While being forced to contend with harrowing, important life matters can be a troubling experience for many people, what often times makes it worse is when a sibling or other close family member has an opposing outlook on how to proceed. The situation can become harder when they’re forced to decide if their opinions or relationship with their close family member is more important to them. But if they have a resilient bond, and put in the effort to understand the other person’s point-of-view, they’ll finally be able to overcome their differences and reconnect.
That’s certainly the case with the two starkly conflicting brothers in the new independent comedy, ‘Awful Nice,’ which was directed, co-written, produced and stars filmmaker Todd Sklar. The film, which is currently available on VOD and select theaters, explores how two brothers, who were close growing up, have become estranged. They only find their way back to each other after a tragic family accident, which is actually a blessing in disguise, as it allows them to bond again
‘Awful Nice’ follows Jim (James Pumphrey), a crestfallen but admired college professor and author who searches for his dead-beat brother, Dave (Alex Rennie, who also co-wrote the script with Sklar), who he hasn’t seen in years. Jim finds his brother drunkenly passed out and living in a tent, and forces Dave to return home, as their father has unexpectedly died. After the funeral, during which the two continuously disagree, the brothers are forced to travel down to Branson, Missouri together to accept their inheritance-the lake house they used while growing up.
Upon arrive at the house, they discover their belongings in disarray, which leads them to believe people were squatting there. After speaking with their father’s business partner, Jon Charbineau (Christopher Meloni), Jim and Dave realize they must clean the house before they can sell it and receive their money. Dave convinces his brother they should work on repairing the house themselves, in order to bond again after their long separation. What follows is a series of costly mishaps and misadventures that help the brothers repair their strained relationship, including a drunken encounter with a local waitress, Petra (Keeley Hazell), who Dave is attracted to and persistently pursues. Despite the weariness of Jim’s wife and bosses that he plans on being away for so long, the two brothers learn how to reconnect with each other during what started as a forced reunion.
Sklar generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Awful Nice’ over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how making the comedy differed from his first film, ‘Box Elder,’ as the current film boosted a larger, more experienced crew than his first feature, and how the overall feel on the set behind the camera influences the actors’ work in front of the camera; how he didn’t have a set rehearsal period with the actors before they arrived on the set, so he would encourage them to improv while shooting to help make their performances feel more natural; and how he’s a fan of watching films in theaters, as it’s a way to escape daily life, but as a filmmaker, values the exposure VOD offers for smaller, independent films like this one.
Question (Q): ‘Awful Nice’ is the first feature film you both wrote and directed since your 2008 debut, ‘Box Elder.’ How do you feel you’ve grown as a filmmaker since that comedy was released? Were there any lessons you took from that movie that you applied to his film?
Todd Sklar (TS): That was a very interesting experience. When we made ‘Box Elder,’ we had five or six friends who didn’t really know what they were doing making the film. It was a great scenario of everyone going above and behind the call of duty, and beyond their experience, myself included. We tried to do something fun.
In a weird way with this one, we were working with more experienced people. We went into it with more experience. For some reason, very quickly-about three days into the shoot-we had to undo some things and get back to the more free-spirited style of production. I don’t know if it’s because it was a comedy thing, or because it was a small movie, but the moment it turns into a 40 person crew, and were getting people who were doing this as a job, as opposed to a thing they were passionate about, it loses a certain thing.
I’m a big believer that what’s going on behind the camera influences what’s going on in front of it, for better or for worse. We had to get back to the basics a little bit after the first week, and make it more of a family feel. That way we could get better stuff out of everybody.
For me, you want to make the actors as comfortable and free as possible, especially when you’re doing lots of improv. You don’t want them to feel like this is a job, either. You want them to feel comfortable and free.
Q: Speaking of improvising, did you allow the actors to improv at all while you were shooting, to make the relationships more natural? Did you also have a rehearsal period with them before you began shooting to build their bonds?
TS: We didn’t have much of a rehearsal period. It was one of those things where we would get to the set, and the crew would be setting everything up. Then I would take the actors for about an hour to work on stuff.
But there was a lot during the shooting. I like to let them find the scene, and then keep shooting. I think that’s one of the things of being able to shoot visually; you roll the tapes, and let them do whatever. I’m the type of person who will do eight or nine takes, even though we got it on the first or second one. I don’t think there’s a time where we don’t have what we need by the third take, and I didn’t do at least five more. That way people can build on it. If it’s good on take three, it’s probably going to get better if you keep going, and don’t rush people.
How much of each take makes it into the movie is harder to tell. But at the end of the day, even if one of those extra takes makes it into the movie, that’s one thing you wouldn’t have had if you didn’t do it. So I think it’s always worth doing.
