with four people and they each had something they were wrestling with or hiding or not being completely transparent about. From there, I let the arms spread where they would go and let them develop. Certainly Adam and Marklin was the relationship I was thinking quite a bit about, but then I wanted to put them in the context of a bigger friend circle and other relationships.
I knew about this world for some time, just living in New York and having some friends in the art scene. There’s a great documentary on HBO right now [“The Price of Everything”] where they really get into the contemporary art scene and they visit Jeff Koons in his studio and behind him are about a dozen little worker bees painting his paintings and making his sculptures, so I wanted to give [Adam] a job where he was spinning their wheels, not really living up to his potential, like everyone in their relationships, and what better way to do it than having a boss like Patricia Clarkson. [laughs]
Coming from an acting background, was there anything you would’ve wanted from a director that you could build into this?
Yeah, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t imposing what I would do as an actor on [anyone’s] performances, which I learned working with some great actor/directors myself, most notably Clint Eastwood on “Jersey Boys.” He has a very well-oiled machine of people that have been working together for 25-35 years and when he hires someone, he hires them to do what they do best, so I learned from him to trust my instincts in terms of casting because that’s 90% of your job. Then my job as a director was to just come in and tweak and massage and just turn someone 90 degrees or 45 degrees and send them on their way. Hopefully, I was able to use some of my experience in knowing how to speak to actors because I think sometimes there are some directors who might be a little more results-oriented and I wanted everyone to have their own process. All that being said, we shot a feature in 18 days, so I didn’t want them to have too much of a process. [laughs]
And you said earlier you had more ambitious scripts than this? This has a ton of locations for that amount of time.
I know. I had an amazing producer in Mandy Ward, who’s been a location manager on many films, so she was instrumental in getting us some really fantastic locations for not a lot of money. Strangely, I know the park ranger of the High Line – yes, there is one – and he was able to allow us to shoot there for three hours for very reasonably. You have to really put all hands on deck in terms of getting favors and pulling off the amount of locations we had for such a short amount of time.
A lot of that work was done with Mandy’s impeccable taste with choosing locations, so we had already this certain depth and layering. One of the biggest challenges production design-wise was recreating the art. I needed to get that right because we needed to believe these were expensive paintings and that Patricia Clarkson’s character Ravella was an accomplished artist, so our other producer Kaolin Bass had a connection to this artist from the Czech Republic, who allowed us to use and recreate his works. It [became] this Tetris/Jenga/Excel spreadsheet of which painting was where and which had the most done to it and which had the least done to it. So that was a huge challenge.
When you get back to the editing room, is it difficult to find the balance for a piece like this where you’re giving everyone their due?
I tried to do as much as I could in the script and in the shooting of it to create that balance. I was very aware of keeping a lot of balls in the air in terms of all these stories and our editor Michael Berenbaum has had a lot of experience. On the one hand, he did Julian Schnabel’s films “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls” and on the other, he was on “Sex and the City” for four years, so he knows how to navigate both drama and comedy. It’s amazing to work with someone with as much talent as our editor has because you see how important that role is in making a film and it was fascinating, just [making] small tweaks and lingering on one character while another was speaking, for instance, to create that balance. We were very much aware there are times where Adam’s and Marklin’s relationship is the most salient and in the fore and then there are other times when we needed it to recede a little bit and have Cammy and Henry step forward or figure out a way to make Elizabeth and Damon’s relationship an equal part of the story, even though they don’t spend a lot of time onscreen together. I’m stealing this from Auggie [Prew, who plays Marklin], who said it at a Q & A, that hopefully the viewer watching felt like maybe they were one of the friends in that circle, so I had to be very mindful of that.
It’s pretty amazing. We had a beautiful world premiere in Toronto and then we screened up in San Francisco at the Castro Theater, which is this amazing historic theater in this amazing city. They have an organ player who plays before every feature. Now to be here in Los Angeles [where] I was living for about five years, it feels like home and to have a lot of friends and colleagues and supporters who will be there for the festival and to see it in a theater with an audience is a really terrific feeling. It’s a comedy, so the first time I was sitting with an audience, I was terrified because you want to hear your jokes land and it was a total relief to hear laughter.
And you’re attending two festivals while you’re here with two different films?
I know it’s crazy. I directed this short in the fall called “The Chase,” which is premiering Friday night at the L.A. International Shorts Festival in North Hollywood. Yeah, I know I’m a glutton for punishment. I like to stay busy.