By Matthew Sorrento.
Of all the writers busy in print and onscreen, it’s great to see Nick Antosca having made a place for himself. With a sizable talent from the start, he began publishing fiction – novels and stories – upon finishing undergraduate work. His early speculative works, like the stories “Amphibian” and “Mammals,” depict a rumbling creative energy, reminiscent of Harlan Ellison’s best tales, in which attention to mood is as important as the reflexive narrative. It was a treat to see Midnight Picnic, Antosca’s 2009 novella (a Shirley Jackson Award winner, which I had the pleasure of reviewing), maintain such a tone along with its grim realism. I sensed that Antosca had cinematic tastes and aims, and hence with little surprise I saw him begin to write for film and television, recently joining the staff of Hannibal for its third season.
Antosca has adapted his story “The Girlfriend Game” into a tense short film worthy of its source (the title piece in his 2013 collection). Filmmaker Armen Antranikian realizes the script as a modern parable with vivid tones – i.e., the colors of a nightclub, a 20-something’s apartment, and a centerpiece swimming pool are hardly familiar and remain in memory. While belonging in the environs, the characters effectively seem more alien there as the scenes progress.
Antosca and Antranikian took time out to discuss their new film, other creative work, and where their collaboration will lead to next.
Nick, why did this type of story interest you when writing the original form (and then, the script)?
Nick Antosca (NA): I thought the premise was sexy and funny and surprising and tense at the same time. You’re lucky to get that many flavors in one dish. I don’t really know what type of story the story is. Troubled characters in an extremely specific situation. Already you’re off on the right foot.
Armen, what drew you to Nick’s short story version? Can you discuss the evolution of the idea into a script then a film?
Armen Antranikian (AA): When I read the short story for the first time, I knew instantly that I wanted to make a film out of it. I fell in love with the concept – how elegantly the story builds to the climax, and how it takes a simple idea to an extreme. While the story felt self-contained, it also addressed many of the themes that I’ve been interested in for a while, but hadn’t had a chance to explore yet.
One of the challenges we were facing is that the short story is set in New York, and it had to be translated to Los Angeles, which we soon came to realize actually elevated the story. There’s something inherently cinematic about losing touch with someone in a sprawling city like Los Angeles, and pinning a dreamlike story against the Hollywood Hills, a place that always felt enigmatic and haunted to me.
How did the two of you collaborate on the script?
NA: We were introduced by Sophie Kargman, the actress who plays Dani. I had already written the first draft of the script. Then it evolved a lot after Armen came on board. Armen would give me specific notes and suggest different ways to try things, and I’d try them. It kept evolving bit by bit. It was very efficient.
AA: It felt very liberating collaborating with Nick on the script, since he obviously has a deep understanding of the story and the characters, and I could fully trust his choices. My role as a director became much more about elevating the story through visuals and sound, and focusing on the execution of it.
Nick, did you have any presence in the filming?
NA: Once production started, I was there watching them shoot for a couple of the days, but I wasn’t doing anything more than watch. Armen and I got all our work out of the way beforehand, in prep, on the script.
For a young writer, you’ve had considerable success – several novels, a story collection, and some screenwriting credits. I am curious about the experience of doing your feature script, The Cottage.
NA: I wasn’t really involved in that, to be honest. It was an education. I wrote this low-budget horror script that I was going to direct, but I quit the movie before we started. I wasn’t happy with where it was going and I wanted to go write TV instead. The movie that eventually got made is not recognizable to me.
And by the way, the problems with it are not the fault of the director (Chris Jaymes) who was hired to replace me. I really liked him. All the elements and budgetary constraints and production obstacles were already in place when he came on at the last minute and he just had to deal with it.
It’s great to hear about you directing someday….
NA: If I were fortunate enough to get a show on the air for a while, I’d probably want to direct episodes, eventually. But I’m much more focused on writing. I like telling stories and building worlds.
Nick, I know that you work teleplays now. Can you discuss how that type of writing has influenced you as a writer overall?
NA: Writing for TV has made me a better storyteller. It’s made me more merciless in terms of story momentum and asking why-do-I-give-a-shit-about-this about every scene. It helps with short fiction writing. Or maybe it’s narrowed my focus. I can’t read stories that feel like vignettes anymore.
