Nutmeg Conversations: Bradley Plausse
Bradley, we appreciate you answering some questions for us. Would you mind introducing yourself for our audience?
Well… my name is Bradley Plausse. I’m recently graduated from RHAM High School and The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. I’ve known that I wanted to make movies since I watched Jeff Nichols’ Mud in 2013. I don’t want to come off like a narcissist, but I’ve always felt like a tough character to pin down. I can be really sarcastic and funny, but I’m also a very sensitive, emotionally in-touch guy. So my tastes are really broad. There are movies that wear their heart on their sleeves that I’ve connected with deeply. Movies like the aforementioned Mud, or Spike Jonze’s Her. But I enjoy raunchy comedies like Jackass, gorefests like High Tension, more abstract art films like The Tree of Life or Samsura, and anything in between, as long as it’s doing something unique. But I also enjoy watching terrible movies for their unintended humor. So I’m kind of all over the place in terms of influences and taste.
I should probably talk about this movie I made, huh? It’s called Goodnight (or Good Morning) and it’s a coming-of-age drama about a senior in high school, who wrestles with responsibilities towards his family—protecting his mother from his quick-tempered father. His life is changed when an outspoken, progressive girl unexpectedly shows up to his youth group.
It took two and a half years, from when I was fifteen to now eighteen to make the movie. Over three hundred people participated in the project, as part of the cast, crew, an extra or through a financial donation. One of my goals was to push the technical limits of what a student film can be. There are over a hundred extras, thirty speaking roles, and just as many locations in the film. A camera track, dolly, and rain machine were all built specifically for the film. It was filmed in 4K, the audio is mixed in 5.1 surround sound, and it’s an hour and forty-six minutes long. So not your average student film.
What inspired you to tell the story of Goodnight (or Good Morning)?
The joke I make whenever people ask that question is “It all started when I got dumped…” but then a newspaper put that in their headline, so maybe I shouldn’t start with that.
I was just like most teenagers— so much to say, and no one who really wanted to listen. But if I really took some time to say what I needed to say with articulation and craft, maybe people would listen. I was inspired by films that were so honest and bold that, in a real way, I recognized myself in the characters. And it made me feel less alone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wanted to write a teenage manifesto, as a way to connect with others.
There’s a quote from my favorite band about writing that I really latched onto: “[When you are writing] you can either tell the story that you think the space you are in wants, or needs, or maybe even ought to hear, or you can decide to tell your story and let the chips fall where they will. You can either try to control the space or manipulate it by trying to figure out what the levers [to pull], and that certainly can come from a pure place, but is still a form of control. Instead you can look deeper into your own story and sort of say, “Okay, what is happening with me— in all it’s un-finished-ness and brokenness,” and tell that. And let that be your exercise of faith. Saying, ‘If God is going to show up anyway, he has to be in this.’” And that cavalier attitude toward writing and truth-bearing really inspired me to just write like I was feeling.
Can you talk about the genesis of the project, how it evolved from idea to script and from filming to the screen?
Well I started with notes. Lots of notes. Forty pages of notes about story, character descriptions, ideas, fragments of dialogue, whatever. Actually, I’d be curious to dig those up and see how much of them made it into the final film. My guess would be forty percent. Anyway, I waited weeks to let myself write some actual script. Then, one dark and stormy night in February of 2016 I just decided, “Okay, this is the day I really do it.” I figured I’d write ten pages of a short film— the first act, I guess. I stayed up most of the night, and did so the next night as well. When I stepped back, I had finished the first act and it was sixty pages. (Which is way too long for a first act, by the way.) But I had to make a choice about what to do with this gigantic idea I had started to flesh out. And I made the decision to keep writing and I remember pretty early on— maybe by April— having the plan to finish a first draft by the 4th of July, finish the script by the beginning of 2017, storyboard from January to April, cast in May, shoot in the summer, edit all of my senior year and finish for graduation. And that’s almost exactly what I did. Which is crazy to think about now— that at barely sixteen years old I made a two and a half year plan and stuck to it.
I had seen other movies that Sojourner, the group of filmmakers I’m with, had done before. The first big project was The Woods, which Abram Hammer directed when he was my age, and I watched it a year after watching Mud and realizing I wanted to make movies. And I was amazed by it, and saw some real opportunity. Not like the paper-thin opportunities you are told about in school. I never took any filmmaking classes at RHAM, and took just one at The Academy. I didn’t need to, because these guys were actually doing it. They learned from their mistakes, and were reaching for the stars. And I was hooked. I got involved pretty soon after that. I already knew most of the guys at Sojourner through my church, but once I really got to know them, I discovered some of the most genuine, driven young men. The only thing I felt was missing was another project that topped The Woods. After The Woods, the gang responsibly focused on smaller projects, but I felt like at that point we were ready to try swinging for the fences again. So when this story had the potential to be a feature film, I recklessly jumped on the chance. It was sort of accidentally a feature film, which was for the best. I don’t think I had the ability to intentionally write a 120-page script.
