Nothing brings a family together quite like a sudden tragedy, yet in the case of Casey Puccini’s caustic dark comedy, “Children Without Parents,” the family is “together” only in the sense that they’re temporarily occupying the same house. After their father passes away, four siblings—Matt (Bryn Packard), Pat (Kevin Stangler), Casey (Puccini, playing “himself”) and Tanya (Jeff Award-winner Sasha Gioppo)—gather at his house to try and pick up the pieces. Yet any stab at productiveness quickly evaporates into a haze of weed fumes, blaring televisions and biting retorts.
This Chicago-made indie marks the feature directorial debut of Puccini, an accomplished filmmaker currently teaching cinematography at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and editing at his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute. Indie Outlook spoke with Puccini about family dynamics, awkward laughter and endless rounds of Monopoly.
Q: What’s it been like teaching editing at your former college?
A: I thought students would be editing their own projects, but in fact, it’s a mandatory editing class where you learn the art of editing by watching the work of other filmmakers. I’m super-happy because it’s my first adult college teaching job, and I get to be the old lecturing dude who gets students excited by showing interesting films. Over the last few years, three SAIC students have won awards at Cannes. I never went to the school with the specific intention of making a feature, but just being there made me want to give it my all. You need to have a reason for why you want to make something, but that reason doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or groundbreaking. When I was younger, I was interested in visuals and blown away by Spike Jonze music videos. With technology changing, it’s easier to accomplish visual feats, but they need to have a reason for existing, and SAIC is great at guiding students toward that realization.
Q: What made you want to tackle autobiographical material in your first feature?
A: I have three sisters and two brothers. The three girls are the oldest three and the boys are the youngest three. There are two years between each of us and ten years between girls and boys. Though my father claims that we were all accidents, it was timed very well. [laughs] It’s six kids over two marriages and the one through-line that we all seem to have is our father’s personality, which is both good and bad. We’re all our father in different ways. At this point, the idea of having a dysfunctional family is [commonplace], so I wanted to personalize this concept without becoming self-indulgent. There’s something about saying that it’s a “true story” that makes it easier to structure the film in a way that plops the viewer into the story. Many family films devote entire scenes to introducing the audience to the characters and their unique traits, whereas my film is one of the few that shows how we all sort of blend into the same horrible thing. [laughs]
The film is based on a true story and shot handheld but it clearly isn’t a documentary. I like using autobiographical material as a way of turning myself and my family into characters rather than creating characters and making them seem like real people. When I had my thesis screening at a small festival in Toronto, my whole family was there. They enjoyed it because they could separate what was real from what was fabricated. People always seem to ask me whether my father, who is still very much alive, is offended by the film. They think the film ruptured my family because it seems like a tell-all, and it is a tell-all, but a lot of it is lies. Once I got the actors in there, there was this whole other dimension that they brought to it. I showed them videos of my brothers and sisters beforehand.
I had Bryn in mind to play my brother, Matt, because they’re both gregarious and friendly and take charge in a much less intense way than the character in the film. Kevin gave a so-so line reading, and clearly didn’t read it beforehand, but in between, he just kept making fun of Bryn, and then I would join in. I have all this footage of us laying into Bryn, and that’s when I knew he had to play Pat. Sasha was the least familiar with all of us, which worked because her character is the person left on the outside. She’s such an acute actress that she could walk into a room and instantly pick up on our personality traits. Whereas the guys would do whatever I asked, Sasha would make sure I could justify each direction. Since then, we have been quite close, and we’re going to re-team for my next project. I always think of her as an older sister.
I feel incredibly lucky that I only did a half dozen auditions and happened to put together this great group of actors. From being on sets in graduate and undergraduate school, I noticed that directors would try to work within the styles of their heroes, like Kubrick. But they’re not that person and Kubrick wasn’t either when he made “Fear and Desire.” I’ve worked on other student’s films where people are told exactly where to stand and what to say. This wasn’t producing the result that the director wanted. It resulted in flat acting, while too much attention was placed on a visual style that didn’t end up working either.
