David Spaltro is a New Jersey-born writer/director/producer, currently residing in the East Village and West Hollywood. His critically acclaimed first feature film, the semi-autobiographical …Around, is currently available on Netflix and VOD, with other outlets coming soon. He is currently casting/producing his follow-up feature—Things I Don’t Understand—slated to shoot in Brooklyn in January 2011.
Spaltro speaks with Write On! about his creative process, why he likes being a multi-hyphenate (writer/director/producer), how he will apply what he learned making is his “kitchen-sink” film—…Around—for his next venture, and more.
When did you first develop a love of film?
I was always interested in some form of storytelling, and when my parents separated when I was younger, I began a ritual of seeing a film a week with my father on Sundays. I later developed an interest in different types of films at film school from a film professor Gene Stavis and working at a video store doing high-school. This was long before the days of the internet and Neflix gave access to these types of films. The first time I can actually remember realizing that someone was making decisions and creating stuff for film was seeing Tim Burton’s Batman when I was six years old in 1989.
In writing, how did you approach the blank page?
When I was much younger I wrote all the time, all day and all night, kept a journal, etc; and so I never quite thought about it. After suffering some writer’s block and taking time to focus more on editing and filmmaking, I’ve now realized that I write and edit in my head. I’ll get ideas and write notes down and think about things while walking around, listening to music, or while communicating on a subway. One day, [the story] just explodes out of me, and I’ll write a full rough first draft in a day or two. I’ll then take a day or two and go back to it, edit it, show it, and get feedback.
How did the idea for …Around come about?
…Around is pretty much my own personal stories and experiences, a valentine to a time and place in my life while attending film school and moving to NYC from Jersey City. I was backpacking and working through Europe in the Summer and Fall of 2005, and telling tales on trains and at hostels/bars about NYC. Eventually, they all became intertwined, and I had developed one particular tale. When I was looking for an idea to base my first feature film on, I fought against telling this particular story. I wasn’t embarrassed, but simply felt that it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone. I had a different perspective because of my relationship to the material; I didn’t see how it could be a story that could necessitate a feature film. Eventually I went with it and it all just poured out of me onto the page.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it produced/filmed and out there?
I was teaching English and designing a language program in South Korea in the Summer of 2006, and a monsoon season kept me inside most of the time when I wasn’t with students. I was able to really focus and work on the first draft of …Around, which clocked in at a ridiculous 300-plus pages. It … probably could have been called “And the Kitchen Sink”, because it had everything. I originally intended just to shoot it real low-budget with friends, running around with a digital camera on weekends when I got back to the states. The people who read it—while they thought it needed some re-writes—really pushed me to try and actually get it produced. I tried shopping the script around and getting a name attached to raise finances, but the impending writer and actor strikes in 07′ forced me to take the plunge and finance the film on the massive amount of credit (40 cards) I’d built over the years. A blitz of thinking-outside-the-box PR through film blog reviews, word of mouth, trailers,and screenings at festivals helped us land a deal with Cinetic Rights Management. They began a platform release that led it to appear on Netflix Instant; it become one of the top downloaded indie dramas for two weeks in December 2009 on Amazon VOD.
It is loosely based on personal experience, yes? How did you decide what to include and what to eliminate?
I always say that its autobiographical and not an autobiography, because I feel once you start writing, it’s all fiction. … The film, being a narrative, is almost smooshed—certain characters and elements from my life were combined. The main factor in making the film wasn’t to “tell my story.” I mostly wanted to make a film I believed in that carried a message and characters I understood and could relate to. It’s a reflection on my memories of a universal time in people’s lives where they are transitioning from one moment or stage in their life to the next. The idea of homelessness, while accurate in my financial duress experiences, is also a double-metaphor for the idea of not finding your place or way in the world, having that idea of what “home” truly is in the place you live, the people you love, and the things you pursue.
What was your favorite part of working on …Around?
I really love collaboration, which is why I don’t know if I’d ever just be a writer. It’s quite lonely for it to be just you and the blank page. Film production allows you to work with all these great professionals and allow them to give you their best. Your job as director and leader of the production is to answer their questions, communicate your vision to them, and allow them to take that to new levels of creativity and productivity.
What’s your next project—Things I Don’t Understand—about?
I use to refer to it as a meditation on life and death until my time in Hollywood made me realize you never start with “a meditation…” on anything unless you’re talking about the yoga guru you’re currently hiring for 12 o’clock appointments. If …Around was about finding home, then Things is about what happens when that home is threatened, how people deal with loss and change, the quest for what happens after we die, and what it means to truly be alive; this is bookended by three characters trying to keep from being evicted from their rent controlled loft in Brooklyn. The loft—and it’s financial luxuries—has allowed them to hide from their past and fears, living a sleepwalking life; now they are forced to confront what they’d been hiding from and really examine their lives while trying to maintain their little world, which is quickly crumbling around them.
How will you use what you learned during your experience with …Around for your next film Things I Don’t Understand?
I’ve learned so much about storytelling and what separates something working on the page to what works in an editing room or on set so much more. I also had a bit of a devil-may-care attitude on …Around that I was ready to throw the kitchen sink at the film, not knowing if I’d get to make another film or even finish it. It was a hodgepodge of moments and experiences, drama to comedy to dancing to fights to everything under the sun, whereas Things is more focused on a similar theme supported by the journeys of these connected characters and how they become better or worse people for their circumstances.
Advice for screenwriters?
I could toss in all the cliche’s of write everyday, write what you know, be fearless with a first draft and edit later. I’ll agree with all that, but also really try and think about the joy of simply building a world. … You get to attack all the things going on in your life and the world around you—and frame it in characters and situations that you have control over—that can mean something and express something far greater than rehashing a novel, video game, or rebooting a same old story with a louder soundtrack and faster pace. Find your voice, know it, embrace it and then learn from it and the ways it can be utilized.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
The idea of keeping the muscles flexing by writing every day, but also get the brain working and read books, talk to people, live your life, and have experiences. When you’re stuck, go outside and just sit and listen, watch everything, take notes inside and outside on a pad of paper. Be a conduit of the inspiration of life.
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