When Victor Quinaz was contemplating a way to follow up his successful series of online shorts that specialize in perverting literary classics with the comedy collective PERIODS. Films, it wasn’t long before he started thinking about gathering everyone to make a feature and he even narrowed it down to two types.
“There are two kinds of movies that always have audiences, which are wedding movies and horror movies,” said Quinaz. ” And I have a very queasy stomach when it comes to gore.”
So while that means there’s no bloodshed in Quinaz’s bigscreen debut “Breakup at a Wedding” – or at least not that much – it hasn’t prevented the writer/director from making something that’s a bit of both. A cringe-inducing comedy about one couple’s plan to stage fake nuptials to satisfy the needs of their respective families that goes horribly, horribly awry, the film unfolds as if it were the wedding video from hell, with only the logo of its distributor Oscilloscope in front to pierce the illusion that the Havemeyer-Jones wedding didn’t actually take place and burn down half of the Jersey turnpike with it.
Drawing on some of his own experiences, both personal and professional, Quinaz oversees a ceremony that involves a couple on the verge of calling it quits, a streaking best man, tipsy bridesmaids, a beleaguered camera crew and, eventually, police. As Quinaz shared with us recently on the eve of the film’s barnstorming series of screenings across the country this week culminating with its release on VOD, the film’s two-week shoot was nearly as chaotic, employing friends and family amongst the hundred-plus needed to fill out the banquet hall and filming in a hotel that was open to the public during the production. Thankfully, he survived long enough to talk about how it came together, the precision needed to make a film that feels so loose and the debut of Periods Films’ latest short “Big City Bright Lights.”
How did this film come about?
I was trying to get a feature off the ground for quite some time in a very different vein. I was actually directing a lot of comedy for commercials and I was a little unhappy with a lot of the stuff I was working on, though very grateful obviously to have work, and there was this liberating moment where my wife [Anna Martemucci, who co-wrote “Breakup at a Wedding”] said, “Look, you have all this equipment you’ve accumulated and this great crew that’s funny themselves. Why don’t we make our own short films?”
We created this series PERIODS. Films, where we just started making these really weird shorts very much with the same kind of cast and rotation. My brother Philip, who had been making music for the commercials that I directed and he was always kind of the jackass in the back of the office making comments that would always just slay us, so eventually I said, “put your money where your mouth is and put on this Pilgrim costume and get in this video. Our first video “Pilgrims” went viral – it was a little bit of spoof on mumblecore, which I really like but [felt it] had taken over at that point, so I thought it would be really funny if people were talking and we shot it like a mumblecore movie, but it was pilgrims. And oddly enough, my wife, who created the film with me, was thinking about MTV’s “The Hills” and oddly enough, those two are almost exactly the same thing. [laughs] So we’ve kept that going.
My wife and I had gotten engaged right around that time and she was having a lot of anxiety about getting married. I actually said to her, “Why don’t we fake our wedding? Would that make you feel any better? If we were just throwing a big party and we didn’t tell anyone?” That’s how the premise came about and then we started thinking about what could we pull off that we could still have kind of creative control?
At that point, a great friend of mine who I grew up with, Zachary Quinto started participating in actually being in the shorts with us and he had formed a production company Before the Door that stepped into produce it, so very quickly, we put it together. It was just the right combination because we had that body of work, it took us maybe three months to get the script up and financing fell out several times, but eventually Anonymous Content, who did “Eternal Sunshine” and “Being John Malkovich,” it was such little money for them, I think they wrote a check in three days. So it was a short film collective mixing in with wedding anxieties, mixed in with our own experiences with weddings and the idea that we needed to do something else.
Did you actually have any experience with wedding videos? The aesthetic seems spot on.
When I first graduated college in 2000, I did wedding videos. I had taken a camera from the university, moved to New York and I really had very little, but my friends’ older sisters were getting married, so people would be like, “You love to shoot stuff. Why don’t you go shoot a wedding video?” They were the most work I had ever done on this planet! And I’ve done landscaping and road work… my dad runs a print shop and my brother and I both worked in the print shop, but nothing compared to the amount of work that you have to do on the day of the wedding. Then it’s followed by two weeks of editing for literally no money and I only did four or five of these, but they were the most artsy-fartsy wedding videos of all time. There was one couple that [asked], “Can we have our money back? This is too weird.” I had turned it into little sketches and little music videos and they were like, “Look, we just want Sarah McLachlan with us cutting the cake.”
So I had remembered that horrible experience from way back when and actually, Anna and I both love going to weddings. We’re like the best wedding guests you could possibly invite to your wedding. We dance till they kick us off the dance floor, but I had a lot of comedy [ideas] from that. My brother also is on top of making music for movies and for commercials, he is also like one of the top wedding deejays in New York City, so he had some awesome terrible stories of wedding stories, so we collected all these stories and we came up with the script.
