There’s an inherent irony in Joshua Sanchez’s “Four,” a film adaptation of Christopher Shinn’s play of the same name about an evening of dramatic change for two couples with short histories that’s drenched in the night of the sparsely lit suburbs and yet is firmly set on exposing the raw emotions of its characters. Ricocheting between the sexual exploits of Joe (Wendell Pierce), a college professor who arranges a date with a young man named June (Emory Cohen) who could be one of his students over the Internet, and his teen daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), who is left at home to tend to her ailing mother and flirts with the advances of a townie (E.J. Bonilla) figuring out a life after basketball.
Vividly set on the 4th of July, the fireworks aren’t limited to the skies and Sanchez’s frank depiction of characters he refuses to judge combined with the intricate relationship building that’s been a trademark of Shinn’s work as a playwright makes “Four” seem like a powder keg just moments away from igniting. Naturally, the filmmakers hope this explosion will take place on the festival circuit, where the film launched this week as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, en route to San Francisco’s Frameline Festival on June 21st and New York’s NewFest in late July at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, and to help finance the costs associated with their travel, Sanchez and crew have turned to Kickstarter. Before the film’s second screening at L.A. Film Fest this evening, Sanchez spoke of the origins of the film, its personal nature and allowing “The Wire”’s Wendell Pierce, who gives a riveting turn, to be seen in a different light.
How did this film come about?
I went to see another play that [Christopher Shinn] wrote called “Where Do We Live,” around 2004 and it just seemed very fresh and new to me. His writing style and his voice just seemed really exciting, so I kind of sought him out because I was just finishing film school at the time and I was writing for a sort of art web magazine here in New York that no longer exists. They asked me to interview somebody for that, so I thought it would be great to interview Chris and when I met him, we just hit it off. We’re around the same age and have a similar background. Through reading his other work, I came across “Four” and it spoke to me for a lot of different reasons.
Was there anything special about this one that made it feel like it should be your feature debut?
It was really like the subject matter, honestly. I felt like it would be a good piece for me to do because I felt like I understood the people in the story. Growing up in a certain suburban situation, the stories of the characters felt very much like people that I had seen when I grew up and being a gay kid in the suburbs, it felt very much like something I had gone through. A feature is a lot of work, so you want it to be something that you can feel like you would lend yourself to and it just felt like the right material for me. It also felt pretty approachable in the sense that it could be done on a small scale at a budget I could probably try to raise.
How did Wendell Pierce come aboard? He seems like a cornerstone of the production.
He was at the top of my list of people I wanted to consider for the part of Joe. When we were starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together in terms of casting, that part was definitely the most difficult to cast because he’s a very complex character and can be read as being very divisive and controversial. We didn’t really know like how people were going to respond to that, but I was just such a huge fan of [Wendell’s] work on “The Wire,” and I felt like [there] was a real untapped talent [for] a part like this and lend something very interesting to it. I kind of lucked out because we approached him about it and he had seen a version of the play when it had a run here in New York and I can’t speak for Wendell, but I think it was just the right project for him at the time. It offers him a totally new side to what he’s capable of as an actor and he was really willing to push me to go further to try to bring more out of that character and the story, so it was really a great experience for me.
There’s a really great line I had to ask about that his character says about thinking about sex in a different way. How was that a guiding statement for the film as a whole?
It’s something that I thought about it a lot because the way the movie deals with sexuality is pretty complex. [As one of] Christopher Shinn’s very early plays, he wrote it when he was quite young in his early 20s. He’s in his mid-30s now. And when you look at this play in terms of his career trajectory and what kind of subject matter he’s dealt with, you can see the seeds of it in “Four” a little bit. For me personally, it felt like a fresh way [to] really explore the deep-rooted questions of why these people are doing what they’re doing. The way he used those sex scenes in the play and the way we tried to use them in the movie explore a lot of people’s experiences of having sex for the first time and it being kind of clumsy and not sexy. [laughs]
A lot of us sort of react and sort of go into situations like that and have a way of acting on something subconsciously or maybe more deliberately. I really appreciated that he has a very psychological way of thinking about character and sometimes it can be incredibly below the surface of the material. As a director, it was really fun and interesting for me to build these characters with the actors because when you’re dealing with material that isn’t so upfront or expected of what these characters would be because of their sexuality or race or whatever, then you really have to form these characters [and let the actors] internalize them. All four of the actors that I had the great fortune to be able to work with really brought something intense to the characters that maybe even I wasn’t really aware of.
You’ll have to forgive me for not having seen the play, but you’ve said there was some space between this adaptation of it and your film. How did you make it your own?
When I started to work on it, it was important for me to try to not approach as a movie version of a play, not just because it’s such a different way of presenting a story, but because I wanted it to be a more organic take on the story. Christopher Shinn was very adamant as well that “This is your thing and don’t let what we did with the play prevent you from making this your own.” So I really took that to heart. What we tried to do was make this movie as much of a cinematic experience of this story as possible and feel like a journey that you go on with these characters over the course of one night. I feel really happy with what we did with it because the core of those characters in the play and their story are the same, but the methods of us getting them to go where they go on this night changed [in] the way that we did it.
It’s a new version of that story and that was another reason I wanted to do it [was] because I [hope] people will see it and maybe pick up on the movie and go search out the play or do another version of it in the theater some day.
You’ve said it took six years to make. Were you connecting to different things when you finished than when you started?
It’s a pretty new thing that we finished it and looking back on that time, I’m still processing what those changes were. When I first started to work on it, I had just finished film school and was coming out of a situation where I was wondering what I was going to do, if anything, as far as movies are concerned. It’s been such a weird, long journey that is so intertwined with my own life. Making small, independent movies just by the nature of the beast, [is] such a volatile thing. One minute, you have a lot of money to spend at a certain budget, then the other minute, you don’t have anything and that’s just the way you have to roll with it.
There were lots of different iterations of it from what actually we came up with – but when we started making the movie, we were really adamant about trying to set it in Hartford, Connecticut, which is where the play is set and where Christopher Shinn is from. We didn’t end up doing that because we’re all based out of New York City and it just was way less expensive to be able to set it in a place that wasn’t so specific. That actually added a different dimension to the movie in a way the movie could be anywhere – any town in America, any suburb of an American city. It actually opened up the story for me personally.
You’re currently working on a final push for the film on Kickstarter, so it can play at festivals like L.A. Film Fest. How has that been a part of your production?
We did two of them. We did one a couple of years ago when we were trying to get the film off the ground and the new one that we’re doing is to try to raise money to basically afford to bring us all out to these festivals we’re starting to play at, so it’s a pretty small amount. We’re trying to raise about $5000 and that’ll be the last thing that we’ll trying to raise money for in terms of this film, which is kind of a relief for me.
But it’s been really exciting because when we did our first Kickstarter campaign, it was very new. We were maybe one of the first film projects that used that successfully in trying to raise money to go into preproduction and I think a lot of people have recognized that it’s not only a good way to raise funds, but it’s also a good way to market and try to put the word out about the film. We’ve always really tried to embrace social media and trying to put the word out about the movie to a wider audience, trying to get people to be more interactive with what we’re doing and to try to have like a stake in the success in the movie.