About a month ago, the sage powers that be here at OC Movie Reviews.com gave me a choice of three movies and let me pick one to review.
I quickly claimed Fear, Love and Agoraphobia, and I am so glad I did because it was everything I hoped it would be and more after seeing the trailer. This is my kind of movie, a unique character driven story that has something to say.
So it was a thrill to interview Alex D’Lerma, the Writer, Director and Editor of Fear, Love and Agoraphobia.
What follows is what can happen when two filmmakers get to talk about the craft and what it means to them. Alex D’Lerma is of a different kind, because he is an actor who later became a filmmaker.
We talk about how that informs his work as a director, how they got the well known actor Lori Petty to join the cast and many other things I’m sure you will find interesting.
Fear, Love and Agoraphobia is now available in the United States on multiple VOD platforms and on DVD which includes Audio Commentary and a Behind the Scenes video.
Curt: How would you describe Fear, Love and Agoraphobia?
Alex D’Lerma: It is a Drama-Comedy, but the comedy is more true to life humor. The story is about an Agoraphobic man, Agoraphobia is the fear of going outside and being in public places. This Agoraphobic man, who’s name is Chet, graduated high school and he just stays in his mom’s house for the next ten years. That is where the movie starts, ten years have gone by and mom needs a life of her own. She’s married her second husband and she’s moving to Utah. Then Chet needs to figure out how he will function without someone to go outside the house and do things for him. So he takes on this roommate, who is this, at times, very volatile female Marine who’s name is Maggie.
Curt: You have been acting in film, theatre and radio since you were 17. How has this informed your approach on directing?
Alex D’Lerma: I never had any intention of being a Director, but I had to do it out of necessity on my first feature film [ Alvarez & Cruz ] because the friend slash director that I hired, wasn’t able to do the job. I found that my work with writing radio commercials, with editing audio and then with all my experience in the theatre, that really helped me with editing video and learning how to do that. When I’ve directed either of my two features, I have a rehearsal period similar to the theatre, which is eight weeks. That allows me to work with the cast, it also gives me an opportunity to workshop my script, to see if it’s going to work. I feel that is really important. But in movies and television the rehearsal period is almost non-existent, unless you are a high profile Director like the late great Sidney Lumet.
(This is the part where I reacted like a teenage girl who just ran into Ben Affleck circa 2001. Because Lumet is my favorite director and Network being my favorite film. We then talked a bit about Lumet and his work, but I will spare you that. I would also mention David Mamet as this type of theatre trained filmmaker.)
Curt: Since you have been a director on productions that were shot on celluloid and digital, how did those mediums change the way you work?
Alex D’Lerma: The difference between the two is very interesting. I wish I had a video assist on the first feature. I know some directors don’t want to look at the monitor, they want to stand next to the camera and be present for the actors. I like both, my eyes go back and forth. But if I had to only choose one, I would pick the monitor because that’s where it will end up, that’s the final product. Cinematographers, sometimes you’ll tell them what the shot is, they’ll set everything up…. and sometimes they’ll tweak that shot a little bit. Or maybe they’re focused on the shot but they don’t see that the boom mic dipped into the frame, or there’s a reflection off something, or that an extra just spiked the camera [ Industry term for when an actor accidentally looks at the camera during a take. ] As a director it is my responsibility to be aware of all that, and that is what I’m doing with the monitor.
Curt: Do you consider yourself more of a technical director, or an actors’ director?
Alex D’Lerma: I’m more of an actors’ director and that’s my strength. This is why I love Sidney Lumet, and I’d love to direct any of the scripts he was able to, because they are primarily powered and driven by story and performance. Camera is important, but it doesn’t depend as heavily on splashy, stylistic shots, much like [ Fear, Love and Agoraphobia ] and I would even argue Lost in Translation.
(Alex also said this about directing an early scene in Fear, Love and Agoraphobia in which Chet and Maggie interact at the dinner table.)
