“Commencement” A First Feature from Veteran Director Steve Albrezzi

Steve Albrezzi is an accomplished director of theatre, television, radio plays, opera, and this Friday afternoon, you can catch his feature film directing debut when “Commencement” screens at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles, as part of the DGA Director’s Finder Screening Series.  “Commencement” charts three generations of family members in transition as they dance through life’s detours on the eve of Christa’s college graduation party.  The all-star cast includes Arye Gross (“Grey Gardens,” “Minority Report”) and Marin Hinkle (“Two & A Half Men,” “Once & Again”), Jennifer Warren (“Slapshot,” “Night Moves”) and Alan Rachins (“Dharma & Greg,” “LA Law”), Amelia Rose Blare (“True Blood,” “Grimm”) and Rick Gonzalez (“Coach Carter,” “War of the Worlds”) in engrossing and tender performances of a heartfelt story that key actors assisted writer-director Abrezzi in developing.

Albrezzi cut his teeth directing such greats as Chris Cooper in “The Groves of Academe” by Mark Stein and “In Darkest America” by Joyce Carol Oates at Actor’s Theater of Louisville, where Albrezzi served as resident new play director.  Albrezzi credits then producing director Jon Jory as his mentor; “Jon really put the work before me that would help me grow,” he explains.  Albrezzi has represented the United States as a director abroad at The American Theater Exhibit in Budapest, Hungary, and directing Jane Martin’s “Talking With” for The International Festival in Perth, Australia.  As an Artistic Associate with LA Theater Works, Albrezzi has recorded numerous plays, including David Henry Hwang’s “M Butterfly” (with John Lithgow, B.D. Wong, David Dukes and Margaret Cho); Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” (with Julie Harris, Amy Irving and Harris Yulin); and Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass,” (with Jobeth Williams, Larry Pressman and David Dukes), to cite just a few.  He is a member of the the Directors Guild of America and the directing faculty at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

When funding for another feature film project fell through, Albrezzi wrote the micro-budget feature “Commencement,” to direct in his backyard.  “Ironically,” he explains, “I was now faced with the exact same challenges as many of my students at USC.  Just how high can a credit card jump.”

I was honored to speak candidly with screenwriter-director Steve Albrezzi about “Commencement,” his inspiration and approach to writing and directing, “The Repertory Company,” and his latest screenplay, “Paris.”

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Director Steve Albrezzi, “Commencement.”

Sophia Stein:  “Commencement” is the realization of a dream deferred.  Can you describe the journey from when you first dreamed the dream of directing a feature to realizing this goal?

Steve Albrezzi:  You know, I really thought I was going to go the traditional route – that writing would lead to directing features.  I started as a play director, and when I came to Los Angeles, I started to write with my wife.  We wrote a short film together, and I made that.  I got the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant.  We put our own money into that, and it was an expensive proposition.  We were shooting 16 mm at the time, and really, I was quite green as a filmmaker.  Eventually, I got some screenplays out there.  They would be optioned by larger companies.  I would re-write, with my wife at the time.  And those screenplays would sit like 747s on a Chicago runway in the middle of winter, and never take off!

After several years of that, I thought that I would write a chamber piece and try to raise the money to make it.  I worked with a producer, and after a year and a half of many promises that we would have the money, it fell through.  I literally got depressed for four days, and then I finally said, I’m going to write my way out of this. I’m going to make a little backyard film.  That’s really how “Commencement” came to fruition.  So I wrote for 3 1/2 weeks, and then one month later, we shot for 12 days.  It was like being shot out of a cannon.  It happened very quickly.  All of us had to really rely on our instincts.

S2:  Having made this micro-budget, backyard film, would you do it again, at this level?

SA:  I certainly would.  I learned a tremendous amount.  First and foremost, because I set the entire film around a graduation party, I didn’t really consider that I would need 30 extras working several days, and that to accommodate them in our little home in Sherman Oaks along with nine principal players might be too many people … So I think that I would write even more towards what you can achieve on a particular budget.

I’m really aware of what I call, “the triangle of vision.”  The apex of that triangle is your vision for the story that you’re trying to make.  Really, that story rides on the resources that you have — monetary and human.  I could access cast.  I had worked with a lot of actors, so I could write toward that.  Everything, of course, is governed by the time.  How much money you have really governs the amount of time that you have.  So trying to figure out the algebra of that, that’s the paradigm for digital filmmaking.

S2:  In writing “Commencement,” you were inspired by a poem by Rumi?

SA:  I have a 26-year old daughter, and at the time that I was writing this, I would go on her Facebook page every once in a while, where she had posted this poem by Rumi called “The Guest House.”  The poem is very much about welcoming in whatever is left at your doorstep, embracing the uncertainty and challenges that life brings.

For a long time, I had been interested in the idea of three generations of a middle-class family, all in the midst of significant life transitions.  In my own experience, I always seem to be in transition between two points at every stage.  I wanted to investigate “transitions”  for all three generations.  “Commencement” speaks to the need to stay ‘in flow,’ and specifically, the way in which ‘acceptance’ figures into it all.