You wore a lot of hats on this production - writer, director, and editor - how were you able to balance all of these?
That’s a good question. There’s a great commentary track on the Steve Jobs blu-ray featuring Aaron Sorkin (the writer) and Elliot Graham (the editor). It’s essentially them arguing for the entire thing. Aaron Sorkin will just be talking along with the movie and then go “Alright, you need to explain yourself. Why did you cut this dialogue thread?” And the editor then stumbles over an answer, because editing is mostly instinctual. It’s really funny, but also something I found really insightful when thinking myself about that question.
My mindset going in was that I needed to write the script so that I could film the text, not the idea in my head. It’s not formatted perfectly, but the script is something that could be understood by anyone. I didn’t just write myself a series of filming notes. So when it came time to film the script, I sorta threw out my old ideas and just looked at what I had written. I didn’t assume when writing the script that future-director-me would fill in the gaps. And I just read the script for the first time in almost a year this afternoon, because when I was editing I didn’t allow myself to read the script. At that point, it wasn’t about the script, it was about what we filmed. This might sound weird, like I’m playing a game of telephone with myself, but it was important to me that the roles I played be distinct.
The biggest challenge of the roles I played came when I was editing. It’s hard to stand by the dialogue you wrote when you were sixteen, even when you’re seventeen or eighteen. So I had to find the balance between getting rid of the dialogue that made me cringe, and still respecting my past self and what he wanted to say. This movie is not an exhibit of my best writing. It was at the time that I wrote it. It’s not even an exhibit of my best directing. Because time has past and I’m improving so rapidly. So I had to allow my old, at times, embarrassing self to shine.
What lessons did you learn throughout this process? Is there anything you would do differently if given the chance?
Oh my goodness … Where do I start? I learned from everything. Filming was a constant state of error, and learning on the fly (or sometimes not). I was in way over my head, and lost my cool a couple of times, and I obviously regret that. My best friends got the blunt of it, which is terrible. But I suppose that’s what makes them best friends. I actually wrote a letter to some of the crew about halfway through filming, acknowledging some of my flaws I discovered in myself as a director and asking for some grace.
I wished I had better collaborated with others on set. I’m the type of guy that when things get stressful the first word removed from my vocabulary is “please.” And maybe that type of firm directing style will serve me in my career, but it was almost entirely unhelpful when the crew are all unpaid volunteers. And are all my friends. I wished I was more personal. I think that at this point, everyone is happy with the film and their experience working on it, but that did not mean it was a perfect experience.
You recently premiered Goodnight (or Good Morning) at Cinestudio in Hartford, what was that experience like seeing it on the big screen?
That was one of my favorite parts— seeing it so big. There were several last minute technical errors that almost forced us to show it on a blu-ray, which would have looked pathetic on that huge theater screen. But by the skin of our teeth we made a working DCP (Digital Cinema Package) and it filled up the whole screen. It left me speechless.
I don’t want to come off as ungrateful, because I truly appreciate everyone who came, but my favorite part was not getting up in front of everyone and receiving a standing ovation. As nice of a moment as that was, the day after the premiere I attended church, and I got to talk with a man who saw the movie about how it connected with him. I’m not going to repeat what he said, but as the conversation went on, he started to tear up from what he was saying. I revealed myself generously in this movie, and to have that generosity reciprocated has been my favorite part of the premiere. I’m looking forward to having more conversations like that.
What’s next for the project? What’s next for you?
There were a couple of audio synchronization errors in the movie that I’m going to go back and fix. From there, I’m hoping to approach more theaters to show the film in August. And beginning in late August I’m going to be submitting it to film festivals and see if anyone bites.
I’m going to take it easy this summer. I’m intern directing with a teen theater program called Backyard Shakespeare based in Bolton, Connecticut. (It’s actually where I found some of the smaller teen roles for the movie.) And the Sojourner guys and I are going to film a little homage to one of my favorite YouTube shows Hot Ones. Well… assuming that people don’t chicken out.
I’ve got a script I’ve been working on. I’m not talking about it much. I can say very broadly that it’s about revenge and redemption. And that it’s very different direction from Goodnight (or Good Morning). Like I said, I have a wide scope of influences and inspirations, and I’m ready to draw from some different ones than I have been the past two and a half years. My hope is that I’ll have two more screenplays done when I get out of college to shop around.
And while you yourself are just working towards a bright future in the industry, what advice would you give to others trying to make their mark?
I’ve always struggled with this question. I don’t think I have much good advice. Maybe that if you are going to make a movie you can’t use the words “I need.” One of the first big scenes we filmed I kept saying “I need two people on crew.” And no one showed up. What the hell do you do when you don’t get what you need? You give up (or die). But you’re making a movie, so you can’t do either. So you can’t say “I need.” I didn’t need anything to make a movie. I wanted a lot of stuff to make a movie, and I got most of what I wanted. And that’s all you can ask for.