Alex D’Lerma: There was probably three times when I would stop the shooting because I would look into the monitor and see that it wasn’t working. In this case I would pow wow with the two actors and say “Let’s talk about this, what’s the intention of the scene?” With that one scene I determined the problem was I was trying to be like Tarantino, and that it wasn’t serving the characters or the movie. It doesn’t fit with the movie, I was trying to show off with the dialogue a little bit. [ So I did a re-write ] and boom, then we had the scene. Recently I read an interview with Rob Reiner and found out that’s a very common thing for him, because that’s the kind of thing that happens in sitcoms all the time. They’re re-writing on the fly, so why not do it for a movie too?
Curt: I guess that is how you take the art of directing to 11?
Alex D’Lerma: I like that. We’re not going to even explain that. If you didn’t get that reference than you’re not a real cinephile.
Curt: How did the idea of the story come about for Fear, Love and Agoraphobia?
Alex D’Lerma: I try to ask myself, what is it I’m going to say with this movie? In the past I wouldn’t ask any questions, I’d just start writing. I asked myself, I think it would be interesting to explore loneliness, depression and just feeling trapped, because I feel most of us at some point in our lives feel like we are in a prison of our own making or our circumstances. I thought, I know something about that, now how do I dramatize it, then Agoraphobia came to me. You have an average person who is down in the dumps, but it is a whole different thing for somebody who has to deal with Agoraphobia. This is a serious anxiety disorder that millions of people suffer from. I took that idea to Dustin Coffey [ He plays Chet ] and he liked it. He actually approached me first with an idea that he wrote and he had a budget. I said no because the budget was not big enough for that story and the script did not speak to me. So I said “Let me come up with an idea and see if you like it.” He liked it.
Curt: Agoraphobia and other unique human conditions play a crucial role in this movie, did you research this, or have any personal connection to it?
Alex D’Lerma: Dustin did the bulk of the research because I asked him to. Since he was going to have to do the research to play his character anyway, I said, “Why don’t you do that for me.” He looked at some books, he interviewed medical professionals, I asked him to find some people who are actually dealing with Agoraphobia. He found this man in Australia, who was very forthcoming about his life, struggles and things he’s accomplished.
Curt: Did you have a theme in mind when you wrote this script, or something you wanted audiences to take away from it?
Alex D’Lerma: The theme for me was, being trapped in your own life. It is of course Chet and Maggie’s story, but then I also had the husband [ Rick played by Ed Aristone ] who was supposed to only show up one time so that the audience would understand what Maggie was struggling with, but I felt like we have to spend more time with him. It plays into the theme, he [ Rick ] is in a literal prison, she’s trapped in her marriage with love and devotion for her husband, but her life can’t move forward, and Chet is trapped by Agoraphobia.
Curt: That makes me wonder how many different drafts did you write of the script, to hone it into what it became?
Alex D’Lerma: I think it was like five or six.
Curt: You teach acting and directing at your Cinema Gym Studio. I read that 20 members of your cast and crew on this movie came from that school. Could you tell us more about that?
Alex D’Lerma: I started teaching directing at UCLA extension, for I think, a period of about ten years. I was an actor for many years and when I transitioned into directing writing and editing, I had an idea for a different kind of workshop that included directors for the actors, technology and it had to be much more affordable than most of the other classes in LA. That’s what actors do, when they’re in between projects they either get into a scene study class or they get into a play, and that is how you work on your craft. When I became a director I was astonished that there was no place for directors to do the same thing. I said “Where do I go to work out… as a director?” Directors and actors, we speak a different language. I noticed there tended to be two camps, so that’s why I created the Cinema Gym. It’s now been about eleven years, that I’ve been doing it. It’s been very gratifying and I always hoped that we could make some original content, like a theatre company will create an original play. So far we’ve been able to produce a web series, and a feature film, Fear, Love and Agoraphobia.
Curt: I was struck by the on screen chemistry your two lead actors, Linda Burzynski (Maggie) and Dustin Coffey (Chet) had. Please tell us how you helped facilitate that?
