Interview with Matthew Kowalchuk and Daniel Arnold
Lawrence & Hollowman is a great dark comedy about how a suicidal accountant and a happy go lucky salesman see their lives intertwine with horrible and hilarious results. Recently, I had the chance to talk to actor Daniel Arnold and director Matthew Kowalchuk (both of whom also co-wrote the script) about the movie, the challenges of a small film and the life in showbiz.
So how long have you two known each other?
Daniel: Well, we know each other pretty intimately although not THAT intimately. [Laughs] Matt cast me in a play in 1999 so that’s… well, 15 years. He moved to Vancouver shortly after that and I ended up moving there as well in about 2005, so we had about a five year hiatus. I saw a play he was doing and I got in touch with him and said ‘hey, we should do some stuff together’ and that’s when we made our first short film together called Janitors. Then we started playing tennis together and here we are!
Matthew: Although it should be noted that we haven’t played tennis in about three years…
Daniel: Yes, since we started making Lawrence & Hollowman the tennis has really dropped off.
You both wrote this movie together but I was wondering, Daniel, if during the writing you knew you were going to play Hollowman and if so, did it make writing the part more difficult?
Daniel: In the early going we had no idea what was going to transpire in terms of the roles and actually in terms of the directing. There was a time where we thought about letting the movie go and just be the writers, but when we talked about it, Matt really wanted to direct it as his first feature film and I wanted to act in it. Then it just became of matter of which role and when the chemistry popped up with Ben Cotton as Lawrence it just made sense for me to play Hollowman. Besides, in film and TV I’m often the nerd/geek so it was a good fit.
Matthew: In the end it just felt natural. It was never a really hard decicsion to make, it just made the most sense.
Daniel: When Matt was casting the role he wasn’t just looking for certain types but more a certain perspective. Actually at one point, in the weird art version of the film, we considered me playing both roles. We wanted to make the point that it wasn’t necessarily about your looks or genes but more about your perception of the world.
Matthew, what are the challenges directing a movie like this with such a mix of dark and comedic material?
Matthew: The first hurdle was facing all the challenges that any first time feature director would have. [Laughs] In terms of the material, I don’t look at the dark or comedic elements but focus more on the characters and the story. Because we developed it, we knew it would be marketed as a dark comedy but I think you have to let go of that and just be true to the story, the characters and the world they live in.
The biggest challenge for me was creating a world for these characters that was distinctly their own. I was a massive thing to take on to work the budget, organize the days and work with people I hadn’t before which is always different, and then not really, truly knowing if we were going to accomplish our goal as I hadn’t done it before.
I’ve worked in theatre for years and worked with lots of actors, but learning the ropes of film, the stamina of it and all the technical stuff was really, truly hard. One of the things that did help was, when Daniel and I are writing we act out the parts as well and when it came time to put it to film, ninety-nine percent of what we hashed out ended up in the finished product.
There are many moments in the film that while outlandish, are funny because these things could actually happen. Is it tough to walk that line between outlandish and believable, as both an actor and director?
Matthew: It is. I think it is important that you realize there are moments where this is just a movie. I mean, when something outlandish happens in the film you want the audience to be able to say ‘Yeah, I know this is a comedy and you’ve got me already so I will suspend my disbelief’ and then it’s easier for them to suspend what they believe is reality for a few laughs.
It can be tricky walking that line but I get a lot of help. I do my bit and shoot the scenes but then in the editing room I get feedback, then friends, producers and the test audiences, all of whom help determine whether certain lines are good or whether we pushed a scene too far.
Daniel: What I discovered was that we were creating a slightly larger than life world. We knew we wanted to be true to our characters but the characters themselves were pushed to an extreme. Ben Cotton and I rehearsed with Matt for about a month before we started to film so when it came time to go in front of the camera we already had a sense, or felt the tone of our characters.
Matthew: I think with any comedy, and maybe more so with a dark comedy, it’s about finding the truth in those darker moments, the comic moments and if you find those you can buy yourself those other moments of absurdity in the film. When you are writing and rehearsing some scenes you think ‘is an audience really going to buy into this?’ but then you have to pull no punches and say we are just going to do it. We were lucky that we had two actors with great chemistry that just bought into it and took off with the material.
Daniel, was there a lot of improv between you and Ben Cotton?
Daniel: It’s funny, we’ve been asked that before and… well, no. [Laughs] The play that was written by Morris Paynch…we owe so much to him for creating the characters, the dialogue and settings and in fact some of the dialogue is taken word for word from the play. Morris knows the theatre and its language like the back of his hand and we didn’t see the need to stray from the actual dialogue too often.
Matthew: To be fair, when we were shooting it if things went a little differently I didn’t mind as long as we got what we wrote, you know? It has been said before, and maybe it is maybe it isn’t, that there is a sense of improv in there. I started in improv so perhaps some of its sensibility made its way into the film.
Daniel: I think also what people might enjoy watching is two actors feeding off of each other and the way Matthew chooses to film that interaction as opposed to creating dialogue with an edit.
Matthew: The stylized way in which I choose to shoot this film just didn’t allow for much improve. You would need to sacrifice some of the visuals for the art and we choose to go in another direction.