Nick, I know you are a film buff – do you think of yourself as an especially cinematic writer? The best descriptions in your fiction – for example, in your novel Midnight Picnic – are cinematic.
I do now! Weirdly, my fiction used to be strongly influenced by more “cinematic” cinema – the visual storytelling in films like Apocalypse Now and Lynch. But now dramatic TV storytelling probably influences me more.
Armen, how does The Girlfriend Game relate to your other work? Is it the kind of story you have been wanting to make into a film?
AA: I’ve always been drawn to stories about modern relationships, and had made a couple of shorts in that realm, but never fully tapped into the dark side of it all. This project became an opportunity to explore themes like jealousy and obsession further, and show a different side of me.
Can you tell me about casting the two leads? Sarah Roemer was an interesting choice.
AA: When it came to casting Ben, the protagonist of the film, we didn’t have to look far. Sophie at the time was dating Jeff Ward, who fit the role perfectly. Their off-screen relationship added a weird realism, but also a heightened tension to the process. The rest of the cast, including Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist), Sarah Roemer (Disturbia), Spencer Treat Clark (Mystic River), are all friends of theirs.
How interested are you in communications and social media, how it reflects behavior and shapes narrative? I know Facebook and texting have a strong role in the film and story version. Or, are these elements just reflecting the nature of life for, say, millennials?
NA: I just treat it matter-of-factly. It’s integral to daily life. I check Facebook more than most fictional characters do. Fiction for adults hasn’t really caught up with how much social media we have in our lives (although young-adult fiction has, I think).
Nick, were these elements of technology always prominent when writing your story/script?
NA: Yes, it just felt more real and sexy and unsexy at the same time. If it took place in the present and he wasn’t texting her, it would feel false.
Armen, I know you have made a short about Kubrick, and that Nick is a fan. This story reminds me a lot of Eyes Wide Shut. Can you comment on this?
AA: I’m glad you’re seeing a connection to Eyes Wide Shut. It’s probably my favorite Kubrick film, and the one I’ve obsessed most over. I think it’s one of the few films that explore the twisted nature of modern relationships in a truly cinematic way.
NA: Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t a conscious influence on the story, but I love that movie! I read the Arthur Schnitzler book a long time ago, but it wasn’t in my head while I was writing.
Nick, does a short like this ever tempt you to take the idea into novel form, or a feature script?
NA: It tempts me to do something in a similar vein, with Armen. We’re developing the feature, which inhabits the same world as The Girlfriend Game, but with a horror element. Voyeurism, jealousy, a twisted love triangle built around a stranger. But the feature gets more disturbing. The feature gets a little red and wet.
Would you say this film presents a bleak vision for 20-somethings? Is technology, or an open dating scene, to blame?
NA: No. The Girlfriend Game is a happy film about two people learning together about what works for them as a couple.
AA: I like Nick’s optimism here! I always looked at the story as a way of elevating what I believe is true to many romantic relationships, that intimacy somehow stems from hurting one another.
Nick, would you say your goal is to bring literary fiction like this to film, perhaps edgy lit fiction? It appears that a lot of your television work is genre-based.
NA: I wouldn’t say that’s my main or only goal, but I would definitely like to do that. I’d like to see my novella Midnight Picnic as a film. I’m not on a crusade to bring literary fiction to cinema, though. I don’t even know what literary fiction means at this point – it actually has a slightly bad connotation to me. It makes me think of plotless books about characters who strongly resemble the average mid-level employee at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or wherever. I like pulpy fiction with lots of story and sex and violence and character – and by “character” I mean the character does things and makes hard choices, not the character goes about the day fretting, etc.
Armen, do you see yourself as a journeyman who’d like to do docs as well as narratives? Or, does The Girlfriend Game offer a direction you’d like to go in?
AA: I’m glad to have made a short film like The Girlfriend Game, as it represented the kind of direction I want to go in. There’s much more to explore, and while making the film, I could feel like were just scratching the surface of something bigger.
In regards to documentaries, I love watching them, and I’ve noticed that they’re becoming increasingly cinematic. I’d be curious to explore the format at some point, but don’t have any concrete plans at this point.
Hopefully we’ll be able to talk about (the story I’m currently collaborating on with Nick) in more detail soon. I’m also working on another short film, as a way to explore some of the ideas we have for the feature film further.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).