Something was always going to feel slightly uncomfortable for Josh Crockett and Kristin Slaysman as they made arrangements for a fake funeral to shoot towards the end of making their first feature “Dr. Brinks & Dr. Brinks,” but little did they think it would be because they might soon be submitting to a very real one for themselves.
“It was about 115 degrees in Highland Park with no air conditioning in this big room that we filled with people and lights and camera,” says Crockett, shooting in a VFW Hall at the peak of summer. “There’s people – 30 background extras and it’s a funeral and in suits and ties — it was stressful because it was an endurance test, getting through two days of that, shooting 10 pages a day.”
The couple in life and film were able to keep their cool, having already been through quite a bit already just getting the film up on its feet, pulling in every favor they could think of from family and friends to make a feature the same free-spirited way that they made their fun, energetic shorts, often using their own home. And any discomfort posed by the heat only added to the wonderfully awkward comic thrust of “Dr. Brinks & Dr. Brinks,” in which Slaysman stars alongside Scott Rodgers as Michelle and Marcus Brinks, a pair of siblings mourning the loss of their parents, although it seems not quite as much as everybody else.
The two are prone to rolling their eyes at the funeral for their mother and father, who jointly died doing humanitarian work, and while countless others recall them as saints, neither one of them wants to get up to speak, thinking about the ways in which they put priority on helping children in other countries while leaving them to their own devices. The arrival of 24 shipping crates a few days later, including a precocious pup, only confuses matters further for Michelle and Marcus, who are confronted with divvying up the belongings and discovering who their parents really were in the process. An anxiety-riddled time is only heightened when Michelle starts to overstay her welcome at Marcus’ home, at least in the eyes of his wife Alexandra (Ashley Spillers), and begins to take an interest in Alexandra’s father Bill (Robert Longstreet).
As messy as things get amongst the still-living Brinkses, there is nothing but precision in the directorial debut of Crockett, an editor on such films as “Tag” and “The Master Cleanse,” sharp-edged in both its humor and its presentation, filled with strong compositions and decisive cuts that brings out the irony in siblings who can’t see clearly for themselves or easily sever ties with the past. Naturally, the film also is an impressive showcase for Slaysman, adept at demonstrating how both the quick wit and resentful nature of Michelle are tied to the same impulse after being a scene-stealer in Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” and Josephine Decker’s “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.” After a celebrated festival run that began at the Maryland Film Festival, “Dr. Brinks & Dr. Brinks” is arriving this week on VOD and Crockett and Slaysman spoke about turning their house into a set, the freedom of being able to make all their own filmmaking choices, and creating their own community to make their first feature.
Kristin Slaysman: [We were] inspired by meeting a lot of filmmakers doing it for themselves on the film festival circuit, things like the Maryland Film Festival’s Filmmakers Conference where people really lay it out on the line how to financially work out making an independent movie. We always had the idea that instead of getting married, we would make a movie and use our friends and families’ good will and put it towards our creative lives. We already had a Vitamix, so we decided we would do a Kickstarter to make a feature.
Josh Crockett: Yeah, we’ve been together for about 12 years now and I had gone to film school and Kristin is an actress, so we had this energy that we wanted to put into these projects and [we] started making shorts way back when — micro shorts, as we called them, some of them were 45 seconds long, some of them were two minutes. The early ones were just her and I and a camera, just making something on a weekend and putting it together, just a little goofy.
Kristin Slaysman: Sometimes if there were two characters, I would play both characters. [laughs]
Josh Crockett: Yeah, because there was no one else there early on. [laughs] But that grew and grew and they got bigger. We made a ton of them and it was like a second film school for me.
Kristin Slaysman: Because film can be such a time-consuming medium — and I was used to coming from theater, which is very immediate — working on making shorts [allowed me] see my performance the next day and really get better as an actor, especially because Josh is an editor, so that was part of acting school for me in film.
