Zach Woods spoke with Solzy at the Movies last week about his new short film, David, which was the only US short film selected for Cannes.
David marks Zach Woods’s directorial debut and stars Will Ferrell, William Jackson Harper, and Fred Hechinger. The film recently screened during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was just announced to screen during the upcoming Chicago International Film Festival.
Your directorial debut, David, started screening during Toronto after both Cannes and Telluride were cancelled. I saw where it was also selected for Chicago. How did it feel to have your short film selected for such prestigious festivals?
Zach Woods: It felt really good. When you make a short film, you’re asking people to donate their talent, their time, and their heart for very little compensation. Anytime there’s any kind of extrinsic reward via prestige or anything that I can direct it back towards the people who helped me, I’m always the class of that. It’s like if the person who did hair and makeup can say this is a Cannes short of just this is a short, that’s a little bit better. There’s a sort of transactional part of it that I’m grateful for. And then also, I think everyone—I don’t know about everyone—I know I am subject to the same sort of insecurities that most people are so any kind of validation is always welcome and exciting.
How did you and Brandon Gardner come up with the idea for the screenplay?
Zach Woods: I don’t really remember the exact moment but basically, I shot a feature film with Will Ferrell called Downhill and watching him, I was so jealous of the directors. He’s always been one of my comedic heroes but seeing him do stuff that has a little bit more kind of dramatic heft to it was so fascinating. I’d seen him in Stranger than Fiction and I loved his performance because it was so honest, unsentimental, beautiful, and direct. It just stuck with me for a long time. Watching Will, I just was like, Oh, man—I was describing to someone recently. It’s like watching another kid play with the greatest toy in the world and you’re like, I want play with that toy. I was eager to try to find something to do with him.
My father is a therapist. Our relationship bears very little resemblance to the one in the movie but I think I was just thinking about those times when he had really intense demands placed on him by distressed patients and how strange it would have been if, when I was a kid, some virgin moment in my life had coincided with that. And Brandon and I—I have given you the longest answer of all time so feel free to chop this down to something coherent.
The last thing I’ll say is that Brandon and I are both interested in mess. I think we live in a time where at least I feel that our tolerance for mess is so low from mess in ourselves, from mess in each other. It’s such a cliché but with social media, everyone’s always performing their lives for each other and performing a sort of fantasy of perfectibility, I think. I think we’re both interested in the ways in which we’re messy and the ways in which that you have to be willing to endure a mess if you want to be close to people and compromise your kind of squeaky clean conception of yourself or of the other person. There’s a 10 minute answer to your question.
Can you talk about directing Will Ferrell on set and if you had to stop yourself from laughing behind the camera?
Zach Woods: The first time I ever worked with Will was on The Office as an actor. I remember when I was growing up, I used to watch various comedians on SNL break when they were in sketches with Will Ferrell. It always used to drive me crazy because I was like, he’s being so funny—keep it together because you’re gonna undermine that. You know what I mean? It draws attention away from what’s so funny when people start to break. This is kind of judgmental of it. We were on the set of The Office together, and he started improvising. I never broke on The Office. I was so careful about that because I was so nervous because it was my first job. I could not keep it together. And there’s almost like a perverse thing. I don’t know if this is true but this is what it felt like—it felt like he could just attack like a shark with blood in the water—he could smell when you were about to laugh and he would just lean on you. You would just—oh, it’s like an irresistible force, I could not not laugh. I felt guilty for judging others when I myself was incapable of keeping my shit together and in front of Will Ferrell. When we were shooting this, I would sort of laugh into my shoulder. I think Will’s performance is so beautiful in the movie because in addition to being funny, he is really vulnerable. It was less a sort of raw comedy as funny as I think he is in a movie and I felt sort of invested in the character so it was a little bit easier not to just give over to hysterics.
How did William Jackson Harper and Fred Hechinger become involved in the film?
