ADAM SALKY and DAVID BRIND on 'DARE'
Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
November 4, 2009
In the character-driven drama Dare, the lives of three teenagers intersect in unexpected ways, allowing them each the opportunity to go on journeys of self-discovery: Alexa (Emmy Rossum) seems to be the model student, but her confident and capable demeanor belies an uncertainty in herself and her future; her lifelong confidant Ben (Ashley Springer) is confused about his own sexuality, all while fearing that he may lose Alexa's friendship; and Johnny (Zach Gilford), struggles with deep-seated personal issues and family crises, despite his reputation as the cool, popular guy on campus who appears to have it made. As their relationships begin to involve sexual experimentations with one another, they slowly gain a better understanding of who they really are.
Based on their 2005 short film of the same title, this feature-length version from director Adam Salky and writer/producer David Brind is divided into three acts, each one telling the story from a different character's perspective: first Alexa, then Ben, and finally Johnny. Each chapter has a distinct look and feel tailored to its central protagonist, allowing for an interesting ride that is perpetually switching gears.
In this extensive exclusive interview, Adam Salky and David Brind talk about the making of the feature film incarnation of Dare--in the first half, we discuss the casting and Emmy Rossum stepping into the pivotal role of Alexa, while in the second half, we focus on the myriad of technical details and plot devices that went into the movie.
RadioFree.com: Was the casting process for this film an extensive one?
ADAM: Yeah, we read a lot [of actors]. You know, one of the plus sides of casting a high school film is that most of the actors will come in and read, because they just haven't done enough work that they can say "offer only," you know? So that was great, because you can learn a lot about the film and a lot about who the character maybe should be by seeing all these actors. The downside, of course, is that there isn't one actor out there who can, like, make your movie greenlit, so to speak. But over the course of eight months, we were looking at people, and finally we were on the verge of making an offer to an actress to play Alexa, and the night before we were going to do it, Emmy Rossum's manager called and said, "Wait! I heard you're going to make this offer, but don't, because Emmy Rossum wants to do the movie!" And we were like, "Oh, that's amazing. Would she come in and read?" Which is maybe a little bit of a ballsy thing to say, but I can say those things because this was my first time around the block. And he said, "Well, let me see..." And she was in LA and we were in New York, and we couldn't afford to fly her out, so she made this incredible audition tape. It's actually the best and most creative audition tape I've ever seen, where she did three scenes from the movie, 15 minutes of the movie, all to her webcam on her computer. And she did all of the other roles in character, as the other characters, and recorded them before doing her role. And basically, other lines would read and she would press the spacebar and then say her line, and then the spacebar...It would continue like that. And it was really incredible, because she was great as the other characters as well. And in fact, that audition tape will be on the DVD as an extra so people can see what she did. It was really sophisticated.
DAVID: It was emotionally grounded the whole time. That was what was crazy about the performance. I can't imagine having to hit a spacebar and do all these things, and she was totally present. You know, watching that tape late at night in my apartment, knowing Emmy only from the big budget movies that she had played before, I was kind of blown away. I mean, she really nailed Alexa in a way that we hadn't seen, and after that, it was a no-brainer. But we saw so many people. I mean, we saw people from Gossip Girl, and people who are now on Glee...We saw all these incredible actors. And I think in the end, we chose the people that were right for the roles.
It's interesting that you knew Emmy mostly from her big studio projects. It seems like The Day After Tomorrow and Poseidon often overshadow her work in films like Mystic River and Songcatcher...
DAVID: I had seen her in Mystic River. I had not seen Songcatcher at that point. And yes, I definitely thought she could act, [but] I had never seen her do darker, edgier, sexual material. And so I didn't see that edge in her performance. I saw her as sweeter, and like this luminous young girl. And she proved in this tape that she had bite. And that was what was so exciting: to see somebody do something they hadn't really done before.
ADAM: I think this goes for all of the characters in the film, that audiences are going to be really surprised by the risks these actors take in the story. And they're going to see a side of Emmy that they've never seen before; they're going to be introduced to Ashley Springer, who's an incredible young actor, and this is his first starring role; they're going to see a side of Zach Gilford that they've never seen before; and they're, of course, going to be introduced to Rooney Mara, who is about to explode in A Nightmare on Elm Street and David Fincher's Facebook movie, and she's an incredibly talented young actress; and they're going to see Sandra Bernhard do a dramatic role, which is something she doesn't often get the chance to do; and they're going to see Alan Cumming take command of the stage.
It sounds like out of the three leads, you cast Emmy first. Was the casting of Ashley and Zach predicated on their chemistry with her?
DAVID: Well, we always had an eye on Ashley because he had done a reading of the script for us, that our casting director set up for us to hear it out loud. And from then, we couldn't get him out of our heads. But I think we did formally cast Emmy first, followed by Ashley. I don't think we saw them together before we cast them.
