BWW Interviews: ONE NIGHT STAND's Producers/Directors Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton!
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by Lauren Gienow
For those of you who are in Toronto today or tomorrow-or for those of you who are willing to drive to Toronto for a quality film about the exhilaration of the creative process and the making of a musical; I've got a suggestion for you! 'One Night Stand', a film documenting the process of putting together the 2009 edition of New York City's famous "24 Hour Musicals", is currently playing at the Cineplex Odeon Yonge and Dundas Cinemas, February 6th at 7:30pm and February 7th at 10:00pm. For tickets, click here.
This fast-paced and hilarious film follows some of the stage and film's top actors, including Cheyenne Jackson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rachel Dratch, Richard Kind, Tracie Thoms, Alicia Witt, Michael Longoria, Roger Bart, Mandy Gonzalez and many more!
This reviewer recently had the opportunity to chat with Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton; the producers/directors of this film, about the universality of the creative process, the simultaneous panic and excitement that go into the making of a 24 hour musical, and why Jesse Tyler Ferguson (now of 'Modern Family' fame) feels the need to "birth" a musical at least once a year!
BWW: Thanks so much for talking to us about your film! I have heard of the "24 Hour Musicals" and always wanted to see it-but I also don't know too much about it. It sounds like your film would solve both of those problems! Can you share with readers what the "24 Hour Musicals" are, and what your film is about?
TRISH: The film follows The 24 Hour Musicals, an annual event in New York City known as "the most impossible theater event of the year!" --in which amazingly talented writers, composers, actors, and directors volunteer to write, rehearse and perform four short musicals in just 24 hours! In the film, you get to see how the talent first meets each other, introducing themselves with a prop and a costume, and the actors sing as a sort of audition. Then everyone goes home except the writers and composers, who stay up all night, in four teams, to write and compose four short original musicals. That morning, the actors and directors return, take the scripts, and have just the day to learn their lines, their songs, their dances and be ready for the show at 8 o'clock that night! --in front of a live New York City audience and press, so there's a lot of pressure!
ELISABETH: So in the film you see the whole process behind the scenes, and then you see the performance, which is a fundraising event produced by The 24 Hour Company to benefit The Exchange, a non-profit theater company that produces new works and also supports other theater companies as they produce new theater works--with the idea that even as we love classics and revivals, we also want to support the creation of the "classics of the future." Live theater is a constantly-evolving art form, and these are artists who keep that evolution going.
TRISH: And the event culiminates with the live audience watching [the shows] the following night--but really what the film is, is that you get to watch the process of what the [writers, composers, and actors] go through--the fun part, and also the terrifying part of trying to finish, and also wondering whether or not they can pull it off! What it really does is sort of celebrate what "The Exchange" is up to in the first place; celebrating theatre, new works, and creativity-and the joy of putting on new shows and new works!
And I'm not even really a musical theatre fan, I've always been a theatre fan...I of course grew up watching "Annie" 5 million times, and musicals are my favourite thing, but I don't know about all of the musicals or respond to all of them but I still found it totally interesting for me [making this film] to watch how they do that-these people are really talented. The best writers, the best composers, the best actors-to watch them have to go through the process is really inspiring, because then you realize that everybody has to go through it! It's the same for everybody. It's not easy! And yet, even just watching it, it makes it look fun! As much as they suffer, it's fun. And that's what the film is about, celebrating the creative process. Whether you like musical theatre or not, you can enjoy it. Everyone's life in one way or another is creative, and the film really celebrates that.
BWW: It sounds amazing, and it really sheds light on the fact that the storytelling process is so universal!
ELISABETH: Everybody has a creative part of their lives, so they all go through that process, and that's universal; the storytelling process [whether on stage or in documentary film], as you said, is also universal, and the third thing that's universal is the 24 hour cycle!
BWW: This is very true! How did you become involved with the 24 Hour Musical? How did you come up with the idea to film this process?