Zach Woods: I just begged them. I begged all of them and they were kind enough to agree. William Jackson Harper—I saw in the Jim Jarmusch movie, Paterson, years ago and it was just kind of love at first sight. He is such a beautiful actor and he’s so funny and unique. I’m always kind of in my head flagging people where they have this flavor that is entirely their own and I think he’s one of those people. I’ve never met anyone like him before. I’ve never seen an actor who has his rhythms and aspect and bizzare beautiful charm. I was just obsessed with him after seeing Paterson and really wanted to work with him. I asked him and he was kind enough to do it.
And then with Fred, the same thing. It’s like you get these crushes. I had seen him in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and he had a small part. He’s at the mall and they’re all talking. Did you see it? I’m sure you did, right?
I saw Eighth Grade.
Zach Woods: So you remember the scene when Elsie Fisher’s character is at the mall, and there’s all these kids and they’re talking to older kids, and she’s sort of intimidated. He was one of those kids. He’s talking about how every school has a dead kid and how too much being made of the kid at their school who died. It’s just so funny, weird, and specific. He’s another one where it’ just like Cupid’s arrow struck and I was like, I’ve got to work with that guy. I was delighted when they both agreed to it.
What were you looking to get out of them with regards to their performances?
Zach Woods: I always want people who—if it’s two things, one is real commitment to the reality of the situation. My favorite comedy is always comedy that comes from embracing the stakes as opposed to undermining them. If comedy feels like winky, ironic or detached, I never think it’s funny. Even drama often, if its things that are “drama,” and people are really committing, I often find that they’re quite funny even if the situation is very intense. I wanted people who would commit to the reality of the situation but then also people who were kind of a little bit dangerous in terms of how they feel on screen. I had an acting teacher once say to me, “Your idea of the scene is the enemy of the scene,” meaning your preconceptions about how it should go are the thing that will suffocate the scene and remove all life from it. I’ve always gravitated towards actors just in terms of my viewing habits who feel like live wires and a little bit volatile and not like this sort of predicted and planned out how they’re gonna stay lines but are available to what’s actually happening in the moment. I feel like those three guys are perfect examples of that.
Were there any films that influenced the look at the film?
Zach Woods: Oh, that’s interesting. I mean, not particular films as much as I wanted—we shot it on film in 16 millimeter. I wanted to shoot in 16 millimeter for a couple of reasons. One is because thematically, the movie is about mess, and the sort of warmth and mess. I always feel that film less sort of messier and it’s warmer. It feels more human to me and more compassionate in a way. I wanted the story to be really compassionate to the character so film seemed like the right captured medium. I wanted to never be ahead of the characters. In other words, I didn’t want the point of view of the movie to be omniscient. I wanted it to almost feel like a documentary almost. Having a sort of handheld style with general lighting, no real arc, and film, I think hopefully gave the movie a feeling of urgency on predictability and also the imperfection, which I’m always a fan of.
What type of camera did you use?
Zach Woods: We used an Arri Super 16. I think it was a 416. They’re nice cameras but it was funny because I’m so used to looking at monitors that are crystal clear and everything but the video tap on the Super 16 is sort of like a rough suggestion of what will eventually turn up. Then there’s this suspenseful thing where waiting for the film to come back. There was a couple of days where you’re waiting to get it back from the lab and you’re thinking like, Oh, G-d, I hope, whatever—there wasn’t a baby cockroach in front of the gate or something.
How long did it take to shoot the film?
Zach Woods: Two days. We shot at this Catholic school a little bit outside of LA, which we think looks like a therapist’s office. They were so gracious and lovely. It was this all-girls Catholic school. A lot of the kids with wanted to interview the different people on the crew for the school newspaper. It was really fun. And yeah, there was just a couple of days.
At what point in your career did you start considering directing?
