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Interviews With Our Filmmakers
E. Paul Edwards ~ Director, Writer
Original Interview: 5/22/03:
When were you first introduced to, or did you discover the slam poetry culture?
I was doing research for the story and I didn't know what the characters profession's would be. I was looking for something artistic for one of them. I thought they might be a musician. But it's been done too many times. I kept looking around and stumbled upon something in the newspaper about a poetry reading. That led me to go to clubs and hang out in coffee houses, and that's how I discovered it.
So, you already had the idea for the story and then you wanted to build on the characters?
At that point I had the story. I was at the point where I knew I wanted to do a love story, and I knew I wanted it to be a "Romeo & Juliet" story, and I knew I wanted to have something keeping them apart. I wanted the girl to be a straight, normal person, and I knew I wanted the guy to be artistic and that's what sent me looking.
What about that culture made you think, 'This is it, this is what I was looking for?'
A couple of things. Stand up poetry is just so exciting, and so simple, and raw, and direct. I was just attracted to it because you don't need a band, you don't need instruments, you don't need a computer, you don't need anything. You just stand up there and do it. It's simplicity--a direct line from your emotions to what you say. It's just a straight line. There's nothing in between. Also, that poetry I studied in school was just so boring and awful and out of date and anachronistic or, maybe, I just didn't get it. Watching people sitting around me stand up, walk to the stage and read their poetry made it all real. Plus it didn't rhyme and wasn't sing song but more like a rant. There it was in your face, and it was about today's moment.
So, you think this is a backdrop that people of a younger generation will really be drawn to?
Exactly. It is a part of them. But I didn't really realize it was going to take the form it did until I found out there were slam competitions...and they're wild and the performances can be over the top. Once I saw the competitions I said, "well, that always works on some level in films." That kind of sealed the deal. But even slams didn't exist, I probably would have still picked this arena…but then we wouldn't have had an ending to the movie (laughter).
Why did you feel that it was important for you to direct this film as well as go through the writing process?
I really wanted to capture the performance of spoken word. It's pure performance that can be missed on the written page. I realized when I finished writing the script that I had just written something with 23 pieces of poetry in it. The movie actually has more than 23 pieces. I just knew from day one that it wasn't commercially viable, but I thought that people at some point might plug-in to it because of the poetry. I thought they would become aware that it was this hip, cultural thing, but that never happened. It's just now that people are beginning to see its popularity. When I realized no one would fund the production, I decided to raise the money to do it and, after that struggle, there was no way anyone else was going to direct it.
Throughout the process of directing your first film, were there any awakening moments? Was it tough in the beginning?
I read several books about it and one of them was really telling. It's called "My First Movie." It's 10 different directors talking about directing their first movie, and these are famous people basically. They all seem to have similar experiences. The funny thing was 70% of them or something had never been on a movie set before they directed their first movie - any movie set. So, I figured I had a big jump on them. Then, I read another one called "Actors Turned Directors," which was about all these directors who had formerly been actors. That was real interesting, because it helped me figure out how to create an environment where the actors would do well. Those two books helped me.
Do you have any stories about your time on the set?
Well, the worst part was the casting. It went on until 1:00a.m. the night before I had to be on the set at 5:30am. Really. I had to leave the house at 4:30a.m., which means I had to get up at 3:30a.m. Basically, I was looking at two and a half hours sleep. And...I couldn't sleep. It was weird. I wasn't panicking or anything. My head was just full of thoughts. And I went down there and we got through the first day, and of course, we start at 5:30a.m., we stop at 5:30p.m. On my way home, on the 405 freeway, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I almost fell asleep in the car.
Oh my goodness!
I couldn't have gotten hurt. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic, but I was passing out just from lack of sleep. So that's kind of the weirdest thing, because it's really physically exhausting.
Casting was the worst, though. We didn't have a lot of money to pay people. People would think it was a good project, but they couldn't do it, or their agents didn't want them to do it, or their agents wouldn't show it to them. We had an instance where we were told that our actor had passed on the project, and we accidentally ran into the actor at a restaurant, so we asked him about it. We just talked to him about it and we said, "well, I'm sorry you passed on it. What was it about the script you didn't like?" We were hoping that we'd get a helpful critique. He said he'd never seen the script. So, we said we had submitted an offer to his agent in writing. And the next thing we know, the agent calls us back screaming at us. Apparently the actor had called her up and just reamed her, and now she's screaming at us. Then she said - this is like three or four days before we start - "well send me a copy of the script…you can't start this movie until I've read the script!" Dealing with the agents, you know…
And we were caught in a triple-witching situation. The movie started production on February 4th and the Christmas holiday hurt us, and then Sundance hurt us, because the agents are all out of town, and the actors are out of town. And then the third thing was pilot season. These three events right in a row conspired against us. But the cast is good from top to bottom, so I really have no complaints. It just made the whole process difficult.
