Harry Greenberger on Getting at the Soul in the City in “Here After”

“You’re on your own until you’re no longer on your own,” Scarlett (Christina Ricci) informs Michael (Andy Karl) in “Here After,” an extra kick to the crotch for the man who’s just arrived at the pearly gates after a car accident that must’ve been gnarly enough to take his life. He wouldn’t remember, but what he does know is he left the world as a single person, his accident due in part to some distracted driving after his girlfriend decides during a flight delay that their relationship is going nowhere, and after he’s ascended to some grey zone between heaven and earth to be evaluated, he discovers an unusual law in place that no soul shall be allowed to trespass without having a kindred spirit to check in with.

If Michael had feared going through life alone on earth, he is thrust into a real purgatory in Harry Greenberger’s inspired romantic comedy, in which he is sent back to his home of New York, only he can’t interact with the living, but rather the wandering spirits like himself who haven’t yet been able to find their soulmate. Quite literally the places he used to spend his days into old haunts, the film follows Michael as he ventures from being a voyeur, looking in as his family considers what to do after his death, to proactively searching for someone, ultimately finding a drinking buddy — besides an old friend (Michael Rispoli) content to run out the clock — in Honey Bee (Nora Arnezeder), a woman who is still in the world of the living, but close enough to death that he can converse with her and Michael must decide whether to alert her to what’s coming or perhaps pursue a relationship that could be his ticket to the next stage for himself.

In the past, this wouldn’t seem to have been much of a decision for Michael, but the choice takes on monumental importance as its lead has to make peace with himself before finding it with anyone else and the gravity of his predicament is reflected in the ambition that “Here After” takes in all aspects, defying its scrappy indie foundation to fully realize an alternate dimension. Greenberger, who previously made “Staring at the Sun,” a coming-of-age drama set in the Hasidic community in which two girls sought to break free of tradition finds another wrinkle in how old ways of thinking can pose barriers as imposing as any physical obstacles. The film itself has had to endure its own impediments as a planned festival run last spring was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s now making its way into the world beginning with a theatrical run at the Cinema Village in New York and on VOD and the writer/director graciously took the time to talk about how he first envisioned Manhattan as a ghost town, finding his charismatic leading man and the occasionally surprising results of going after what you want no matter how unbelievable it might seem.

How did this come about?

I had a breakup like the character does at the beginning of the movie [but] without really a near-death experience — I [was driving] home from it on the highway and I had a moment where I just thought about oooh, if that was something where I got killed, I would’ve died single and right after a breakup and in a really bad frame of mind. I started extrapolating from there how it’s funny that right after you break up, there’s even more urgency about wanting to find the right person and that’s when your friends and your family start telling you, “That’s when you’ve got to get out there and find somebody,” you’re in no frame of mind to healthily do that. So I just started thinking what would be a good analogy for that and adding into it that it couldn’t just be settling, it couldn’t be unrequited love. You actually had to find that thing that we’re all told you’re supposed to be looking for, which is mutual, genuine, fully formed love. That started me philosophizing on paper a little bit.

I had been working in film for my whole adult life and then I did some work in the music field and had some actors that were interested in working with me from some stuff we did in the music video world, so I wrote this script thinking it might be a manageable first feature, not realizing how it would end up having a lot of effects. Then as the technical ambition behind it grew, it coincided with some scheduling problems with the actors I was originally going to do it with, so I actually made my first feature “Staring at the Sun” while I was waiting for this one to get off the ground, and luckily, that won some awards and it made it so some people were willing to get behind a more ambitious and expensive version of this. We were lucky enough to get a great cast and an amazing [cinematographer] and producer and editor and it just seemed to come together in a very fortuitous way.

This seems tied in to “Staring at the Sun” in terms of being set inside a world governed by rules that the protagonist is coming up against, though that was a film about the Hasidic community. Were there parallels in crafting the story?

