NYU is a breeding ground for the creative filmmaking voices of tomorrow. Backstage caught up with student filmmaker Michael Lukk Litwak and talked with him about his visually inventive “The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacy Danger,” a 2014 Wasserman Award winner and thrilling romantic adventure set in a world of turmoil wherein dinosaurs have invaded earth.
What were you looking for in your central characters during the casting process?
Since it was a short film I sent them the full script and while it has a bunch of crazy laser-dinosaurs in it, that really was just the backdrop for an emotional love story that required very grounded performances—especially since the point of the film is the deconstruction of an adrenaline-fueled relationship as a sort of a comment on the perils of first love and infatuation. We had some people that came in and read the lines as if it was a B movie, totally hamming it up on purpose, and it was clear that they didn’t understand that while the movie has a sense of humor and we were making fun of some of these genre tropes, the most important part was that the movie and performances were sincere.
You used a lot of effects and aesthetics, from puppets to animation to live action and beyond. When casting, were you looking for actors to stand out or to complement the landscape? For example, how Jennifer Connelly in “Labyrinth” complements the puppets and special effects.
Whenever I go into a casting session I always have an idea in my mind of what I want and a general sense of how the characters should look and talk, but I try to always keep myself open to hearing other interpretations because I think it’s often valuable to know exactly what you don’t want. We auditioned a lot of really great actors but I think the thing that automatically separated people from the herd was their ability to understand the tone of the script. We wanted someone who could complement the landscape and actually bring a sense of realism to the absurd world they were in.
How can you tell an actor has the ability in an audition to confidently tackle acting in an imaginary world?
I am not an actor but I imagine acting in front of a green screen is infinitely harder than acting on location or on a set because you really don’t have an environment to help immerse you in the scene. And strangely enough, it’s the same with an audition. It was clear that when Doc [King] and Valerie [Brody] auditioned that if they could exhibit a super emotional and grounded performance in a white room with no windows and fluorescent lighting, they would be able to do the same thing in front of a green screen. I called them in several times and made sure they would show up well on camera and also be able to work with other actors, and really talked to them in depth about where the scenes took place within the emotional arcs of the characters.
What past works (literary, cinematic, etc.) inspired you to make this film?
The way we sort of pitched it was that the film was “Blue Valentine” meets “Jurassic Park” in the sense that it was an emotional love story set in the world of a high-octane adventure. I love a good character-driven Hollywood action movie like “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” but also love more highbrow independent stuff like Bergman and Fellini. For me I’ve always tried to find the point where all of those influences intersect—where you can have a movie that is accessible and fun but also challenging, interesting, and unique. I think a lot of my favorite living filmmakers (Woody Allen, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Tim Burton) have all been able to find that sweet spot.
Given the film’s success, have you considered expanding this epic love story into a full length feature or anthology series?
Yes! We are turning the film into a feature! The amazing thing is that I got an agent/manager off of the short and it serves as a very good proof of concept for a longer form story. I’m hoping to have the script finished within the next couple of months and we will start taking it out to independent production companies and begin packaging it.
To stay posted on the progress of the feature and watch the full short film you can sign up for Litwak’s mailing list at www.michaellitwak.com, and a password-protected Vimeo link will be sent to your inbox as soon as you confirm your subscription.
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