Interview: Matt Ross on Checking Into “28 Hotel Rooms,” Naked Dancing on Balconies & Filmmaking Infidelity

After establishing a career as one of the finest character actors around, the first-time writer/director talks about uprooting the traditional filmmaking process to deliver a strong, intimate performance-based drama...
Chris Messina and Marin Ireland in a scene from Matt Ross' film "28 Hotel Rooms"

For his first feature “28 Hotel Rooms,” Matt Ross spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be unfaithful and to find new opportunities.

“We live in a society where monogamy is the norm and with good reason,” said Ross. “We all, hopefully, find someone with whom to spend our lives. During our lives, however, we all have moments when we meet someone new, someone who, for whatever reason, has an impact on us and the thought flashes across our mind that under different circumstances, in another world, we could see being with this person. I think it’s a pretty common fantasy. The film is a portrait of a relationship, but it’s also an exploration of that fantasy — namely, what would happen if we accidentally fell in love with someone else. What would that be like? Would it work? Would it be better, worse, or just different from what we already have?”

Ross is generous in allowing for the audience to come to their own conclusions about those questions in his directorial debut about the hotel hopping of a married statistical analyst (“Sparrows Dance”‘s Marin Ireland) and an author (Chris Messina) over a number of years and different room numbers. However, what isn’t left up to debate are the benefits of Ross’ own infidelity in regards to both his already prosperous career as an actor and to the traditional production of a film, which he sought to shake up from his time spent on other director’s sets.

Known to many for his work as the fearsome Alby Grant on “Big Love” and as a familiar face of indie cinema classics such as “American Psycho” and “The Last Days of Disco,” Ross has rarely had the time to play hooky, but his move from in front of the camera to behind it is as passionate about performance as its central two lovers are about each other, resulting in a film that may be confined to the interiors of sterile suites and yet creates a much larger world outside through the sterling turns of Messina and Ireland, whose characters gradually reveal themselves to each other in ways no one else will ever know.

Despite the “do not disturb” signs that become a fixture on their shared boudoirs, Ross’ desire to upset the typical process of moviemaking can be credited with translating the thrills and the pain of a relationship that’s disjointed not only in practice, but in the ideas each of its participants has about what it all actually means. Like those who have already seen the film, it was obvious that Ross continues to think about it and in the midst of its theatrical run in Los Angeles en route to New York next week, he took the time to talk about the unconventional process that led to such a vividly drawn affair, wreaking havoc on hotel balconies, and how he got interested in directing.

This will be a roundabout way of asking how you got interested in directing, but I came across an interview you did in 1996 for Premiere Magazine that suggested you were growing disenchanted with acting and had actually started thinking about directing then, so while I know you’ve directed a few short since then, why now to make your feature debut?  

Yeah, that’s all true. It actually started before that. I went to the grad school theater program at Julliard and I was writing there and as soon as I graduated, I went to NYU for five seconds. I was already thinking that I wanted to make films. I grew up in a rural area and making films seemed like saying you wanted to be an astronaut. Acting at least seemed tangible. So I was making money as an actor and it made it difficult for me to continue at NYU. Film school’s very expensive and I just had gotten done with Julliard, which is very expensive, so it was a slow process.

When I worked as an actor, I did a lot of theater in the beginning, but when I would get some real money making a film or a TV show, I would turn around immediately and make a short. This is obviously over 10 years ago when making a short meant shooting it on 16mm film, so it had certainly been brewing for a while. I think if I had failed as an actor completely and could not support myself, which was not the case, it may have lit a fire under my ass more rapidly. But I was balancing making a living as an actor, having a career and having to spend the time off-set writing. I really taught myself. I think every writer has their own process. It’s very much the Malcolm Gladwell [theory of] 10,000 hours [to master something]. It’s become a pretty prominent cliche, but for me, it definitely was true. It was a matter of failing a lot and figuring out why I wanted to do it.

For me, directing was very much tied into writing. A lot of the filmmakers that I really admired also happened to write, so I thought I need to make this personal and I need to crack it myself. I don’t want to necessarily interpret someone else’s material, at least in the beginning. I want it to come from me entirely.

And yet “28 Hotel Rooms” sounds as though it really came out of a really collaborative process and I read that you and Chris were talking about another script you had written, so how did that conversation turned towards this one?

What happened was Chris and I are both very close friends with Sam Rockwell. Sam and I had been talking about working together for a while and I’m actually writing something for him now, but I had written a spec script without telling Sam about it and it was about many things, but the character was basically drunk the whole movie. He was an alcoholic and when I sprung it on Sam, he had literally just played like three drunks in a row. [laughs] And he’s like, “You know what? I’m not…I can’t…I wish you had told me a year ago.” I certainly learned from that mistake. But he said, “What about Chris?”

And I knew Chris socially from Sam, but we were more acquaintances than friends. I gave Chris the script and he liked it, but he was wanting to go a different way with it. Still, it sparked a conversation in us about where we were in our lives and as actors and artists and what we wanted to do. We were kind of bonding on a certain aesthetic and I said, “Well, maybe, let’s forget this script. It doesn’t have to be this particular story.” Then we bantered for a while and pitched different ideas over a course of time back and forth and just genres of films or ways of working and then I pitched him this story and he liked it.

