The writer/director and stars of "Operator" talk Milwaukee Film Festival, the casting and filming process, their first viewing and more.
Much has been made recently of how television has usurped film as the medium in which stories for and about adults are being made. This is, of course, nonsense – if you don’t make it to the end of the year with at least fifteen or more movies you loved, you’re seeing the wrong movies (in TV terms, you’re subsisting solely on a diet of Bachelor in Paradise) and we’re lucky to have the Milwaukee Film Festival guiding us along the way to help curate a well-rounded moviegoing experience. One such movie that’s playing this year’s festival is Operator, the Chicago-set feature debut from director Logan Kibens.
It’s the story of a married couple – software engineer Joe (Martin Starr, of Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley fame) his hotel concierge wife Emily (Mae Whitman, of Arrested Development and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World fame) whose relationship hits a rocky patch. Joe has always relied on Emily for emotional support in a very literal sense (his panic attacks can often only be abated by having Emily lie atop him while speaking in a soothing voice), and he brings her into his work by having her provide the voice for the automated Health Care service A.I. he is developing, seeing her as the most comforting option imaginable. However, Emily is in search of an identity outside of providing care, working with the Neo-Futurist Theater on a series of short autobiographical plays as a means of expressing herself. As Emily blossoms, Joe begins to wilt, spending more and more time with the automated simulacrum of his wife in lieu of the real thing.
The isolating nature of our modern technology, the pitfalls of long-term relationships where one or both parties are certain to change with the passage of time – these are just some of the topics handled adroitly by Kibens and her fantastic cast throughout the film. They were able to take the time out of their busy schedule to talk with me about how the movie came about, shooting some of the more technically challenging sequences, and what it was like bringing the film to Milwaukee for the festival.
First things first, how was your experience in Milwaukee for the festival?
Logan Kibens: It was wonderful- the festival took terrific care of us. They have great programming and we got to see a couple things. I kind of fell in love with the festival staff and I know we all really enjoyed our screening.
Martin Starr: I don’t know if it’s tradition to have masseuses in your room when you get to the hotel, but that was something I really appreciated. Especially when they flipped me over. *Laughter*
Mae Whitman: I think that was something on your rider, Martin.
LK: I thought it was weird that they stayed in your room.
MS: Well, I like to snuggle. *Laughter*
Were you able to sit in on your screening?
LK: Mae had actually never seen the film before so she stayed, and Martin stayed as well. I watched about half an hour and then –
MS: – went to choke herself with vodka. *Laughter*
LK: – so I wandered around in the beautiful theater with the festival staff. But I’ve seen it many, many times. I also edited the film, so I’ve probably seen it a thousand times at this point.
Mae Whitman: Yeah, but we stayed. It was my first time seeing it, so that was a big reason why I wanted to come out here – I haven’t been able to go to any other film festivals, and I really wanted to see it with an audience for the first time. So I got to see it in that amazing theater – I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – my favorite theater I’ve ever been in, the Avalon. It’s so beautiful, and I love the stars on the ceiling, it made for a lovely, lovely experience. It just feels more fun being able to see it when you have the energy of a bunch of people who haven’t seen it before around you. So that was a very special experience for me.
Logan, I’ve read that this story was based on a period in your life with your wife (Sharon Greene), whom you then went on to co-write this film with – have you collaborated with your wife on a project like this before?
LK: Yeah, Sharon and I have been together for fifteen years. We just celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary a couple weeks ago –
LK: – Thank you! And we met as independent artists, so we’ve always worked together in support of each other’s work. She was a part of the Neo-Futurists which is the theater company in the film that Mae’s character is in. So I would help her by doing projection design for plays, or helping out by loaning out stuff that she would turn into props. I used to say she would turn everything in our house into props, including our cat one time. We’d never collaborated to this degree before, but we were so supportive of each other’s work, and didn’t really want to be in a Frida Kahlo situation, so we decided to give credit where credit’s deserved as collaborators on this project.
What was that writing process like?