It’s funny. I started writing “Staring at the Sun” like 17 years ago and didn’t make it that far — I wrote about half of it and got stuck on how to approach it. Then when “Here After” temporarily ground to a halt, I pulled that one out of the drawer to occupy my time. Maybe there was a subconscious spillover between those two ideas — there’s a line of dialogue or two that accidentally are in both, but in “Here After,” almost any version of the afterlife that you can conceive of is going to bring up some logic questions and fairness questions, so I spent an awful lot of time, probably too much, trying to think through the rules of how this afterlife would work. You start to come up with exceptions to your own rules very quickly – well, what about people who die extremely young? What about people who have many really loves through their whole life or what of somebody who’s really young and falls in love again much later? I originally had a longer scene with the character throwing out all those logic flaws in the afterlife he was forced to deal with and it’s pared down a bit, but that idea was always in there, and it might just be a part of my mentality and upbringing that makes me want to look at a given set of rules and make me want to figure out from a lawyerly perspective what are the flaws and where are the gaps, as the girls [also] do in “Staring at the Sun” when they’re looking at their Hasidic community.

Did New York come to mind immediately as far as how this would lay out geographically?

Harry Greenberger: Very much so. I always knew I wanted it be an almost entirely Manhattan-based afterlife because I thought that had satirical possibilities and certainly visual possibilities. I felt like I’ve lived in New York for 22 years now and it’s a very specific scene. Immediately after breaking up with someone, I realized you go back out, you go to the same places you were going to before and you can feel like a ghost. You can feel invisible when you’re older and you’re single and the people you used to hang out with have moved on in their own lives, so those same rooms fill up with different people. Gradually like evolution or attrition, it inevitably alters and New York goes on. A building gets torn down and New York heals that wound and moves on, no matter how important you think your scene was or yourself. It feels like the city is an organism in that way and it just goes on to the next group of people that come along.

What was it like to find Andy Karl to play Michael?

That’s partly thanks to my great casting director Lois Drabkin, who worked with me on both films and I didn’t know he was a three-time Tony nominee on Broadway, but she very kindly and wisely insisted on taking me to see “Groundhog Day” on Broadway. I was never that much of a Broadway fan, and I thought a Broadway remake of “Groundhog Day” sounded sort of cheesy to me, but I went and saw it and it was really moving and smart and funny. Andy was just blew my mind, and we went and met with him in the dressing room afterwards and thankfully he was already in love with the script. He had really well-thought out ideas about the role and he got what I was going for from the very beginning. He would’ve taken a bullet for the production it seemed and an incredible trouper, so we were lucky to have him.

That epic opening monologue that’s in the film where he’s lying on a gurney seems like a real trial by fire.

It was. And as a theater actor, Andy is used to memorizing massive blocks of dialogue, but our brilliant director of photography Christopher Walters conceived of a way to shoot that so that it would simulate the stretcher/gurney ride he was on while he was telling the story and we built an enormous and very clever rig so that you could tell that he was moving and you could tell the light was changing — all that had to happen while he did it. Originally, we thought we would do it where he would do it in an unbroken take, but we realized that doesn’t become completely necessary when nowadays it’s not that impressive, so I thought let’s make sure we get the feeling of it right and the emotion of it right and just let Andy play with delivering it. He did do it several times all in one unbroken take and every single take that he did, it would’ve been usable and he did it under extreme physical circumstances — on his back in motion —Andy was game for anything, and he did a great job on that monologue.

Was the visual effects aspect of it intimidating?

I directed a music video a bunch of years ago called “Disco Ghetto” [for] Jesse Malin with Mary-Louise Parker and we dealt with a lot of effects on that and I was lucky to have a crew that had worked with them before. The funny thing is in the conception of [“Here After”], my vision would’ve probably included 10 or 20 effects shots when [Michael] arrives in the world and you see the ghosts of living individuals from the perspective of the dead — that was really all I thought we needed, so a couple of quick effects and people disappearing later, which they knew how to do in the 1920s, so I really conceived a much more simple version of it, but I was lucky again to have a [cinematographer] who knew how the effects stuff worked and he had a relationship with an effects house in Romania called Safe Frame, so he basically acted as our initial visual effects supervisor. From the beginning, he pitched the idea that we go bigger with it and each time, he proved to me it could be done.

We didn’t really cut corners, and it’s relatively inexpensive, but originally Scarlett’s office, we would’ve done it as a practical set in a very tall building, but being able to do it with a digital view beyond the windows, it really made it so we had the option of doing things [like having] the figures floating [outside], that winds up being a key visual and that’s something we would never have been able to do that on a practical set. Now there’s a hell of a lot of effects shots in it. My editor and I kept joking by the end of it, “We’re making ‘Star Wars.’ What are we doing?” And my editor even ended up having to do some of her own effects, and another effects house in New Jersey started adding things, so it’s funny how once you start to make things look special in one part of it, it’s hard to not try to hold up a standard in other sections of the film. I’m amazed we got it done.