Originally, we thought about doing a completely improvised movie, which I was always suspect of personally because I just thought if it’s not crafted, it’s a whole other process. If you’re going to improv a movie entirely and you don’t have any guide points, I don’t know how you do that. So I just wrote a script and then that became a place to begin the conversation. Chris and I workshopped the screenplay for about nine months. One of our inspirations was Mike Leigh. Certainly, the way he crafts things, he does it very differently. He’s able to hire actors for specific parts, have them research the parts and from what I could tell from reading about him, it is a mutual process [between the actors and director], but he has many possible storylines happening and then he decides ultimately where it’s going to go. When then they arrive on set, it’s with a script that is locked. That’s my understanding.

What I took from his work, which I think is extraordinary, was really that I was trying to open up the process so that Chris could bring in the things that were important to him in his life now so that he didn’t have to be simply a meat puppet for my words. He could bring in things that were personal to him, things that he wanted to grapple with as an artist into the narrative and we could see, does that actually fit in this story? And a lot of it did because the story is really simple. The story is really just about two people who meet, don’t think they’re going to have a relationship and then end up having a relationship and grappling with what that relationship is and its repercussions on their other relationships. It’s a very simple narrative, so there were a lot of possibilities to bring up personal stuff.And then we brought in Marin and continued that process and then we did that on set.

One of my goals was to really create an environment where the actors were not required to deliver a performance between action and cut. Filmmaking is so much about time and money. How much money you have influences how much time you have. But you still only have a certain amount of time in a day to get things done. What ends up happening so much of the time is that all you’re able to do is capture what was previously thought of. It can become a slightly dead process where the actors are only doing what was preconceived and not able to contribute a little bit themselves. I really wanted to shoot 20-minute takes and have [the actors] change the blocking or change the language. This was very specific to this film.

It wasn’t a free-for-all, but we’re just breaking out of the lines of only saying these words and being facile enough so if the blocking isn’t working or if the actors want to move around more, we just change. That means [if] Chris decides halfway through that he doesn’t want to sit on the couch anymore, wow, okay, so all that stuff on the couch we either have to do again in this new position or we’re starting this scene [in a different place]. It requires a lot of math. And you keep these tallies and then on top of which, it becomes an evolving process because what you did yesterday influences what we did today. It requires you to be very loose as actors and as a crew.

Did that mean you really had to find the movie in the editing room? There’s definitely a progression of events in the film, but it also seemed like there was room to possibly rearrange scenes.

Precisely. The first part of your question, the answer is the editing was everything. Everyone always says it’s three processes: you write it, then what you shoot changes what you wrote and then what you edit changes what you wrote again. Well, if you only do two takes of each scene or of each setup, and you’re sticking to the script, you can obviously rewrite it, but only to a certain degree. We literally rewrote it insofar as we had two editing periods, which is something that I wanted to do because you could fill an Olympic-sized stadium with what I don’t know, but what I did know was that I would make a lot of mistakes. Having a period of time when I could edit it, see what I have and then shoot additional scenes would be necessary, especially working this way.

We shot a new beginning and a new ending, neither of which we ended up using. We shot additional stuff and we ended up using very little of it, but it helped me and Joe Crane, the editor, calibrate our taste as to what we thought was the appropriate amount of less is more. What was the second part of your question about editing?

Just whether you rearranged things?

Absolutely. We did frequently. There were a lot of moments we shot that didn’t end up in the movie, like private moments or little thoughts, little revelations. Some of them we tried in versions where the film was even more visual, more like Malick, sometimes with and without voiceovers. We had many, many, many versions of the movie, not just narratively, but stylistically as we were trying to find the best way to tell the story. We had a lot of stuff that I felt was very beautiful, but ultimately the movie I wanted at the end of the day was a more raw version, the one where you could see the director less.

Specifically to your question, some scenes were moveable. It’s not specific how long exactly the affair [in the film] takes place, but I always figured it’s in the rage of ten years or so because towards the end of the movie, Chris has grey in his beard. We did not have the time or money to age them, so it had to be natural and sometimes scenes couldn’t be moved because maybe he had a beard, but other than that, if he was clean-shaven, there was no real indication of time. So it became about have we seen this room before or what they’re talking about?

It’s interesting that you mentioned reshooting the opening scene because I was fascinated by the set-up for the film – that Marin’s character is a statistical analyst who’s looking for fantasy out of the relationship and he’s a novelist looking more for something tangible. Was that kind of foundation there from the start from you or from them?

The narrative requirement was that they had to have jobs that made it possible for them to travel because that was the confines of the story, so that was the first thing I considered. In that original script, he was a doctor and she did work in corporate finance and I just picked professions based on people I know who had those jobs that did have to travel a lot, so I knew it would be real. Chris, in this case, really wanted the character to be an artist and actually, this is a case where I was very hesitant. It’s one thing that I probably wouldn’t have done myself because I was very afraid of the cliche of the artist who feels so much and is transgressive, but it’s okay because they’re exploring their art. I really wanted to avoid that stereotype, and my first impulse was to have neither of them be artists.

