There’s an inherent contradiction in the opening credits in “Newly Single,” hitting you hard upfront with a title card and anticipatory music like you’d experience in a film from the ‘50s as a man literally runs against it, confidently asserting himself amidst the traffic of downtown Los Angeles, as the crispness of the digital image and the nostalgic stylistic flourishes render him a man out of time. Yet the immediate arrival of Adam Christian Clark’s credit of actor/writer/director may be most mischievous, as you think you have a handle on things once he identifies himself as the jogger whose double-barreled name Astor William Stevenson suggests a character not be too far removed from himself, though the distance between the two only seems to grow as the film wears on.
“It’s a little bit of a red herring since it sounds like suspense, but I wanted to just make you think with that opening credits that you’re about to watch a comedy that’s very jovial in the sense it’s an olden time and I wanted to go from that directly into the first scene which is him really questioning himself and being very insecure to let you know it’s very different from what you expected, but also like you’re okay to laugh here,” says Clark. “I don’t know if it was successful or not, but it was my nod to say, ‘Okay, I’m not taking myself too seriously here. I’m not this guy. And you can laugh at this guy and it’s okay.’”
Laughing at himself was all Clark could feel he could do after suffering what amounted to a professional and personal collapse following his 2012 drama “Caroline and Jackie,” a sharp-elbowed tale of two sisters whose relationship unravels over the course of one evening when one stages an intervention for the other. Shining a light on the darkest corners of interfamily dynamics, the film became a conversation starter after its premiere at Tribeca and led to a larger-scale project for the filmmaker, though it would never come to pass after the lead actress dropped out less than a week before shooting and only the start of many dominoes to fall, from the end of a long-term relationship to the loss of a long-running side job. One suspects as his on-screen alter ego Astor desperately attempts to salvage his next film in a phone call with an unseen — and obviously uncomfortable — actress that there are in fact scenes from “Newly Single” that are taken almost directly from Clark’s life, yet the film is a more abstract consideration of how a sense of privilege can make the pain of losing everything even uglier, making Astor’s journey back out into the world of dating even more fraught.
“I’m not that interested in what the world is offering me right now,” Astor can be overheard saying in a conversation with his mother, a statement that can be applied to any realm of his life. He isn’t asking her for money yet – he claims on dates that he’s a professional survivalist with four months of food stocked up. However, he is craving connection, something he fails to find as he cycles through the dating pool in Los Angeles where it’s clear his counterparts are underwhelmed by him as well. After recently ending things with his ex-girlfriend Valerie (Molly C. Quinn), Astor frequently confuses casual encounters as having the potential for something more while largely neglecting those willing to open up to him, such as Izzy (Jennifer Kim), who offers him a rare second date. Meanwhile, he finds himself unable to offer any wisdom to his younger sister Madeline (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who is in New York facing many of the decisions he once did in his twenties that have led him to where he is now.
While “Newly Single” is a difficult film, it’s a rewarding one, though the fact it’s receiving a quiet release in its home country after a more boisterous reception internationally following its premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in 2017 may speak to a bit of bad timing on Clark’s part when his soul-searching tale of a bachelor working out his issues with women may have been the last thing people needed to see as the #metoo movement took hold. Still, Clark’s deeply personal and unsparing introspection leads to a perspective that hasn’t been seen before and confirms the promise of his debut as a truthteller with something to say. With the film sneaking onto VOD and home video recently, Clark spoke about blurring the lines between reality and fiction with his latest, his uneasy steps into playing the lead role and making a film critical of himself even if by virtue of being front and center he might be perceived as the hero of the story.
How did this come about?
A little bit after “Caroline and Jackie,” I was making a much bigger film with ten times the budget and an A-list actress, and it was like a big step for me. I was happy and probably a little cocky about it and it fell through four days before we shot it. I rehearsed that movie for six months every day before that, so I [tried to] recast it with somebody else and she dropped out like a week before we were going to shoot the second iteration of it, and in total, that ended up being about a year-and-a-half of my life where I wasn’t working. I just went through this spiral where I was in a very dark place, thinking I was going to get evicted from my apartment [because] I wasn’t getting paid when I thought I was getting paid. So I made a last ditch effort [thinking] I’m going to make a movie in my apartment with a credit card so if I do get evicted, at least I’ll have a movie to work on that I can edit in my free time. So this was really an experiment initially, [which is] why I acted in it. I was thinking I’ll be in it so I can make it and nobody can drop out and I’ll do it however I want to do it. [The film] was initially even smaller than this, but with the momentum as it moved forward, it ended up becoming a real movie.
When the character bears so much resemblance to your life, but an extreme version, was it much of a consideration to step into that role?
In the emotional sense, no, because he’s so heightened and such an exaggeration of me that I thought at least the people close to me [would know it isn’t me]. I also think somebody who was really like that wouldn’t be the type of person to make a movie to portray him in that way, so in that sense, it was fine. I don’t have prior acting experience, so I was very focused on just not being bad at that and unexpectedly, I think it made the directing a lot more difficult. I probably didn’t give the actors as much direction as I normally would’ve because I was very focused on my own role, so I wasn’t micromanaging them as much, though I don’t know necessarily if that’s a bad thing, and I had to trust the department heads a lot more, in particular the cinematographer. As I’ve grown as a director, part of my evolution has just been learning to find really talented people and trust them to do the best job they can do as opposed to putting your stamp on everything.
