Before The Curtain Rises: An Interview With Pete Garlock

By Greg Kiernan

What do you mean this movie had no script?

As a writer myself it's a small wonder why I was so dumbfounded. A movie without a script tells me that no one was there to hammer out the story and make sure it works on paper. No one was there to make sure the structure was sound on a basic level and no one was there to think carefully ahead of time what the conflicts were and to make sure the movie never dragged. Some might argue that could be an excuse for failure, but not this time. This time it was deliberate that no writer was involved in this particular project, and the fact that it functions well as a film actually makes me pose to myself a very serious question -- if actors can improvise an entire film, is a writer even that necessary?

I needed a second opinion. So I did an interview with Pete Garlock, one of the stars of the upcoming film "Dark Before Dawn" by Blue Damen Productions, premiering this upcoming Thursday February 9th at the Marcus theatre in Elgin, IL.

Thank you for doing this, Pete.

PG: Happy to do it.

GK: First of all, how did you first get involved with Blue Damen? What started you on the path to this project? Do you have any past experiences with film or acting? What was your first impression of this film?

PG: I first met Gwydhar & Danellyn at the first annual Elgin Short Film Festival. I was the Chairman of the festival, and they were selected as a finalist for the short film, “The Visionary.” (They won third place.) After the festival there were several parties around town, and we ended up at the same one, and I got to know them a little bit there. At the press conference kick-off for the second Elgin Short Film Festival, I invited them back to speak about their experience at the first festival, and that’s when we first discussed the idea if I would be interested in joining their board.

What started me on the path to this project was Gwydhar’s father had told her about this new style of movie-making called “mumblecore” (completely improvised). We had scheduled to shoot a short film in Elgin in 2011 called “Recalculating,” and circumstances pushed it back to 2012. So Gwydhar, not one to sit around and wait, asked me if she thought I would be up for acting in a feature-length film that was completely improvised. I told I thought I could do it, and she asked me if I knew of anyone who could do it with me. Ironically we had just done some improvising in the acting classes I was taking at the time, and Amy Karen really stood out to me with her ability to weave these bizarre, interesting, hilarious stories. I knew she would be perfect for this, and I suggested her to Gwydhar, who trusted my opinion and said OK.

For a while I majored in theatre at Ohio State, where I had appeared in a few stage plays and in some community theatre afterward. But it was when I moved to Chicago that I first experience working in movies. My first experience was in the Vince Vaughan movie “Fred Claus,” but I think my part was cut because I couldn’t stop looking at the camera. That taught me a great lesson because later that year I got the role as the Harvey Dent Fundraiser party planner in “The Dark Knight.” The next year I was part of the couple who walks out of the Biograph Theatre in front of Johnny Depp at the end of the John Dillinger movie “Public Enemies.” Then last year I was a patient in the Matt Damon movie “Contagion.”

My first impression of the film was surprisingly positive. I told Gwydhar I never thought I’d ever be one of those actors who couldn’t watch themselves on film…but I discovered I was. It took a lot for me to watch the first rough cut, but when I did, I was surprised how drawn into the story I was. A story that I helped create, and I was captivated by it. At a pre-premiere with our backers, some music was added and we had a small audience, and it was even better! At the very beginning when Amy’s character and mine first meet, Amy says a line and the audience laughed, and it was at that moment when I realized, “Wow….we made a movie!”

GK: Now to get to my main question, actually.This film did not have a script. As a writer I am both intrigued and disenchanted by that idea. What did you think? Do you think that having a written script would have added or detracted from your performance, the filming process or finished product?

PG: I think the coolest thing about this movie is that we DIDN’T have a script and yet it became something interesting to watch, with some funny moments, some tense moments, and real emotion. I am amazed how different the characters looked, but how their lives ended up being so similar, and how their roles changed from how they are in the beginning of the film to how they become by the end. Not having a script gave me freedom to decide where I wanted this character to go, which is rare for an actor, unless they’ve written the script themselves. However, having said that, I’m pretty sure I would never do a film without a script ever again. Improvisation in a film is fine in moderation, but the whole thing? I just don’t think I could ever do it again.

Before shooting, Gwydhar gave Amy and me instructions on our characters. We could come up with names, our own background, look, etc. But she instructed us to come up with a secret, a BIG secret, that we each would have, and throughout the course of getting to know each other we would discover that the other one had this secret and we had to get it out of the other person. This gave some of our conversations purpose, which really helped the dialogue flow.

But because we made up our lines on the spot, the most difficult thing was reshooting a scene. I’ll never forget the scene where we’re by the Kimball Street bridge, and we’re really going at it, yelling and screaming at each other for a few minutes. Then, after we cut, Gwydhar said, “OK, let’s do it again.” And Amy and I looked at each other like, “WHAT?!?!” I understand the need to film a scene a couple of times for safety, but do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to a person for a couple of minutes, then have someone come up and say, “OK, now repeat exactly what you just said for the last 5 minutes”? It’s almost impossible. I remember thinking, “So THIS is why they write scripts for films!” So don’t worry, Greg, I don’t think you’ll be out of a job anytime soon.

