Short film 'Open Mic Night' premieres at Liberty Hall with live local music
"Open Mic Night," a terrific 35-minute short film filled with great music and performances from local Lawrence musicians, is having its premiere Saturday, Dec. 29, at Liberty Hall at 9:30 p.m. After the screening, local acts Laurel Woodhouse, Hospital Ships, and Fourth of July will play live. Tickets are $5 at the door.
KU film graduate Matthew Toplikar wrote and directed the short, and I caught up with him to chat about his creative inspiration, shooting in Lawrence, and the local music scene in general.
Eric Melin: How did you come up with the general idea for "Open-Mic Night"?
Matthew Toplikar: The story kinda developed as I was writing it, and is filled with real things that have happened to me. For instance, when I used to live in Lawrence there was a guy who I was continually being mistaken for. Someone once told me he worked at Pizza Shuttle. Anyway, the whole mistaken identity thing went from being a little funny, to turning kind of annoying, and eventually became absolutely absurd in a few instances. When it comes to story mechanics, what really drives the plot along is the idea of a guy bar-hopping in order to track down a girl. This is very familiar territory for me personally, and how I spent a decent amount of my early 20s.
Really, though, the story kind of came secondary. One of the main reasons I even started writing the script was that I was pretty homesick for the Lawrence music scene, and a friend of mine in Albuquerque was trying to write a pilot for a TV show involving a band. He was working really hard at it, but it just wasn't coming together how he wanted it to, and was having some authenticity problems. During one of our conversations I told him he needed to find a band — an actual low-level band that he liked and then work the story and the characters off of the actual people. I would send him YouTube videos of bands from Lawrence, but he wasn't completely convinced that a group of musicians would be able to act. Somewhere in that process I developed this desire to do some kind of cinematic showcase of Lawrence musicians. An open-mic night seemed like a good device to do it, and I had never really seen an open-mic show done in a movie (at least not the way I felt about them).
Eric: The film has a very professional, handheld look, interspersed nicely with Steadicam. The lighting is especially good. How did you deal with budget and time constraints without sacrificing your aesthetic?
Matthew: I'm glad you think so. There are really a lot of reasons it turned out looking great and they all pretty much have to do with the crew. I was extremely lucky to have a director of photography (Dennis Muscari) that is very smart and very fast at lighting a scene. None of us had worked with Kurtis Myers (the gaffer/key grip) before, but it became very clear very fast that we hit the jackpot with him. What those guys did is really amazing to me, because I was deathly afraid of stumbling into the look so many low-budget or short movies have. Often times you see these films at film festivals and there's just this look that screams student film, or amateur in some way. It usually has to do with over-lighting things too much and the shots becoming cartoonish or just too unnatural. That being said, if we had a little more money for equipment and personnel, it would have probably made their job a lot easier. They really worked their asses off, and you have to remember that we shot this in late July/early August (100+ degree weather) and we had to turn off the air conditioning in the bars in order to get clean sound.
Dennis, J., Dominic and Joey Liew (one of the film's producers) have all worked together a bunch and are well known in Albuquerque for producing some very impressive films for various 48-hour film competitions. I've worked as crew on a few of these projects and I was always amazed by how fast they could all work. Between them, they have some serious movie-making equipment, which saved us thousands of dollars in rental fees.
Eric: The feel is very realistic, but the fact that the main character has a doppelganger (and the melancholy vibe of the tunes) give it a fantastical touch as well. Was that intentional?
Matthew: It's funny, I definitely agree that both of those things are going on, but I wasn't consciously thinking about the fantastical or realistic elements in those terms exactly. It's easy to internalize mood, style and taste to a point that you don't even think about or realize some of the choices you're making — they just come naturally. I admit I'm really drawn to films that have elements of realism and surrealism mixed together. I'm a huge Coen Brothers fan, a huge Spike Jonze fan, and a huge Hal Ashby fan. I definitely wanted the film to have an authentic feel to it, but I never felt like we were going for realism exactly. There's something sort of surreal about being at an open-mic night. You've usually been drinking, and there is almost always an odd juxtaposition of horrible, talentless embarrassment right next to a sublime, heart-wrenching insight or honesty. Also, I have to say that in my limited experience playing music in front of people, performing in front of a crowd has often felt very dreamlike.
Eric: How did you put together your crew and what was your budget and shooting schedule?
Matthew: The crew is a mix of friends and co-workers from Albuquerque, friends and family from the Lawrence/Kansas City area, and a few folks recommended to me by some Lawrence filmmakers that I went to college with. There were a few positions that were really hard to find good people for (especially since we didn't have any money to pay anyone). Luckily, I have some really good friends, and a few really nice people dedicated their time to a stranger.
Our budget was $4,000, which was mostly spent on travel expenses — food for cast, crew, and extras — and rental fees for some equipment.
We shot the film in six days, but I spent about six months (on and off) prepping it with my producers (Alan Weil and Joey Liew) and first assistant director (Lynn Ambrosino). Alan and I hashed out the storyboards while I was in Lawrence over last Christmas. From there we knew that I'd have a few months in the summer to try and work a shooting schedule into, so we had a lot of time for casting, planning, music selection, emailing bars, and finding the crew.
Eric: How important was is to set "Open-Mic Night" in the real-life bars of Lawrence? How accommodating were they?
Matthew: I honestly couldn't dream of shooting it anywhere else. At one point, it looked like we might not be able to use one of the bars due to scheduling problems, but I just wasn't having it. We changed the schedule and spent some extra money and we made it happen. They were all very accommodating though — for instance, Eric Berman at The Jackpot Saloon was willing to shut down the entire bar from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. for us. I was really amazed by his generosity, especially given the fact that we'd never met before and were basically only communicating over email due to the fact that I live in Albuquerque.
