Set over the course of a single day in New York, “Person to Person” lingers from time to time in the small, revealing moments of character that are brought out by the metropolis where in a mass of people one can feel even more lonely. Yet in making the film, shot on a limiting amount of 16mm film stock, Dustin Guy Defa rarely had time to spare, which became a mild frustration when it came to a scene in which he asked one of his actors, Oki Onaodowan, to make an epic three-pointer while shooting some hoops and his shot refused to fall after four takes.
“He had not made any of the shots yet and I told him, ‘This is the last chance you have,’” said Defa, who always had the fallback of cutting to a shot of the basket being made after a separate take of the ball leaving Onadowan’s hands, but he didn’t need it. Instead, he just needed the help of a tree that towered above the rim at the park. “It hit that branch and went in. The lines were already there [in the script], but it just happened to be perfect how it all played out.”
You could say the same about “Person to Person,” which is laced with the same little bits of magic that ultimately guided Onaodowan’s shot to the hoop. Through Defa’s sensitive lens, one is privy to the lives of a collection of largely unrelated New Yorkers — a newspaper reporter (Michael Cera) and his protege (Abbi Jacobson) chasing a murder case, a high schooler (Tavi Gevinson) concerned with not being as impulsive as her friend (Olivia Luccardi), a record collector (Bene Coopersmith) hell-bent on picking up a rare copy of Charlie Parker’s “Bird Blows the Blues” and his roommate (George Sample III), who struggles to do right by his girlfriend after uploading compromising pictures of her online, and a clock shop owner (Phillip Baker Hall) winding down his own time. But they are complementary in the way that disparate people come together to form a community, the wealth of divergent experiences shedding light on one another in a fashion so acutely observed and warmly sketched that you come to feel as if they’re intimate friends by the end of the film.
Which isn’t to infer that this kinship comes easily “Person to Person,” as its characters are often forced to confront the more complicated aspects of who they are in order to forge connections with one another, and Defa’s own road to making the film was paved with challenges. But after creating a note-perfect portrait in the short of the same name that paved the way for the feature, the writer/director has outdone himself working on a bigger canvas with a talented ensemble bursting with the same amount of personality he brings to the script. On the eve of the film’s release in theaters after a premiere earlier this year at Sundance, Defa spoke about how he brought it all together, how knowing what he will do in the editing room informs what he writes into the script and making things work on the fly.
After making the short, was a feature something you had always planned on doing?
I never thought about actually expanding the short — the feature is actually not a true expansion of the short called the same title, [but] they have in common the title and Bene, who’s the main person in the short and one of the main people in the feature, and I wanted to work with Bene again and have a big variety of people in New York City and make a real New York movie. In terms of the writing, I must’ve started with the Bene character, basically saying, this guy has love in his life, knows what he wants and it’s being threatened. Then from there, [I would] develop all the other characters having different levels of connection with other people, like the teenager [played by Tavi Gevinson] having a connection that she’s now lost with her best friend. Or Bene’s roommate [George Sample III] having that connection and lost it, but now trying to get it back. And then the two reporters – Abbi [Jacobson] and Michael [Cera] – they’re two people who want a connection, but don’t know how to get it and definitely aren’t the two people who should be connecting, so that’s how I started populating it. I crafted the characters on their own and then I started writing all their storylines together so it could feel of one world in some way, even though I was using different worlds, knowing that I wanted to get a lot of people in there, thinking of certain people sometimes, and filling it in with people that I knew also.
You’ve said besides Bene, Tavi was in mind from the start. Were you writing with a fair amount of the cast in mind?
No, it only really informed with Bene and Tavi and I didn’t know Tavi [personally] — I had no idea I would get her into the movie. She was just in my mind writing that character. Phillip Baker Hall was actually a little bit on my mind too when I was writing for the clock shop man. and then there was Gary, who has that junk shop – that’s [played by] Steve, who’s Bene’s friend, but really I didn’t know who else was going to be in the movie, even though I ended up knowing a lot of people who are in the movie. I didn’t know Buddy Durress actually, but I knew of him. Benny Safdie’s a friend of mine [and] David Zellner, for instance – there’s a lot of people in there who are friends.
