Writing from a Place of Truth and Desire with ‘Bud’ Short Film Screenwriters Zach Woods and Brandon Gardner
'Bud' director and co-writer Zach Woods, along with long-time collaborator and co-writer Brandon Gardner talk about their writing process and collaboration, screenwriting craft, influences, and exploring different pathways to find your unique voice, and how comedy and drama go hand in hand.
Thanks to smartphones and social media, public ridicule and shaming are nothing new to the social spectrum. However, the way we experience public shaming from a first-hand experience has yet to be truly explored. Bud director and co-writer Zach Woods, along with long-time collaborator and co-writer Brandon Gardner, do just that. And such in a way that is incredibly vulnerable, scary, bewildering, and innocent from the point of view of a self-aware kindred spirit, that is Maddie.
I was completely taken aback by the heaviness this short film left me with. More so because of both Zach's and Brandon's successful comedic backgrounds - it was unexpected, but I'm beginning to truly appreciate the keen eye comedians have for diving deep into tough subjects and presenting them in a digestible way. It's not easy.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Zach and Brandon about their writing process and collaboration, screenwriting craft, influences, and exploring different pathways to find your unique voice, and how comedy and drama go hand in hand. Plus, they both share inspiring advice for budding filmmakers. Have a pen and notepad ready - there's a lot to learn from these two.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the initial seed for this story and were you both pulling from a personal place to imbued into the story?
Zach Woods: Brandon and I wrote this feature film script years ago that I think was pretty good, but felt a little bit kind of structural in a way. You're so kind of inculcated into this way of thinking about writing where it's like, there's a structure and there's acts, and one scene has to lead to the next scene. And I'm not exactly sure where all this orthodoxy originates, but it's sort of just accepted as gospel and I think at some point, we realized we just want to write about stuff that feels preoccupying to us, that feels disturbing, that feels moving, that feels hopeful. With these shorts that we made and with this feature we've written subsequently, we try to write much more from a more visceral place.
My favorite living filmmaker is Céline Sciamma, and she did this BAFTA talk where she talked about writing from desire, just writing the scenes that you have a desire for. And that was really impactful. I think she's a genius. I've never heard anyone talking about writing this way, she was like, ‘I'll write a list of scenes that I desire and it could just be anything. It could be a scene with Adèle Haenel, where she's climbing a mountain, anything, a list of these scenes that don't necessarily have any relationship to each other.’ And then in another column, she writes scenes she feels she needs in order to make the scene she desires sort of cohere into a larger story. And then she won't start writing any of the needed scenes until she can find some way to move them from the needed column to the desired column so that she's only writing things that she desires, and if she can't move it, she'll see if this story can hold up without it.
Sadie: That is such an interesting way to attack writing.
Brandon Gardner: Yeah, partly just because we both loved Portrait of a Lady on Fire so much, and then hearing that's how she approached it felt so the opposite of the experience of going through a screenwriting book. You lose whatever desire you went into the project with as you start to plot through their formula, and the fact that she's like, ‘No, come in with everything you feel strongest about and make sure that that goes in.’ It felt much better.
Zach: And also, at the risk of being gender essentialist in an objectionable way, I do think with structure and screenwriting, these are the rules, is kind of archetypically masculine. It’s rooted in control and dominance of your imagination in a way and the Céline Sciamma version is more archetypically female. I'm not saying that these qualities actually break on gender lines, but I just mean in terms of the archetype, it's more receptive.
Sadie: Yeah, you're allowed to express emotion and let that kind of lead you rather than follow the three-act structure and hit your inciting incident at this page or else…
Zach: Yes, exactly! You don't have to write from a defensive crouch. It's not, ‘Well, I just came up to page 30, [laughs] the fucking MacGuffin happened on page 30, dude. So back off!’ [laughs] But anyway, the specifics of this where Brandon and I are both kind of interested in public shaming, I find those videos to be absolutely hypnotizing. And they're so adrenalizing and scary and sometimes gratifying in a kind of dark way. And I often feel like crying when I'm watching them. And I think a lot of conversations that happen around this stuff about accountability culture, or cancel culture, whatever people choose to call this, you know, phenomenon that happens, it turns into this kind of moral bean counting, which I don't think is unreasonable. But for me, the thing that's more interesting, and that is the experience. I don't think I have anything interesting to say about public shaming in a kind of ideological way, but I do have curiosity about what it feels like. And so, I think we wanted to explore that, rather than making some sort of pedantic thing about taking a position. More just about investigating what the experience is like from the perspective of someone who is excluded from being able to engage with this sort of ideological part of it, because she's a kid.
