ON THE ROCKS is an impressive independent film made with little money and immense talent. The film dives into a tumultuous time for Dallas, who recently lost his father and is dealing with marital, family, and financial issues all placed on his shoulders. The energy and style of the film evoke the work of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when filmmakers explored humanity and relationships with a sharp slice of reality. ON THE ROCKS is often uncomfortable, but it is also engaging and truthful to real life. It is the type of film that restores your faith in an industry hell bent on sequels and remakes.

Luckily, after this film was brought to our attention, we got to talk to the masterminds behind this hidden gem — Ariel Gardner and Alex Kavutskiy — who wrote and directed the movie, which you can watch on iTunes or Amazon. You can also find more of their work here!

ComicsVerse: How did this movie get developed? What was that process like?

Ariel Gardner: It began as a short we had made as an experiment in 2013. When we got the opportunity to develop a feature, we quickly landed on this idea. We had the characters in place and we knew we could shoot it with available resources. We then spent a month or two fleshing it out, adding characters and filling in gaps until we had a wall covered in post-its.

Alex Kavutskiy: The writing process was like writing anything else but we knew our constraints and had a seemingly endless supply of terrific actors to inspire characters — and we still didn’t get everyone in. Having a deadline and booking people before we fully broke the story just made the process simpler in the sense that we couldn’t just not finish it.

CV: How do you guys work as a team?

Ariel: We have a shared brain. We do differ on some sensibilities, but it isn’t too hard to land on ideas that excite both of us. We mostly try to make each other laugh. On the technical side, Alex is the nuts and bolts behind the writing and I’m the maestro behind the editing. On set, there’s so much to be done at any given moment, having two of us helps immensely.

Alex: I think we rarely, if ever, compromise. We try to create an egoless working environment where the best idea wins (and that extends to anyone we’re working with). Usually, when we are in a disagreement we find that it stems from a deeper problem and once we find a solution for that, the rest falls into place.

CV: The male lead, Dallas, played by Chase Fein, reminded me of Mabel from A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE in that they both have this excruciating pressure on them that nobody truly acknowledges. What made you want to portray that kind of slice of humanity?

Ariel: Glad you brought up [John] Cassavetes [director and writer of A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE] because he was a tremendous influence on us. I remember watching FACES before going into production and just feeling this sense of comfort knowing we were doing the right thing by making a movie about the pressures ordinary people face in their day-to-day lives. I think simple problems in everyone’s home lives can be every bit as exciting as robbing a bank. I love RESERVOIR DOGS, but at the end of the day, who can really relate to robbing a bank with a bunch of cool dudes and then having to kill your new best friend because he’s a rat? Movies like A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, although painful to watch, I find to be incredibly uplifting and I’m so grateful that they exist.

Alex: Yeah, Cassavetes and other slice-of-life filmmakers (Woody Allen, David O Russell, Noah Baumbach) were huge inspirations. I don’t know why Ariel chose to pick on RESERVOIR DOGS but he hit the nail on the head on the kind of movies that are most fun for us to watch. We still enjoy certain broad action or comedy movies but we don’t subscribe to film as an escapist art form. You wanna be sucked in and see real people and parts of yourself up there on the big screen.

Ariel: I love RESERVOIR DOGS.

Alex: Me, too.

CV: Was the film inspired by similar life experiences? What’s your approach in dealing with such raw emotions?

Ariel: Unlike the movie, I feel like we typically live in a state of passive-aggression. Being able to tap into relentless head-on confrontation is a fun and cathartic experience. I’m fascinated with raw emotions, I run towards them.

Alex: There’s very little happening in the movie that’s directly lifted from our lives. But it was easy to tap into feeling like Dallas and feeling like Karen and using that. Also, Ariel and I used to live in the same house with Ariel’s brother and I ate his last avocado out of the fridge and I’m still sorry about it.

The emotion stuff was really fun to deal with. All the actors were so ready to play and they’re so good that they found ways to justify such raw emotions. Ariel and I had the easier task of being like, “hey, in this scene, you’re 110% mad or upset about this little thing,” and they had the task of 1) getting that emotional about it and 2) still seeming like human beings in the process.