ADAM: We didn't. We had Ashley come in and read, and with some other actors for Johnny. And actually, we cast another Johnny who wasn't Zach Gilford, who dropped out a week before we were supposed to start shooting. And it was a scary time. I mean, we were making this movie--everyone was down in Philadelphia, equipment had been rented. We were making the movie. And David and I rushed up to New York City, and Zach happened to be in New York doing press for Friday Night Lights, and he came in and read, and he was great. And then he read with Emmy the next day in person, and four days later, we started shooting. [laughs]
The short had a different cast of actors. Did you ever consider having them reprise their roles for the feature?
ADAM: Absolutely. Well...One of them had another job scheduled at the same time as our film and couldn't do it. But I think both of them were just sort of a little bit beyond looking believably high school at that moment in time.
DAVID: Yeah. But Adam Fleming, who played Ben in the short, has a cameo in the feature. He plays the detention teacher when Alexa and Johnny are in detention. He originated the role of Ben, and he gives an amazing performance in the short, as does Michael Cassidy [as Johnny]. But yeah, they were both kind of just over that line of being believably high school.
ADAM: We were dying for Michael to play a cameo in the feature as well, but he couldn't because he was in a David Mamet play.
DAVID: Yes. [The character who] has the last line of the film...I wrote that role for Michael Cassidy, but he was debuting in a David Mamet play here in LA.
ADAM: God, that would have been great! Although Michael Braun, who plays that character, is a fantastic actor. We were fortunate to have him. But that would have been perfect. But the next time...
Alexa, who is only a peripheral character in the short, takes center stage in the feature version. How did she evolve into such a pivotal role, and did you always intend to expand the story into a feature film?
DAVID: Well, no. We never knew that it was going to be a feature film. So in writing the short, there was no concept of "How do we make it into a feature?" Alexa became the jumping off point for me into the feature. That's kind of when I became interested in writing a feature. Alexa, as this peripheral character, has this moment by the pool at the end in the short--she comes in at the end of the pool scene between Ben and Johnny and has this communication with her best friend who's closeted gay, Ben, and they have this kind of wordless communication where she senses something has happened, something has shifted, but she doesn't know exactly what. And basically, I became very fascinated by that moment while we were shooting the short, because I was there on set. And the first thing I wrote for the feature was "What would happen immediately after that scene between Ben and Alexa when they actually spoke about it?" which ended up being the coming out scene in the feature, where Ben kind of tells Alexa that he's been with Johnny, and that, in essence, is telling her that he's gay. So for me, it was just the organic progression of how I began to think about the script. I began to wonder about Alexa--what makes her tick, thinking about the girls I was friends with at that age, and somebody who was ambitious and driven. And pathetic, also, but was trying to go about being successful in high school in a calculated manner. That was interesting to me.
The short is largely Ben's story. Would you say the feature is Alexa's story, or is it split equally amongst the three leads?
ADAM: It is actually split up pretty equally amongst the three. I think ultimately, the movie, in some ways, starts to become Johnny's story, because his character has the third act. It also has the biggest surprise to it, when audiences start to find out who this character really is. Because when you begin the film, you think that Alexa is the good girl, you think that Ben's the outsider, and you think that Johnny is sort of like the "bad boy, cool guy" in school that everyone knows. Everyone has that person who was in their class who was like this untouchable, unknowable guy. And I think that all three characters get unmasked. But because of the structure of the story, and in some ways because of Zach's performance, that character starts to become, in some ways, the biggest surprise of the film.
Each of the three acts focuses on one character's perspective. When you were telling a given character's story, did you find you had to paint the other two in a more negative light?
DAVID: That's interesting. Certainly in Johnny's act, I never was thinking about putting Ben and Alexa in a negative light. But I think at that point in their character's progression, they became relentless in what they wanted. It almost became a competition between the two of them. They were relentlessly driven. And for them, I think that they never thought of Johnny as somebody they could affect. They didn't think of him as somebody they could damage or hurt in any way. So the idea of them being vicious or nasty to him was not on their mind. They may have been callous because they were so singularly focused, but they never thought of him as somebody that, really, they could have an impact on. I would say, however, that I did make an effort in Alexa's story to make Johnny a little bit more of a jerk--a little more arrogant, a little bit off-putting--because that is the defense that he's put up.
ADAM: That's also how they see him.
DAVID: That's how they see him, and that's how he's treated them, and I wanted there to be a clear shift in Johnny. So I put it in there purposely to reflect how Johnny was seeing how he behaved versus how we end up seeing him as he is.
Were the scenes generally shot in the order in which they are presented?
ADAM: No. Unfortunately, in making a film--this is any film, even one that has a hundred million dollars to shoot--you have to schedule it in the way that's the most economical. And of course, that was just completely mixed up. So everything is shot out of order.
DAVID: But we did make an effort to shoot the sex scenes towards the end of the process, when people could be more comfortable with one another.
