GTBP Exclusive: Emerging Filmmaker Series: Jef Taylor and Michael Tisdale Tell Us What Happened 'After You Left'
Back in the early 90s, Jef Taylor and Michael Tisdale, a couple of college kids who had been friends since early childhood, hit the road for a music festival in southern Ohio. Shortly after pitching an old canvas tent that Jef had borrowed from his father, the two realized that their shelter was no match for the elements. Despite the pouring rain that found its way into the humble quarters, the two made the best of the situation. Using Jef’s tape recorder, the two spent the evening singing and improvising little sketches that they later entitled: “Leaky Tent”. From these soggy, yet joyous beginnings came Leaky Tent Collective, the small film, theater, and video production company that the two created that has just been granted the distinct honor of producing a short film accepted by the Sundance Film Festival.
Last fall the long time friends found themselves in yet another potentially somber situation: they had both been dumped by their live-in girlfriends. To make matters worse, Jef had also recently gotten laid off from his job. Single, sad, and broke, the two got together in early November of 2009 to do what two old friends do best, drink and talk. Once again, Jef and Michael put their heads together to find a way to capitalize on their current straights. The result was the creation of After You Left, directed by Taylor.
Tisdale plays Mat, a man in his mid-thirties coping with the recent loss of his girlfriend, Sara, played by Joanne Tucker. The film revolves around Mat’s attempt to reconnect and resume social interactions with friends despite the impending sorrow creeping in around the edges. Only when he is alone, either on the streets of New York City, or the dimly lit annals of the subway, does the audience truly feel the exhaustion of romantic bereavement.
Comprised of a mere outline of plot points and actions stemming from their experiences, the script was created in one month’s time. The speed with which the two dove into production was in an attempt to capture the raw emotion that the two friends were feeling while they were experiencing it. Though this resulted in a lot of sleepless nights for Michael in particular, the film served as an emotional release for both men, with a little bit of movie-making magic thrown in.
“Everyone was drinking and having a great time, it was an amazingly fun night shooting a film.” Taylor said of the evening they spent shooting a party scene in a New York apartment. “We called eight or nine friends and bought a bunch of liquor.” Though the company was aware that they were showing up to a movie shoot, Taylor encouraged them to just be themselves. Despite the fact that the four hours of footage they accumulated did not make for an easy scene to construct in the editing room, what ultimately resulted from the night was a shoot that they still look back on fondly. And, after all, isn’t that why we embark on making independent films? The romance of blood, sweat, and tears aside, filmmakers make films because they love to, whether or not there is any money involved. Though it can be easy to forget in the midst of planning, scheduling, and getting all of the shots you need in for the day, making a movie is supposed to be fun, right?
Much of the enjoyment of shooting After You Left, and the solid performances therein, Taylor attributes to the method of production they employed. “We were able to really focus on the acting, because that’s all there was.” Said Taylor, whose director of photography, a film school colleague, Ryan Dickie, used only available light and a hand-held, Panasonic HVX200 camera to create this dramatic short film. In doing so, Taylor had to throw out nearly all of the technical elements that he had learned in his film program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“What is most redeeming about getting into Sundance is that I did it doing exactly what I always wanted to do as far as making a film.” Taylor said. In making After You Left, in the interest of the budget and the content, his decision was to downscale the production itself in the interest of devoting the majority of his attention to capturing the genuinity of the emotional journey of the characters. And, it works. The performances are alarmingly real. So real, in fact, that I felt pressed to ask if in one particular scene where Mat and friend Garrett, played by Garrett Neergaard, get high on a Brooklyn rooftop, they were actually smoking pot.
“No, we weren’t actually, but that’s a funny story.” Michael said. “On the way to the shoot Garrett saw some guys on the corner smoking these little cigars, and thought it would be a good idea to pick some up. The tobacco in them was so nasty that we actually did end up getting a buzz from it. It gave us enough of an alteration that the two of us just went with it.”
Reenacting and re-experiencing a painful experience like the loss of a romantic relationship does come with its consequences. Though Michael did say that it was cathartic in some ways, in many others it was completely emotionally exhausting for both him and Jef. But the experience on the whole has turned out to be a redeeming one. After You Left marks Leaky Tent’s first acceptance into Sundance after three previous attempts with earlier films, and they are taking this success as a sign. As we speak, Jef and Michael are hard at work in their Brooklyn apartments, expanding their short into a feature length film that they hope to begin shooting sometime early next year.
“Ideally, we’d like to start shooting as soon as possible to keep everything fresh.” Jef said of holding on to the emotions that the two experienced last year. “We really want to do the same thing we did with the short, but in a longer format without over thinking it too much, which is the temptation.”
So, once again, dear readers, there is no right way to make a film. The movie-making industry is riddled with “professionals” who love to tell you what you can and cannot do, and what you will need in order to do it. Thanks to filmmakers like Jef Taylor and Michael Tisdale and their tremendous success with becoming an Official Selection of the Sundance Film Festival, we see that many of these naysayers have that much less to go on. Yes, success can be a crapshoot, but the ability to make a movie doesn’t have to be.