Zach Woods: Pretty recently. I think I just felt so intimidated by the opportunities that I had as an actor early on that I just devoted every spare moment to trying to get better at acting. I felt like I was like, Oh, G-d, Oh, G-d, that’s such a rare thing. I better be up to it. I was kind of frantically preparing. Over time, I felt a little bit more comfortable and easy in my own in about acting. I don’t feel like I’ve got it figured out or anything but I just felt less frantic. I think I started feeling like—I’m rambling again.
I think the real answer is this. I don’t think I’m a very good actor unless I really believe in the material. If I don’t love the material, I think my performance is pretty shitty and given that I’m pretty selective about what I’ll try to do. It’s not like I’m at a bribe or something. It’s not like people are like banging down my door to ask me to be in all their projects. If you’re going to be choosy, and you’re not a monumentally successful celebrity, then if you want to work and make things, you kind of just have to do it yourself. And so, I love the TV jobs I have, and I love the movies I’ve been able to do but I just realized I can’t just say no to auditions for a living. I have to actually put my money where my mouth is. If I’m getting a script that doesn’t speak to me, then I need to write one and shoot one that does. Otherwise, I’m just kind of a professional leisurist or something.
You came up through UCB. Is there an improv instructor that had a meaningful impact on your career?
Zach Woods: Oh, I’m so glad that you asked me that. There’s so many. Two that come to mind are Michael Delaney, who was an improv teacher in New York who looked out for me in ways that I will never be able to repay. When I was 16 and taking improv classes at what was then a very small Upright Citizens Brigade, he put me in one of his sort of audition-only classes. I got to be in a show that he was directing and he kind of looked out for me, gave me advice, took me under his wing, and I would be in the audience for his team’s shows. I would watch them and I feel like I’m going to improvise so much from watching those shows of the different classes. He’s an incredibly, sincere, curious, passionate artist who was also an incredibly peculiar voice. I think I learned a lot from coming up under the wing of someone who embraced their own specificity if that makes sense. They weren’t trying to assimilate this uncertain model of what’s funny but he was so much himself. I love what he was and continue to love who he is.
Another teacher I had was Billy Merritt. He was my first level one teacher when I was a teenager. He was so kind and such a den mother. Even when I was sort of obnoxious and insecure, he was patient and nurturing.
The list is long but those are the two that come to mind: Billy Merritt and Michael Delaney. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be an actor.
How has the pandemic been in terms of creativity?
Zach Woods: It’s a great question. That’s a really interesting question. Well, I just had another short film and that was a little bit daunting because you have all these other things to do. No movie is worth people getting sick. You have to be really careful and get testing, COPPA compliance officers, sanitation crews, and all this stuff, which adds to—when you’re doing little independent short films, it’s already kind of daunting. And then you add on top of that, all this very, very serious and important safety stuff you have to keep in mind and it’s getting a lot of play but that’s more a logistical answer.
The thing about creativity—I’m just thinking about it because it’s a good question. I don’t want to spout some answer. I want to really answer it. Even though I can’t be close to people physically, really, stories are a way that I can feel spiritually or emotionally close to people. Stories were always important to me and they’re especially important now because they’re connective and they’re loneliness killers. I think stories at their best destroy loneliness and barriers and open up sort of lines of empathy and imagination between us. And at a time when—not just with a pandemic but with things generally—things are so bleak, ugly cruel, scary, there’s so much mutual suspicion, and invective, I think stories are a way of tunneling under all of that to reach each other. I am as grateful for them now as I ever have been and as eager to tell good and meaningful stories as I ever have been because it seems important to me as an antidote to the sort of experience—maybe not an antidote but at least a life preserver.
That’s every question I have. I would be remiss if I did not mention that I’m the trans critic that went public about TJ a few years ago.
Zach Woods: Oh! Oh, wow! I’m so sorry about all that.
Zach Woods: Yeah, I purposely didn’t read that much about what was going on with TJ because just my sort of personal experience with TJ was—I felt like I sort of had my hands full with just my own. I wasn’t reading the stuff in the media that much because I was just trying to stay functional in the actual day-to-day but I heard different things and it sounds like it was a really ugly exchange so I’m sorry.