You’ve got such a great ensemble for this – did they bring anything to the table you weren’t expecting?

We were lucky that all of the actors brought at least a little bit of their own ideas and charm into it and once you have Andy Karl, I think the part takes on a certain flavor because of this playfulness he exudes, so the character took on some aspects it didn’t originally have just because of him but there’s lots of little moments in rehearsal that just come out and if you have your ears open for them. There were things that came from Nora [Arnezeder] that were like that — sometimes dialogue, sometimes just little moments of behavior and the same with Christina [Ricci] and Michael Rispoli. We were lucky enough to work with Jeannie Berlin, a brilliant actress, and when we knew we had her, it’s an opportunity to make as much of that scene as we possibly can. She had some ideas about the physical objects she would be dealing with in the scene, like finding Michael’s wristwatch, and we crafted a little beautiful moment that wouldn’t have existed without her presenting that as an idea, so I feel so many things come from the magic of just talented artistic human beings speaking up.

You mentioned working with Jesse Malin earlier, who has some songs in the film, and it’s impressive when you have Angelo Badalamenti working on the score. Is music something you’re thinking about at an early stage?

I wind up always writing to a playlist I put together while I’m writing and certain songs become inextricably tied to the film in my head that I foolishly try to see if I can get the rights to [later]. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t — like the Dawes song that plays at the end of the film, that was always the very first song I played every time I sat down to write, so that was a big deal to me. I’m a fan of those guys and the same with the Jesse Malin song. We have a lot of Aaron Lee Tasjan songs and I’ve probably known him for 20 years, just like Jessie Malin, and he plays in every possible style, but he wrote some songs that have that perfect ache and romantic sweep — his song “Holidays” appears a couple times in the film and it’s another one that I had playing on my playlist while I was writing it because I always knew I wanted my film to be grounded in a very tangible feeling of romance and Jessie’s stuff feels like there’s a great power and rebellion and an intelligence in that. I’m always thinking while I’m writing what kind of music I would want, even though you don’t know how the movie feels until you see it in the edit, and from the very beginning, I was [thinking for the score] something with a mix of a little bit of humor and a little bit of quirk and sweeping romantic power when we need it and I kept always saying to people, “Something like Angelo Badalamenti.”

A lot of the music just comes from knowing the kind of thing I wanted and taking a swing at the exact thing I wanted. I’ve had surprising luck sometimes reaching out to the person, so I reached out to [Angelo’s] manager who was kind enough to put me in touch with him and I showed the film to him and his wife and he watched it a couple times with me and he loved it. The score is actually by a collaborator of his Joe LoDuca, but Angelo wrote a main theme — he had an idea that he wanted to write a main song for the movie, so he asked me for lyrics and Joseph LoDuca took that theme that then becomes the song and he wove that into the soundtrack, so it comes up as a theme several times in the movie and by the end, the idea is that it comes together the audience should have that melody in their head when the song plays. We both agreed that it should be a woman’s voice singing it, and in the end, it was kismet that I happened to work on some musical projects that Debbie Harry was involved in over the years, and I have some mutual friends with her, so I asked our mutual friend Adam Yellen, “Do you think she’d be interested?” He said, “I’ll just ask her” and she said yes, so we were lucky enough to get that too.

What’s it like getting this out into the world?

We finished principal photography in late 2017 and then we did pickup shoots that were always intended [because there] were always certain elements we knew we couldn’t get all together effects-wise, so we did long-planned pick-up shoots in early 2019 and then the editing, because of the effects, took forever and and then we were ready to premiere March 20 at Cinequest in San Jose, that’s when the pandemic started in the U.S. basically, and we had a beautiful theater and sold a lot of tickets and an awful lot of people couldn’t make it for obvious reasons. So it does feel like it’s been a long time coming to get here and it’s a crazy surreal feeling that it’s finally going to be seen by people. It’s weird that we’re still in the midst or the end of the pandemic, depending on where you are, and how everything will have been affected by it and it’s a movie that has themes about feeling isolated and not being able to touch other people. Through no cleverness whatsoever of mine, that’s just going to play differently, but I’m just thankful if anybody enjoys it. It’s a chaotic crazy thing to set out to make a film and it always seems like a miracle when you actually get one done.

“Here After” opens on July 23rd in New York at Cinema Village and available on VOD.