I recently got the chance to talk to director Matthew Ehlers about his new film, ‘Smoking Laws’. Here, Matthew talks about how the idea for the film came about and which three guests he would invite to dinner…
Hey Matthew. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. Of course we‘re here to talk to you about your new film, ‘Smoking Laws’.
You wrote, produced and directed the feature – how did the idea come about in the first place? How easy was it to put into production?
I was a smoker, then an ex-smoker, now I’m a social smoker. I’ve always been fascinated by the interactions of strangers outside bars and restaurants. There’s an unspoken bond between smoking addicts no matter what their backgrounds are. It leads to fascinating conversations that last the length of a cigarette. My background is in short films. Three of my shorts were in Sundance (they’re on the DVD), so it seemed natural to create a skit-based comedy. The production was a blend of cast and crew that I had worked with on the shorts, which made the whole process easier. It was made on a shoestring budget that relied on a lot of help from friends in the production community.
You also have a role in the film – tell us a bit about your character…
I play a barfly. Not a huge stretch for me. The bar in the movie is my regular hangout in real life. I was just there over the weekend, sneaking in a pint before last orders. Just like me, my character collects bar culture stories and passes them off as his own. I don’t plan on casting myself in any subsequent films. I just happened to be available.
How would you say the film is different from other comedies released this year? What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
‘Smoking Laws’ doesn’t unfold like a traditional comedy. It all takes place in one night and bounces around between different characters. I was raised on Monty Python, so creating a film with such a fragmented structure seemed natural to me. By telling the story in pieces, I was able to take risks. I get strong reactions from scenes such as when candidate Dennis confesses his dark secret to his campaign manager, Joe. Some people hated that scene. There’s no way you could have such a dark scene in a traditional comedy. But in ‘Smoking Laws’, scenes like that are always followed with something silly or crowd pleasing. It’s a grab bag I guess. Comedy bouillabaisse with some creepy spices.
How has the reception been to the film so far?
A lot of people say watching the film was like spending a night in a bar. I’m happy with that reaction, especially since their clothes won’t smell like smoke afterwards. Anti-smoking laws cause a lot of grumbling, as I’m sure you know. I don’t really take a stance in the movie one way or another. There are a lot of non-smoking characters in the film. So all sides are represented.
The film stars Keven Adams, Joe Alessi, Ashlee Amoia, Fred Armstrong and Steve Briscoe – what was it like working with the cast and crew?
Most of the cast are friends of mine with varying degrees of experience. A lot of them are not even actors. I wrote characters that I knew would be right for each cast member. For instance, I’ve worked with Michael Koldan, the Bossman, on two of the Sundance shorts. Since he’s the bar owner, I needed his character to be the consistent thread throughout the film. I knew Michael could keep the audience’s interest.
Let’s talk a bit about you Matthew. What made you want to get into the writing, producing and directing chair in the first place?
I recently transferred a bunch of Super 8mm films that I rescued from my parents. I was amazed to discover my father pointing out where people should stand and what they should do or say. Essentially he’s directing my family. Once I was old enough to pick up the camera myself, I was hooked. I attended USC Cinema as an undergrad and soon realized the Hollywood scene was too harsh for my tastes. So I moved back east. I realized this would limit my film career’s potential but I just didn’t give a shit. I’d rather tell my own stories and be happy.
What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in any of these?
I feel it’s worth taking some time and defining what your goals are. Ask what your personal definition of success is. I’m still trying to figure it out. Fame and fortune are elusive and never a guarantee. I try not to get too attached to any one project. You need to develop your own style and that takes a lot of practice. Being prolific is getting easier because of technology, but you still need to find skilled collaborators, especially actors. You should get involved in the local theatre and film scene and develop an eye for talent. Finding motivated people to help you is a constant challenge.
What films have inspired you as an artist? Do you have any favourites?
I’ve already mentioned Python. I find myself watching and re-watching John Cleese’s lectures on the creative process. His words always inspire me when I’m frustrated or blocked. My comedy tastes trend toward the UK. I guess that makes me an Anglophile, which is such a weird term. Is there a UK equivalent for people who dig American culture? Yank wankers, I guess. More recently, I’ve been working at getting more involved in the New York City comedy scene. I’m hoping to conspire with the young comic talent that surrounds me. The best comedy about drinking I’ve ever seen is ‘Withnail & I’. The depiction of narcissistic drunkenness in that film makes me smile no matter how many times I see it.
If you could have a dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Louise Brooks, a silent era movie star, because she was such an anti-star, not to mention one of the most erotic people ever born. Spaulding Gray because I loved his stories. I’d ask him why he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. It’s a shame I only have dead people at this dinner party. Where would I get a table with that line up? I’d have to bring my girlfriend, Emily. She’s always good for a laugh. She plays The Hostess in ‘Smoking Laws’.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been of great interest to me. I live in New York and am sympathetic to the 99% cause. I’m tempted to pick up a camera and create a narrative around the people involved like in the film, ‘Medium Cool’. There’s a lot of cynicism in American politics these days. You can’t confront our political leaders like you can in the UK. Imagine George W. Bush having to defend his bullshit policies in the House of Commons? The protests you see are nothing compared to what you have in Europe, but I feel we’re starting to see the value of public action versus quiet grumbling. Who knows? There might be an entertaining premise in all of this. Maybe a Tea Party protester and Occupy protester meet and fall in love. Romeo And Juliet for the politically savvy.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
I’m working with a Manchester-based company, Made Up North, on a romantic comedy called ‘Vows & Rites’. It’s a new twist on the ‘romcom’ genre that I’m really excited about.
Thanks for the interview!