I loved the look of the movie. The colors, the settings and the wonderful clothes that Lawrence and Hollowman wore all seemed somehow perfect. How important are these things to the overall feel of the movie?
Matthew: Well, I think that’s huge. For instance, Hollowman has like two costumes in the whole move. (Laughs) I mean, that is something you’d see in the theatre but is rare in film. Actually, Hollowman’s costume was quite easy and we got lucky with the glasses, they kind of made the character. It was different with Ben. I sent my poor costume designer out twice, the first time she brought back these nice GQ like suits that just didn’t seem right. We settled on these pastel like colors that combined with the shorter tie made him seem just a little off.
Daniel: It made him look slightly like a clown [Laughs]
Matthew: I mean, those choices I think really affected the characters and the way they played them, and made it fun for the actors. As well, we had the costume designers getting involved and having a good time and it just makes for a more enjoyable and energetic atmosphere.
Daniel: I think one of the things Matt keyed in on in his directing prep was to create the look of Barton Fink stepping into the world of Entourage. [Laughs] So with our extremely limited budget, this is what the design team tried to do, trying to see the world through Hollowman’s eyes with bland and muted colors and then being jarred by the pastels of Lawrence.
Did you find it hard to market the movie, or even to find a market for the movie?
Daniel: [Laughs] That’s an interesting question. I guess we really didn’t think about initially when we finished it, we just sent it to film festivals. The first two festivals we sent it to, in Edmonton and Vancouver, we actually won awards at both and that helped leverage some interest in other festivals. It’s been to about fifteen festivals now and won some more awards so that really helped with distribution. Marketing is a whole different thing. First off, there is not a lot of dollars for this so we have depended on world of mouth and the press to basically get the word out.
Matthew: Without winnings those awards I don’t know how many people would have been interested, honestly. (Laughs) But the fact is we did win a bunch of awards and it helped us gain a little bit of a profile.
We have definitely learned how hard it is to market a movie without a big name star. We knew this going in, accepted our fate so to speak, and we went ahead and made the movie we wanted to make. It turned out great but we are very fortunate to be in the position to release theatrically, we played at some high profile film festivals and really, most films without a well known cast do not get this level of recognition.
We stuck to our guns, I guess hard headed in a sense because we had the opportunity to look at some bigger names but we felt strongly in that we had the right cast and we had the right team to make this the movie it should be. Maybe we were a bit lucky, but we have learned from this experience and can transfer that over to the next film.
What would you say to someone who wants to be a writer, actor or director?
Daniel: [Laughs] Don’t! Don’t do it! Then you will be competition for me! Seriously though, looking back on my own experience, I’ve been acting since I was twelve and writing since my early teens and what I found out early on is I like to work on my own stuff. My career has basically been that, working on my own projects which also led me to the realization that I was now a producer as well.
I think a lot of people are doing that these days and frankly they need to because the market is flooded. There are so many people who want to do this that you really don’t have a choice. I can only add that if you want to do this, don’t wait for anyone else to hand you the opportunity.
Matthew: I totally agree. I would add that if you are going to do this, surround yourself with people you love and people you trust and respect and will give the same back to you. That is how the best work get’s made. And that goes beyond the set to your friends and family because there will be many times that you feel quite alone even though you are not. You need that solid base in your life to keep you grounded and stop you from going insane! [Laughs]
Finally, what is next for the both of you?
Matthew: I have a short film coming out, it’s not at TIFF but it’s going to be in four festivals around the world, one is the USA, two in Canada and one in Romania. It’s called Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story, and it’s a musical with puppets so it’s a little different than Lawrence & Hollowman. (Laughs) We shot that in February in Vancouver at Crazy Eights, a film competition where you film a short in eight days on a very limited budget.
I’m also working on adapting a novel, I really can’t say too much about it as I’m still signing contracts, but it’s a novel that I’ve loved for about twenty years and then Daniel and I are beginning work on a couple of other projects.
Daniel: I have a script that I co-wrote and performed from a play called Any Night that I’ve been developing for a few years. It just won what is called the Canadian Film Fest Super Channel Screenplay Award, which basically means in on Canada’s ‘it’ list of the best as of yet unproduced screenplays. This is the first leg of our financing so I hope to make that next year, which would be nice.
As Matt mentioned, we are working on a project from another Canadian playwright we really like but we can’t say what it is or who at this point. Other than that, I’m doing my acting, just finished a role in a small feature film and I’m coming to Toronto for the opening and then back to Vancouver to do a short film here.
Matthew: One thing I would like to add is that now that we have finished a feature film, and I think Daniel will agree is that a lot of people are coming to me for advice. You know, people first starting out or have a script or something which is an interesting position to be in because I still feel like I don’t know anything. (Laughs)
But I am actually helping a couple girls develop a TV series so it’s interesting, having people not only coming to you for advice an helping them but working with them as well. This is something that definitely didn’t exist before Lawrence & Hollowman.
Daniel: Also, we are now able to do pitches. We are working on a pitch right now with a company and these are opportunities we would have never had before.
I want to thank Matthew Kowalchuk and Daniel Arnold for taking the time to speak with me and providing their insights into the world both in front of and behind the camera.