Sadie: Right and you guys handle that so well. And I really appreciate that you don't tell us what it is that the dad, greatly played by Michael Peña, did to have this public shaming. You put it back into her point of view of how she's perceiving that and experiencing what is right and wrong. I'm still thinking about what is it that he could have done.
Brandon: If you read the YouTube comments, there's fascinating theories of what it could be. One is that her father's dead, and this is her as an adult experiencing it. There are very creative explanations.
Zach: Which is, by the way, I'm down for whatever your experience is. There’s some quote that I love, where someone said that performances take place halfway between the performer’s imagination and the audience. I do feel like the second you make something available to an audience, you're inviting them to collaborate with you. Their associations will fill in the space that has been left for those associations, you know?
Sadie: Yeah, and the idea of that you're experiencing this thing with them in that moment. What was that writing process like between the two of you in terms of executing the idea, laying it out on index cards, outlining, and landing on the actual shooting script?
Brandon: The genesis of it was first just that it was early pandemic, like March and April, and I would take walks with my dog and call Zach and we sort of talk about really anything and this idea of these public shaming videos, and especially a lot of them it was people confronting politicians in public places was interesting to us. The writing process for us, I think most of the time was not writing it. It was discussing it. A big breakthrough was thinking about it being from the daughter's point of view. I think the way I first came into it because I have a little girl who's two, was thinking about what it would be like to be publicly shamed while trying to defend this innocent person, but from her perspective was a big breakthrough. And then it was a lot of talking through the beats of what we think would really happen and what would be important to her. By the time either Zach or I took the first pass of writing it, maybe one of us wrote the first four or five pages, we had a pretty good sense of what a lot of it would be just through conversations.
Zach: Yeah, and writing can be so unpleasant. There's a quote that I think about literally every day where someone said that making a movie should feel as urgent as having to pee. And I think that there's something about sort of loading up your bladder, so to speak, making sure that you've talked about it and talked about it and talked about it until it almost feels like, ‘Fuck, I have to write this down now.’ As opposed to trying to extort a story from your brain while you stare into the angry blue light of a laptop screen. It's better to just be like, we're going to talk about this until it feels like this living, breathing thing that demands to be written down. And then write, where it's almost the writing is almost an afterthought, where it's a transcription as opposed to an invention.
Brandon: There's also the feeling, especially with the two shorts we wrote, Zach will send his pass back to me where he's changed some early things and maybe added a page or two. And it does feel like every time I get the pass back from Zach, it's an emotional ramp towards the next place you can go where you read through it, and it feels more real than the last time you wrote it, because someone else has put their magic into it. That propels you to write two more pages, and then get stuck and you send it to the other person. And they use your work to tack on another moment, until it feels like, 'Oh, I think we got it.' And then there was a lot of discussion about how to figure out the ending. That was half of the battle, I think.
Sadie: Did you have different scenarios for the ending?
Brandon: From early on we had this sense of the big guitar guy who that she's been looking forward to coming out and singing the birthday song would eventually come out and sing to her, but it was just the execution of when he would come out and what that would feel like and how it could feel both surprising, but also something that doesn't feel like it completely comes out of nowhere.
Sadie: And then for you, Zach, did you know going in on this project that you were going to direct this as well?
Zach: Yeah, I love directing. It's so fun. When we wrote that first script, at that point, I wasn't really interested in directing. When we’re writing, we're talking about it in such an emotional way, that then to hand it off, it can feel weird. It's like what are you looking for? Are you looking for someone to reinvent it? Are you looking for someone to just be a pair of wrists to execute your thing? And if that's what you're doing, then why don't you just do it? I think it's helpful to kind of keep it in-house.
