Interview: Alex Beh Takes the Driver’s Seat for “Warren”

On how a story about pushing away his past let a Midwestern filmmaker move forward.
Sarah Habel and Alex Beh in "Warren"

In the opening shot of Alex Beh’s first feature “Warren,” the actor/writer/director can be seen as the film’s titular character sitting in a 1963 356B Hatchback Porche, stuck in neutral in his father’s garage. It was a moment Beh had been driving toward for the better part of his adult life.

“It’s a ten year story, but I know we don’t have ten years,” Beh is able to say with a laugh now, a decade after he first sent an e-mail to a friend with a few random thoughts of a premise about a young man whose continued pursuit of an ex-girlfriend stops him from moving ahead with his life. While the story would grow to include a set of parents whose divorce further pulls the twentysomething who would come to be Warren both closer to his home out of obligation and further away out of a desire to start anew, the filmmaker moved from his own Midwestern roots to Los Angeles and pushed ahead with a series of short films and acting odd jobs, all the while nurturing his first feature to fruition.

The heartfelt result premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, a debut that sports the humor of a veteran creator of many “Funny or Die” clips and the personal touch of someone whose experiences since first having the initial idea have greatly enriched the final product. Shortly before Beh walked the red carpet with a cast that includes Sarah Habel, John Heard and Jean Smart, he spoke about the long road to get “Warren” to the screen, how he was born into filmmaking, even if he resisted it initially, and why it’s important to keep moving forward.

My favorite scene in the film may be where your character is talking to his improv teacher, who tells you to “follow your fear,” and after you ask how you do that, he responds, “First, you have to be afraid of something.” Is that emblematic of being a filmmaker? Where you may not know what challenges are ahead, but you have to figure them out first in order to do something that’s meaningful?

Absolutely. What’s interesting about that is that’s [set in] my favorite part of Chicago. There’s Green Mill, which is my favorite, and then the Old Town Ale House, [which] was built in 1959 and started just after Second City was founded in ’58. Everybody since Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, all the guys that I look up to, came there and after my shows at Second City, we would go to the Old Town Ale House. I really wanted to shoot at the Old Town Ale House, but [the owner] shut [the idea] down and I I was so crushed. But Charna Halpern, who runs ImprovOlympic Theater in Chicago and Los Angeles, is an old friend and has been a supporter of what I’ve been doing for a long time, so she let us shoot the improv stuff at IO.

What’s interesting is how the movie morphed. It started off about a guy trying to get a girl back. I moved back to Chicago in ’05, my parents were getting divorced, and I wanted to be around my brother, and it just started becoming about a lot of the stuff I was going through. When I first started Improv at IO, the first thing my teacher taught us, [something that improv legend] Del Close said, was “follow the fear” in that room, and so it’s cool that we lost the Old Town Ale House, and the only way to make it all work on the day of shooting was to shoot at the bar at the back of the room in the same place I learned that.

But it is a reflection of [making a film], for sure, and you have to. I had to keep pushing to get this movie made [with] constant persistence, phone calls, and e-mails to investors that were interested for years. It is scary, because every time you make a movie, you’re terrified because you know all these people are getting around a vision that you created, that you’re sitting there going, “Why are these people behind this? Who did I fool into doing this, and how did this happen?”

This movie is about people that got around us and supported me and just got on board. Trying to get the movie was really tough.  I lost my brother in 2009, and that was obviously brutal, so it just couldn’t get going. Then finally in 2012, one of the first producers on the project, a guy named Dallas Sonnier and I sat down, and he’s like, “Beh, this is a failure if we don’t get this movie made.” He loved the script. The first time he read it, he wrote me saying, “This is amazing. I’m so proud of you. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe would be jealous of a last ten pages.” Then my producing partner Mark Hannah came on board and Orian Williams, who produced “Control,” did and was a great help. We shot in September and October of 2012, and Michael Shawver, who edited “Fruitvale Station,” came on and he and I worked in a editing bay for most of 2013, just engulfed. [Everyone] from Mario Coletta, my sound guy, to Merje Veski, our production designer — all these guys do big stuff in Chicago and have no business doing an indie film, but they believed in the project.