CV: Anxiety has such a strong presence in this movie. Was that the goal in incorporating how you dealt with the sharp cuts, edits, and overpowering music at times?

Ariel: In general my favorite movies move quickly. Not too quick that you can’t keep up, but quick enough so that you feel like you’re along for a ride. Building a story around an anxiety-riddled character happens to be a great device to turn an indie relationship dramedy into a rollercoaster.

Alex: Everything started from the budget. We knew our budget was tiny so we didn’t wanna go in the direction of trying to stretch that and impress anyone with the production value side of it — it just wasn’t gonna happen. So picking this style of shooting (jump cuts, two cameras chasing actors around in long takes) made it possible to make the movie. And we tried to make every creative choice to work well with the style.

Regarding music, our composer Jason [Castillo] recorded some incredibly wonderful stuff without even seeing the cut. Some more stressful sounding, some less. And in editing, we played around with all sequences with and without score and chose when it would be best for that overpowering music and when it’d be best to let it be painfully quiet. The goal being to best keep that roller coaster moving.

CV: The film depicts life and relationships as closely as art can emanate. What was the biggest challenge regarding that aspect?

Ariel: I’m not sure if I would consider any of that aspect of it to be challenging. Maybe more so for the actors. The challenging stuff to me is just getting everyone together and spinning all the plates and making sure everyone is well fed!

Alex: That’s very nice of you to say. We’re all floored how many people are relating to this movie. Working with the actors was a joy and we just tried to make sure the conflicts and points of view rang true. The tricky part was this movie, like most movies, has a traditional story structure, and hiding the seams of that was crucial so that everyone is wrapped up in the life and relationship and not the plot points.

CV: How did you approach the actors? Was there anything unique you tried or noticed during this film shoot?

Ariel: Almost everyone in this film is someone we know personally and we’ve worked with before. We tried to tailor characters for each actor to allow them to do what they do best. But Alex and I don’t typically need to rely on any tricks to get the performances we want. It’s almost all baked into the writing and the tone we’re going for. Not having scripted dialogue helps. If the scene structure is clear, it allows everyone to be themselves and react to each other and talk how humans talk.

Alex: Working with improvised dialogue is such a blast. It gives you a lot of flexibility when approaching the scene structure. We didn’t discover anything story-wise in the shoot but we discovered countless little details and interactions and moments and those are the things that make the movie feel alive.

It’s hard to remember details from the shoot a year and a half ago but what stands out regarding discovering new things was everything related to the Ronnie character (played by Nathan Graham Smith). We shot at his actual place and we embraced whatever was there. He had his arm in a sling during shooting from an unrelated accident, he had his cats running around all the time, we picked that wooden cat from his trinkets, and he just had a drumset there — and Dallas playing those drums is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

CV: What was the most rewarding aspect of this film? What was the most challenging?

Ariel: After sitting on it for a year and patiently abiding as everyone rejected it, it’s been incredibly rewarding to see audiences affected by it. It sucks when you’ve been made to feel like something you made that you believe in has no value. Now I’m at peace with it and I’m ecstatic that people are connecting with it.

Alex: I agree with Ariel. The most rewarding step of anything you make is the getting to watch it with an audience. If I could skip the filmmaking part of filmmaking and go straight to the having something and watching it with an audience, I would. Most challenging was the lack of money. I wish we could’ve paid everyone more. I wish we could have some more money for the sound mix. But this was a terrific learning experience, onto the next one.

CV: What would you like people to know about ON THE ROCKS?

Ariel: That nobody in the industry cared about it, undeservedly so, and every person that watches it and loves it and shares with their loved ones is proving them wrong. Let’s prove them wrong! Down with establishment! ON THE ROCKS is the future!

Alex: Everyone in this movie is gonna be a movie star so get in on the ground floor and be that cool hipster that knew about all these actors before your dumbass friends.

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