Sadie: I noticed a number of familiar names from your short film David on this as well. Can you talk about those collaborations, especially with your DP Andre Lascaris and editor Nick Paley?
Zach: Andre Lascaris who is a beautiful DP, but also a beautiful person - one of the reasons that I was first interested in working with him on David was because I felt that he had a loving eye, he liked people. And I could feel that through his photography. I think there's a lot to be said for how warm or cold and detached your camera is, especially because I like playing around with improvisation and doing things spontaneously, there's a degree of editing in camera that happens. You really want to find people whose attention will naturally alight on the human things that are of interest to you. There are some DPs who are really talented in a lot of ways aesthetically, but humans are just sort of something to bounce light off of for them. But in Andre's case, I think he shoots from his heart. And so in both of those movies, it felt really crucial that it feel like a mammal, the camera is a mammal, the camera is not a lizard, you know. Our producers were the same. Our AD was the same. It was one of the joys of short films too, as you're sort of finding your tribe, you're finding your little pirate ship of people who want to go on these misbegotten journeys with you. And then Nick Paley is my dearest friend, and we've worked together for years, and he's someone with such a big heart. And I just think that's important, especially when you're dealing with stuff that's so painful. I just find the movie painful, it was painful to shoot, it was painful to edit, because people showed up so fully for it, because the actors were so invested, because everyone was really making this thing real. And so, it was terribly upsetting. And you want to feel like there's this sort of compassionate container for that upsetting thing [laughs] if that makes sense. Not sentimental but compassionate and humanistic.
Sadie: And there's something about creating your own filmmaking tribe. And starting that out in a short film, you figure out who’s your ride and die.
Zach: Yes! Short films are a great sorting hat because no one ever does a short film unless they love it, there's no reason. You won't make money, you won't get famous, you won't. [laughs] All of the more craven reasons someone might want to make a film are completely eliminated by the natural limitations of its place in the marketplace. So, you only get kind of true believers in a way. I mean, that sounds cultish. There's a weird thing that happens too, which is Los Angeles, obviously, is this industry town and sometimes if you're not careful, you can find yourself just assimilating to the values of the industry, as opposed to the values of a creative community, if that makes sense?
Zach: And so, it's a little tricky. You can look around in LA and be like, 'Well, everyone's an actor and writer and director, I've got company,' but if you're not careful, you'll you can start sort of thinking about it in terms of commodities and in terms of content.
Sadie: There’s the cool thing about making a short film in that you can take creative chances and you get to explore and develop your own creative voice in a very limited amount of time.
Zach: Yeah. And when we shot this, it was pandemic pre vaccines, the fucking hills were on fire, so the sky was this apocalyptic jaundice color. There is every reason in the world to feel bleak. And there was something about showing up to this place at night and looking around and seeing all these beautiful people, doing such heartfelt work, that experience was so cathartic for me at least, and affirming.
Sadie: Speaking of filming during the pandemic, did you guys come across any creative obstacles or limitations while filming?
Zach: We were going to shoot indoors and then we realized, like, ‘Oh, that's not safe.’ So then we had to shoot outdoors. But then we're next to a busy road, so the sound is crazy. And Casey Genton, who was our sound mixer, who's brilliant, was like, ‘You should record the street with a microphone simultaneously so we can mix it.’ There were all these workarounds, and he was so helpful with that. And then we have to find ways of testing and getting COVID Marshalls on set, because especially with a little kid back then too, and the idea that someone would get sick on it was just intolerable. So yeah, most of our budget went to COVID. [laughs]
Brandon: When we were talking about different restaurant locations, it was this really tricky thing where it needed to be outdoors for safety reasons to have that many people. There's so many things the story demanded. One, it couldn't be an empty restaurant, it had to be a restaurant with there's a lot of people there. It also couldn't be an outdoor restaurant where you could easily just step out and be on the sidewalk. It felt important to us that it had to feel like a contained restaurant. There's a lot of the script and even when I watched the movie, where to me it almost feels like a horror movie. The place we ended up finding was sort of perfect where you can't walk out except for the exit, and there’s these tall walls, and there's no roof so you can have enough people there to populate a restaurant and have that scary feeling. It was really hard to find that.