Q: ‘Awful Nice’ is a feature film adaptation of your award-winning short, ”92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card,’ which you co-wrote with Alex Rennie, who also starred in both films. What was the transition process like, going from shooting the short to the feature?
TS: It was interesting, creative process. When we were about to start shooting the feature, we had our two main actors and the camera guy, but our main producer had to drop out of the feature. Instead of hiring a local sound guy, we decided we were just going to start shooting for a few days, just in case we couldn’t get another producer, and the movie fell apart. That’s how it ultimately became the short.
Then we started putting the full production together about a week-and-a-half later, so that we could start shooting the feature. It was an interesting process, because we had about six months of prep for the two-day short film, and then a week-and-a-half prep for the feature right after. (laughs)
Q: ‘Awful Nice’ was shot independently on location in Branson, Missouri. What was the experience of filming where the story is set, particularly on a lower budget?
TS: It was interesting. The city itself couldn’t be more open and helpful. The people were willing to do whatever was necessary to make the movie.
But we were also in the middle of nowhere. There was no real airport near there, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff you would need to make a movie, which made it difficult at times. It was one of those things that had a lot of negatives, but also a lot of positives that outweighed them. But overall, it was a great experience.
I think the setting of Branson on its own is so valuable. We always wanted to make sure the location was an essential character to the film.
Our goal in this was to have contact between these two people who are really kind of miserable, and were emotionally vulnerable. But they’re in a place where they’re surrounded by the happiest and sincerely most jubilant people, who are mostly elderly, mature and well-reasoned. Then they had these two people, who were so immature and out of order, come in, and the contrast worked really well. That was always the intention.
Q: You served as a producer on ‘Awful Nice.’ Why did you decide to produce the comedy, and did it influence the way you directed the film at all?
TS: Oh, it did very much influence the directing of the movie, and I would say it did almost whole-heartedly in a negative way. The reason why I decided to produce the movie as well was entirely out of necessity. I don’t think I’m good at producing, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it.
But we had an unfortunate circumstance. The main person who was supposed to produce the movie left the film about three days before we were going to start shooting it, like I mentioned earlier. He had to go to a much larger film he was working on that ended up getting green-lit. It left us in a bind, because we were already in Branson, and we were stuck with a very tight schedule that we couldn’t push that much. I obviously couldn’t get anyone on less than two weeks’ notice to come down to Branson to shoot a movie.
What we ended up having to do was get friends to come, who I thought maybe could do a little producing, and they did as best of a job as they could. Then outside of that, I had to step in and do a lot of it myself. Obviously that’s never the way you want to go into that, and it’s never the best way to do it, but if you have to do it, you have to do it.
Q: The movie is currently playing on VOD and in select theaters. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand? Why do you think the platform is important for smaller films like ‘Awful Nice?’
TS: Oh yes, I have to be totally honest. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of it, as far as my viewing habits go. But as a filmmaker, I think it’s one of the greatest things in the world for independent movies, as well as regular films. At the end of the day, I think it should be like any other film, in that it should be made as available as possible, in as many ways as possible, to anyone who’s interested in getting it.
I don’t believe in release windows. I would love it if films were available in any possible way that you can buy it or watch it at any moment. VOD is the greatest thing in the world for filmmakers.
But personally, I mostly go to the theater. But that has to do less with the romantic idea of filmmakers that you have to see the movie in theaters. It’s more that when I’m watching the movie, I can escape my daily life, if you will. You can’t really get that if you’re watching it at home on your computer in your room or office. For me, the theater is still the best way to see a movie.
But there are other people who are able to escape their daily lives in their living room. If someone was watching this movie in seven-minute increments on a bus, on their way to work, that’s awesome, too. It’s one of those things that I think should be made as available as possible for anyone who may want to watch it.
Q: ‘Awful Nice’ debuted at last year’s SXSW, and has played at several other festivals, including the Philadelphia Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. What was your reaction when you found out the movie was being accepted into all the festivals, particularly at SXSW? How have audiences at the festivals reacted to the comedy?
TS: That was a dream come true. Obviously, it’s one of the best, and most prestigious, festivals in the world. I know that Janet Pierson (who’s responsible for the vision, programming and execution of SXSW) is someone who’s a huge influence on the film world in general, and is someone we look up to. To have her really get behind the film has meant a lot on a personal level.
I hope audiences can watch the film and laugh. That’s the nice thing about seeing a movie in the theater, as you get the audience momentum behind it. That’s always the best thing for a comedy. We haven’t had a bad screening; people have been insanely behind it. It’s a fantasy, and has been incredible.