“The more complicated we make this, the worse it’s going to go,” John (Michael Nguyen Manceau) says in “The Family Circus,” needing to keep things simple for himself after he’s just been awakened at 3 in the morning by his brother Paul (Blake Dang). Of course, Paul is the one back in bed after tying one on and wrecking a shipping crate containing their new neighbors’ things, leaving John to clean up the mess with their parents Linh (Elyse Dinh) and Bill (Scott Subiono), a circumstance one suspects has happened a time or two before and though the fantastically frenzied bit of business from writer/director Andrew Fitzgerald lasts a mere 17 minutes, it captures the fraught family dynamics that surely have unfolded over a lifetime for the brothers and their weary mom and dad.
Well before a stern officer (the inimitable Michael Ironside) comes knocking at the door, the heat is on the family to come up with a cover story before the sun comes up when Paul is one DUI away from going to jail, hardly the homecoming John imagined for himself when coming in from the city for Christmas and while this suburban incident would hardly seem like the stuff of high drama, it is put in those terms by Fitzgerald, who underlines the early morning scheming with a suspenseful old fashioned orchestral score and a fresh visual energy that bounces about the room as a plan starts to take shape. Even if it doesn’t end up working, the ties that bind appear stronger than ever when protecting one of their own is at stake and Fitzgerald, who has built a career as an editor on some of the most mischievous comedy shows around from “The Rehearsal” to “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” sneaks in both humor and heart into the fiendish plot.
On the eve of the film’s premiere at Sundance where the director is making a triumphant return following his 2017 short “I Know You From Somewhere” with Angela Trimbur and Cleopatra Coleman, Fitzgerald spoke about the real-life inspiration behind the film, how he assembled such a strong cast to give it such a lively energy and bringing a snowy winter to Los Angeles.
How did this come about?
It’s loosely based on a true story that happened to myself and my family and I just remember during the experience with my parents, having that moment where I was like, “This feels like I’m in a noir film right now, just scheming when in the middle of the night,” so those were the elements I wanted in there, like the Bernard Herrmann sounding score and just that tension of scheming and things falling apart on the edge of getting caught, and I took the lighter elements of [the event] and just put it into a story.
It’s impressive in the short amount of time you have to get such clear ideas about all the characters you have and where they’re coming from. Was that tough to crack?
With shorts, and the last one I did too, I aim to try to cram as much as I can into them and layer them with as much as possible. Short films are such a unique form and it’s difficult too for all those reasons to try to build a coherent story that has a payoff in such a short amount of time and putting the family element into that, you want that to feel real and lived in. How do you do that in 17 minutes? That was just trying to pare things down to the bare essentials in the writing stage, but also have everything very meaningful and feel lived in in the way they communicate with one another.
How’d you find your family for this?
This was just done through traditional casting. We had a lot of help from our casting directors, Mike Page and Arley Day, and also Jess Vu, who works for an organization called CAPE that works with a lot of Asian American artists. She was able to connect us with a lot of Vietnamese actors and actresses and there’s that saying that 90% of directing is just casting well, so we really took that process seriously. In the end, we found half-Vietnamese, half-white brothers who look similar, and once everyone came on, we really found that we shared very similar experiences growing up and just our connection to being Vietnamese made things feel like a family from the get-go. The actors were able to pull from their own experiences and really make it what it is and make it feel real.
Talking with each actor [you realized their experiences] were almost like the same experiences I had, from Elise, who plays the mother and would tell me stories about her mother [that] were very closely related to my own mother’s experience, down to Michael Ironside actually growing up with those Christmas tree lights that he responds to in the film. On the first day, once we really got into it and the dialogue was really moving back and forth, it felt really real. The performances are something that I’m incredibly proud of. The cast is just amazing in it.
Michael Ironside seems like a particular casting coup for this. How did he come onboard?
That was through our casting directors. We sent him the script and I was shocked when he got back immediately and really responded to the material. I was feeling like I was going to be intimidated by him once we met, but we got on a Zoom and he’s just one of the sweetest, most generous people that I’ve encountered. We would just talk for hours and he was great.
Did you actually shoot this in the middle of a snowy winter?
No, this was all done in Los Angeles. [laughs] Luckily we were only outside for that one scene and we had to get the snow machines with some visual effects getting cold breath and everything in there. I think we sold it pretty well. The original intention was to shoot it in Pennsylvania where I’m from at my parents’ house. But it just became too much of a logistical nightmare to try to get cast and crew out there, so we shot it [in L.A. where] the house we came across really had that feel that we were looking for and it was very cinematic looking. The layout of it was perfect for how everyone needs to move throughout that house and how we reveal information.
It felt very warm and familiar. Were you bringing in actual tchotchkes from home?
Totally. I had my parents ship out all our family Christmas ornaments and decorations and paintings and photographs of us as kids, and gave all that to the production designer Sage. We basically rented the house, took all that families stuff out and moved my family’s stuff in. It was definitely weird just seeing my home in a new location.
There’s such a visceral energy to it, in part because of the camerawork with all the whip pans, but also due to the editing where you spent a lot of your career. Does that background shape how you shoot this?
Yeah, my editing background has informed every aspect of filmmaking for me. In the writing stage, I’m already thinking about all of that and really designing each shot and how it’s all going to be put together. Knowing how I want the edit to play is very helpful when we get on set and we know exactly where the camera needs to be for how long we want and need it there for that specific moment. It just enables us to move efficiently and there’s not too much trying to figure things out on the day. I leave the room there to explore and allow new ideas to flourish from that and that’s the magic of it all – for these moments to pop up that you didn’t expect or plan for and then that takes you in into a new direction.
Was there anything that you might not have expected that you could get excited about?
They weren’t exciting at the time because it was a 22-page script and we shot it in three days, so we’re moving very fast. At the time there were ideas that we just needed to ditch and things we had to get rid of and combine. In the moment, it feels terrifying that your plan is falling apart. But the adapting to the right now and then discovering that again in the edit is always special, just being like, “Oh, we didn’t get this one thing.” But then you see what you did get and it has a life of its own.
What’s it like getting this to Sundance and South By Southwest?
It’s incredible. This is a self-funded project and a very personal story. You just hope that it turns out okay when you’re in the middle of it. Then to have the response from South by and Sundance, it’s indescribable to be able to share it with not only the world, but my family will see it for the first time at Sundance in a theater, so I’m just really, really excited.
“The Family Circus” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Shorts Program 4 on January 21st at 9 pm at Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, January 23rd at 6 pm at Redstone Cinema in Park City, January 24th at 3:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas 3 in Salt Lake City and January 29th at the Megaplex Theatres at the Gateway in Salt Lake City.