ORANGE sat down with Christopher Thomas, director of “Terrible Love”, to talk about his experience filmmaking a heavily improvised film.
Introduction and interview by Helen Fernandez
Thomas told ORANGE that “Terrible Love” was influenced by the themes and cinematography in the movies “Blue Valentine” and “Like Crazy.” Thomas and writer/co-producer Luke Helmer are bringing their world premiere to the Austin Film Festival. “Terrible Love,” which focuses on the post-war life of a soldier, will play at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum IMAX Theater tomorrow night.
The film’s main character, Rufus Acosta, comes home from Afghanistan after being blinded in one eye, but he has trouble readjusting to civilian life. “Terrible Love” focuses on the toll PTSD has on relationships. Rufus Burns (“Rufus Acosta”) and Amy Urbina portray a married couple that must face a terrible reality.
ORANGE: How did you decide to work on this project?
THOMAS: My cowriter and I spent about a year collating a bunch of stories and ideas and came up with a pretty solid outline for a story. And then there was about a month of rehearsal with actors, just getting into character, and then they ended up improvising all of the dialogue that you hear in the movie.
ORANGE: When did you start the writing process?
THOMAS: This is kinda crazy, but we had the idea to do this in November 2011. I have some notes sitting on my desk from that first binder of just pure stream of consciousness. And that’s going on three years now. I guess that’s what it takes to get a film off the ground. Lots of people, lots of money involved, so it took a first year from November 2011 to the following December to get the funds together … and the cast and everyone on board and then we shot the film in February and March 2012.
ORANGE: Did you have a personal connection to the PTSD storyline?
THOMAS: Yes, I had some friends back in college who were a married, veteran couple. And they were a really dynamic power duo, really madly in love, really awesome. Then he went away to Afghanistan for about 14 months. And you know I was kind of watching her, as she was back home in the states, miserable, as you can imagine and just really wanting him back more than anything. And then I remember the first time I saw them together after 14 months of anguish and heartbreak. And they were back together, and I was so excited and exhilarated, and it felt like everything was right in the world. And then I found out about four weeks later that they were living in separate houses, which was just very troubling to me.
I never felt comfortable asking them what went on, and, so, really this project came from my curiosity of wondering what might have actually happened and how on Earth they could have gone from so dynamic and in love and just entranced in each other, to not being able to be in the same room, safely. That’s just a terrible, crazy journey that I just had to find some sort of answer to what could have caused that or else my mind would not have accepted that. So, that’s my personal connection to that story.
ORANGE: How did the casting for this film play out?
THOMAS: I tend to not care for a formal casting sort of situation or an open casting call.
This was all an intuition-based thing between friends. So, Rufus and I go back. We were actually in college together, back in the day, up at Purdue University. We were in a play together. And it’s kind of funny because he was playing Jesus Christ in a play. And I was playing the devil in a play called “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” It was a great play, and I think that’s how we met each other.
I knew it had to be him, just some connection there. So, it wasn’t any audition or that sort of thing, but he was in Kansas City at the time doing some theater, so a year before we started shooting I remember going up to Kansas City and talking to him about this story and the character and how much of a contribution he would have to bring to it, and then it all kind of spun from there. I asked him, “Of all the people you have worked with, whom would you really want to dig into to?” And Amy was the top person on his list, so we flew her out here from Los Angeles and kind of got the instinct that they were going to be a good match. So, there was no formal casting there. What was kind of funny was that we had cast the daughter in the film, Aubrey, before we had cast Amy, but they end up looking nearly identical. That was a happy accident.
ORANGE: Were there any moments that you second-guessed your decision to have the dialogue in the film be completely improvised?
THOMAS: During preparation for the film we had kept Rufus away from his daughter, just so that when we were shooting, their relationship would be kind of awkward and kind of distant. Just because in the film he had been away for a year. Meanwhile Aubrey and Amy were going on play dates, getting to know each other, just getting really comfortable with each other. On that first day Rufus and Aubrey had a scene together, Aubrey, she just snapped. She was so scared of him because here she is, a 5 year-old girl and here’s this giant muscular fellow. And she was so scared that she just sat down and cried and cried on set. And she said she didn’t want to be in the movie anymore. That was moment when I was like, “Uh-oh.” We wanted things to be awkward and totally tepid, but not totally incompatible. We ended up adjusting things on the fly, rewriting the scene a little bit, getting the support that little Aubrey needed to feel confident.
We were actually able to capture Rufus and Aubrey opening up to each other for the very first time. That’s the first time they had spent any time together at all. So it was really nice to be able to capture that.
It was nice to capture that for real, right as the actors were earning each other’s trust. So, that turned from the most terrifying moment of production, but probably my happiest memory of the whole thing. My happiest memory was being at the monitor and watching them open up to each other
ORANGE: How did the cinematography play into the blocking since this was improvised?
THOMAS: We wanted things to look beautiful. We had to put certain restrictions on improvisation. So, we nailed down the movement of the scene. We really didn’t deviate from the physical blocking. It was mainly just the dialogue being colored in in different ways.
ORANGE: What was your favorite part about this collaboration with the actors and cinematographers? Or just a moment where you enjoyed the freedom of improvisation and what it could do for the film?
THOMAS: One moment that brought me a lot of joy was that Amy has this scene where she’s going to her friend to tell her about her problems. And I guess what you’d expect, after watching a lot of movies, is that the other woman is going to be supportive and consoling of Amy. So, I told the other actress Stevie to kind of be offended by Amy’s suggestion for a variety of character reasons. Amy went into her scene looking for sympathy and compassion and was blindsided by this sort of assault, and I did not give her a warning about that. I think it triggered a whole lot of authentic reaction and defensiveness that if she would have known, or had seen it in the script, I think she could have braced herself for that blow.
Moments like that really made the process the best thing in the world, for me. The joy of being surprised …
ORANGE: You mentioned you had an acting background. Would you say you had sufficient acting experience to help you in this unique directing experience?
THOMAS: Watching the scenes as a director and being able to empathize with all of the characters — it allowed me to make adjustments on the fly, analyze if the scene was not quite working because of this issue specifically. An acting background allowed me to be a good doctor, like I said with Aubrey earlier, with breaking down on set. It’s easy for me to sympathize. What does she need in order to be on camera with Rufus at the same time? What does Rufus need in order to approach this scene?