I think it’s funny that some people (who have seen the movie) would come up to me and say, “I think it would have been better at that one point if your character had done this, or maybe Amy’s character had said this at that other moment,” and I just want to say to them, “We made this up as we went along, people!!!” I think people have become so accustomed of being entertained by surprise twists and clever writing in films, but really, how often does that happen in real life? I saw a mumblecore film a few months ago by a Chicago director, and it was filmed with all this clever banter and witty dialogue, and I thought, “WHO TALKS LIKE THAT IN REAL LIFE?!?!” I think our conversations are reflective of exactly what they are supposed to be, two strangers who meet and are forced to walk around a strange city together in the middle of the night for 6-8 hours.

I’m proud how the film turned out. Again, you have to understand going into it that you don’t know what’s going to happen because it was completely improvised. That said, I think we came up with enough real moments to make it interesting and entertaining.

GK: Did you do any research for your role? Did you invest anything personally or were you especially motivated by anything? Have you ever felt any sort of internal conflict that the character you portray does?

PG: I didn’t do any research for my role. The name I came up with is a combination of three buddies of mine, and I chose my character’s profession as advertising because I pictured him as a smooth, slick-talking guy...sort of a Don Draper type (from “Mad Men.”). I live in Elgin, so I knew enough about the city and the places there to talk about them knowledgeably. The scene where I talk about Walton Island and how it was created was something I learned through my job a few years ago and it always stuck with me. I always thought it was a great story, and I told Gwydhar about it. She said, “That’s great. Try to work it into a scene.” As it turned out, that story became integral for Amy’s character to know where to find me toward the end of the film.

I did have a personal experience that motivated me in one scene, the Walton Island scene with Amy toward the end. I’ve never had to cry in past acting experiences, and I felt that my character needed to have a big emotional breakdown in this scene, and I didn’t know if I would be able to cry in the scene. But I had just lost my father a few months earlier. And in the scene you see Amy walking up to me, and I’m just staring into the water. I was thinking about him, about losing him, and I just started bawling while delivering my lines. I think we shot that twice, and each time I was able to bring the tears, and I remember saying afterward that I was shocked that not only I could do it once, but twice. And I remember being really emotionally drained after that, too.

After we had revealed them, Amy and I talked about our secrets off camera, and we both said how we had decided to come up with something that would be completely opposite of the type of person we were. Again, another example of something neither of us planned together but something we ended up doing similarly. My character and I are both married and live in Elgin, but that’s where the similarities end, so it was hard for me to find an emotion connection with. And there was definitely a huge difference between Amy Karen and her character…but I won’t spoil what the difference is…you’ll have to watch the film to find out!

GK: A film in production typically has a number of setbacks. What were some you can think of that happened during the shooting of this film? Did anything in particular bother you or take its toll on you?

PG: We had typical things happen on our set that you have to deal with on most sets….the weather, random people walking into scenes, people yelling out car windows while you’re filming, things like that. But one of the advantages of filming overnight is that by around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, even THOSE people have gone to bed, so it wasn’t so bad after then.

But the interesting thing about doing a mumblecore film is that there were all these happy accidents that happened during shooting that actually directed the story telling. We really should have named this film “The Night of the Happy Accidents.” If something went wrong, you could just make up dialogue to cover it up…or, use it to our advantage and create a new scene! Not to give too much away, but there is a scene that had a lot of high emotion, great dialogue, and really good chemistry between and Amy and me. Then, afterward, someone pointed out that we were missing a certain prop. And it wasn’t something we could get away with not having in the scene, it would have been noticeable to the audience that it was not there. So afterward we added a whole scene that actually takes place before it, and it explains why that prop was missing. And this situation actually solved a different problem we had trying to figure out a way to separate the characters. Like I said, it was a happy accident, and best of all, it was believable.

And like I said before, the only thing that took its toll on me was trying to remember what you had just said in a scene when it came time to reshoot that scene. Definitely makes that easier to do that when you have a script in your head that you’ve memorized.

GK: Looking back on the whole experience, what do you think you take away from it? What particular aspect of your performance makes you the most proud? Is there something you feel you could have improved?

PG: I take away from this experience almost the whole film-making experience. From the writing side of conceptualizing a story and character creation, to the producer side of casting, site scouting, wardrobe, to acting, to the post-production work, and finally promotion. I’ve never had this much involvement in a film, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. The best part is that everyone was so committed to make this the best experience as possible, which was due entirely to Gwydhar’s leadership. She was responsible for everything you see on screen, and she directed us toward a great piece of work. Most of all, she kept us energized and motivated and creative…and valued out input and suggestions, which made it quite easy to want to do this for her.

I am proud of the finished product. I am proud that we literally started with nothing, and ended up with an entertaining, engrossing, compelling film. I’m proud of the camaraderie our team always maintained throughout what was a fairly challenging experience. I’m very proud of some of my scenes in this film. I’ll never be completely happy with my performance as an actor…I’ll always think I can do better. But in a few scenes, I’ll admit, when I saw them, I thought to myself, “nicely done.” And I am most proud that I was the one who asked Amy Karen do this with us. I KNEW when I asked her that she’d do a great job in this, and she ended being far better than I expected!

GK: Well, I think that's all the questions I have for you today. Thank you Pete.

PG: Don't mention it.

I hope that one day the writer can have the some public recognition that actors and directors have, but working with such fine people is reward enough. For now.

See you in the movies!

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