Michelle Morgan had been working out the blocking in a scene for “It Happened in L.A.” when her cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet came up to her with a pretty radical idea. Seeing that there was a glass table in the room, the notion came about to essentially split the screen in half longitudinally, using the reflection off the table to show Baker (Dree Hemingway) in full, as the interior decorator engaged in an uncomfortable conversation, while essentially disconnecting her head from the rest of her body. It’s the kind of framing you might expect in a German avant garde film, but less so in a tony comedy set in Los Angeles concerning the lives of slightly aimless hipsters, but having embraced sharp edges at every other turn in the writing of the film, from its incisive insight and its biting sense of humor, looking at things from another viewpoint made all the sense in the world.
“When you’re shooting a film that involves a lot of couch scenes, which our film does, you have to get really creative about how you’re going to shoot couches and to [Nicholas’] credit, he was thinking outside the box every single day,” recalls Morgan. “I was always game to do something different, because if you want to categorize this film as a romantic comedy, a lot of romantic comedies have a familiar look and feel to them and I really wanted to make something that presents a different angle and something hopefully that your eyes can feast on, so that’s why sometimes our heads are cut off or you might get a reflection in a table. It was all about finding different ways to shoot the same thing.”
In fact, “It Happened in L.A.” feels entirely different because of Morgan’s willingness to take chances, something that doesn’t necessarily extend to the characters she finds in the City of Angels. Observing a group of friends concerned more with keeping up appearances than finding the comfort they crave personally, the film follows Annette (Morgan) after her lonely decision to shake things up by leaving her longtime boyfriend Elliott (Jorma Taccone) while her best friend Baker attempts to be supportive by claiming she’s single too, when in reality she’s involved in an affair with one of her clients (Tate Donovan). The disconnect proves to be just one of many that gives rise to increasingly ridiculous situations in “It Happened in L.A.,” with the writer/director nailing the lengths to which people attempt to fit into the culture with game nights and repeated group screenings of “Tokyo Story,” but never feel at home with themselves.
A feeling of satisfaction may be elusive to those Morgan trains her lens on, but not so for an audience since one becomes quickly disarmed by the rat-a-tat patter that plays like pinball between a gifted cast that also includes Margarita Levieva, Angela Trimbur and Kentucky Audley, as well as the resplendent locales that makes it easy to get as lost in as the characters do. Following the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “It Happened in L.A.” arrives in theaters this week and VOD — fittingly for its hometown with a name change from its previous title, “L.A. Times” — and Morgan spoke about the film’s distinctive style, why she took a role in the film herself and releasing a comedy in uncertain times.
You’ve said the film isn’t autobiographical, but the observations of life in Los Angeles are so vivid, did this grow out of specific observations you made about the culture here?
It’s interesting because my best friend in the film was inspired by my best friend in real life and the same with my boyfriend, [but] nothing situational in the film is autobiographical, it was more just people’s attitudes. Basically, I really was inspired by Whit Stillman and Woody Allen and I wanted to write a movie that I knew I could shoot on the cheap. Conversational movies are inherently a lot cheaper to shoot than sci-fi movies, so that was what inspired me to make it.
Still, as an Angeleno myself, this put me on edge about some certain things I’m probably not as self-aware of as I should be. Did that make a friends and family screening pretty interesting?
I think my friends and family have seen this movie so many times, and yes, it’s always hardest to screen stuff for people that you’re really close to, especially when you’re starring in it because everybody knows you so well. You don’t really get a super accurate read off people that are connected to the material or connected to you, so I was always most nervewracked at those screenings and I would much prefer to screen the film for people that I don’t know.
Did you plan on starring in it from the start?
I did. I had actually written, directed and starred in a short film that was at Sundance in 2013 and it was kind of a last minute decision that I put myself in the short film and because of that, it was like if it isn’t broke, don’t mess with it, so when I made the feature, I knew going into it that I would always be part of the ensemble.
You’ve said you actually went into acting so you could pursue writing. Was this where you always saw yourself getting to?
Growing up, I think I did enjoy performing in school plays and things like that. As a child, I always loved telling stories and I feel like when I was a kid, it was more centered around me actually telling people stories and you get to act them out. I had taken acting classes, but in school, I majored in screenwriting, and then when I graduated, I was approached by a manager who was like, “Oh, you know, would you want to audition…and blah blah blah.” So I ended up being a working actress for a couple of years and largely neglecting my literary aspirations.
