A date with darkness

Adam Christian Clark on the horrors of the dating scene and making Newly Single

by Jennie Kermode

Adam Christian Clark in Newly Single
Adam Christian Clark in Newly Single

The story of a small time film producer who can't understand why his girlfriend has left him or why other women don't want to date him, Newly Single explores toxic masculinity from the inside out. It was due to get a special release on Prime for Valentine's Day but has just been classed as 'adult content' - a rare case of UK censors being more offended than their US counterparts by material dealing with sexuality - so this has been cancelled. UK residents will now have to go to rather more trouble to access it, and those who stumble across it whilst looking for pornography are likely to be disappointed by its focus on drama.

A few days ago, writer/director Adam Christian Clark, who also plays the role of its troubled and troubling protagonist, took the time to explain how the film came together.

"This movie began as nothing more than a personal exercise, or experiment of sorts," he says. "I had, with Adam Hendricks" - the producer of his critically acclaimed first feature, Caroline And Jackie - "been preparing to shoot a much larger film for nearly two years. It was still relatively a small movie, but larger than I had previously experienced and was also my first time ever working with A-list actors. Unfortunately, despite months of rehearsals and everything seeming to be in place, the film kept falling apart. I mean literally just a few days before shooting, on multiple iterations, over this two year period it wouldn’t happen for unexpected reasons.

"It really broke me, among other reasons, because it coincided with a very long period of unemployment. I was out of money to the point where I didn’t know how I was going to pay my next month’s rent, my girlfriend and I had just broken up and she moved out—I was just completely defeated and coming to terms with what felt like the reality of being evicted and probably never making a movie again. I remember checking a textbook out at the library on Actuarial Science, in a desperate attempt to cling to a more stable life and career. Fortunately, that thought only lasted a few days, and then I just went back to the only thing I know, which is everyday thinking about how to make another movie. Kind of sad, but true. Anyway, it’s the life I’ve chosen, I’m not complaining.

How not to win friends or influence people
How not to win friends or influence people

"So, this eviction was imminent, which I knew would ruin my credit, and I had $15K left in available credit card credit, so I did what seemed to be the most humane, which was to max out the $15K and shoot a movie with it. Which sounds impossible to me, but I guess Adam Hendricks is some sort of warlock or something because he did it, that’s all we shot it with. So that was awesome and a huge relief because I all of a sudden didn’t have this stress of not making a movie again, and as a result I just didn’t really care if I ended up on people’s sofas because at least I would be editing this movie.

So the idea of Newly Single came from this place that will most likely never be replicated for me again, which was that I had this sudden freedom to literally make anything I wanted regardless of story conventions. It just felt like there was nothing to lose, so do whatever you want. And what I really wanted at that time was to explore this horrific darkness I was seeing in LA in relation to the male-female heteronormative dating world and among other things how it was being hyperised in such a short period for many reasons, but one literally being the speed and anonymity of apps like Tinder. I just felt like it was creating a very real and very dark environment with real consequences, or in turn was possibly normalising something that already existed but remained hidden. And what I didn’t like was that I just felt like everyone was in denial about it.

"You watch comedy on TV, or the modern iterations of the romantic comedy and what’s deemed dark or inappropriate behaviour, to me, seems extremely out of touch with today’s realities. I feel like audiences right now are being given sort of extremes, Harvey Weinstein on one end and on the other just the teachable male of forgiveable ignorance. But neither seem true to the norms of what I’m seeing, so I feel like as a result the conversations we’re having about men and women are not reaching their true potential. I’m not sure why this is happening besides the obvious uncomfortability surrounding some accepted but ignored horrors. I just think dating right now in big-city-America is pretty dark, and I want people to talk about that, agree or disagree, but let’s just at least admit what’s actually being said and done."

The tightly budgeted project got a boost when Sundance Institute Feature Film Program came on board to help.

