Every wedding invariably becomes a train wreck, and every long awaited reunion of high school friends ends up with people vomiting out all the nastiness they’ve held in for years. SPEAK NOW brings together the worst of everyone at their worst – frenemies, unrequited love, sibling rivalries, secrets, lies, and sexual tension – all for the happiest day of one couple’s life. It’s twelve hours of absolute disaster – full of laughter, joy, bitterness, conflict and chaos and one of the most effortless dramas I’ve seen in a long time. That is to say, it is unbelievable how much story is packed into under 80 minutes, how distinct the characters and relationships are, and how much of an emotional roller coaster the film takes the viewer on. And that’s not even the most impressive thing about the film – it was shot entirely in three days and dialogue was entirely improvised. I had a chance to speak to director Noah Harald on the eve of the film’s VOD/Streaming release about the making of this really gutsy film.
SPEAK NOW has its roots in an improvisation exercise created by writer Erin Cardillo, Executive Director and Senior Instructor for Warner Loughlin Studios, which Harald tells me is imagination based. The students were instructed to go home with these characters and create a life for them, bring them back in the class and she would set them up into different scenarios. Rosie Mattia, who plays Anna (the bride) in SPEAK NOW invited Harald, her husband to audit the class and film the scenes. “After sitting there for two hours and watching all of these actors just kill it,” Harald says, “I felt like I had watched a movie.” At drinks that night, Harald suggested they make a movie out of it “as one does in LA … and everyone was like ‘yeah, totally’ and I was like ‘no, really, how do we turn it into one.’” For Harald it was rare “to see so many actors who are all so talented.” All of the actors for the original improv exercise ended up in the film, as well as a few others who had come into class after the initial decision. With the characters already developed, as well as the reason for bringing them together, the next step was to work out the bones of the story’s structure. “The scenes influenced our arc of the film, but most of the scenes were scenes that took place before the ceremony,” Harald says, “but we just felt like if it was a film about ‘are they or aren’t they going to get married’ … it really didn’t offer a lot of interesting possibilities to explore.” So everything from the class wound up creating the first act, and the final 2/3rds of the movie was all new, undeveloped interaction.
‘Writing’ an improvised film is a very different process, and different really for each film. “We were very meticulous as far as where we wanted the characters to go, which characters we wanted to see together, and scene by scene we had written down which characters were in what room and what they were talking about,” Harald says. “For continuity’s sake, we had to have an ‘out’ for each scene, we can’t just ramble on and cut off in the middle of the improv, so Erin wrote what the last line of the scene should be.” While filming and watching the improv, Harald would just see where they went – because each actor only had their version of the scene and not necessarily all the information, the most interesting stuff was often unplanned and scenes shifted in surprising ways. If it never made it to the ‘planned out’ for the scene, the second take would be used to guide it a little more toward what was written. According to Harald, the average number of takes for each scene was “two, twelve minute improv scenes,” each covered by two Red Epic cameras to capture each actor simultaneously.
Shooting an improvised movie, one in which each scene is a separate unknown, has to be very planned out from a technical standpoint. “Dave [McGrory, cinematographer] and I actually walked out the house scene by scene and did a diagram and lighting chart with actors, a blocking chart,” says Harald, deciding ahead of time “here’s where we want them to start and here’s the area they can move around in and that’s the only blocking that happened. They would know they have this whole little playground they could move around in … and the camera operators knew that’s the area you’re filming.” Harald compliments the 1st ACs because they never blew a take for focus. He says after filming one day he was having a conversation with one of them “and I was like walking around the room and he was like ‘you know it’s funny, as you get further and closer to me, I’m literally like telling myself how far away you are – oh, he’s five feet four inches, five feet five inches’ … cause there were no focus marks, no blocking marks for actors.”
Harald and his crew shot three days, 11 scenes a day, an hour on each scene, with one day ahead of time for pre-lighting and set-dressing. As he and Erin would talk over a scene with the actors, Dave would do lighting tweaks. They shot a 12 minute take, talked for five minutes with the actors, shot another 12 minute take, picked up any last minute things they needed, and then moved on to the next thing. I have to stop him here and ask “Did anyone tell you while you were planning this, thinking about how you were going to do it, did anyone tell you that you were fucking insane?” He says yeah, everyone, but he knew working like this would force them to be “constantly in the momentum of this living breathing thing, we can capture it on the fly and find something really beautiful and interesting out of that.”
Added to the complexity, the film takes places essentially over one day and the actors were not privy to the events of the film that their characters didn’t know about, or that hadn’t happened yet, so the film had to be shot in order. That meant day one of shooting was all day, day two was some day and a little dusk, day three was a little dusk and all night. The final scene of the movie was shot at 6 am in a car and it was supposed to be at night and Harald says “we had to put a 12x black solid over the car to block out the sunlight.”
Once the film was shot, it went into a long editing process, which actually had to be a bit easier than many other films having countless takes to compare. But of course that meant if something wasn’t working, there was very little that could be done to fix it. It seemed like pickups would be inevitable. What saved the film, actually, according to Harald, was the planned opening montage, a wedding video of well-wishes shot by producer Ben Friedberg and 2nd unit director Asher Brown. “Asher, being so inspired by what the actors were doing, when it was his time to get that from everyone, actually interviewed the actors in character,” says Harald, “and that wasn’t something I asked for. When we started laying out the movie and I was like wow, this person’s relationship to this person doesn’t really make sense – we’re spending like two minutes of exposition introducing who this person is – and Erin and I went back and watched the footage of the interviews and it was suddenly like all these pieces fell into place, and so intercutting all of that into the opening of the film really saved our ass.”
What really makes the improvisational nature of SPEAK NOW amazing though is you barely even notice it. This is not a Christopher Guerst mockumentary where quirky characters try out a bunch of one-liners and the best one is what ends up in the film. This is really just a great drama. The first time I saw Speak Now, and loved it, I didn’t even know the backstory. When I read about the film, I doubled-checked it was same film because I simply didn’t believe it. But what Harald and writer Erin Cardillo have made here is something really unique and great example of a truly independent film with a cast of unknowns shot at a cut-rate price, but holding to the most important element of filmmaking, a great story. Hopefully it inspires other filmmakers to ‘just go shoot it.’
If you are reading this thinking, ‘hey! I can shoot a feature in three days with improv actors,’ Harald has this advice to offer: “have a team that you have worked with before.” Having a sort of unspoken understanding with the DP is what made him be able to complete the film (incidentally, the one person who didn’t think his plan was insance was his DP). “Build the film out beforehand,” he continues, “we did so much prep on this movie to get ready. We talked about the look of it, we looked at different lens, different cameras, we did the floorplans I told you about. If you only have an hour to shoot a scene, you can’t get on set and then figure out where you want the actors to be.” Finally, “having a kick ass 1st AD is essential. The 1st AD had to know who was in the next scene, who was on deck, who was like deep on deck … and have everyone wrangled and ready. When we finished a scene, we wanted to come up with the crew and be there at the same time as the actors.” And of course conveying your goals and plan to the whole cast and crew, so they buy in. “If anyone had showed up expecting this to be a normal movie set, it would have been very unnerving,” he says. Would he do it again? “Yeah, not in this amount of time. I would love to do a film like this again with just a little more time, a little more resource,” Harald says, “but ultimately I found it a really creatively fulfilling experience.”