S2:  The inciting incident in your screenplay is a break-up on graduation day.  Christa says to Andrew:  “You hurt me on the happiest day of my life.”  That struck me as so true — how many times in life can we recall this mix of the greatest highs accompanied by the lowest lows.

SA:  It seems like holidays often end up being the confluence for the vicissitudes experienced by many members in a family.  I thought that the occasion of a graduation party would provide interesting fuel for the players.

S2:  Was Vinterberg’s film, “The Celebration” – shot digitally, handheld, with unity of place and time – a reference in your conception of “Commencement”?

SA:  I was definitely influenced by “The Celebration.”  Some years back, I had the opportunity to have lunch with director Thomas Vinterberg, who was mentored by Bergman, interestingly enough.  “The Celebration” is a film is so much about bringing a family together and delving into their very personal lives in the middle of a public situation.  As in “The Celebration,” our greatest resource, by choice, on “Commencement” was the actor.  That’s what I knew we could afford and where we wanted to focus.

Because I grew up in the theatre, quite frankly, I love what actors do.  I love what they create.  I am dedicated to creating circumstances in which wonderful actors can create. Very early on in the writing process, I sat down with actors Arye Gross, Marin Hinkle, and Jennifer Warren, and they would talk about their experiences, what they were going through in their own lives.  I would go away, and I would write.  I know Mike Leigh works very closely with actors throughout the writing process in this way.

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Marin Hinkle (Gillian), “Commencement.” Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

S2:  As does Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” “Before Midnight”) —

SA:  Yes, I love that kind of exchange.  Moreover, I appreciate the personal connection that the actor can make with the material.  One of the most daring things that we tried was directly inspired by Mike Leigh.  I had read that when he made “Vera Drake,” he didn’t tell Imelda Staunton what was going to happen in the climatic scene.  In the end of the Sita Ram scene in “Commencement,” the actors didn’t know what was going to happen.  We ran three cameras on it, and I just let it go.  The actors are just organically reacting in the moment.

S2:  Nate has that monologue about “how the equation has changed” — at one time more education was an assurance of a greater quality of life, but today, financing a child’s education no longer offers such guarantees and inflated expenses oft-times bankrupts parents.  You happen to teach at one of the most expensive Universities in the country.  Do you have any idea what tuition for film school at USC is currently running?

SA:  I think it is $53-$56,000 a year.  I am also aware of the burden that is put on parents because we have gone through it ourselves.  Very early on, we decided that because we had one child, we would send her to a private school in Pasadena.  Well, that private school in Pasadena cost as much as my college education.  So times have changed.  She opted to go to college on the east coast, and we were able to support her choice because we had only the one child.  (I had friends with two or more, and I could only imagine how difficult it must have been for those families.)

Today, I think that the trajectory of a middle-class American family together is to provide your child with a good education through the undergraduate college degree.  We work to be able to guarantee our children an education that is hopefully a stepping stone to quality of life.  Unfortunately, securing that education has become more and more difficult for a middle-class.  The middle-class is getting squeezed, and the fiscal crisis has really brought all that to a head.  You would think that a major priority for all of us would be a quality education for our children.  Achieving that objective should not put the kind of pressure that it is putting on people.

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Amelia Rose Blaire (Christa) and Rick Gonzalez (Javier), “Commencement.”  Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

S2:  I am curious about your inspiration in writing some very original characters.  Javier, for example, is a good-Samaritan on a motorcycle who stops to assist Christa when her car has broken down.  She eyes him suspiciously, and he responds, “Do you think I’m going to rob you?”  Christa insists that she only wants to deal with “a service professional.”  When her car is towed to the licensed repair station owned by his uncle, that’s where she gets fleeced.

SA:  In California, everyday it’s a real melting pot where we encounter and crash into one another daily.  I am interested in people and their individual challenges, so I end up talking to people in-depth.  I met this man who was very generous in letting us use his station in the Central Valley for the film shoot.  I was interested in who he was — his family, their particular challenges, the transitions that they are experiencing.  He has a son who is in a two-year school, who is interested in communications.

As with most writers, there are facets of me in all these characters.  Certainly, many of the thoughts and feelings that make up Nate are a part of what my life has been over the past ten years – the holes in your confidence, the holes in your dreams that happen as you try to support a family and while pursuing your career.  Peter is opening up to the river of life and embracing the uncertainty ahead.  He is beginning to allow himself to enjoy “riding on the wind.”  As I get older, there is a part of me that is embracing that openness.

S2:  Alan Rachins (“Dharma & Greg,” “LA Law”) is delightful as Peter.  Is it true that you cast him the night before you began shooting?

SA:  In fact, we cast him on the first day of shooting; we literally fit him for his kurta on set.  Alan is a very smart and kind man.  He brought a lot of good spirit and understanding to the role, and intuited what we wanted that to be.

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Arye Gross (Nate) and Alan Rachins (Peter), “Commencement.”  Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

S2:  The older characters are so full.  We do not often see seniors written in such rich detail.