"The Sundance Institute was a lifesaver for this project. Michelle Satter and Anne Lai really made an impact on the film and on me in a way I’ll feel for years to come. First, they literally made it possible to finish the film, in the form of a grant. As stated before, the film was shot for $15K, but obviously much much more was needed to actually deliver the movie to a festival and distributor. They really believed in what we were trying to do with Newly Single, and helped tremendously. Secondly, through the Sound Design and Scoring labs, they introduced me to Skywalker Sound and to Brandon Proctor, who mixed the final film. The Skywalker Ranch is a heavenly place. It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to go up there with my long time sound editor and designer Michael Baird to finish the film.

"The most impactful way the Sundance Institute helped the film though was simply the incredibly astute notes they gave. My first cut of the film was two and a half hours long, which was kind of crazy because the script was under 90 pages. Not sure how that happened. I screened that cut up at Skywalker for a wonderful group of filmmakers, and received very helpful notes from them all. The director Rob Epstein gave me one note in particular which really impacted the final cut. More so than anything, getting notes from Michelle Satter is a special process; she has an amazing sense for story and speaks to you very honestly without pretence. She gave a single suggestion that had probably the biggest effect on the end product of the film."

Alone in the city
Alone in the city

Was it a challenge for him to give his first feature film performance at the same time as he was directing?

"It was challenging but in ways that were totally unexpected. I assumed the acting would be the most difficult for me because I had not done it before to this extent, and also because the Astor character is so extreme at times. That said, I found the acting to be pretty easy. What I found very difficult was directing, while also being in the shot. I had to learn to let go of controlling aspects of shooting I was accustomed to micro-managing. That was difficult. I’m proud of the film, but also see mistakes and choices I know I would have not made had I been only directing.

Another unexpected difficulty was communicating with the crew in the most effective manner. Astor is really an asshole on so many levels, and also so many of the scenes are so dark. Not being an actor, I did not know how to go there without, just going there. So, when cut would be called, it was often extremely difficult to turn that off and just calmly talk about a lighting change or a different camera setup. Especially if there was a production challenge, which there often were, it would be very difficult to separate the anger and anxiety of the character with the real external challenge that needed a fast and clear solution. The crew and the producers were very kind and patient with me here, and that’s the main reason it worked out in the end."

What did it feel like to inhabit a character like Astor? Was he concerned that viewers might think he was like that himself?

"It was physically exhausting," he says. "I think that’s the simplest way of putting it. Emotionally, physically, in both ways. Going to bed at night after playing Astor I oftentimes would feel a physical chill, almost like one feels after crying. It was also quite cathartic because I think the worst parts of us oftentimes carry the most weight simply because we’re unwilling to endure the pain of looking at them head-on, of admitting they’re inside us, that they’re part of us in some way. So playing Astor made some of this real to me, and in turn made me more sensitive to not being like that in real life, so it was a maturing process. I think it’s probably not a coincidence that after finishing the film, I met the woman who is now my wife. Honestly, I don’t know if I possessed the emotional maturity necessary for a relationship like what I now have, before making the film.

"I was very concerned that viewers would confuse me with Astor, and I still am to a certain point. It was an unavoidable risk that I decided I was willing to endure for this thing that I felt was bigger than me, the film. I think more time will still be needed for me to assess what the consequences of that decision were, if any. I’m not even sure if it’s something someone would say to my face, so I may never fully know. All I can say is that I chose to lean into it, ie. making the character's name so close to my own, as a way of at least nodding that I was conscious of what we were doing. I feel like someone who really was like Astor, probably would not have the self-awareness to make a movie about Astor. But it’s up to the individual viewer, ultimately. That’s one of the great things about art."

How did he approach striking the balance that lets us see Astor’s awfulness and yet care about him – as writer, director, and actor?