LK: We would work together when we were working out the story, working at a wipeboard together, with notecards for the script and various scenes. But then when we were doing the actual writing, we never wrote at the same computer. We would both respond naturally al to different scenes or characters and we would go off to our separate laptops and write those scenes, and then we would rewrite one another from there. The writing process took a number of years and at this point other than a couple of things that I fully credit to Sharon, we can’t even really remember who wrote what since we rewrote each other so many times.
I was wondering if all three of you could talk a little bit about the casting process. What drew all of you together for this project?
MS: What? *Laughter*
LK: Martin just took a ten minute nap.
Martin: Well, Logan had a connection to my agent at the time. So we were set up for a meeting – I really liked Logan, but hadn’t had the time when we first sat down to read the script. And through enjoying Logan, that got me more excited to read the script, and more excited at the prospect of collaborating with her, and it made it a lot easier for me to fall in love with the story – which I did after reading the script. And then when Mae was brought onboard, I got really excited –
MW: Yeah, my story was sort of the opposite of Martin’s where I got the script first and read the script and really, really fell in love with it. I thought it was really well-written and encompassed a very important and full story in a compact period of time. *laughs* Martin is snoring. It was just very smart and the people felt very full instead of two dimensional. So I was really impressed with the script. And then I had a meeting with Logan and I thought she was okay, but the script was good – I’m just kidding, I thought Logan was amazing and we had a really wonderful talk, which confirmed what I was feeling the whole time. I was just happy to be on board, because I sort of knew Martin a little bit, but I’ve always been a big fan. Martin, I don’t know if I’ve told you that lately, big fan!
MW: The whole thing just felt like a journey that I wanted to go on, and a story I wanted to tell.
There are a lot of scenes in the movie where Martin is listening to your voice, Mae, on a headset or on his phone, and I was wondering how that process worked in terms of filming. Were you there feeding him lines off-screen, or were they playing a recording of the lines, or was it some combination of those?
MW: It was a mix of all three, I would say. We had some things recorded; that we could play back in some of the more….intimate, if you will, scenes that were taking place –
MS: -Masturbation- *Laughter*
MW: I was there, right?
LK: No, no.
MW: That was the one I wasn’t there, that was the recorded one.
LK: The only recorded one.
MW: Yeah, that was one that was recorded, which is probably for the best. *Laughter*
LK: I wasn’t even there. *Laughter*
MW: But it was the panic attack one I was there for, right?
LK: Yeah, and that was awesome because we had actually scheduled it so that Mae had that day off and then she – I don’t remember if you had just asked if you could be there –
MW: I was just being a pro! *Laughter*
LK: I mean that’s what I was getting at; if you want me to say it naturally, it’s better if I compliment you then if you compliment yourself.
MW: That’s true. Scratch that.
LK: So let’s remove that. *Laughter* She offered to come in to shoot that scene in the room which was terrific because we shot in an actual apartment, so we didn’t build a set with any removable walls, so we had a very small space. It was our wonderful DP, Steeven Pettiteville, one person helping and then it was just the three of us. And it felt very intimate, as I wanted to keep that room closed off and a focused space. So we did nine takes of it, and just got deeper and deeper into it.
MW: It was nice to be in there, because it’s kind of like the apex of their relationship. She’s the only one who can reach him in that moment, so it’s nice to be able to be in there with Martin and see him do different stuff and try to really connect with him in different ways instead of it always being the same reaction.
LK: And I was so grateful, because I was trying to be over-respectful of Mae’s time, but she and Martin both knew that this was the better way to do it. It absolutely was better for the scene, and I really appreciated that Mae came in and did that all of her own accord.
MW: And I had just ordered my scramble, so I had to leave my scramble behind…I mean, it was a lot – but ultimately I think it was worth it.
MS: I appreciate your professionalism.
MW: I appreciate your professionalism; I think it was your idea, Martin.
MS: I would never. *Laughter*
Operator plays one last time at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival at the Times Cinema on October 4 at 10 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office. For more information, click here.