Alex D’Lerma: Chemistry is everything. We have to believe a couple is a couple, we’ve got to believe a person is falling in love or we’ve got to believe this person is my mortal enemy. All of that’s really tough, and it comes partially through rehearsal. Just casting the right people, a lot of times it just works out. Rehearsal and me giving the actors a bit of homework and misdirection during the rehearsal process, that’s what helped with the chemistry.
An example would be in one of the first times that Maggie and Chet spend time together is a scene when they are watching a TV news report and he’s trying to engage her in conversation. When the actors were working on that scene, Chet was just to comfortable with Maggie. So I sent Linda out of the room and I said, “When you come back in, there will be some surprises, just go with it.” So I said to Dustin, “this time would you mind taking your clothes off and just doing the scene in your underwear?” “Are you decent?” [ He also asked ] “Yes.” [ Dustin replied ] “Why do you want me to do that?” I said, “Because you know Linda from class so you’re too comfortable with her and you need to know what it feels like….. Agoraphobic people, a lot of them don’t have the best social skills. Because they don’t go out in public a lot.
Then later when we shoot the scene you’ll be able to recall that and remember that awkwardness and it will help you.” Because he [ Dustin Coffey ] trusts me and he’s been my student for years he said “Sure, no problem.” [ They rehearsed the scene like that. Afterword Dustin and Alex talked about how he behaved differently because he was self conscious and Alex asked Dustin to write in the script how he felt in that moment so he could look back on it later. ]
Curt: I thought Lori Petty did an amazing job in her role as Francis, the bar owner. How did Lori become involved with this project?
Alex D’Lerma: One of the producers, Markus Linecker suggested we try to get a named actor in on this, someone who is talented and who’s work we admire and this will also help with the business side of things. He said, “Let’s find somebody who was really big in the late 80’s early 90’s but is still known and is still working.” He came back with some names, and one of them was Lori Petty. I said “That’s a great idea Markus, because she’s in Orange is the New Black and she’s doing other shows too like Gotham.” She was a blast, I mean who doesn’t want to work with Tank Girl?
(Heck yeah! I replied.)
Curt: What led you down this path of acting, filmmaking and teaching?
Alex D’Lerma: My senior year in high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I like to perform, so I started performing for radio, I also became a program director for most of the radio stations I was working at. Then I moved to Los Angeles, started acting. Then Vince Lozano, who plays White Eagle in Fear, Love and Agoraphobia, he had the same idea I did, which was “Let’s make our own movie, we can star in it.” [ They made that movie, it is the aforementioned Alvarez & Cruz. ] Then I got bit by the directing bug. And that led to teaching as well. So that [ the teaching ] was a happy accident.
Curt: Describe one moment that was a big break for you as an actor or filmmaker.
Alex D’Lerma: As an actor, it was when I got my first network job. It was a small part, but it was a speaking part and that was big. (This was Santa Barbara, a TV series that ran on NBC.)
Curt: So what is next for you?
Alex D’Lerma: I just produced a short film for one of my directors, at The Cinema Gym. I’m also writing a thriller, feature length. I’ve never directed a thriller, and my wish is that I live long enough to direct at least one movie in every genre. So the next thing would be a thriller.
Curt: Do you have any parting advice for any actors or filmmakers just starting out?
Alex D’Lerma: For both actors and filmmakers, you need to write. Now I know somebody will read this interview (I hope somebody is, are you still with us?), they will read that and say “I don’t write, I’m not a writer.” And all I’m going to say to those people is…. I said the same thing.
Curt: That was all the questions I had. Is there anything you would like to add? In other words, is there a question you wish you were asked in these things and never were?
Alex D’Lerma: Wow, that’s a great question man! That’s a nice thing to offer somebody. I want to really encourage people to support independent filmmaking. Independent filmmaking can mean different things. For a lot of people like me, it means, there is someone out there that doesn’t have a studio or somebody behind him or her. The more you support independent cinema, the more it benefits you. It gives you something different and fresh to watch. (I would like to add, it also gives other artist an opportunity to make their first project and it can inspire them.) So I hope you look for Fear, Love and Agoraphobia on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon streaming or you can get a DVD on Amazon.