Warren, played by writer/director Alex Beh himself, is at a standstill. Or rather, like his father’s Porsche, he’s stalled. Where he once had a gorgeous supportive girlfriend and a dream to drive him forward – doing sketch comedy – he now finds himself handcrafting artisanal coffees for the legion of yuppies that barely notices him. His parents’ marriage has crumbled, but his dad refuses to sign the divorce papers and putters around a house about to be torn down. Warren has his own baggage, and one day she shows up at his coffee shop. Emma has given up painting and is working as a real estate broker and engaged to a rival real estate broker.
WARREN is about, to paraphrase Warren’s father (John Heard), ‘finding a goldfish in a sea of minnows.’ It’s a romantic comedy in which who the characters need to fall in love with is themselves. Del Close, noted improv great used to teach “follow the fear,” and Warren and Emma have both been running from it (and each other) for years. WARREN perfectly captures the unlived life, the characters are full and honest, and conflicts are not complicated, but that doesn’t make them any less painful. I had a chance to speak Beh, a fellow Chicagoan, about his film.
The script for WARREN began as notes back in 2003, and then evolved into what Beh calls “a terrible draft that didn’t have an ending and was 125 pages or something.” When he moved back to Chicago in 2005, during his own parents’ divorce, the script started to really take shape. Taking classes at Second City and throwing himself into the rich improv scene, Beh learned the secret was “just being likeminded with the people you work with or are on stage with.” He discovered so many improv comics have this perception that “Lorne Michaels is just going to pluck you out and put you on Saturday Night Live.” Setting ‘Warren’ the character in Chicago and in this scene, he rewrote the script in two days.
The film really does a nice job of showcasing Chicago, and not just gratuitous shoots of the building formerly known as the Sears Tower. Its feet on the floor in the midst of downtown, it’s late night at comedy clubs, its’ boulevards overgrown with huge trees. Improv only exists at this depth in Chicago, but also, the city is such that it feels both conquerable and inescapable at the same time. Unlike Los Angeles, it has a center, by which you can judge your own progress. Unlike New York, it has boundaries that can easily be crossed, and suburbs to escape to. So many films set in Chicago, don’t get it. The city has a constant chip on its shoulder, after years of being ‘the second city (it’s now arguably the third). We don’t take well to the b.s. that often colors personal relationships on the coasts. Chicagoans are honest, if too much so. And they’ll tell you when you aren’t living up to your potential. “There’s so much beauty to it [Chicago], and there’s so much darkness,” says Beh, and “the suburbs – Cameron in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, I referenced that so much in preproduction.” Like Cameron or Benjamin in THE GRADUATE, another reference point, Warren is trapped between “doing what you want to do with your life and doing what you think you’re supposed to do.” Beh crafted his film to capture, like a John Hughes film, the emptiness of affluent suburban life. “A lot of the issues that come up in the north shore,” says the director, “these kids have all this stuff around them, have all these assests and resources but don’t know how to use them.”
The other point of reality, of course, is Beh’s time as a barista (he spent time at both Starbucks and Caribou Coffee). “A barista serves all and sees all,” says Beh, “the guy medicating everyone every morning … you’re basically perpetuating the problem, fueling their going back to work as drones.” Everybody I know who ever moved out to LA or NYC to do something even vaguely artistic, basically ended up working at a Starbucks, at least for a little while, so Beh has really captured something possibly not surprising but completely true about this generation. Rather than get bogged down in a career we hate, we’d rather get bogged down in a dead end job we hate. And because they come with benefits and a steady flow of cash, maybe they don’t seem so bad. “These jobs distract and deter you from the real goal,” acknowledges Beh, and goes on to paraphrase David Mamet’s concept that if you have a fall back plan, you generally end up falling back on it. At the end of the film, as Warren is finally moving forward with his life, it’s not because he quits working at the coffeeshop, its not because he has a break in improv – he’s not even really pursuing the improv. This is one of the best things about the film. WARREN is not about a big life achievement, or how to find success, it’s actually just about how to find the momentum to find it. Our biggest roadblocks are the ones we make for ourselves.
Having a good team around you is especially important when you are writing, and directing, and acting, and producing. “It’s not easy but its weirdly right for how my mind works,” the hyphenate says, “I just focus very hard on tasks on hand when they are in front of me.” Beh acknowledges that there is the writing phase, then the producing phase, then the directing phase, and so on, and that he “assembles the team, I partner, I find the producers that want to get involved… to be honest, it’s about not waiting on anybody and trusting the people you work around to get the vision to the place it needs to be.” With a movie like this, and its budget, the team didn’t have the luxury of having “three location scouts and three tech scouts,” they had to go into a location and shoot it with minimal amount of coverage. Beh admits there were a few times when he “was like jeez, why am I doing all these roles, you just gotta prepare and be prepared.” Obviously, the set-up worked, because it’s happening again. Beh is set to go into his next production [The Next Darling] with the same responsibilities and much of the same team. “Even the financing people are behind it, which is a blessing and encouragement and all that but,” says Beh, “it’s also like ‘okay, make sure that I’m deeply prepared’ …and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
WARREN is the opening night film this weekend at the Destiny City Film Festival, a first year festival in Tacoma, WA. I’ve been following the happenings at DCFF since they first announced the festival and Founder/Director Emily Alm has put together a top notch collection of great indie film, including Austin’s own ARLO AND JULIE and COPENHAGEN (for which I already have an interview waiting to write up). If you are anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, making a trip down to Tacoma for a great weekend of film. More information (and tickets) are available at http://destinycityfilmfestival.com.