Eric: You've got a lot of notable local musicians in this short, which means you've got lots of quality music to choose from. How did they stack up as actors?
Matthew: Honestly I couldn't be more pleased. The main character is played by Brendan Hangauer of the band Fourth of July, and he does a really, really great job in my opinion. The role was written with him in mind. About a month before we started shooting, Brendan called me and told me he had broken his wrist and might not be able to play guitar. There was some talk of trying to get someone else to play the part, but I just couldn't do it. We talked about rewriting the script. We talked about using hand doubles. I'm really glad we didn't have to do either. Somehow... miraculously, his cast came off a few days before we started shooting and he was willing to push himself through some pain and play some amazing music for us.
Really this movie would not be half as good without Brendan. I wrote the part to him, but I really encouraged him to make the lines his own, and some of my favorite parts in the movie are things he improvised or re-worked in rehearsal. I only wish I could have fit more musicians in some how. I keep thinking I'd like to see Danny Pound or Chris Crisci in a movie. You too, Eric!
Eric: Did you have any professional actors? How did you coax the non-actors out of their comfort zone?
Matthew: If there's something I'm most proud about in this film, it's the casting. Almost the entire cast had little-to-no acting experience, but I had a very strong feeling that with just a little nudge here and there our non-actor cast would put some really good stuff on the screen. The few exceptions — actual actors — were Kate O'Neill (who plays Kate Redding in the movie), Alex Gianopoulos (who plays the comedian at the Jackpot), and Brent McCall, who plays the bar patron who orders a horsefeather at the Jackpot. I first saw Kate in a play at KU and was blown away at how good she was. For years I've wanted to do another project with her, but it just hadn't happened yet. I knew she played the accordion, so I pretty much wrote the role just for her.
The comfort zone issue was something I took very seriously. Almost all of the cast in this film are people that I've known for years and really care about. I wasn't about to let them get into a situation where they were going to embarrass themselves or feel unprepared. The week before we started shooting we did rehearsals just about every day. This was really essential in getting everyone comfortable with the lines and with each other.
Another thing that was really important was making sure people were having fun on set. Going into this, I tried to make it very clear to the film's producers and assistant directors that the atmosphere on set needed to be fun — even if [stuff] was hitting the fan. My small bit of experience in acting is that you tend to be a better actor if you feel comfortable and creatively involved. Acting is one of those things like playing music or sports, or drawing — it's all about getting in the zone, and part of that is forgetting your inhibitions and having real fun with it.
Eric: Were the hilarious bad open-mic acts in the script or mostly improvised by the performers?
Matthew: A bit of both. I had both of them come up with their own character names, and gave them each a general idea of some of the broader aspects of the character. The bad poetry was largely based on some horrible poetry that I had held onto from a classmate in one of my poetry classes in college. The entire beat-boxing performance and dialogue was completely improvised by Shaher Ibrahimi. There's actually a lot more (3 to 4 minutes) of it that I had to cut out just so the pacing of the movie kept on track, but I hated cutting it — it was pretty much all genius. We had the room filled with about 30 people at that point and we were all trying to hold back our laughter. I almost ruined a few takes.
Eric: You nailed the alternately self-deprecating/self-important attitude of most of the local musicians I know. (I'm including myself, so know that's not an insult!) There are some subtle comments (and maybe some jabs) on the local music/arts scene in Lawrence. Where in the life-cycle do think it stands right now?
Matthew: Honestly, I'm not really sure about the life-cycle. I moved away from Lawrence about five years ago, so I can't say that I'm very hip to everything that's going on in the scene now. I do remember when I lived there that I wished there were more people who were into songwriters as much as I was.
When it comes to the attitudes of artists and musicians, I definitely feel pretty comfortable with the subject matter. I grew up in Lawrence, so for me it seems perfectly natural for people to have strong opinions about all the different kinds of artistic endeavors. I've always been drawn to people who have something to say about art, music, writing, and film — even if I don't agree with them. You have to have a strong understanding of what you like to be an artist of any stripe. It just kind of comes with the territory.
Eric: You graduated from Lawrence in 2005 with a film degree. How did you end up in Albuquerque, and what have you done since then, film-wise?
Matthew: My Albuquerque story is kind of a long one, but I'll try to keep it short. I had been working as a video producer for a news corporation in Las Vegas, Nevada, and ended up being sent to Albuquerque while I was doing a series of stories on the changing politics, economics, and culture of the southwest. While I was there, I also did a story on how the 25% tax rebate Film Incentive Program in New Mexico was affecting the local economy. At the time, I really wanted to not be living in Las Vegas anymore, and I could see the news industry dying right in front of me — it was really hard to watch. I found out from a friend in Lawrence that his mother was the Albuquerque Film Liaison, so I went down and met with her, and she introduced me to the first few people who hired me.
In Albuquerque, I've worked in Locations on various TV shows and low-budget movies. Locations is the department of a film or TV show that scouts out the different off-stage sets, then sets up the contracts, film permits, road-closures, parking, and other logistics that are needed when not filming at a studio.
Eric: What's next, film-wise?
Matthew: I honestly don't know. I have a few ideas rolling around in my head, but I haven't put pen to paper in a while. I'd like to get "Open-Mic Night" in a few festivals around the country and do a little traveling with it. The Albuquerque crew really liked some of the musicians they saw while they were here. We've talked about trying to get one of the Lawrence bands down to Albuquerque to do a music video if everyone's schedule syncs up.