"This is a great question. I’ve never been asked it, and I don’t fully know how to answer it. All I can say is this: as a simultaneous writer, director, and actor, all my decisions are really just that of the director. In the sense that my goal for every decision is just to try to make the best film I can in the most nuanced way possible. You don’t have to fight those same priorities battles with yourself as you have to when collaborating with others, in the same way at least. Now that said, I don’t know how I struck that balance, and I would assume many people may watch the movie and feel this balance was not adequately reached. I reached it for myself, as a viewer. I rode a thin line that I, myself found to be tolerable and enjoyable as a lover of the medium. My guess would be that if your tastes cross over with my own, you may feel this, and if they don’t you may not.

Getting close
Getting close

"This is not a Marvel movie, obviously, I just don’t think there is any way to make a movie like this and have everyone universally connect with it. The underlying aggravation it presents is going to be tolerable to different people on different levels. I personally find Astor to be tolerable because his choices seem to be so transparently related to insecurity, that makes him likeable to me despite his awfulness. That’s a sliding scale that not everyone is going to be equally sensitive to."

How did he assemble the acting team in the film and introduce them to the central idea?

"Amey René cast this film," he says. "I’ve known her for many years, I love her, and I think she did a fantastic job. In addition, I met Molly C Quinn and Anna Jacoby-Heron through Barbara J McCarthy, who fantastically cast my first feature Caroline And Jackie.

"I don’t like to present central ideas to actors, nor really discuss what I think the movie is about with them, for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t think it’s super important. I know what it means to me, but that doesn’t mean that’s what it’s about. Oftentimes it may mean something different to one of the actors, yet even with that different interpretation, they still filter back to me the performance I’m perfectly looking for. Secondly, it’s often even better that they don’t understand the central ideas as I do, but rather as their character does. It’s often the case that the best actors for a role, actually in real life interpret certain parts of the story as their character seemingly would. Not everyone is like this, and being like this doesn’t make you a better or worse actor, it’s just something I’ve noticed and I try to not get in the way of it."

We only see a small slice of Astor’s life in the film. How much time was spent on developing the backstory that we occasionally get hints of?

"This is a difficult question to answer because I, as a writer, feel like one's ability to talk about and develop backstory is more emotional and spiritual than analytical. So in one way I could say honestly that no time was spent developing Astor’s backstory, but at the same time I could talk to you about Astor’s fictional backstory for hours and it would all track with what you watched in the movie. Often when you develop a character, there is a feeling that you never really created them at all, that they just appeared to you one day, and that they then speak to you as their own being. Sometimes, when this happens it becomes less something you have to think about and more something you’re just given from a place greater than you."

Reactions to the film have been quite varied. Is that what he was expecting? How does he feel about some people saying that they find it hard to watch?

"Honestly, I think it is hard to watch, so fair criticism. Movies are to a lot of people a medium for unwinding, for relaxing fantasy entertainment. This is not that, so it’s not going to please everyone. What’s been unexpected is how many people have reached out telling me they love it. That I really was not expecting, at all. I’m still suspicious hearing it. I’ve also been surprised by how many women have come out in support of the film on a personal connection level. That’s a huge honour to me because the female characters in this film were always the most important to me. They are the characters I worked the hardest on, that matter to me the most, that I care for the most as a viewer. But nonetheless, I am not a woman, so I’m always on guard when I’m writing female characters. I’m always wondering, is this real enough, is this a complex person in this real world we live in, is this a type of person you know and care about but are not seeing in films? I just don’t want to write caricatures, that’s all, and I feel like there are oftentimes a lot of female caricatures in male written stories."

What about men who don’t see anything wrong with Astor’s behaviour?

"I have not yet met a man who was okay with Astor’s behaviour and expressed that opinion to me. That said, I’m sure it’ll happen, and that’ll probably be an uncomfortable moment, hopefully it’s not at a dinner party or something I can’t easily escape."

Finally, can he reveal anything about the project he's working on next?

"Yes! I’m writing a spy genre love story. I ambitiously want to film it this summer. I have no idea what the title will end up being, but my current Final Draft document is entitled Marzipan. It’s a really sweet story and a lovely world to be inhabiting late into the night and early in the morning. It couldn’t be further different from Newly Single."

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