What was it like to direct Richard Kind?
One of the questions I get most is, "What was it like to direct Richard Kind?" In an attempt to answer that, and other questions I often get, here is the story: HOW I CAST RICH AND SKIPP I had the chance to meet Richard when a mutual friend invited us for dinner. I had a great time, and he was a lot of fun to hang out with. We didn't talk about The Reception at all, just chatted over a nice meal. But at the end of the evening, I asked him if he'd be open to reading a script if I were to send him one. He graciously agreed, and so I sent him the script. Richard said he'd be willing do to it. But he's also a very busy working actor, so he did not have a lot of time to talk about it. I set about casting the opposite role, and was able to get the script to Skipp Sudduth. As chance would have it, when I lived in Japan, I learned to play the shakuhachi, the Japanese flute. I never got good at it, but I joined an international online community of bamboo flute enthusiasts. One of these people was Skipp's brother, who kindly offered to get Skipp my script. Skipp also agreed to be in The Reception, and I was delighted. We had one day of rehearsal, and we changed some lines. Both Richard and Skipp had some great thoughts and I was happy to make adjustments. Mostly, we cut lines. Then came the big two days of shooting. THE SHOOT: OH GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE? On the day of the shoot, I was very nervous. On the set, we had probably 20 people in the room. Of everyone, I was the least experienced, and yet, I was in charge. That's a very uncomfortable position. When is imposter syndrome not actually a syndrome? I also need to mention that, while I intended The Reception to be as simple as possible — just two actors in a room — I was spending $40K of my own money. You might think a guy with $40K to burn is rich, but that was all of my savings. I was freaking out inside.
Thanks to the producers I'd hired, we had very capable and talented people working on the shoot. One thing that really helped was that I had a very clear vision of what I wanted this film to be, so when people had questions, I was able to answer them with some degree of confidence. One thing I learned quickly, was that I had really written more of a play than a film. The DP said, "We're going to have to try to make this interesting." Which was classic grumpy DP, but also very true. Skipp also realized that having the two men sit the entire time was not going to work, and he had some great ideas for blocking, and moving around the room, which really helped. Once we started shooting, the actors just inhabited their roles and went with it. The most difficult thing for me was to watch a take and not actually know if it was good or not. It all looked great to me. I called a friend who is a very experienced director and I asked, "What if the takes seem good and I don't have notes?" He said, "Yeah, that happens. That probably means it's good." At one point I said to Rich, "That was fantastic," and he said, "You're like my mother, you say everything is great. I can't trust you!" That was intimidating because I wasn't blowing smoke, he was really delivering. But I nodded and tried to frown more for a few takes to make him think he was slipping. I don't think he noticed. At one point, there's a moment at the end where the two smile. I said, "What if we have a take that's more...contemplative?" Rich's eyes opened wide and he said, "No! I hate contemplative!" I looked at everyone looking at me and said, "You're right." It turns out he was right, but man, I felt like a dope. In another moment, I asked Skipp, "Here's something to think about..." he stopped me there and said, "You don't want me thinking while I'm doing this. Please don't ask me to think. I'm trying to be this character, not think about being this character." It was an interesting idea. I'm not sure I totally understood at that moment, but I agreed nonetheless.
LEARNING TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT I think the biggest lesson I learned was to keep my mouth shut most of the time and to let people work. Before the shoot, a friend said, "Think of everything you want to say. Then say 10% of it." That turned out to be very helpful. I'm a big talker, I love to chatter away. I'm very American in that way, I hate silence and long pauses. One thing I learned when I was living in Japan is that it's OK to sit with other people and not say anything. It feels awkward, but it gives space for things, thoughts, feelings, to develop organically.
When I took a moment, I realized that there was a sense in the room of a very fragile, but important world that existed: the world of the film. I think this moment exists at the beginning of any moment of art, whether it's a play or a film. In the opening moments, we give the fiction the benefit of the doubt. We allow it to exist. And if nothing stupid happens, that feeling grows. That same feeling happened to me on the set. Everyone there was willing to allow this fiction I had created to be. Everyone inhabited that world, and if they felt that I was incompetent or difficult, that world was going to go sour and we were going to go from being something — to trying to be something. It's hard to put into words, but I think Skipp was right. We were in a bubble, we were holding a fictional world in our collective minds, and my job was to allow that bubble to exist and not do anything to burst it. Because I imagine that once that bubble pops, the magic goes out of the room. That's how it felt, anyway.
LIVING A SHARED FICTION One of my favorite authors, Yuval Noah Harari, writes in Sapiens about the human ability to have a shared fictional space that makes it possible for us to organize ourselves in the service of this fiction. I felt that for that fictional world of my film to work, it had to also exist on the set. And, though I was the writer and director, I had to let everyone participate in the authorship of that world in their way.