Interview: Benjamin Kasulke on Creating Something of Enduring Appeal with “Banana Split”

In retrospect, there was no better way for Benjamin Kasulke and Hannah Marks to meet each other than on a movie they would never make together. They had no such aspirations, generously lending their services to the Sundance Labs where Marielle Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl” was being workshopped in its earliest days, but the cinematographer and actress, respectively, who would both look to branch out in the years that followed, became fast friends. and soon enough, when Marks and her co-writer Joey Power had penned a script about the end of one relationship serving as the start of an even stronger connection elsewhere, she thought it might be a great opportunity for Kasulke to try his hand at directing.

There’s a lot of love in “Banana Split,” no doubt as a result of Kasulke and Marks’ brilliant, complementary creative instincts, but it’s found in unexpected places when the romantic comedy is born out of a breakup involving April (Marks) and her boyfriend Nick (Dylan Sprouse), who was never entirely comfortable with moving their relationship out of the friend zone. With the two soon to set off for college in different parts of the country, the separation is both painful and inevitable, but both take comfort in the arms of Clara (Liana Liberato), a recent transplant to Los Angeles from Fresno who April befriends after some light internet stalking reveals she’s Nick’s new girlfriend. While this would appear to be a covert way to keep tabs on Nick, April discovers she has more in common with Clara than she did with her former beau and the film gleefully subverts the romcom formula by shifting the focus from whether the central couple will realize they’re madly in love with each other to if the BFFs that have each other’s best interests at heart will come around to discovering it’s their bond that must be protected at all costs.

As one of the truly gifted directors of photography of his generation, Kasulke has long known where it’s at, moving effortlessly from finding the emotion in any given scene in his longtime collaboration with Lynn Shelton on such films as “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” to creating the space for the dreams of Guy Maddin to enrapture you in “Brand Upon the Brain!” and “The Forbidden Room.” Although there’s an Instagram sheen to “Banana Split” to reflect the moment in takes place in, the filmmaker ensures there’s plenty going on underneath, able to tickle the funny bone as ably as he and cinematographer Darin Moran dazzle the eye with Marks and Power’s sharp repartee accompanied by imagery that explodes with wit and the warmth April and Clara feel towards one another. It’s an undeniably enjoyable diversion and with the film’s recent arrival on streaming services, Kasulke was kind enough to talk about making the move to the director’s chair with “Banana Split,” why they were actually freezing on the set of the SoCal-set film, and how they crafted such a visually dynamic film on a relatively tight schedule.

Did you have the directing bug for a while?

Yeah, I’d done a bunch of music videos and short films and I’d worked with tons of different directors of all different kinds of abilities, so there’s sometimes the occasional gig where you’d take over a little bit more of planning coverage or things that sometimes fall more into more a director’s wheelhouse, so I knew I had some of the skill set, which made it a little easier to think about directing and not totally screwing it up. I still want to shoot and I always want to keep shooting films because I love it, but for the last few years I also wanted to add directing to that, so I think in the last four or five years, I’ve tried to put that out into the universe with friends and collaborators that I was looking for the right project.

What made “Banana Split” the right project?

I’ve known Hannah for a really long time and I always love watching what she’s working on. She’s a consumer and a processor of stories and she’s really dialed in as far as her film knowledge and book knowledge, so I’m always really excited to see what she’s working on, and with this, she said, “Hey, would you take a look at this?” And I thought she just wanted notes on the screenplay — I thought she was going to make it. But I took it home and was howling laughing [at it]. The jokes were really good and more important, it had this coming-of-age story, which I think any film about people this age is impossible not to have it be about growing up, but behind that and all the really solid humor, there was a bit of a political agenda about women prioritizing friendships [with other women] and not treating them like dirt that really got to me.

I’ve shot all sorts of comedies to varying degrees of success and I know it’s hard, so that would be a lot of heavy lifting and a good challenge, but if I was going to direct it, I wasn’t going to have to rely on a film that was just going to be a mixtape of jokes because that wasn’t enough for me. That can be really fun, but to spend years and years of your life making a mixtape of jokes is for somebody else, so I was excited that at the end of this, if we did our best work, at the end of the whole process if we had something funny and sweet also underneath that, it also has something to say about gender ideas and friendships and maybe prioritizing difficult friendships over the guy.

If I recall Hannah and Liana had been friends for a while before making this and between that and Hannah co-writing the script, does that all create a real comfort level on set with trying things out on the day?

Yeah, oh my God, it was the greatest resource. Hannah and Liana met when they were both child actresses when they were eight and nine years old, so they’ve had years and years of history and they were always tight as friends, but like most people, they had their kiss-and-make-up stories, they had their “that time we got in a fight and didn’t talk for a few weeks” stories, and they had this whole backlog to draw from when we were trying to find our way dramatically or comedically into a scene because it was like, “Oh, that thing that happened…you remember when we were 14 and we were messing this guy and it backfired, it’s like that…” So for a director, it’s almost like you had two actresses that had gone off and rehearsed to do this movie for 15 years before they even showed up on set, which was great.

