Ken Gayton isn't REALLY average. Gayton is the head writer for Chicago-based improve troupe Adjusted Gratuity and the co-writer/director of The Truth About Average Guys, an ultra indie flick picked up by Seminal Films for a nationwide DVD release beginning March 9th, 2010. Gayton has studied at Second City, Comedy Sportz and Improv Olympic. Raised in the North suburbs of Chicago, Gayton studied psychology at the University of Colorado-Boulder and didn't take an acting class until the last semester of his senior year.
Jason Schaver? He's not average, either. Raised in Erie, Illinois, Schaver wrote the first draft of The Truth About Average Guys after watching a string of horrible movies in a row and realizing he could do much better. He was right. Schaver has never taken any film related classes. He bought some screenwriting software and got down to actually writing for the screen.
$5,000 isn't much to spend on a film. James Cameron spent that much on toilet paper for his blue Pandorans. Against the odds, Gayton and Schaver took $5,000 and Gayton's pals at Adjusted Gratuity and created The Truth About Average Guys, a multiple award-winning festival favorite that attracted the attention of Seminal Films and is now being released nationwide March 9th.
That's the truth. This is the interview.
IC- Let's start off with the basics: Tell me about "The Truth About Average Guys"
KEN - The basic plot is an insecure guy gets his best friend to pose as his mentally challenged brother so he can get to know a woman he likes that has a mentally challenged sister. It sounds really lame and offensive, but it's not. It’s a funny movie that’s meant to entertain... A mainstream movie made with no real budget to speak of. The “truth” in the movie is that most guys are insecure, we just hide it differently than women.
IC- Jason, you've been quoted as saying this was your "third attempt at a first film." Can you elaborate?
JASON - Sure, long story short, I wrote the original version of the script back in 2001. By 2005 I was looking for indie filmmakers from around the Midwest to film the script, but no one really seemed to get it. One of them wanted me to change it to have the main characters in their 40's. Another one wanted me to change it so the main characters were in high school. Another wanted me to completely rewrite it and have it be a dark comedy like "Secretary". I'm sorry, but this film wouldn't work with people in their 40's or in high school because people in their 40's are too mature to try this, people in high school aren't smart enough to pull it off. It only works with people in their mid 20's because at that age they are smart enough to pull it off, but still immature enough to try it. And they all wanted me to audition for my own film. So, in 2006 I changed my approach. Instead of having people film the script for me, I decided to try to find people to film the script with me.
In the spring of 2006, I put together a cast and crew and we shot the film. Our lead actor was very bossy and demanding. Halfway through the production I fired him. In the fall of 2006, we regrouped and re-cast (which is where I met Ken, he auditioned for "Jason" and I cast him in the role despite my director at the time not wanting him because he looked "too young"). I went with my gut and cast him anyway. We ended up getting all the way through that attempt but the sound and direction were horrible. Ken and I became quite close. We loved the story but knew that version of the film wasn't good enough. So, we decided to completely rewrite the script, fund it, direct it, and star in it ourselves. We shot the third attempt in the spring of 2008 and the rest is history. The best thing I ever did was not listen to the director on the second attempt and cast Ken.
IC- Tell me about your filmmaking journey here. IMDB reports your production budget as $5,000. How do you take $5,000 and make an indie film, get recognized and end up with a DVD release?
KEN - Lots of favors. Chicago is great because local shop owners are excited when you say you want to use their place in a movie. Same with friends and family. As far as talent is concerned, there is a tremendous amount of acting talent in Chicago that I think often gets overlooked. Therefore, there are a lot of great actors willing to work for free to be part of a good project. Getting recognized is just a matter of putting yourself out there and hoping people like it.
JASON - Looking back, I have no idea how we turned a little $5,000 politically incorrect comedy into a nationwide DVD release and multiple festival awards. It's all a blur to me right now. It helped that we had a very good script that didn't have a lot of locations, characters, special effects and that could be done with a limited amount of money.
IC- Ken, a number of folks from the cast are from Adjusted Gratuity, an improv troupe you are involved in. At first thought, it seems like a unique tie-in to have so many cast members from an improv troupe. It works very well for your film. How did you get their involvement?
KEN - I started Adjusted Gratuity in the fall of 2006. A group of us were all doing our own things and got sick of being so helpless as an actor, relying on other people to tell us we were good enough. We decided to do our own stuff ... shoot our own videos. I had started writing a lot of sketches at the time and we just started filming them. They had a lot of success online, especially on Myspace when people were actually on Myspace. I remember we kept tracking our views and were so excited when it reached over 100. One day I got a call and Kim (AG member Kimberley Hellem) was like, ‘We have over 30,000 views right now and it keeps growing." They had featured one of our videos on the front and did so several more times. That was a big turning point in my career so far. It really gave me confidence for future projects.