Zach: And then it also had to be at night because it felt like that kind of magic twinkling feeling that you have when you're a kid on your birthday or Christmas or something - those twinkling lights and darkness felt really important. But we were also shooting with a seven-year-old, I think she was six at that time maybe, so she couldn't shoot that late, which is no problem if you're shooting indoors. But if you're shooting outdoors where there's sunlight, you have to wait till it's night to be dark, so there's all kinds of jigsawing.
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Sadie: Well, first off, Everly. Wow, I can't believe she's younger than 10 and pulling off this kind of performance. When translating this character from page to screen, and working with a kid, how much were you giving her creative liberties to develop that character for herself?
Zach: She is a very strange mixture of creative genius and old soul and also a goofy little kid. She's just wonderful, I consider her a friend. I never thought I would have an eight-year-old friend, but I do now. Months before shooting, I would talk to her usually an hour a week and we would just talk about life, and just talk about the character. And I would ask her questions, and her answers were so deep and complicated. I remember asking her, ‘Hey, what do you think happened to her mom?’ And Everly was like, ‘I think she died.’ And I was like, ‘Do you think they have any pets?’ And Everly immediately goes, 'Well, I think one day they were out in the woods, her and her dad, and they saw a cat. And she wanted to bring the cat home. But her father said no, because your mother doesn't like cats, but she persisted. And finally, her father relented, and they brought the cat back to the house. And I think later when her mom was sick and dying, I think the cat would sit on her chest in bed, and keep her company.' And I was like, 'Jesus Christ.' It’s its own short film, that's probably better than the one we shot, to be honest. She's so deep and self-possessed.
Sadie: There's something that's I always find so fascinating with comedians, in that they are able to really embrace dramatic roles and dark dramatic situations, and knowing that both of you guys have come through the comedy world, like UCB, what do you think it is that you individually harness in that you’re able to deliver in these types of roles?
Brandon: I would say the one thing with our background in improv and through UCB, I think a big part of the UCBs curriculum and how they guide you when you're learning to be an improviser, it should always feel truthful and the comedy should always come from a really truthful, committed place. And that oftentimes, the best scenes, the funniest scenes, often have moments where it's really nice if you allow for moments to not be funny, and to just be truthful. I think with the people we collaborate with that are comedians and especially people that we know through UCB, we kind of have a sense that they're capable. If you can commit so hard to the humanity in an absurd moment, it feels like you can also do that to the humanity and truth of a moment that's really dramatic. Both in David and Bud, everyone does that really well, and in a weird way, isn't surprising. I've never seen Mike Mitchell do something other than comedy, but I also was not surprised when he was so good in this either, I was just felt like, that's him.
Zach: Also, I don't think Brandon or I are people you would necessarily think of as comedians if you just talk to us. I remember meeting a woman in a bar once and she was like, ‘What do you do?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I do comedy.’ And she's like, ‘What?!’ [laughs]
I had this acting teacher who said this thing once to me that I thought was so wonderful, we were talking about crying on camera, and she said, ‘If you could clear out all the social conditioning, and all of the repression and everything, at most points in your life, you're always on the verge of crying or laughing, underneath it all. If you listen to the quiet reality underneath all this socialization and sound and fury, you would realize that you're either on the verge of tears or the verge of laughter.’ There might be some wisdom in that, which I think they're very close to each other. Even physically, sometimes you can't tell if someone's laughing or crying.
Sadie: Any general advice for budding filmmakers who are about to shoot their first film?
Zach: There's a Thelonious Monk quote, “A genius is the one most like himself” - steer into your idiosyncrasies and the things about you that are unusual. Don't try to assimilate.
Brandon: Very similar answer of just trusting your own instincts of what you want to see in a movie. I think if you aim for a faceless executive to like it, it's going to be bad, or at least my experience, when I tried to do that, it was horrible. But if I aim it either towards myself or someone I love, it feels a lot better.
Bud is now available to view on Vimeo.