Then as far as Hannah being the main actress in the film, the co-writer, and the co-exec producer, I think it’s a rare performer that can commit to giving their best as an actress while also being able to see where they’re at structurally within a film the way that a writer can, and Hannah can do both of those things really, really well. While the camera’s rolling, she’s fully in the scene and fully able to take directions and collaborate on where the drama and the comedy of a scene might need to be at the time. She was open to ideas from me as a director and from her fellow cast members and then as soon as the cameras weren’t rolling, she and I could go in the corner and Hannah, on the fly, could be like, “You know what? We need to add these lines. Let’s just shoot this” and she could rewrite while performing in a way that I’ve never seen in an actor, especially someone of her age. It’s really, really rare. She’s got this ability to perform and structure and write all at the same time and in the background of all of that, she’s got a really wonderful producer’s brain where she knows casting and very much understands as a fellow filmmaker how to structure a day on an independent budget and how to pick the right battles. Anybody would be overjoyed to work with her.

As far as scheduling, this is incredibly ambitious as far as the number of locations and camera set-ups you must’ve had – the montages give the film a real energy – did coming from cinematography come in handy to be able to even attempt that rhythm?

In a lot of ways, it was Darin Moran, our great DP who lives up in Portland, and he and I have a lot of similar ideas about functional cinematography [where] the images always have to serve the story. You can have to have beautiful shots, but if they’re standalone images that aren’t serving the greater good of the film, you’re not really doing your job as a cinematographer. You’re just showing off, so he and I have a real similar mindset when it comes to serving the needs of a story photographically and we both wanted the film to feel timeless, even though it’s about millennials. It needed to feel like a movie that could’ve taken place at any point during the last 30-40 years as far as the look and the texture and the quality of the light and the colors, so once we understood what the feeling of it was supposed to be, which is a coming-of-age story for anybody, not just someone that’s 21 years old right now, then it just became the process of figuring out where to put the camera and how many times we need to move it.

For that, there was a lot of planning involved. The way Hannah Marks and Joey Power co-wrote this, there’s a lot of very short scenes that involve two to three camera set-ups and take up an eighth of a page, which is nothing in screen time, so there’s a lot of cameras being placed on the ground to get this movie made, and I would draw out what I thought the shots should be and then Darin and I, as much as we could during our prep, would work with interns and block the scene out and take still photos of every set up we thought we might want for the montage scenes and for even just scenes where people are sitting and talking to one another. What’s nice is not only does that process help you figure out what the important angles are, but once you’ve got the story told in camera angles, you can go one step further and find the spots with the camera that are beautiful, but also serves the needs of the story, so as a cinematographer, Darin could stretch his wings a little bit with the images and come up with those cool shots that don’t call attention to themselves and maybe help us find a deeper subtext for how we’re telling the story.

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting this?

The one that comes to mind is a scene where April brings Clara home to meet her mother and her sister and there’s a lot of family kind of weirdness that bubbles over really quick. It’s a scene with four people sitting around a table, so it’s not a big bombastic story, but there’s so much going on in it that I believe that scene took us 17 camera set-ups to get. It goes really, really fast, so when someone’s like, “Is that a hard day?” It wasn’t a hard day, but it was running through that scene at least 30 or 40 times and not because anybody was doing anything wrong. That’s just how long it took to make it happen. Our assistant director team scheduled the day really well. All of the actors knew their lines and brought a lot of really wonderful ideas to the table. The editor was more than prepared for it, but it’s the kind of thing where you’re like at the beginning of the day, I remember talking to the whole crew and being like, “We’re going to be doing this all day and I’m sorry if it’s going to be repetitive, but that’s just the nature of the scene.”

The real craziness of the movie overall comes from the fact that this movie takes place in the summer in Los Angeles and we shot for about six weeks and five of those weeks were in the winter time in Syracuse, New York. So when you’re watching the film anything that’s indoors is in Syracuse and if you looked outside the window, it would be snowing and dark outside, freezing cold, and then anything outdoors was shot in Los Angeles in about six days, and those six days in L.A. were logistically much much more difficult. Los Angeles is a really big city and it’s really hard to say, well, we’ll shoot in this part of town and then we’ll move everybody and shoot in this part of town and then we’ll move everybody again and shoot in this part of town all in one day. It’s a big Jenga game to schedule out, and it becomes a 60-mile commute for trucks and camera cars and actors and makeup people. It’s a big undertaking making a movie and it’s especially large in a place like Los Angeles, which is a big crowded megapolis.

It’s even more impressive than I thought it was before. What’s it like having your first feature as a director under your belt?

Oh my God, I love it. All I wanted to do was not screw it up and not mansplain my way through this movie, so I really hope that I didn’t do that. I know that every step of the way when I needed to ask for help from friends for perspective that I had a lot of really wonderful, supportive friends that were there for me, so I hope their advice shows and I’m hoping it makes some people laugh and it makes them think and I really hope to make another film and if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to do it with all of these people again soon.

“Banana Split” will be available for streaming on March 27th on iTunes.

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