I wanted to make a film where I’m allowed to tell everyone that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m confident enough to ask for their help to get it completed. I also wanted to make something that had good acting in it. I had seen good actors do moderate acting in films, and it’s sort of hard to make a student film where acting is the peak of it. So I wanted to make a film where the visual aesthetics were secondary, so the acting performances have to be good or else it’s nothing. I wrote a script and we rehearsed about once a week for three months. I felt that I couldn’t tell them what to do without getting to know them.
Q: Was the script more of a blueprint or were there lines that you wanted to make sure were delivered in the way you wrote them?
A: I was pretty hands off. I wanted to make sure that Pat and I had this joke about Matt not being related to us, which is actually a joke that broke my brother Matt’s heart in real life. There was one bit I dropped that was an alternate version of the scene where Matt says, “You’re tearing apart the family,” and Tanya responds, “Are you a f—kin’ idiot?” When you write something, you feel like you need to reveal the message at some point, no matter how tucked away it is. Originally, Tanya’s response was, “What are you talking about? We are not a family. Stop acting like it.” But then I realized that she was just explaining the entire point of the film, so I dropped it and replaced it with, “Are you a f—kin’ idiot?”
In real life, you go into a fight knowing the five or six lines of what you’re going to say, but in a film, you know every line that’s going back and forth, so fights are very articulate. Matt is acting as if he’s in a movie and he knows what he’s going to say, but then is totally destroyed. There’s that story from the production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indian Jones ends up shooting that swordfighter. It was supposed to be this long fight sequence, but Harrison Ford was sick that day, so he just shot him. That’s sort of what I did with this scene.
I laugh a lot when I watch the film, and would feel very illegitimate doing so if I had written the dialogue. There were these bullet points we had to get across, and then I let the actors roll with it. What they could produce was ultimately more interesting than anything I felt like I could write. For the scene where we smoke weed on dad’s bed, I wrote in prose what could be going through our minds, making the assumption that we would need some guidance since we were actually getting stoned. [laughs]
Q: Striking the ideal tone for dark comedy is always tricky.
A: My favorite comedies have always been dark. I remember in the first episode of “The Office: Season 3,” Michael is doing sensitivity training and kisses Oscar to show that he’s okay with him being gay. There’s this moment as they’re coming towards each other where Michael’s making the kissing face, and Oscar makes a groaning sound. I had to cover my face. If you watch anything by Ricky Gervais, it delivers this excruciating pain that makes me feel so good because it’s effecting the audience. My family has always been good at shutting each other down in these very uncomfortable ways. Evoking that sort of pain in an audience is something that I enjoy.
Q: The restless cinematography reminded me of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” and there’s a great moment when the urn arrives and the camera frames the family in a static wide shot as they silently observe the remnants of their father.
A: “The Celebration” was a huge influence on the film as a whole, and is one of my favorite movies because it makes me so uncomfortable. That film doesn’t utilize comedy as much as my film does, but I laughed my ass off at it. For the urn scene, I was influenced by the final shot in “Big Night.” That whole movie is about the tense fighting between two brothers who run an Italian restaurant, and then at the end, there’s this beautiful seven-minute shot of them making an omelette together, and they’re quiet because they’re so exhausted. In my film, we spend all this time bickering and bickering, but when we’re faced with a visual representation of dad’s “return,” we can each take a moment and think about him. But then, of course, since we’re uncomfortable as humans, Pat decides to break the silence by saying, “He looks good.”
In “Big Night,” this moment takes place at the end, so you end on this beautiful note of understanding between these two brothers. But in my film, I decided that more problems would undoubtedly occur afterwards, so I placed the scene well before the end. I was wondering how I should end the film, and Kevin made an interesting point that, “No matter how s—ty we are, the next time a family situation happens, we’re all going to gather and the same thing will happen.” In “The Darjeeling Limited,” which I really enjoyed, there’s a scene where the brothers literally throw away their baggage, which is one of the more heavy-handed things that Wes Anderson has done. In real life, you don’t necessarily throw away all your baggage or get to resolve everything. Sometimes, you just end up going home.