IC- Can both of you tell me a bit about your background? Where you were raised? When you got interested in film? Did you study film? Did your families think you were crazy?
KEN - I was raised in the North suburbs of Chicago. I went to school at the University of Colorado, Boulder ... majored in psychology and didn’t take an acting class till my last semester of my senior year. I loved it so much that when I moved back to Chicago I decided to pursue it because I didn’t want to look back and have any regrets. So, I studied at Second City in Chicago along with Comedy Sportz and Improv Olympic. I auditioned a lot and had much more success with film. The more auditions I went on and the more terrible scripts I read, I decided to give writing a shot. I thought I couldn’t do any worse. My family never thought I was crazy, they just thought I was going through a phase ... that this was just a hobby of mine. After they saw my sketch comedy show at Second City’s Skybox that I wrote, they started to take what I was doing more seriously. But, even before then they were always my biggest cheerleaders.
JASON - I was raised in Erie, IL (which is about 30 minutes east of the Quad Cities). I've always loved movies, but it wasn't until I was in my mid 20's that I realized I wanted to do this for a living. I had just watched a string of horrible movies in a row and I thought I could do better. Shortly after that I wrote the first draft of "The Truth About Average Guys". I did not study film. I've never even taken any classes whatsoever (writing, acting, film, etc...) . I bought a book. I read about 10 pages of it and tossed it out, got some screenwriting software and wrote a script. Honestly, if you've seen enough movies it's not really that hard to write one, especially if it's a movie you'd like to see. "The Truth About Average Guys" is a movie I would go see if someone else had made it. My dad used to think I was crazy, but after winning some awards he's starting to come around a little bit. I'm sure once I get my first check from the distribution deal he'll be fine.
IC- How did the idea for this film come about? What makes it a "chick flick for guys?"
KEN - It’s got the sweet sentiment of a good romantic comedy chick flick, but has the humor of a Judd Apatow/Farrelly Brothers film that guys will be able to identify with.
JASON - The idea came about back in 2001 when I had a co-worker who could do a spot on imitation of a mentally challenged person. He would do this in public and no one would know he was faking it. Somehow, the thought just popped in my head how funny it would be for a guy to have his friend pretend to be "retarded" in order to get to know a chick that had a mentally challenged sister. To answer your 2nd question, to me, "a chick flick for guys" means it's a love story with dick and fart jokes.
IC- I have to ask...any hassles from the mental health folks?
KEN - Nope. Not one hateful e-mail. Not one person coming up to us after a screening. Not one reviewer so far. Even people that I know who are big supporters of the mentally handicapped and Special Olympics haven't been offended. It's because we don't aim to be offensive. We aren't trying to get cheap laughs at the expense of mentally retarded people. Comedy is about exaggeration and we are exaggerating the lengths guys will go to in order to gain confidence with a woman they are interested in. In real life, that's sometimes buying fancy cars you can't afford, wearing a toupee', sucking in your gut when a pretty woman walks by...except these examples aren't going to bring about any comedy. The comedy comes from putting this character in a fish out of water situation where he has to pretend to be mentally challenged and how that affects the way people treat him. Plus, that's just the "hook" of the story. It's not what the whole movie is about.
JASON- So far, no one has given us any trouble. But, if they did I would punch them in the face. All kidding aside, once people see the movie they realize the film isn't about making fun of the mentally handicapped. People kind of cringe when they hear the plot, but after seeing the film they are usually pleasantly surprised.
IC- You definitely had some festival successes. How important is the festival scene for an indie filmmaker?
KEN - It’s essential. You can’t expect anyone to take you seriously if you don’t get a third party to tell people your movie kicks ass. No one is going to care if your mom and friends like your movie unless your mom is Meryl Streep and your friends are Johnny Depp and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. You have to go the festival route if you are a first time filmmaker, which is scary because you’ve just put your blood, sweat and tears in this movie and now you have to send it off to see if some festival director likes it or not. Then, you have to sit in a room full of strangers and see if THEY like it. It’s nerve wracking ... especially with a comedy because you know right away if it’s working or not. When I heard that first roar of laughter I never felt better in my life.
JASON - Very important. It's a great way to get your film noticed and to meet other filmmakers to work with on future projects. Awards do get you noticed. We were contacted by several distributors after our win at East Lansing. We were contacted by distributors that hadn't even seen the film. They just knew we won at East Lansing. One distributor even thought "The Truth About Average Guys" was a documentary. All he knew is that we had won something and he wanted to distribute it.
IC- What are some of your best experiences in making your first film?
KEN - Getting into our first festival. Winning awards. Getting great reviews. Getting a distribution deal. Being on set was fun, but it was stressful because we had to do so much. I know a lot of indie filmmakers say success shouldn’t matter and you should do it because you love it. Which I do. But, I also need some validation that what I am doing means something. Movies are meant to entertain. I think a lot of filmmakers forget that. So if what I am doing is not entertaining people and I’m not good at it shouldn’t I be doing something else? Thankfully, I’ve had enough positive feedback that any future negative feedback won’t be enough to deter me. I know this is what I should be doing with my life.