I know you edited this too – does that have an influence on how you write it?
Definitely. It’s often said that you learn how to make the movie through editing and I think that’s actually true. I’ve really learned a lot editing my short films and it also makes me write differently, so I am editing while I’m writing too, so at least my script is extremely tight and when you read it, you can feel how it’s going to be edited, so there’s a rhythm to the writing that I know is going to be in the film. This movie in particular, there were so many locations, so many characters and a short shooting schedule, and it’s not like we have a big budget or anything, so I was thinking about editing while shooting and really getting only pretty much what’s necessary for that.
I [also] wrote it so that I try not to lump so many similar environments in the script, so you can move back – you’re in a park, you’re in a cafe, and have those environments not rub up against each other, so it’s all similar, and you can move from different places to different places.
Was there a particularly tricky day of shooting?
We shot for 20 days and it was the kind of schedule where if something goes wrong and we had a problem, we didn’t have time to waste. There were a couple disasters, but one in particular was that we were shooting one day after the Paris Attacks [happened], so there were helicopters going to the U.N. all day long and we were going to [shoot] around Central Park, and it was just an audio nightmare. [The helicopters] never stopped coming. We ended up getting away with not having to do ADR, which is what I was trying to avoid, but it was hard.
How did you come to collaborate with Ashley Connor, the film’s cinematographer?
I’ve always wanted to work with Ashley, she did Josephine Decker’s movies and I’ve been friends with her for a long time. She worked so hard and did such a great job, and it was her first feature on celluloid, on 16mm, so she was extra pumped and we devised the movie to be pretty clean and simple.
The use of 16mm is intriguing because it gives the film a vintage feel and there aren’t too many markers of time, though you don’t hide that this is in the present with iPhones and the Internet. Was playing with time something of interest?
It’s funny. I know there’s a lot of new and old stuff going on in the movie, and I was conscious of that, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of analog versus modern. Certainly I was thinking of age ranges and then just the fleeting of time — one day passing [for instance]. That’s why there’s a clock shop, and even the contrast between Jimmy the clock shop owner [played by Phillip Baker Hall] and Tavi being the young character, trying to have variety. But I just like 16mm, so I had that in there and I did think a lot about time in general and fleeting moments and strangers and things like that.
This also has a great bluesy soundtrack. Were the song choices in there from the start?
I knew I was going to have some soul music, but I didn’t know I was going to have so much soul music and so many music cues. The only thing I was thinking about was the Charlie Parker, and of course, “Bird Blows the Blues,” [which was] written into the script, but not knowing at all what that meant in terms of getting it. I was very happy it was that [when we did get it] because “Bird Blows the Blues,” just rhythmically, I thought that fits in with Bene and I was listening to a lot of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk when I was writing, but no, I didn’t know any of the music that was going to be in there before we shot.
Bene asks everyone what they think of his shirt – how did you end up choosing it?
There was a shirt that I thought was going to be the one, but that was another day where we had a little disaster and because that disaster happened, we had to have Bene come in suddenly. He hadn’t shot yet, so he ran over and we hadn’t chosen the shirt yet. The shirt I had wanted had a big stain on it, so we suddenly had to pick the shirt – we only had five minutes to choose it, and Bene put it on and we’re like, “That’s not right. Bene would never wear this.” He also felt uncomfortable in it, but we realized that’s great. That’s exactly what the shirt should be. It’s nothing he would normally wear and it did feel a little too fancy for him, but we ended up loving that shirt because it had the same arc as the movie. At first, we were like, “No, this does not work,” but we got very comfortable with that shirt on Bene. He looks great in it. It was perfect.
“Person to Person” opens on July 28th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and in New York at the Metrograph and the Eleanor Bunin Monroe Theater. A full schedule of cities and dates is here. It will also be available on VOD, iTunes and Amazon Video.