Q: The whole film is about those things in life that are left unresolved. We never learn of how the father died and neither do the children, who are left with all of these unresolved feelings that will never find any closure.
A: The closest thing to closure we have is watching my dad’s favorite television show. During production, I was thinking of objects to personify dad, and I remembered that he was a big “Baywatch” fan. I watched the show with my brothers and didn’t understand why it was interesting. I didn’t know that the whole point of the show was to watch women run along the beach in slow motion. I was like, “These plots seem kind of flimsy.” [laughs] But it was something that was important to my dad, and when I listened to the show’s theme song, I thought it would be funny to have it at the end of the film. There are some lyrics like, “I’ll always be here,” that fit the scene in a really bizarre way.
Q: My heart broke for Matt’s character because he tries so hard to place himself in the position of his father, but the more that he tries to control the family, the more he alienates himself from them.
A: Bryn’s performance is the one that people often respond to and empathize with. When I was making the film, I had sort of a callous attitude towards him. I just saw his annoying traits. Bryn and Matt both want to take control in a way that isn’t nearly as intense as the fight they face while trying to obtain it. The fight just comes from their siblings not wanting to be told what to do.
Q: The Monopoly scene is important because it shows how Matt can never be in the moment and the effect that has on his siblings’ nerves.
A: I didn’t realize until I was older that my dad doesn’t stop playing a game until he wins. A few years ago, my cousins and I were playing Scrabble with him. We both won and were getting tired of it, but we had to play three more games until my dad won, and I was like, “Really? You’re 62 years old.” [laughs] That idea of going to 11 in terms of insulting somebody is sort of a Puccini thing too. We all have this acute ability to hit 11 as soon as possible just to shut somebody up, and tear down everything about them as a human being just because we’re annoyed by hearing their voice. Pat doesn’t care whether he loses the game at that point. He’s saying all those horrible things because he’s annoyed that Matt put an L on his head.
We have this joke that my brother Matt wants to be our dad, and has made his life much more intense than it needs to be. My dad, like all of us, is kind of a bulls—ter, and that’s kind of what the movie is too. It’s about embellishing these real moments. Matt does these rather extreme things because he believes that’s how he’s supposed to act. My dad always talks about his disbelief in doctors, but when he’s gotten sick over the last couple of years, he’s gone to the doctor. Matt doesn’t go to the doctor at all. He takes these things that my dad says flippantly to heart. I worry about him sometimes.
Q: What was your editing process like?
A: I learned a lot on this film, such as that you should always use two cameras, even if it takes a little more time. We shot the whole film with one camera, and I’m so amazed that everything cuts together. The actual editing of the film was done over five three-to-four-hour sessions, and it would usually be around 11 at night. Another thing I learned is that scenes involving people talking about things that happened is completely uncinematic. We could’ve had many scenes about characters talking about this Monopoly game that went awry, but I decided to just show it instead.
As far as the editing goes, it was all about what cuts together, and sometimes things don’t come together until you utilize jump cuts. The nice thing about 2013 is that we’ve all been speaking film language for over 100 years, so these things that used to be really jarring can now be put it in a film and audiences will understand it. Though I thought I put too many jump cuts in the film when I was editing it, I don’t even notice them when I watch the film as a whole.
Q: Starting your film with the title card, “This will be a true story,” accentuates the story’s universality, suggesting that these are the issues we’ll all face once our parents are no longer around.
A: I felt like it represented a perspective of the present looking into the future in the sense that I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure I can predict it. I’m presenting this as the truth so that hopefully in an “Ebenezer Scrooge” kind of way, I’ll realize how I need to change my ways. My character is the guy who’s going to take over for dad, in the sense that I’m going to spend my time sitting on the couch smoking cigarettes and watching television. That comfy chair and TV are just around the corner, and if I’m not working towards a goal, that’s where I’m going to end up. But maybe that’s what I ultimately want. Everything that I do during the day enables me to sit and watch TV with a clear conscience.
“Children Without Parents” screens Saturday, November 2nd and Monday, November 4th at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Puccini will be present at both screenings. For tickets and other info, click here.