After a few years of working as an actress, I realized that my true passion was writing – it just felt like doing a lot of guest star roles on “CSI: Miami” and things of that ilk probably wasn’t going to be life-changing, so I decided to focus my aspirations on writing and I didn’t really did not think I would ever be acting again. Getting beat up at auditions isn’t something that I miss, and it isn’t really like I had these great acting aspirations in any way. So it was kind of a shock to me [when I acted in my short], but it was born out of necessity. I had written a character in my short film and it seemed like I was the best person to play it because the person who I wanted to play it wasn’t available. After that, I thought it’s fun acting in my own stuff and to work with other actors and be in front of the camera some times in that way, but the lifestyle is really, really hard on your ego and I think I might be too fragile for it at this point. [slight laugh]
Did being acting for the time that you did actually change how you wrote?
Yeah, I definitely think that I have somewhat of a unique take on things because I’ve done a little bit of everything. It definitely informs how you write scenes when you’re familiar with what it’s like to say lines and rely on scripts.
This film has such a strong aesthetic style, did you know what this would look like from the start?
I always knew that that was the tone I was going to go for. Aesthetically, I was very inspired by Gordon Willis’ work in “Manhattan” and also just Wes Anderson’s eye, which is so perfect and I knew I really wanted to make a film where the location was a big part of the film, like it was another character. But I wasn’t trying to do something different for different’s sake. For better or worse, I think this is my style and when I put it all together – and you add the music – I was always going for a timeless feel to the film. If you notice, there aren’t a lot of screens in the movie. You don’t see text bubbles and there aren’t a lot of cell phone screens because I wanted it to feel timeless.
I [also] love wide shots and I love shooting in one take. Truth be told, it’s actually a much more cost-effective way to shoot because we didn’t have a ton of set-ups and it was a lot easier to make our days shooting in that style, But that being said, you have to have really great actors to make it work and I got really lucky. My cast was tremendous and that made it possible to shoot in that style.
At Sundance, you mentioned your favorite scene was with Angela Trimbur because it was such a super-long take and you liked the reactions from being exhausted by it. Did you embrace the idea of just keep rolling to see what would happen?
If we had the time, I absolutely prefer shooting that way. That particular take with Angela we’d been shooting for a while and we were both pretty punchy, so I noticed the nuances of it especially because I remember how close to laughing I was at every moment of that scene. It’s things like that when you’re with somebody who’s a great improv actor like Angela is, it behooves you to let the camera keep rolling and see what you can find.
At the same time, this seems like it sticks to a script pretty closely, if for no other reason than it has such a specific rhythm to the language. When that’s strongly established on the set, does that make it easier or more difficult to edit?
We actually had a pretty easy time in the edit because as I was shooting this film, I knew how I wanted it to look and to sound, there wasn’t this kind of guesswork when we got into the edit. The one-takes, the wide shots and staying in the master make it a lot easier to edit a film, and the production of the film went very smoothly. Like I said, the actors were all really, really phenomenal and the boring business side was the most challenging part of the process, raising money and then trying to find the best home for the film, but the creative stuff came together pretty nicely.
There’s a running joke in the film about the seemingly omnipresent rich Brazilian guy who can magically finance creative projects for other people, but elusive when you need them. Did you meet many of them on the way to make this?
God, no, I wish it had been that simple. [laughs] I needed that Brazilian horror guy to come in and finance my movie. No, I was lucky enough that I ended up with a really wonderful group of financiers who really supported me, but it wasn’t a super easy journey.
When it’s your first feature as a director, was it what you thought it would be? Was it different?
The process of actually being on set and working with the actors and the end product all lived up to or exceeded what I hoped would happen. The process of financing was humiliating and torturous and that was much worse than I expected. The thing I expected the least was how much of an emotional rollercoaster it is, putting something out there, especially in 2017 when you are just getting opinions in every single direction.
It’s also kind of a serious year and this is a comedy that’s meant to be taken very lightly. It’s supposed to make you laugh. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and I couldn’t have accounted for how different the world would be when I wrote the film and you’re just very vulnerable when you put your film out there. You want people to like it and of course, not everybody does [which] is the part that I think I was least prepared for – to feel so vulnerable and exposed.
Still, you should be so happy and proud that you did, though. In times like these, something like this is even more necessary.
I think so. You know, I think people need to download the film and get caught up in the nonsense of Los Angeles for an evening because it’s meant to be fun. [laughs] I’m not making any grand political statement. But if I was going to say one thing about it, I would say that there should be more films where women are front and center and they don’t have to apologize for their behavior because I think there’s a lot of female characters in my film that you haven’t seen a lot or ever because they don’t give a fuck. They put it out there, they say what they think and they do what they want and there should be more female characters on screen like that.