ELISABETH: It started because I was looking for an idea. I wanted to start making documentary films, and I happened to be at a holiday party where people were talking about creating the first ever "24 Hour Musical". Those two people were the host of the party-the Artistic Director of "The Exchange", Ari Edelson, and the other one is my brother. His name is Ted Sperling and he's a Tony-Award-winning musical theater artist--a director, a musical director, and a symphony conductor. He was the musical director of the recent revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center (now on worldwide tour) and also directed The Other Josh Cohen which got rave reviews earlier this year. So they were cooking up the first ever "24 hour Musical" and I was listening in, and I heard that people had to come up with stories overnight, and I thought 'Oh! I would love to be a fly on the wall...because that's exactly what I want to do! [Come up with a story]. And since this was clearly going to happen, and have a beginning, middle, and end-that's a dream for a documentary filmmaker, because often you have an idea for a story and you end up following the story for years and years, waiting for something to happen! This was definitely going to happen, and it was definitely going to be over in 24 hours, and I thought it would make a great film.
They actually needed somebody to make a video for that night, for right before the performance. They needed somebody to stay up for the night and video-tape what the writers were doing and video-tape some of the rehearsals, and make it into a 5 minute piece so that when the audience comes in, they could show them what had transpired in the previous 23 hours to make this process possible. Then [the audience is] caught up in what they are about to see, and how it's all just been created. So [Ari and Ted] asked me to make that video and I asked if I could bring a lot of cameras in so I could film [the documentary], and so that was what happened!
BWW: So did the actors involved know that this was going to be a documentary ahead of time, or was this a happy surprise that came later?
ELISABETH: Well, they were told about it, but you never know what's going to happen when you start making a documentary. So I think they were happily surprised.
They were told that we were going to make a film and they all signed releases but they didn't know if it would actually turn into one. You know, Richard Kind said 'I saw cameras everywhere and they were filming it, but you see cameras everywhere these days!' So they all knew, but it took us three and a half years before we were finished, so when it came out, they were a bit surprised!
BWW: Speaking to that, obviously, there were major time constraints for the people putting these musical productions together-what was the timeline like on your end?
ELISABETH: Well, from the day that the conversation happened and I talked to [the creators of the "24 Hour Musical"]-that was in December of 2007, and the first-ever 24 hour musical was in 2008, and we filmed them, and we edited for a year, and we tried to raise funds or connect with a distributor, and all the sudden the economy collapsed, and in the meantime we heard that they were going to do a second year of the "24 Hour Musical", with a better stage, and better lighting, and better sound. And during the same year, everybody bought high definition televisions, and so standard definition was not going to be nearly as marketable, so even though we loved the 2008 "24 Hour Musical-we loved those characters and those plays, we decided that we couldn't miss the chance to film it again! Also, we were aware that we would get to re-shoot a documentary and learn from all the mistakes made the first time! [Laughs] So that's what we got to do! So this movie is about the 2009 musical. Then it was a long process of raising the money to edit, and then the edit. Then we were in film festivals, and now we're finally out there!
BWW: So, Trish, when did you first become involved with this project?
TRISH: As she mentioned, Elizabeth heard about the project from her brother, and decided that she wanted to do it, and she came to me and was looking for somebody to do it with her. At the time...I thought that there was no way that I was going to accept a project that had no money, where I'd have to pull 20 favours and have a team of 5 camera people available to work 24 hours...I thought 'that's crazy', and then she told me the calibre of talent that was involved and I just thought I would be really interested to be in the room with those people and to see this happen and I was interested in [the topic of] creative process for a documentary, and like Elisabeth said, it is a rare opportunity to be in the room with [any of] these people while they're creating-never mind fifty of them and to be that fly on the wall. During the overnight, it was just too exciting to even get tired...Even our crew, who were volunteers, came and said 'I never thought I would thank someone for shooting for free for crazy hours, but I have to thank you, that was an awesome thing to watch.' I think that speaks to the event and how good it is to be there.
When we started editing, and we had broadcasters interested, but that was 2008 and by late 2008 [due to the economic collapse] the broadcasters had pulled out, so we re-invented the wheel of how to fundraise and both of us believed so much in the project that we just stuck with it until we made it! It took us 3.5 years before we started the festival circuit and then [another] a year and a half before we got to our theatrical. So you know, it's kind of a process and that's kind of the nature of independent film making I think, but we both are thrilled that it's finding an audience finally in a bigger way!
BWW: Well congratulations! It sounds like a long journey that was well worth it!
TRISH: Thank you!
BWW: As you were filming and editing, did you have to be conscious of the fact that the focus of your film was of a different medium than film (live theatre)-was that something that influenced how you filmed and edited?
