Shiloh Fernandez in "Long Nights Short Mornings"

SXSW ’16 Interview: Chadd Harbold on “Long Nights Short Mornings”

Towards the end of “Long Nights Short Mornings,” James (Shiloh Fernandez) takes a look at his cell phone, a battered and bruised device that much looks very much out of place in the smartphone era and like its owner stubbornly refuses to enter a new one. Yet writer/director Chadd Harbold had more practical concerns on his mind when creating the image.

“I just haven’t ever liked looking at an iPhone screen yet,” says Harbold, whose third feature premiered this week at SXSW. “But I liked keeping him very mysterious. There’s these little clues about his background or life outside of what we see but nothing is ever explicit. We don’t really know where he lives. We get a hint at his source of income to some degree and there’s something about that phone that can only be used for text messages basically that was appealing to me. It also was just kind of funny.”

Harbold knows funny, after previously directing the unapologetically silly ensemble comedy “Revenge for Jolly” and the raucous “How to Be a Man,” but fans of the filmmaker, which should be a growing cult, will have noticed a changing equation in his work, with a bluntness that has been used to yield big laughs increasingly repurposed to get at deeper and deeper emotions. His latest film, “Long Nights Short Mornings” is refreshing in no small part because of its frankness, following a playboy (Shiloh Fernandez) who has no trouble getting into women’s pants, but has plenty to get into their minds.

This might sound insufferable in the wrong hands, but Harbold has taken a novel approach, visiting James in a series of vignettes that are as much about the women with whom he has casual flings as much as it is about him, a point made immediately when the film opens with an unflinching five-minute close-up of a young woman (Ella Rae Peck) who isn’t having any of his “it’s not you, it’s me” routine, setting the tone for a film where the more you see of the lothario, the less he appears to have a sense of who he is, though a sense of who he should be grows.

Still, “Long Nights Short Mornings” is as sly and seductive as its lead is before his crisis of conscience begins to set in, featuring a compelling performance by Fernandez and introducing a series of women who provoke, infatuate and challenge James at every turn and by extension the audience. Shortly after the film’s premiere in Austin, Harbold spoke about how he developed such an arresting film out of a series of provocative encounters, capturing the addictive lure of the New York nightlife with the film’s sonic and visual elements, and writing scenes that hit the bullseye about relationships while dancing around the topic at hand.

How did this one get inspired or come about?

I’ve been trying to make this for a long time, even back in the “How to Be a Man” days. I wanted to tell a story that felt real, raw and unsentimental while at the same time being emotional and vulnerable. The structure of the movie allows that because within each segment, it lets us be as dramatic or emotional as we want but it doesn’t devolve into some coy, sentimental thing because it actually is a cynical framework where we then just leave that person forever and never talk about them again, but the experience of that person stays with him and affects him as the film goes on, even if we don’t reference them.

We’re these encounters with women created independent of each other or did you want each to reflect something different?

It wasn’t representational or anything like that, and it came out of starting this almost like short story writing. I did not write them in order. I think I wrote the first couple of them and then saw how they might fit together as a feature film. As the writing went on, some things felt like this needs to happen to him here to get to the emotional parts with the other segments.

From a production standpoint, did that actually make things easier or harder once you had to film this? It seemed like it might have been constructed like a bunch of different short film shoots.

Initially, I thought of doing it that way, but we didn’t at all. We were shooting scenes from different segments the same day. That was the hardest on Shiloh, who has to jump from mode to mode. He’s a pro and most movies shoot out of order, but there were a couple rough days, especially with the darker stuff in the film. I know he had friends that would joke with him, “Well, this is going to be fun. You get to hang out with a different beautiful woman every day.” And during the shoot, he was like, “No. People didn’t realize emotionally devastated I am throughout this process. This is a nightmare.” He’s getting emotionally pummeled for a good second half of the movie.

How did Shiloh become the glutton for punishment in this?

Casting the lead was one of the hardest parts of the process because I wanted someone that had this star quality and it would be believable that women would be attracted to him and that he had a way with them, but I also didn’t want him to be a square-jawed captain of the football team-type. I wanted him to be really vulnerable, so that he doesn’t come off as a callous douchebag. Some people might think he is and that’s okay too. But I think he’s a very flawed character and I wanted an actor that could engage with these women – the way we played it is that he’s in love with each one.

The visual approach is so distinct and affecting. Did you have ideas from the start about how this should look?