Josh Crockett: Some of the shorts were actual productions, playing festivals and we really liked it and got a lot of positive response, so they just started expanding. The next natural progression was a feature, so we developed “Dr. Brinks.”
Once you set your mind to a feature, how do these siblings come to mind?
Josh Crockett: I actually had a friend of mine that I worked with who had lost both of his parents at the same time in a car accident and it obviously stuck with me. Losing anyone is so hard, but [when] you think about losing somebody, you don’t think about losing two at the same time – just how final and total that is and both [Kristin and I] have grief and really wanted to dive into a variety of emotions with this film. This didn’t happen to either one of us, and I wasn’t ready with my first film to make it so blatantly autobiographical either for Kristin or for myself, but through fleshing out the characters and the story, we really were able to put a lot of our own feelings and experiences into this fictional landscape, while at the same time keeping it light. We didn’t want it to get too heavy, so we added some absurdism to balance it out.
Kristin Slaysman: And Josh and John [Pappas] wrote it for our filmmaking family – Darryl Pittman, [our cinematographer] I had just worked with on “Little Sister,” and a lot of the cast and crew we had worked with before, so it was really a homegrown movie meant to be shot in our house for a low budget.
It really is impressive how you use the house for a majority of the locations because it’s shot so dynamically, it never feels that way. Did knowing it so intimately help?
Josh Crockett: Yeah, the fact that it was my house helped a lot. I think 60 percent of the film takes place in a single location and that can be really tricky, but I was there [in my house] when I was writing it and we rehearsed it in the space and through the whole process, it gave me extra time. It turned out to be wonderful because we didn’t have a lot of shoot days. We shot 112 pages in 18 days, and it can be really rushed on our kind of budget, so because I’d spent a year-plus thinking about this movie in the space where we shot most of it, it was really fun working there and I had all that prep time to just visualize all these shots. I knew where I wanted to put things. I knew where I wanted to mix it up to keep it from getting stale, to keep it from getting claustrophobic. And so it ended up working out great.
Kristin Slaysman: Yeah, and that [location] helped solidify the family feel of the movie because my great friend and filmmaker and caterer Lydia Hyslop lived with us for the shoot. She was eight months pregnant and she cooked every meal for the whole crew and we ate it in our backyard. Hair and makeup was in our bedroom and Carol [Mazzoni], who was the first AD, slept upstairs in the attic. It really felt like a family when we were making it, especially in those first few days in the house.
Something else I loved was how there were all these suggestions to much bigger lives and a much bigger world, not only in regards to the parents, but Michele’s soldering video on YouTube – what was it like building that backstory?
Josh Crockett: There was a lot of backstory. Some of it was just for us that was never meant for the movie, just to help shape these characters. Some of it was actually shot and cut for time or was in the script, but even stuff like that – there was a little bit more about Michele and making her jewelry – [where it] didn’t make it in the movie for whatever reason, them having existed [at some point during the process] helped flesh out the world because it did feel like things happened outside of the screen. There’s a before and after to these characters.
Kristin, was it interesting for you to be as part of the process that intimately from the ground level?
Kristin Slaysman: It was such a dream. I read every draft of the script and weigh in at every stage and acting is such a solipsistic profession. You spend a lot of time staring at your own face and saying, “Pick me, pick me,” so then to be the person casting the film, to be the person developing the script, and trying to make the shoot go smoothly, that was all just a real joy to be on the other side of it as well. Then by the time we got to shooting, I felt so comfortable and so free, not just with the character, but also [because] Josh and I have worked together so often, I have a real feeling of safety as an actor. I love to give my opinion and I love that Josh is also really opinionated and he tells me “no” just as many times as he tells me yes, so I really felt like I could experiment as an actor and Josh would lead me back to where he wanted the performance, but I could also surprise him and take [the character] in different directions. I think he gets a kick out of watching what happens on set and responding to it in the moment, and he knows when he has enough to be happy and then always let us, the actors, have an extra take to experiment, to push it a little further, maybe do something embarrassing — maybe fail, or maybe let some new inspiration come in and change the direction of the scene.
