#STATUSPENDING was inspired by not only mumblecore legends like Jay & Mark Duplass and Lynn Shelton (and pregenre Linklater films), but also people within the director Ben Zolno's Chicago improv circle who had made brilliant improvised-dialogue films – Todd Looby and Joe Swanberg.
We wanted to use a genre film – romantic comedy – to draw people into a pertinent question: Can we ever be happy with our lives in the social media age, in which our social circle portrays their lives as perfection?
Also, as most of Ben's experience as a writer/director is in environmental documentaries, he wanted to the opportunity to embed messages around sustainability in an entirely different format – narrative feature.
Kelly Kilgour came on as producer, and Jane Fletcher joined as co-producer, and were heavily involved in the story development.
STATUS PENDING's director felt it was essential for the performances to not come across as performance at all; he wanted it to feel real.
Lizzie (Ivana Palezevic) and Ryan (director Ben Zolno) deny they're in a relationship, but the subtext is that they are quite a bit closer than either would like to admit. As the dialogue was largely improvised, this closeness needed to live behind the eyes.
To make the audience feel they were truly dropping in on an intimate moment, Ben felt the best way to connect the characters was implant a familiarity between the actors, through rehearsal.
For eight weeks, while producers Kelly Kilgour and Jane Fletcher prepped the shoot, acting coach Jason Tolley lead Ivana and Ben through Meisner exercises, improvised scenes, and games designed to trick the subconscious into making strangers feel like they've known each other for months.
Most of the film takes place in one location, in Wellington, New Zealand.
For story reasons, we wanted a home in which Ryan would feel uncomfortable – a little too nice of a house for him. For sound, we wanted a fairly dead space, with thick carpets, lots of walls and furniture to break up reverb, and off-street, to avoid car noise. For lighting, as we decided to use only ambient light, we wanted a home with large windows.
This combination took us a while to find, but we finally did, in the Lower Hutt area. Being Wellington, the sporadic clouds and rain made the lighting change frequently – sometimes several times in one take! At least the rain occasionally stopped the cicadas, which were roaring during most of the shooting.
social media prep
We asked our real-life social media circle to friend/follow the Lizzie and Ryan, so that the screenshots of the characters' "friends" reactions would be genuine.
The day of shooting the phone close ups, we asked them all to pay attention to the characters' posts, so we could use their real comments and Likes in the screenshots of the film!
What started as just a way to get good shots turned out to be the foundation of the social-media fan base for the film, investing many people in the characters well before a single-frame was shot.
We mostly shot with two cameras, with a customised cross between documentary and narrative shooting technique, designed to best capture improv, with the feel the director wanted to capture.
A small, dedicated, multi-faceted crew – many of whom are writers/directors too – did whatever it took to create the right atmosphere for the actors and get it all in the can.
The video side of the video-chat scene was shot in Carefee, Arizona, USA, at Mark's home.
While considering what sounds would help the story along, Ben came across a Facebook post in a local filmmaker page; Daniel Christopher White posted a short video of himself playing guitar, saying he'd like to compose for the film. The sound was soft, contemplative, and even funny.
A week later, the rough track was laid out for the entire film. Like the shoot, the music was improvised, recorded live. Daniel is a master of bold creative choices and subtle alterations to fit exactly what the scene needs.
The only song with vocals is by brilliant singer-songwriter Rob Giles, Almost Out of Light, for whom Ben is currently writing a musical.
As most of the dialogue was improvised, much of the "writing" of the #STATUSPENDING was done in post. The director did a few passes of the edit, cut on the same laptop you see used as a prop in the film!
From there, Betsy Bauer came on board as editor to gave it new life, working out of Jeff Hurrell's Martin Square. We shot 5 more days to fill in the gaps, and picture locked.
As we shot with natural light, all the "lighting" was done in post at Martin Square, with the help of graders Erin Woolhouse and Pete Wellington.
James Dunlop, our sound recordist and dialogue editor, fought cicada songs, wind and cross-talk to edit the dialogue with the help of Phil Burton's Underground Sound; he made it clean as a whistle! The subtle touches – the phone beeps, foley, atmospheres, and finishing – was handled by Yong-Le Chong at John McKay's POW Studios on Park Road.
We showed it around to a few industry friends, to ask for their advice about how to move forward.
Don Roos (Writer/Director, OPPOSITE OF SEX, BOUNCE)
"Excellent! Compelling story, deceptively simple and beautifully told... I really enjoyed these two people, and their fumblings and stumblings toward a commitment.
Status Pending shows a light touch and a deep feel for the delicate, treacherous, hide-and-seek of relationships.”
Stephen Nemeth (Producer, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS)
"Charming... clever, taut and authentic. It shows the director has real skills...”
Johnny O'Hara (Writer, FUEL, Sundance Audience Award Winner)
“A gorgeous, romantic portrait of a generation... It examines the plight of the social media age on us all, without being derisive of anyone…
A lot of people are going to relate to this film.
I haven’t seen anything like it. It’s a modern love story that’s really a nice step forward for the indie filmmaking tradition."
Audiences are relating to Lizzie & Ryan's journeys, and walking away debating the role of social media in our lives... we are always status pending.
What makes our film unique is audiences can also interact with the characters online – before, after, and even during the film (hopefully without annoying their neighbor...) :D