The visuals are obviously very important to me. There were some bolder things we did, like open on a five-minute close up, which was always the idea from the beginning. It was just a further evolution of the kind of style that I’m trying to perfect, which I describe as a sort of ’70s Altman/’80s Woody Allen approach of trying to strip things down, figure out how to shoot them at their essence and let the camera be a character and say things but without making that too obvious. My discussion with the [cinematographer] about it was, if we can shoot this in one shot, we should. I’m trying to bring back the slow zoom into 2010 filmmaking. There’s a lot of really nice ones of those that I am proud of.

After the premiere, you said it was all natural lighting for the exteriors, too.

Yeah, that was actually a bit of a production necessity, but it also made me happy because we could shoot more. That’s something I brought from the other two films – just fighting for more time to be able to more takes and really be shooting as much as we could. New York City’s pretty bright at night, so we got away with it for the most part.

The intensity of these scenes suggested to me that you allowed them to build in real time as much as you could. Did you actually just let scenes play out as much as you could?

We generally would run the whole thing and then go in for coverage. For example, the scene where [Shiloh’s character James] and [Christine Evangelista’s character] Natalie smoke weed on her bed, that’s just one shot where we just watched them talk. We shot that as the master and those two are just so good and have such great chemistry that we just thought we didn’t need to cut in with them. We just liked watching them together, so we would just run that. That’s a testament to them too, because that means they can’t mess up a line.

It’s actually alluded to by many of the characters that the conversations often dance about the topic without addressing it directly. Is that kind of dialogue difficult to write?

Right. You almost write the scene twice, where you write it where they’re saying everything that they mean so you know what they mean. Then you take all of that out. Especially in romantic situations, it’s hard to be direct and I think people enjoy the game of talking around something instead of about it.

One of the things that I loved so much about this is there’s always the moment after the encounter where you can see on their face the things they’re realizing something they should’ve said or how they might worry that something’s been misinterpreted…

Yeah, or what they didn’t say. I’m a big fan of those moments and you try to create an environment where they can happen. It’s a testament to the actors and to Bryan Gaynor, the editor, that we found those. Some were obviously mapped out like the moment where Lily [played by Stella Maeve] is lying in bed with her mother, which is one of the last things I added to the script because it felt there was something just so intimate and powerful about that after that really dark scene, having just a moment with her to reflect on things and with her mother.

There’s other ones that just happened by accident like the tear that falls from [Helen Rogers’ character] Lorraine’s eye in the last section of her segment. We got really lucky. The [cinematographer David Feeney-Mosier] didn’t cut when I said “cut.” You can see the camera move in the slightest way [at the end of that scene], which is when I called “cut” and then her tear falls a second later. Moments like that are just magic from the actors that you just have to find and keep in there.

This has a fantastic score and since some of the women also are musicians, whether it’s the violinist or the singer, was music an integral part in creating this?

Music is a big part of the film. Our composer Redding Hunter is a genius and this is his first score. He’s a folk rock musician and he was a part of a band called Peter and the Wolf, that was based in Austin. He’s a friend of mine and I wanted him to do the score because the tone of his music and the topics of it – they’re all about longing and missed connections and travelling and wandering – are very relevant to the film.

What we did was we temped the movie with all of [Hunter’s] existing music and then showed that to him so he could know what we were looking for. Then, he either wrote a completely original new song for it or re-recorded an old one that fit the tone or was of better quality. Some of his best songs have only been recorded on iPhones. For example, the last song in the movie, “Silent Movies,” is an older song of his, but it was just pretty perfect for the ending. The score is one of the things I’m most proud of in the movie. He did a really fabulous job.

If you’ve carried this with you for a little while, what was the premiere like for you?

It was very emotional. I’ve been trying to make this for several years. It’s gone through different iterations and has come together and fallen apart. This film is more what I always thought I would be making and was wanting to make. If you go back to some of my short films, they’re much more in this vein – romantic drama but with some humor in there as well – and I think I took a little detour before I came back to this, which I’m glad I did. I think those two other films have informed this one in unexpected ways, but to finally be able to premiere this and almost get it off my chest was thrilling and relieving as well. Being there with my parents, my girlfriend, all the actors and especially my partners in my production company Dan Berk, Bobby Olsen and Bryan Gaynor, who I couldn’t have made the movie without, it was a really cathartic and amazing thing.

“Long Nights Short Mornings” is now available on iTunes.