JASON - Yeah, I agree with Ken. Getting into that first festival was an awesome feeling. Hearing our names announced as "winner" for the first time. Giving acceptance speeches. People coming up to us and asking for our autographs because they "just know" we're going to be famous some day.
IC- Biggest challenges? Learning experiences?
KEN - The biggest challenge was doing it. Seeing it come to fruition. Taking the risk. It’s scary. You don’t know how you are going to do it, but you do it anyway. Same with learning experiences, the whole thing is a learning experience. Day to day, shot to shot, then till now... can’t wait to shoot our next film. I know those answers sound vague and crappy, but there’s nothing I am going to tell you that you can’t read in ‘Filmmaking for Dummies’. You just have to go out there and do it. I’d recommend starting small with short videos and then building your way up.
JASON - The biggest challenge was not "phoning it in" towards the end of filming. Between having full time jobs during the week, and then putting another 20-30 hours in on weekends it became pretty exhausting after two months straight. There were times towards the end of production where we were just like "yeah, that's good enough" when it could have been better.
As for learning experiences, I suppose finding balance between making movies and my personal life. I lost a wonderful girl who I loved more than anything on this planet because I was so focused on this film. So, I definitely learned that I need to find balance. It's okay to be focused and driven, but not at the expense of those closest to you. That is definitely something I will be more aware of in future relationships. Sometimes you have to take a step back and say "it's just a movie, it can wait".
IC- Would "retards" actually like your film?
KEN - I think they would. They wouldn’t see it as us making fun of them because we aren’t doing that. They would see some goofy people on screen doing silly things and I think they would get a kick out of it. That’s what I don’t get about all this uproar over the word retarded. Are people trying to protect those with mental retardation? Or are these activists making a big fuss because it just offends them? I bet if you asked someone with mental retardation if they were offended by the word retarded they would say ‘no’. Some activists would say ‘it’s because they don’t know what the word means’. And that’s just it, it’s not an offensive word. It’s how the word is used that matters. If you use it in a negative way then that’s the problem. Don’t change the word change the people that are using it incorrectly. Which, by the way, we don’t use it in a negative way in our movie. We use it as slang in reference to people with mental retardation.
IC- You've managed to navigate some of the challenges of independent filmmaking and get your film on the festival circuit and on DVD. Any tips for the "average guy" out there who wants to make a film?
KEN - Make sure your script is good. It’s all about the script ... next most important thing is acting. Again, I think a lot of indie filmmakers overlook it. They think actors are a dime a dozen, which they are but good actors aren’t. The general public will notice bad acting much more then they’ll notice bad lighting. As long as the movie is in focus and people can hear what’s being said, your script and actors will carry your film. Oh, and it would really help if you had a rich relative.
IC- What's up next?
JASON - Well, we're working on an action/comedy that Ken and I co-wrote called "S.O.L." which is about a down on his luck comedian that inadvertently becomes part of a bank robbery/kidnapping of a high profile TV actress. We're in the process of securing funding for that, which we hope to have in the coming weeks so we can start filming in June.
IC - How did you hook up with Seminal Films?
KEN - I sent in a screener to a film critic a long time ago and never heard anything for months. So much time had passed that the film critic had actually gotten a new job as VP of acquisitions with Seminal Films. Finally, our movie got to the top of his stack. He loved what he saw. He also said that having awards and good reviews were essential to getting us signed... yet another reason why film festivals are a must.
IC- How can people get the DVD and why should they?
KEN- They can get the DVD by going online to Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Family Video or by renting it at Netflix or Blockbuster. It should be in stores March 9th, but we don't know specifically what stores yet because it is going to vary by region and store. You can get updated on all the info by going to the website at Adjusted Gratuity. As far as why people should watch it, it'll entertain you. It'll make you laugh. It's a perfect date movie, because it's got great comedy but also a sweet story that the ladies will like. You'll definitely be cheering for the two lovers to get together and that's saying a lot when you think about what the main character does in order to meet the girl. Plus, you can feel good about yourself for supporting the underdog. There's really no good reason why you shouldn't watch this movie.
JASON- I think people should watch this because it's a funny little indie film. It's a great date movie because there is a nice little love story, lots of guy humor, and a nice little moral that "being yourself won't always get the girl, but when it does you'll have an incredible and long-lasting relationship." We aren't trying to change the world here. We just want to make you laugh for an hour and a half. Plus, my ass is on screen for a good five seconds. Who wouldn't want to see that?
IC: Any last thoughts you'd like to share?
JASON - Check us out on IMDB. Rate the film if you've seen it. We love seeing how many people have actually watched the film and how they liked it.