You see a lot of friends and relatives in the credits – your brother Philip is actually the lead. Was that interesting to bring people from your personal life into your professional life?
There was actually a really weird moment on the set of “Margin Call,” where “Before After” [a short Quinto appeared in] had just come out and we were showing it to Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Demi Moore, but she was very distracted. She wasn’t into it. [laughs] But Kevin Spacey had seen my brother Philip act in this “Before After” short and was like, “This is the most natural talent I’ve seen in a long time. Who is this kid?” And we were like he’s the guy who made the club music for the stripper scene in “Margin Call,” so we were very encouraged the whole time.
The style [of this film] obviously lends itself to [casting nonprofessionals]. You want those performances to come off as authentic, so inexperienced actors like my mom who plays Philip’s mom or Ana’s mother who plays the Czech mail-order wife, the “Meelf” as it were, were great. I feel like that natural energy and their nervousness was fine for putting a camera in front of. Some personalities would respond to it and just like jump in front of the camera, like hey! And get too big. That’s perfect for a wedding video. Then some people would shrink down and that’s also perfect for it. Weddings are incredibly stressful and this wedding is probably one of the most stressful weddings got on film. Honestly, having to direct your mom, it adds a very natural level of stress. [laughs] So it was very easy to get that across.
You have full reign over the hotel, which is impressive for a low-budget shoot. How did you get that location?
We found a hotel that was right at the cusp of being bought out by Hilton and renovated. It’s a mile and a half from JFK International Airport and was called the JFK International Hotel. That’s it. But everything was soundproof, which was awesome because you didn’t ever hear a passing plane and we would finish with one room and the next day a demolition team would come in and destroy that room essentially — the hotel never shut down. So the scene where Bena the best man is running around naked, the hotel was 100 percent running at that time and I guess management was just punk rock. They were like “Go for it” and we just ran around with the crew with this man running around naked. [laughs]
Were there actually guests staying there?
Yeah, it was a fully functioning hotel. It’s really a one-night only kind of place because it tends to have people that got stuck at JFK, so most people had no idea of what was going on and didn’t really stick around long enough to find out. But sometimes when you see people in the background coming out of sliding glass doors, they’re real people checking in and we’d hold the shot as people would come by us to go to their hotel room. It was actually a wonderful experience. We did it all in 11 days, which was an insane thing because we had one day where [we had to film] 16 and 3/4 pages with a hundred extras – the dinner scene where people are eating, that’s actually a crew lunch, so we swapped out our camera guys so they could have lunch for about a half-hour. It was crazy and it was only possible because I got a ride-or-die crew and cast.
When you make a found-footage film that’s supposed to be rough around the edges, are you more precise about what goes into the frame or less?
Way more precise, actually. I read any work that I could find that was written on the “Paranormal Activity” movies or even mockumentary stuff and you have to add the right level of chaos, but a lot of the chaos has to be staged because it has to be repeated. It has to be able to cut with certain things [when the film is assembled in editing]. There were really cool things that popped up like in one scene where we actually have the bridesmaid in the foreground and she’s so bright, our colorist and I had talked about how to focus on the darker areas by actually brightening the foreground, which is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a complete reversal of what the actual logic for that is, so you figure out very early on how you want to obstruct the stuff.
Our short films are all improvised [so that was informative]. We write an outline, but then we just have the actors go off on their own because it really lends itself to very authentic moments. [The shorts are] very different from the movie, but pick up sticks is usually what I call it. When you see an actor’s nervous about [a scene], I’ll say, “Okay, you know what? Let’s just do pick up sticks. Let’s shoot the scene without a rehearsal and see what you like out of that and I’ll see what I like,” so there’s a few times where that helped, where you really embraced the chaos of it.
I was actually excited to see you’ve just released a new short this past week.
We’ll actually have a feature-length version of all our shorts that’ll come out in the fall. We simply call it “Periods,” like a “History of the World”/Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” movie that we strung together with our shorts, taking it from “The Big Bang” to [this latest one], “Big City Bright Lights,” which [is a riff on] “Bright Lights Big City,” where it’s a first person perspective of New York City in the ’80s and everyone dies in a cocaine overdose in every scene. We have this really weird sense of humor and this one is the darkest one. We wanted to end with the end of civilization, which we had charted to about the 1980s in New York City.
Edith Wharton’s estate invited us to show our short films in this feature presentation that we had showed at Grauman’s Chinese for the opening of the Hollyshort Film Festival with these new shorts. We had just added “Lil Women” and “Big City Bright Lights” and it was part of the Berkshire International Film Festival, which was amazing. It was a really great turnout, but it was people in their sixties and seventies and oh man, there were a lot of people who were like “Whoa, that got dark.” But we try to challenge ourselves with each one and for this was a really, really fun one to do.