Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival is pleased to speak with the Australian director and writer duo, after screening their film “The Eleven O’Clock” in the 2016-2017 festival, where it took home the award for Best Comedy Short.
“The Eleven O’Clock” begins in The Doctor’s office. The Doctor—we are told—is a man clad in aviator glasses, a wide-collar shirt and a brown sweater vest, enshrouded in his ‘70s Brutalist style office. He is a psychiatrist, preparing for the first appointment of the day, with a patient suffering from “grandiose delusions” who also happens to believe that he is a psychiatrist. Reminiscent of the comedic stylings of Abbott and Costello, it follows two psychiatrists—one is professionally trained, while the other just thinks that he is—as they attempt to out-psychoanalyze each other. The Academy Award-nominated short film, “The Eleven O’Clock” is the glorious, darkly funny brainchild of director Derin Seale and writer/actor Josh Lawson. Loosely inspired by vaudevillian theatrics, the film invites the viewer to participate in its very storytelling and, eventually, unravelling. We had the immense privilege and pleasure of speaking with them, discussing their process, inspirations and the state of comedy today.
Judging by the credits, it looks like you both worked quite collaboratively and had multiple roles during the process of making “The Eleven O’Clock.” Could you describe this process of juggling so many different hats and of creating the film together?
Derin: We realized that every moment needed to work—it was such a puzzle—and with the three of us in the room it was an exciting process to make sure that we had all the pieces together. I think that everybody found little bits of their own character that they could discover. We were in Sydney together and we managed to find time to build [the script].
What initially drew you to this story?
Josh: I am a big fan of vaudeville, so I grew up watching Abbott and Costello, the Marx brothers, Buster Keaton, the three stooges, Laurel and Hardy, that sort of thing. I think that kind of comedy isn’t dead, it just needs to be re-imagined. A lot of the stuff that I write involves set pieces and this felt like it was a story that needed to be told. I worked with Derin and Karen and we got our hands dirty, we unstitched the script quite a bit. We were really able to flesh out the characters a lot and find layers that I originally did not notice—that was what was fun about it, not just writing the script, but “unwriting” it.
I learned that Josh originally conceived of the story as a play, but through working with him, you both decided that the medium and scope of film would be best. How did you go about approaching and adapting the story for cinema?
Josh: As a play it was very much a farce, but Derin was very certain that it was not going be that. It was going to be a lot more grounded…in a way that I probably didn’t realize [initially].
Derin: It’s a text that could almost be taken many different ways. It was about making sure that it wasn’t a sketch, but that it could be a piece of film that the audience could have a lot of respect for… And that it wasn’t just something that [the audience] could watch from a distance.
Josh: Yeah, and there are a few things that separate a sketch from a film and one of them is that sketches don’t have a three-act structure, and they tend not to have character development. By the end “Doctor” Phillips has changed, and in fact the world around him has changed. Once he’s in the office with that patient, he has found peace. He has found contentment, and in fact he is giving solace to someone else. He is actually making the world a better place in a very strange way.
Derin: Usually that kind of twist…is kind of a negative thing, it might be a little “creepy” to see someone who shouldn’t be in that position. However there’s a humanity in that moment that is interesting for us.
Why did you choose to set the film during this particular time period, in the 1970s?
Derin: I wanted to set it in its own world. There are no extras, it’s only the lead characters. It has its own stage and some of the aspects of the psychiatry are a little bit old-fashioned. There is a crushing quality to some of the dialogue, which I felt sat better in an era that wasn’t exactly our own. There are some aspects of the story that I wanted to feel a bit bigger visually.
Josh: Yeah, that was definitely Derin’s decision and I think that it was such a smart one. The intercom device in the film felt a little bit dated… and I think these days, [psychiatry] is a little bit more relaxed. But back then [psychiatrists] felt more superior, and to see someone who feels superior unraveling is more fun, more dramatic. So there were a lot of benefits to putting it in a different time period.
Can you walk me through what it was like on set?