ELISABETH: It's really amazing how many layers there are to performance, because when you go see our film in a movie theatre, it is kind of like going to see a live performance, because so much of it is verite, and it's like seeing a live performance, and then there is the actual audience and they are usually laughing, and clapping and cheering, and so...somebody said to me recently, 'you're filming people who are acting like themselves so that they can 'act'-it's funny. There are many levels going on there. It can be very 'meta' [laughter].
BWW: Absolutely! That would be very neat! So I guess it would be kind of 'fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants' while you are filming it, but while you were editing it, was there anything you were trying to keep in mind, or did it seem to just happen naturally?
TRISH: In the edit, the big challenge is that you're almost recreating a different story. There was the story of the night, and then there was [the question of] 'how do we turn 60 plus hours of footage into a one hour show?'-and convey what each of the stories are, and also convey the personal dramas of all of the people. There are lots of directions that we could have gone, and we really wanted to keep it true to the event and true to people's experiences and also convey the emotion of what was going on.
There is a challenge in filming live theatre, I'm sure you've seen other films about live theatre, and its challenging to re-create that experience. This is also the behind-the-scenes drama, but a third of the film is the performances and I think you definitely feel enough like you're there, and that you can be involved with the characters and feel like you're with them on stage at that point. So, I don't know, you'll have to see it to see if we could pull it off, but that was the big challenge and like I said earlier, to make it a celebration of theatre and that thing that we could only see once-it's not going to be re-created and so you have to see it live. We wanted to maintain that energy and that excitement, even though [it's on film]. There were definitely people who wanted to re-watch it like 5 times [laughter] because they wanted to catch all the little moments -and then, we had other people who were like 'whoa what a roller coaster' and they didn't feel like they just watched a show! That was the idea and a lot of people responded.
BWW: So it just puts a person right in the middle of the chaos and brilliance that is that process!
BWW: So was the 24 Hour Musical a first experience for the cast? Had any of them done anything like it before?
TRISH: For most of them it was their first experience, but there were several who had done the 24 Hour Musical the year before, and there were also a few who had done the 24 Hour Play-which is a very big deal in New York and has been a huge fundraiser.
BWW: You get to boast quite a cast for your documentary here!
ELISABETH: Yes! You don't get that often-those people all in the same place, but you can do it for 24 hours! And they were all volunteering, it was amazing. Richard Kind said it's 'for the love of it'.
BWW: Obviously that universal process of creating is a theme not only of the topic of the documentary, but also in the story of how the documentary itself got made! And this process was a speedy one!
TRISH: One of the writers, Jonathan Marc Sherman said 'usually it takes me a day to think of a word, and then it takes me a week to realize that it was the wrong word!' And when doing the 24 hour musical, you don't have time..by four o'clock in the morning your inner editor just turns off...you just write, you just do it-you have no options, and I think-one of our first titles that we wanted to call it, that we realized was too long and wouldn't make sense, was "This is why we do this, I forgot" because a lot of times, you are slaving over an article, or a play, or a book, or whatever it is that you do-film editing for us. It's not fun! Yet it's for those moments, where you're just sitting, you're thinking of a funny idea and you're bringing it to life-one of the actors says he likes to 'birth a musical once a year just to have that birthing process'! They are in a rush and there is a high that he gets out doing this creative thing. That's what we feel the film celebrates. There's a joy in just making something.
ELISABETH: Just to add, the actor who said that is Jesse Tyler Ferguson! There are a couple people in LA who fly to NYC to volunteer for the "24 Hour Musical". Tracie Thoms flies to NYC every year to do it.
BWW: That's incredible. It shows how much they love the craft and the cause, and how unique the experience is! And now that unique experience gets to be shared through your film, so I'm sure many different people will get to appreciate it!
Is there anything else that you wanted filmgoers to know about 'One Night Stand'?
ELISABETH: I would just say that, it's winter, it's dark, and everybody is having a hard time in different ways-and this is a 'feel good movie'...and so we encourage them to go for that reason!
Following the screenings tonight and tomorrow, in Toronto, the next stop for 'One Night Stand' are screenings in Vancouver and Victoria on Feb. 20th and 21st. Trish noted that she is very excited about this because she is Canadian and loves being able to share her film with friends and family here in Canada!
For more information about ONE NIGHT STAND, check out the website http://onenightstandthemovie.com/
For more information about 'The Exchange', go to http://www.exchangenyc.org/
To learn more about 'The 24 Hour Company', visit http://24hourplays.com/
Photo credit: Kerry Long