ADAM: There's a lot of different theories on that. Some directors want to shoot them right away, to just get it out of the way. Some people like to shoot it at the end. I like to shoot it at the end--you know, I would like to work hard to create an environment where everyone's invested in the film and believes in the film, and so that by the time you get there, they've gotten to know each other and they've gotten to trust each other. And for me, it has equated to a better experience. And that was the case on the short as well.
The camera changes from a stable position in Alexa's act to a more handheld perspective in Johnny's act. What were some other technical nuances you utilized to visually and thematically distinguish the three parts of the film?
ADAM: There were a few. For example, in Ben's act--beyond just this idea that the movie started in a bright, stable, almost innocent place, and went to an unstable, handheld, more realist place--there were several other things. One of them was that the framing in Ben's act was very specific, in that you never really see Ben head on until after he's had his first sexual experience and has really kind of discovered a piece of himself. So there's a lot of profile shots, a lot of 3/4 shots. But almost nothing in the film (especially in his act) up until that point, is shot head on until after he's sort of discovered that piece of his sexuality. Another thing was the sex scenes. They were all very specific to each character's act. Alexa's sex scene took an entire night to shoot and was 19 different shots, and was very structured, in the same way that Alexa is a very ambitious and structured and calculated person. Ben's sex scene is very straightforward and kind of open and honest, and the camera lingers for longer in the way that Ben is able to achieve that moment of sexual connection by being open and honest. And the sex scene in Johnny's act is, of course, entirely handheld and a little shaky and a little disturbing, because of what's happening between the three characters at that time. So those were some of the choices made to support the story.
Johnny's act is the only one to utilize subtitles to show the characters texting each other. Was that another conscious choice, or just a coincidence that they had started to communicate in that way?
ADAM: That was just a moment where I think it came organically from the story, that those three characters would communicate by text. I mean, in the beginning of the film, Alexa might not even have Johnny's phone number, you know? Because they were just in completely different social strata. But by the time we're in Johnny's act, they've, of course, had this intimate relationship, this sexual relationship, and they've gotten to know each other. But actually, the way the text occurs visually was something that was very important to me. And I remember reading the script and being like, "God, I don't want to shoot inserts. How can I do it in such a way that is not just this old method of shooting inserts?" And that was where the idea came from for it to type out as subtitles.
DAVID: Yeah, that was totally Adam's idea, and I loved how it worked, because it does feel almost like subtitles like you would see in a foreign film. The way it moves and stuff...I just love the way that he did that.
ADAM: But just to mention a part of the collaboration: it does type out as subtitles, but it does have a cursor. And the cursor was Jason Orans' idea, who was one of our producers.
That was an interesting touch that gave it a subtle distinction from traditional subtitles. [jokes] Also, based on how fast the words came up, Alexa is just an extraordinary texter...
DAVID: [laughs] Yeah, they did come really fast.
ADAM: It was even faster. At one point, the scene was in real time. And then I decided to add a time cut in there to sort of make it believable that all the texting could happen. I think it's on the verge, but it just works.
DAVID: Just sneaks in!
Hanging out with the three main characters is a memorable girl named Courtney, played by Rooney Mara. Was there ever the possibility of a fourth act that focused on her?
DAVID: [laughs] I love Courtney. When I was writing the script, I did write kind of a jokey fourth act with her. I think it was written after the credits started, and you see Courtney come up, her in her room interacting with her mom. You know, during the process of writing it, I was in film school in a class, [and] there were times where I really had to kind of tone down that character because people liked her so much, and they wanted there to be a fourth act. And it's a character that came really naturally for me to write because she's based on people from my life. So as we moved forward, I think it just became clear that there could not be a fourth act. But Rooney Mara plays her in such a way that I think she deserves one. So who knows? Maybe that will be a future Dare webisode of Courtney!
ADAM: I think that was something that, all along the way, we wrestled with, just as storytellers with this story. Because you have three acts, three incredibly complex characters, and then a fourth character who's, of course, very interesting. From the revision process to the editing process, of finding the right balance where you could experience the story and feel a piece of each character's personal struggle and personal predicament, and also end up feeling like it touched on all three, [it] was a challenge--something that we struggled with for the entire production, ranging from the script level to post.
Would you say the movie's final scene is part of Johnny's act, or an autonomous epilogue?
ADAM: You could say epilogue. To me, it is its own thing. By that point in time, we are outside of Johnny's act, for sure. I don't want to give anything away, but that epilogue is about touching on a piece of how each character has grown, and is about to, of course, go off into adulthood taking what they've learned about who they are through the unique time they've spent with each other. And to me, that's what the epilogue is about.
DAVID: And as it's written, it definitely was intended to kind of be like "Johnny's act fades out, and then we are in a new place."
ADAM: Although at one point, I was like, "We need a fourth title!" You know, so much about making a film is a process of discovery, and the movie grows as you make it--in some ways that you anticipate, and in some ways that you don't. So that was one idea that ended up on the cutting room floor, that I'll take responsibility for.
Well, congratulations on the film, guys. And thank you both for your time.
ADAM: Thank you so much.
DAVID: Thank you, it was fun.