Derin: Frantic. We had very little time, almost all the dialogue was done in one day, which was a 25-page script. I wouldn’t have gotten through the day without the incredible performances from Damon (co-star Damon Herriman) and Josh and their ability to have almost the entire film in their hands. We could do 10-minute takes and could literally run it out almost like a play. It was incredible. I had crew coming up to me saying that they’ve never seen actors so professional, especially on a short film. It was tough. But every angle was all about perspective, about how much do we know someone and if we’re on their side or not. The camera had to be in the right position every time: Whether we’re observing someone else or are close to them. It was important to make sure that we got it right.
Josh: I think that it would have been easy to make this look like a play that was filmed. But Derin was really conscious about making it breathe, of making it really cinematic on such a tight schedule. That in itself is such an impressive undertaking. Even though it’s essentially 2 people in a room for the majority of the film, I never feel claustrophobic or like the film had been compromised. I think it was just [about] really good preparation so that we could move fast with the limited time that we had.
Derin, how would you describe your directing style for this film?
I was kind of like a lion tamer. In a good way. You’ve got two big personalities characters and they’re jousting each other and it’s about managing that. It’s about getting out of the way a little bit, too. This story is so complicated that you needed to have that full perspective in the middle of those moments. I think that that was really the key. It was definitely a big challenge for everybody to get through the day.
Was there ever any improvisation?
Derin: Improvisation was impossible, the story’s so complicated and so precise that we couldn’t discover it as it went. It had to be premeditated. There was a lot of work in pre-production.
Josh: It’s such a house of cards. It would be so impossible to improvise because if you shift one thing it affects something else. It was a such a balancing act that it didn’t allow for it. I remember seeing something where Harold Ramis was approached by someone who said, “God you’re so lucky you have Bill Murray in your films. So he can add all the improv.” And Harold says “No, there is no improv in my films. Bill Murray is just good enough that he makes it look like there’s improv.” That is what is so great about Damon, the performances appear natural enough that they don’t feel scripted, even though they’re so heavily scripted. We got lucky in that way with great actors.
Could you talk about the role of Linda, the temporary secretary? I wondered if perhaps she acted as a kind of Greek chorus.
Josh: Linda is obviously really intricate because in many ways she’s caught in the middle of madness, but she’s also unaware of the madness. A part of that style of comedy is all about confusion, repetition and misdirection, so what’s great about Linda is that she’s an unwitting and unknowing participant in a triple act. As far as she knows, there’s only [the doctor] and she has no idea that the patient has even entered the room.
Derin: I think you feel for her because of that. Jessica [actress Jessica Wren] is an amazing actress, but she has a real vulnerability that makes her believable, you needed her to be the emotional edge. The confusion on her face when she realizes that the wrong doctor is in there is a real honest one. To some extent, these two characters are confusing and slightly distant from the audience, but I think that she really draws us in. She doesn’t have an agenda.
Josh: Yeah, and I think about the fact that she’s a temporary secretary as well. She has no idea what she’s about to get thrown in the middle of—it’s been the most baffling 15 minutes of her life. And that’s what makes her so likable. She’s trying to catch up and so is the audience. I think you’re right that she represents a certain point of view that the audience is experiencing at the same time.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
Derin: This film is about the audience leaning in and inviting them into the process. I think a lot of experiences can be distant, of just watching something and observing. But I think in this case, even if you feel like you understand the ending before you do, being confused is a part of the drama. I think it’s exciting that by the end of it, the audience feels like they’ve gone through something, like every minute they were engaged with it and they walk away talking about it afterwards. That’s what feels great. That we weren’t simply stating facts but involving the audience in the storytelling. To some extent they are like a character in it.
Josh: Derin and I were talking about this the other night, that at the end of the film, Derin has said, well in a weird way, the film is the patient and the audience is the doctor. You have watched the madness of the film.
Derin: And you’re trying to dissect it, you become like a therapist. It’s a bit meta.
Josh: It’s a bit meta but it’s the fun of this sort of film that it’s so much fun to talk about the doctor and patient and the more you go into it the crazier you sound…that’s what’s funny. That you can go around and around in your head and weirdly it gets funnier the more you do it.
Derin: There’s something quite childish about it, which I like.
Josh: A childish simplicity, it’s doctor and patient. There’s such a simpleness to that dynamic and how much milk you can get from it is interesting.