But you got through it and you guys started, so…
Right it's just one of those things you have to work through, but if I had to do it again, I would do casting a different way. That's for sure.
Well, what was the best part of the experience?
When you do a low-budget movie, at least my thought process is that I'm going to have to do everything myself. That is that I'm going to have to shoot it, I'm going to have to light it, I'm going to have to act in it, I'm going to have to direct, I'm going have to do everything, and what happens is that all these people come help you and it just makes it all so easy. Bob Hayes, Bill Russell, Dennis Salcedo, the entire crew were very talented people and very experienced people, and they just did it. It was just so gratifying to be able to sit back and just be able to work with the actors and not have to worry about a lot other things that you'd have to deal with in a low-budget situation. And the film looks good so everybody did their job.
So, they took care of you?
Yeah, I felt completely taken care of.
So, what's in the future for "Fighting Words?"
We'll go to festivals and film markets and sell it.
Once it's picked up and it's going to be distributed, how do you think it's going to be marketed because it does seem like it would be for a young audience, but it is an interesting backdrop for the story with the slam poetry?
That's a good question. I think it appeals to both men and women but for completely different reasons. I think women really focus on the love story and I think men focus on the poetry competition aspects of it. Plus, I think guys identify with the lead character, and I think women are attracted to him so it kind of works both ways. The movie works on a variety of levels. I think it'll be marketed towards a college-age crowd, and an art-house crowd. I think the movie's going to require some thought. Let's put it that way. They're going to be looking for an audience that likes to think about what's going on in the world.
What are you most proud of with the film?
The thing I'm most proud of is the cast. From top to bottom, there are no weak links in the chain. They are all very good performers. That's the most important thing to me. That they all come across well, and I think they all did a good job. You know in 18 days, I mean, it's just…
I can't believe that that's all it took.
It's just a whipsaw. The thing about directing at this level is that it's so exhausting. You're working 12 hour days, and then for a couple hours after you looking at tapes, and winding down or something, looking at dailies. Then, it takes you an hour and a half, or two hours before to get up, and prepare for the day ahead by sketching blocking and stuff in a scene. You know, you're really working a 16-hour day. You're working 6 days in a row, with 1 day off. So, physically it's a lot more demanding than people think.
And those 18 days must have flown by.
They do and they don't. When you're in the middle of it, you're so focused on what you're doing that it alternates between a blur and time standing still and…it's like the days are long, but the weeks are short. You know what I mean? It's like the week is over and you're like, "what was that?" But during the time that you're there you're so focused and you're trying to take everything in and see everything, and you really don't have time to make mistakes so it's intense.
The other thing I like about the film is the use of real poets as transitional devices. It is a very innovative thing. I mean it's been done in some movies in different forms, like in Warren Beatty's "Reds," and Woody Allen movies have done it, but using it in this movie is very interesting and unique. After having said that, I realize that it is really just the Greek chorus, you know. Between scenes, the Greeks would come out and read poetry or sing. Nothing's new, but it feels fresh.
And it works really well with this film.
Yes. All the poets are there to lengthen and deepen emotions, which is real similar to the use of songs in musicals. They're always used when "words are not enough." They lengthen and deepen the emotion of the moment. You know, like "I Just Met a Girl Named Maria."
Also, about the transitional poets, you know, they weren't in the original script. They didn't exist. It was just the script. What I did was I auditioned all these poets. They were real poets. And we taped their work. Basically I told them come in with something to do with relationships, or a love story. So they came in and we shot a bunch of them, and selected 10. Then we shot the 10, and used the pieces in the story. I didn't want it scripted--it felt like it should almost be happenstance…random…well, I wanted to see what they came up with. I didn't have specific places for them in the film. They all sort of found their own place.
Any famous last words?
Most importantly, I hope it will help somebody - encourage them to sit down and write something...express their emotions. Maybe even read it in front of people instead of shooting up a school or jumping off a water tower.
I think it will do that.