SA:  I think that the characters of Peter and Jennifer are probably two facets of myself — one that is opening up to the universe and another one that is holding onto their career like a life-raft.  Those are two different ways of dealing with the sun setting.  It certainly wasn’t a conscious polarity when I was writing it, but it’s easy to recognize after having written it.

S2:  Even the smallest cameos have flair.  Giselle, the poker whiz, where did she come from?

SA:  Giselle, the poker whiz, is my daughter’s boyfriend’s daughter — by another marriage.  I am very much about my family and friends, thank goodness.  They are my support team.  Jennifer Warren has been my colleague and my dear friend at USC for at least twenty years, and I wrote this role for her.  She had had a very fruitful career as a movie star in Hollywood, but she had stopped acting over a decade ago.  I kind-of wooed her back.  She is such a creative spirit and a gifted artist.  It was interesting to see the way that the younger people, the older cast members, and the actors in the middle of their careers congealed.  They inspired and brought out the best in one another.  I write for people.  So I wrote a little something for Jonathan’s daughter, and I wrote a little something for Jennifer.

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Jennifer Warren (Jennifer), “Commencement.” Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

S2:  You even wrote a little something for yourself.  Was it always your intention to act in the film?

SA:  It wasn’t really.  But I do have this idea that a film production company can be much more of a creative community.  The name of my production company is The Repertory Company.  I think of our film company as being a place where I can act and somebody else can direct, working making different films together.

S2:  Can you describe the timeline on “Commencement” from the end of shooting, up until the present day?

SA:  We were a year in post-production before we finished the online.  On January 20, 2013, we showed the film the film to cast and crew for the first time at USC.  We have been to seven festivals at this point and won some awards.  In April, we will be at Sonoma International Film Festival.  This Friday, February 21, we are going to show “Commencement” as part of the DGA Director’s Finder Screening Series.  The Directors Guild sponsors this forum for independent filmmakers.  You can apply for them to host a screening of your film, and they invite distributors.  So, hopefully, “Commencement” will land someplace soon.

You know that you never really finish a film, you abandon it.  At this point, “Commencement” has been a couple of years in the making.  It feels like now it is time to get on to the next film project.

S2:  What is next for you?

SA:  I was just notified that my screenplay, “Paris,” is a semi-finalist in the Charleston International Film Festival screenwriting competition.  It is very different than “Commencement.”  It deals with end of life issues.  It is about a woman who comes out of remission.  When her cancer comes back, she enlists her family to help her find a positive way to die.  It is not only about conscious dying, but it is very much about conscious living.

S2:  One of the things about transitioning from theatre to film is that in the theatre, writers are very generous in letting directors and companies interpret their work.  But once that word “film” comes into play, the economic stakes change, and it can be very difficult for a director to get the rights to adapt a work for screen, or to keep the rights over the prolonged period that is required to secure funding.  So committing to write and direct your own words, opens things up.  How do you feel about directing your own writing?

SA:  Because I approach writing so collaboratively, I feel like I can come up with a sketch or a kernel of an idea for a character, and then go to a particular actor and develop it with them.  I enjoy that collaboration, and it allows me to grow the work quicker.  So while the writing is meaningful to me, it’s not precious.

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Alan Rachins (Peter) and Arye Gross (Nate), “Commencement.”  Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

S2:  You said about “Commencement,” “The film is a gentle plea for community – to cherish and support each other: lovers, family, friends in the architecture of home in the midst of this time of national unrest.”

SA:  There is an image in the film — Nate is struggling with the pressure brought on by the fiscal crisis and investing in his daughter’s education when he is not making the kind of money he had expected in his chosen career.  There is a point in the film where he gets very upset and runs down the block to find a quiet moment to re-gather himself.  His father follows him, and they end up in front of a house that is being built.  Here is this older man dressed in Eastern garb and his son, in the midst of this fiscal crisis, and they are looking at the structure of a home.  I think this country was built on a foundation of democracy, as opposed to a foundation of capitalism.  And that democracy means that we take care of one another.  The home is the center of that caring, and community is supposed to be the larger sphere of that caring.  I just question, do we have the greater good of everyone in mind anymore?

S2:  You said that the experience of making the film reminded you of something that you almost forgot:  “That when you fling your arms open to the universe, a gust of something wonderful just might come and lift you up.”

SA:  The great joy in my life has been to be involved with other creative people and to make something that is a catalyst to the greater conversation.  I think that I am never happier then when I am contributing to that conversation.  I was trying to find a way to do that — hitch-hiking on the boulevard of broken dreams, if you will, waiting for somebody to pick me up.  Really the wonderful thing about this experience with this group of artists, all of us in working on this project floated up together.

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Amelia Rose Blaire (Christa), “Commencement.”  Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

Top Image:  Amelia Rose Blaire (Christa), “Commencement.”  Photo courtesy of “The Repertory Company.”

“Commencement” will screen on Friday February, 21, at 3:00 pm PT, DGA Director’s Finder Series at the Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles, To RSVP: 310-289-2033.

For additional information, “Commencement.”

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