For Chris, the desire, I think, for an artist was he was very interested in this idea of what you wanted to be when you were younger and what you end up becoming. It was something that he thinks about in his own life – I think we all do, no matter what you do, whether you’re an artist or not. But it was very personal to Chris and he really liked the idea of someone who was very successful young and they never really fulfilled their potential or what they thought was their potential and had to recalibrate. And so we made him a writer. Then for [Marin’s character], my goal was just to write a strong, intelligent woman. I never intended her to be cold and withdrawn and unforgiving. That kind of evolved a little bit. Marin is not a cold and unforgiving person, but I think [her character’s] reticence to be involved with this guy that she doesn’t really know came naturally. Some of it came out of them and some of it came out of the parts I had written for them, but I don’t think I ever intended for it to be sort of emblematic of their professions.

At one point, Chris knocks down an exit sign in a hotel…

Good eye. Good eye!

Did you really rough up some of these places?

Yeah, we were… That was obviously an accident. Chris did lots of crazy, destructive things. [laughs] That comes to my mind. We were at a hotel by the airport in L.A. and by the way, we had permission to be everywhere we were, but it was like a Sunday morning. We told the people [at the hotel], look, [Chris and Marin are] going to be running through the hallways and yelling and the whole point is supposed to be they’re drunk and he’s going to be trying to wake people up. He did that and people came out and it was a little bit chaotic. Also, at one point, I think he poured wine all over the sheets. It’s not a scene that was cut and you also see him jump on a balcony and what you can’t tell from that shot is that we’re like 35 stories up. Chris, I believe, was slightly intoxicated and my heart just…[laughs] It happened so quickly. He jumped up, screamed down and then jumped down. You know, I wouldn’t do that in the daytime and not having had a glass of wine. He’s a brave man.

I remember speaking to Dana Adam Shapiro, who directed Chris in “Monogamy” a few years back, and he was talking about how it was Chris’ idea to wear nothing but a gorilla mask in one particular scene, but I’m sure that only happens if he feels comfortable enough to contribute.

It was very, very collaborative. It was like I had said to [both the actors], if you guys think there’s a scene that we’re missing or a moment or an idea, tell me and we’ll shoot it. If you want me to write it, I’ll write it and if you want to improv it, we’ll improv it. And we did that stuff a lot. The scene where they’re on the balcony, it was like the end of the night and we had another hour before we got kicked out, we got all our work done that day and Chris was like, “Hey, let’s dance naked on the balcony.”

That’s some of my favorite stuff in the movie — [the ideas] that completely came from him or was improv-ed or just an idea on the day that we just went with. That was very much the idea of the entire endeavor — let’s find a different way of working. You make a lot of mistakes and a lot of stuff is useless and you go down a lot of wrong corners and make a lot of wrong turns, but you also come up with some lovely stuff that you could’ve never preconceived. When have a really simple plot [such as] will they or will they not stay together, a film that’s that sparse, you’re really trafficking in human behavior and the nuances of desire and so that’s what we had and that was ours to mine.

When it goes through such a collaborative process like this, are you happy about the way it came out, that it says something that you actually wanted to say even after all these other voices have been imprinted upon it?

I am. It’s funny because it went through a lot of manifestations and it came back to something that was different but very similar to the original script. I don’t know that I really had a point insofar as a message. I’m definitely leery of that idea. I didn’t want to have a moral judgment. Clearly, what they’re doing is patently wrong. For me, it’s never up for discussion. If you’re in a long-term relationship and you found out that the person you’re in a relationship with has been deceiving you for 10 years, that would be monstrous. I actually know someone who had a very similar circumstance and told me about it after I had written the script, which validated the very idea of it. When we were writing it, we were thinking God, is this impossible? Then before we went to shoot, I was talking to someone and they said, what are you doing next? I told them about this and their face went white and they were like, “Do you know about my…” and they told me their story, which was entirely different, but it was basically a long-term affair and I felt okay, good. Truth is stranger than fiction.

But I wanted to spend some time with some people and examine why they made the choices they made and have [those decisions] be able to reflect on our own lives in some way and not provide any easy answers or pat endings. I like films like that. Looking at the movie at the end of the day, there are some things about it that I would say perhaps are broken and will always remain broken. The thing that makes it unique, which is that there’s just two people in those series of rooms, is also the thing on some level that maybe makes it broken because it’s not just a relationship between these two people. There are other people, therefore there are repercussions of their behavior, which we never see. You could design a movie like this and have this be the first half of the movie and the second half of the movie is the repercussions of that relationship on their two partners and spend time with them and you’d maybe feel that more. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but we set some parameters for ourselves and we kept to them.

“28 Hotel Rooms” is now available on demand, on iTunes and on Vudu, and open theatrically in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset 5 and the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, Oregon and will open on November 16th at the Village East in New York, the Bijou Cinema in Eugene, Oregon, the Sundance Houston in Houston, Texas and the Sundance Seattle in Seattle, Washington. A full list of theaters can be found here.

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