It’s often said by first-time filmmakers that they’re the least experienced person on set, though you had more than your fair share of shorts under your belt. Still, I wondered as I watched you act opposite John Heard and Jean Smart whether you might’ve felt that way.

Yeah, although I really grew up around film. I grew up in Winnetka where they shot “Home Alone” and “Ferris Bueller” and my mom’s a drama teacher, so I’ve always been around it. Weirdly, I didn’t get into it until late. I did a play in ’05 and I got cast in a play that my friend was producing and my other friend was directing in college, and I looked to this actor next to me, and I was like, “Is this acting?” He’s like, “Yeah” and I thought, “What? This is what I’ve been doing my whole life.” I just never knew that there was a proper way. If I had known that, I would be getting A’s in acting class, not C’s in communication.

I definitely was the least experienced as far as film goes, probably. I’ve been in a couple of features as an actor, but John Heard and Jean Smart and most of the actors in the movie are seasoned. It was empowering though because they came to set trusting me, and knowing that they love the material and they were behind the project took a load off.  John and Jean were both so fun to work with — on John’s first day of shooting, I went up to him and was like, “John, that was great. Maybe we should try it like this…” and he [said], “Hey, there’s no secrets here. You go back to your throne over there, you can yell at me if you want to.”

It was pretty funny right away. He taught me how he wanted to be directed, and I just wanted to surround myself with really talented people. It wasn’t easy by any means but it made it a little easier to come to set every day. You learn, too, professionals know to trust the director, and the first thing in acting is you learn, “Hey, trust the director and trust the vision.”  It helps me working with actors, because I know how it would affect being an actor.

While I don’t want to pry, did the film change a lot from what you initially envisioned based on things that happened in your personal life?

I won’t go too deep into this out of respect for my parents, but the divorce was so personal and so in our faces [for] my sister and brother – it was one of those things that was also comedic at times. In our family always, it was like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch all the time at our house anyway. Like I said, my mom is a drama teacher, so she’s hilarious, and my dad is really sarcastic and funny and we made fun of the hard stuff. People noticed my brother was in and out of the hospital a lot growing up, so we had to find humor in it.

What I wanted to always do with “Warren” was to tell a hard story about a guy who’s dealing with divorce and figuring out how the hell to get out of there, a dad who never did anything with his life, and a [girlfriend] who has taken a safe path. I wanted to show that in a way that was not so dark.  Then sadly we did lose my brother Chase, who we all obviously love dearly, but I knew he would have wanted me to keep going. He was my biggest supporter and one of my best friends and I wasn’t ready to tell the story of that yet, but I wanted to go in the spirit of him and his life, so it definitely morphed a little, as I think all stories are the old idea of “write what you know,” but I hope in a good way, and my parents and sister all loved the movie and have been very supportive of this.

When you spend so long with something like this, is it bittersweet to let it go into the world?

I’m really excited and there’s obviously a little nervous energy to let a film go off into the ether, but that’s the point. I heard a long time ago from a friend [who’s] a painter, say, “I paint my paintings, but I want to get rid of them. I’ve got to get rid of them or I won’t paint the next one.” I want to paint the next one, and I’m working on getting the next ones going right now, but [I also want to screen it] because ultimately, a film is to be seen and to be exhibited and to be exposed.

I think it’s always interesting when people go, “Well, at least you wrote the script.  That’s a really good thing.” It’s like, “Well, no no no. The script’s the first step. Now it’s time, I’ve got to hire a line producer.” It’s a little nervewracking to expose a movie, and it’s my first feature, so I don’t know, but I’m proud of the movie, and I’m excited to let her fly away and move onto the next painting, so to speak.

“Warren” Is now available on Vimeo on Demand.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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