It did seem like the shooting style – long takes and wide framing – could alleviate some of the pressure of that role.
Yeah, a lot of people thought that was a result of me acting in it, so that I didn’t have the precision to direct coverage or it was less to worry about and that could’ve been the case in a subconscious sense, but [the style of shooting] was intentional from the beginning because I feel like there’s a lot in the marketplace about dating that I found to be not very genuine. There’s a darkness to modern dating that I feel just hasn’t been portrayed, so I wanted to be able to go to these extremes, but also to seem real and with those long takes like that, I would be able to present this as not as stylized, but more of a feeling that you’re actually there and seeing people on an actual date.
As with “Caroline and Jackie,” I loved how you brought the city into this. How did you shoot in downtown L.A. and bring that framing device in of running around town?
Los Angeles is not known necessarily for these little arthouse films, so I really would like to feature Los Angeles in that way. I’ve lived in downtown for seven years, and felt like the new downtown hadn’t really been shown in a film, so I wanted to just show my neighborhood and I almost think a lot of those running scenes for me are how [this character] thinks of himself versus the reality of the world he’s actually living in.
There is this nice tension you get out of some anachronistic needle drops. How did you figure out the soundtrack?
I wanted to remind us of an aesthetic that we formerly had or [in terms of] his romanticism, a past time was a way he was acting out with his insecurity or just feeling alone in the world. I wanted to bring that in as a nostalgia for that character. It’s also just really beautiful music, [although] I originally intended to do the opposite of that. I was going to have really hardcore Atlanta trap hip-hop for the same purpose, but then it was just too on-the-nose, so I decided to go the opposite of that and it has the same effect.
How did you decide what women would come in and out of this guy’s life?
A lot of the film, for me, has to do with the relationship with Izzy [played by Jennifer Kim], I think that’s the A story, even though it’s not always onscreen. Then I thought it important for me was showing the sister, and everything else was in support of that or it got cut — the film had a whole other storyline that was cut out, so I guess some things worked and some things didn’t. And I am embarrassed to say it because I am a man and I don’t want to pretend I can tell a story about women and I oftentimes find female stories to be richer and I’m more interested in them, so I really wanted this to be about the women. You’ll notice that even though he’s the central character when we are in these bigger moments, especially when the women are hurt, the camera’s never on him. It’s on the woman. Like when the end scene with Izzy [where] he walks off camera, the camera doesn’t go with him after that violent sexual act. It’s with her and the Izzy character for me is representative of a more realistic portrayal of somebody who’s naturally more inclined to be submissive than perhaps we see in a lot of films. With the other characters, they were just representative of different people I’d seen and I wanted to represent different people, especially different female characters that I felt were complex and subtle, than i normally see in movies.
I can’t help but read into the fact that this didn’t have as wide a festival run as “Caroline and Jackie” and premiered out of the country. Has it been difficult to get out into the world when it’s a portrait of toxic masculinity, coming from a man at this time of reckoning for women?
Yeah, it has been. I was wrong in a lot of ways, to be honest. My feeling was this was representative of toxic masculinity or anyway you want to phrase that, and I thought that was fresh and really innovative for right now [because] it was a truthful representation [when] what I see is these very black-and-white [depictions] like “Oh, he’s a rapist” and everybody agrees that’s bad, but because the world’s become so polarized right now, the subtleties have gone by the wayside. So I wanted to make a movie about something I actually thought was more realistic and more prominent and also make people question things that were going on that weren’t being addressed.
That intention has come across very clearly in Europe, but just based on some follow-up conversations with festival programmers, the subtlety has been lost on some people. Some people have really seen it and have appreciated it and seen that it’s a commentary of [toxis masculinity], but other people have seen it as not a celebration of it perhaps, but just something that they don’t want to be a part of right now. I don’t know if that’s because it’s hitting too close to home or whether it’s just because things are so polarized right now that some subtleties are being lost. I might be the worst person to ask.
Was it therapeutic to make this or exorcise some of these demons perhaps?
It was certainly cathartic. I’m newly married now and I’m in a much happier space now. I don’t know if my reality was ever as dark as Aster’s, but playing that extreme certainly did help me come to terms with things I was dealing with and I’m happy to have done that. I hope it has a similar effect on people, but we’ll see. Ironically [while “Newly Single”] did not get as much of an American festival release, but it got a much larger European festival release than “Caroline and Jackie” and people have responded to it well in Europe. It’s also odd that even though it was not as widely known in America, it got a very mainstream American distributor, so it’s going to be on the shelves of Target, which is very odd for me because “Caroline and Jackie” didn’t have that breadth, so we’ll see how it does. I’m very excited about it and I’m very excited to do another.