Josh Crockett: Yeah, lots of stuff from those final takes made it into the movie. All kinds of great stuff.
Kristin Slaysman: Yeah, Scott [Rodgers, who plays my brother] is also a really alive and sensitive performer, so he took advantage of those takes as well to experiment and push the limits of his character.
I’ve never seen a dog like the one you have in the film – where did you find him or her?
Josh Crockett: Her – that’s Lula, that’s our dog. We don’t know exactly what she is – she like a giant raccoon/bear cub, so she’s pretty wild looking, and we rescued her when we moved into that house right when I started the script, so writing the movie, there was not a dog initially, but I was walking the dog and writing a script every day and she just ended up working her way into the movie.
Kristin Slaysman: She’s also the star of [our] Kickstarter video, so she was very integral in the financing of this film.
It really is a family project.
Kristin Slaysman: Hey, you gotta take the production value where you can get it.
Josh Crockett: We used everything we had.
The film also had a wonderful score. How’d you work with Donald Ian Black on it?
Josh Crockett: We’ve known him for a long time. He’s a musician and puts out albums under the name Giant and when I started making shorts, because we were friends and they were little shorts, he’d let me start using Giant songs, so we worked together in that way and he directed some shorts that I edited, so we’ve been collaborators for a long time. I knew really early on in the process of making the feature that I’d use Don for making the score and the original songs, so I started talking to him about it even in the script stage and he was there for the [first] table read. He’s got a small part in the movie and then as soon as we were in post, I started sending him scenes and he would score them or write lyrics for songs.
Kristin Slaysman: And you guys stayed up until four in the morning some nights with him just sending you pieces of score and you moving it around back and forth. [laughs] It was a very intense and quick process, right?
Josh Crockett: Yeah, he had about a week [to do the score]. He was between jobs and [he’d been working on] the lyrics to songs over the summer, but when we actually scored the piece, he was at home in his recording studio and I was in my house in the edit bay and we would just go and go and go for about five days until the sun went up. He was just sending me new pieces. I would drop them in, give him notes and wait for something else and he would send it back with notes 45 minutes later. It was wild, but it was a lot of fun.
What’s it been like putting it out into the world?
Kristin Slaysman: We were thrilled to premiere at Maryland, a festival we just adore. [Programmers] Eric Hatch and Scott Braid have been supportive of our work for a long time and it’s Josh is from Baltimore, so it had a really great feel and we’re excited to have it be out in the world and move onto the next project. It just feels like a real feat to make a feature outside of the system on our own in the family way that we did it.
Josh Crockett: It’s Phil Roberts. Right now, he’s a surfer dude in Venice, but he’s one of the original guys who used to make these movie posters back in the ‘80s. He did “Back to School” and “Hot Dog the Movie,” just one of those old school guys. He’s semi-retired making surf art, but we found him and he was way into it. It was really fun working with him because I had some suggestions for what I wanted but he just watched the movie and starts sending sketches and he had added all these little details from the movie, even props and the dog, and all of it came from him watching through [the movie and pitching out ideas.
Kristin Slaysman: Yeah, he really got the style. And that’s been fun. We’ve been able to make all these decisions ourselves – things like finding Phil Roberts to do the poster. The amazing thing now [is how] I’m just so proud of everyone else’s work on the movie. Josh and I have been living with it for so long and you start with an idea and the team gets really big when you make it and then it just gets smaller and smaller until the premiere. But the original music by Donald Ian Black, which is incredible and really makes the film unique, the performances of Scott and Robert [Longstreet] and Ashley Spillers] and the rest of the cast — that’s the fun new part for us because we have worked together so closely together for so long and it’s been so fun to support everyone else’s work.
“Dr. Brinks & Dr. Brinks” is now available on VOD.