Alex Grybauskas Interview
Alex Grybauskas brings Chuck Palahniuk’s story to life in Audrey.
“Audrey is a sexual outlaw, slave to a Latin rhythm, a C-section child of the 70s. She's a rabid panther trapped in the fetid, jungle heat of the Number 14, Bonnedale bus. And she's sitting right behind you for the third time this month.” Chuck Palahniuk’s words come to life in Alex Grybauskas’ short film Audrey, inspired by the story "Negative Reinforcement." Starring Alissa Bourne and Spencer Carter, Audrey is an ode to Palahniuk’s first published piece. Audrey dives deep into the hyper-stylized way we fantasize and pass judgement.
Grybauskas is an up-and-coming filmmaker who has been directing and editing commercials, films, and music videos for over 10 years. Inspired by filmmaking from an early age, Grybauskas has created a unique visual style and storytelling experience that rings true throughout each of his works.
What movie first got you interested in filmmaking?
I was in love with movies for as long as I can remember, but Jurassic Park was the first time, as an eight-year-old, that I remember becoming aware of the concept of a director. Steven Spielberg quickly became my hero. The blockbuster movies of my childhood made me want to be a part of that special movie magic. My first short films were shot in the backyard with my little brother.
Seeing Amélie in high school was the first time I remember realizing that film uses a high level of artistry, and how powerful it could be when the visuals, audio, and performances all came in sync. That sparked an interest in non-traditional storytelling for me (in addition to editing and everything else that makes a film guy a film geek).
What is your film Audrey in 10 words?
Boy meets girl, fantasizes about girl, then actually meets girl. (phew, 10 on the dot!)
Simply, Audrey is about first impressions and how dangerous they can be. By the time our main character turns around to meet Audrey for the first time, he’s not only come up with an idea of who she is, he’s imagined their entire life together and decided she’s evil. We’ve all been both the victim and the perpetrator of this way of thinking, whether we like it or not. It’s human nature, which is what makes the story so universal.
What first drew you to Chuck Palahnuik’s short story “Negative Reinforcement”? How did this lead to the creation of Audrey?
I had experienced what he’d written countless times. I mean, not quite to the extreme that this character takes it, but like I said, we all make assumptions of people based on physical appearances. It’s impossible not to. My universal connection to the piece plus Palahnuik’s sultry vocabulary and twisted style quickly made it my personal favorite.
I was looking to make something off-beat and non-traditional, that would let me play with visuals in a fun way; This felt like a perfect story to do it with. I decided to really try and adapt it word-for-word to challenge myself to find ways to visualize its prose in interesting ways.
If you had to pick one favorite sentence in Palahniuk’s short story, which would it be?
Well, in particular I really love “She’ll never live long enough to become sepia toned.” I think the beauty of that line reflects the film as a whole. It conjures so much emotion and pathos through such a simple metaphor.
I also love the very last line, “For a minute I thought I knew you.” It takes this exceedingly hyper-realistic story and suddenly grounds it into a feeling we can all relate to. It became my favorite part of the film, when everything’s gone completely out of control; and then that line takes us back into the mundanity of everyday life.
How do we all relate to Audrey’s narrator?
Spencer Carter, who played the narrator (both as the inner voice and the on-screen character) and I discussed the nature of this character quite a bit. The ways that he fantasizes about Audrey in the film tells a lot about his character’s relationship with women in general.
He starts the film with envy for Audrey; and the more he thinks about her, the more intimidated he becomes. That intimidation morphs into him straight-up villainizing her. He is perhaps fearful of powerful women. Perhaps he’s projecting his past relationships onto her. Or...he just has an overactive imagination.
Everyone can relate to this narrator in different ways. What is beautiful about film is the way characters act as surrogates for the audience. We’re able to combine our own feelings and histories with the actions of the character to truly become immersed in them.
Tell us about the production process...
We shot the whole thing in two and a half days. The first was on a (very expensive) tour bus that we rented out. Luckily, it had a similar look to a classic transit bus. We only had four hours on it, and on top of managing an entire production, we had to deal with our driver attempting to navigate the city by avoiding streets that were too dark or crowded or cobblestoned. The actors had to stay on their toes as we shot in between obstructions. It was intense...but fun.
The second day we shot at Be Electric studio in Brooklyn for all of the fantasy scenes. This was where my amazing camera crew (led by DP Bill Hoffmann) and I got to really have fun and let loose with all of the visuals, while our hair/makeup/costume crew got to go crazy with bringing the character of Audrey to life. Our two leads, Alissa Bourne and Spencer Carter, were absolutely amazing, and they created larger-than-life performances which were so much fun to play with.
We later did a half-day of pick-up shots, where we snuck a tiny crew and actors onto a live bus tour and shot guerilla-style. We almost got kicked off twice, but a healthy dose of sweet talking got us what we needed.
How essential was it to the retelling of the story to find the right woman to play Audrey?
It was everything. The film fundamentally won’t work unless the audience buys into the fantasy of this character. I knew I couldn’t make the film if I couldn’t find the perfect actress.
I had met Alissa Bourne working on a friend’s set and subsequently began following her modeling work. When this project started to form, she immediately popped into my head. On our casting search, we watched a few hundred reels and saw a number of alternates in person. It’s funny, there were so many occasions where a headshot would come in and we’d "think this is going to be the one," then as soon as we saw them move and speak, we’d get a totally different vibe. That’s the theme of the film!
Everything kept coming back to Alissa—and fortunately she wanted to be involved! Of course, we also had to make sure she was both willing and able to take on the alter-ego role of Sheila, and she was totally game for it. In fact, she claimed to be able to relate to both characters on an equal level, so we had a lot of fun with that.
What other short stories would you love to adapt one day?
Anything from Chuck Palahniuk’s excellent short story collection Haunted would be amazing; especially the infamous “Guts.” I’d only hope I could cause as many faints as his live readings of the story have.
I also love Neil Gaiman, who has some great fantastical shorts. I’ve recently been into the more grounded works of Jess Waters and Manuel Gonzales. Short stories are a really difficult form, and I’m always on the lookout for ones that can really say something in a condensed period of time.
How much of your life is reflected in your films?
Even more than my own life, I try to make sure that the human experience is reflected in my films. I think it’s the greatest thing when you can watch a film, hear a song, or watch a stand-up comedy routine where an artist takes an issue you thought was specific to you, and shows you that just about everyone goes through the same thing. It helps us feel like we’re not alone, and makes us stronger for it.
Even though I definitely use my films as a personal outlet to express myself, I always try to make sure that the themes are relatable on a larger scale, so I can feel like they have a greater purpose to them.
In regards to your commercial work, how difficult is it to create a story in under one minute?
It’s always a challenge, yet the restraints often seem to work for the better. By not having time to get indulgent, you’re forced to really figure out the essence of the story you’re trying to tell or the emotion you’re trying to evoke. Once you’ve got that down, you can use it as a razor to shave away all the extraneous materials.
Commercials are a great chance to try out new storytelling techniques. While they might not be my true passion, I’m glad that commercials will always be there as a sandbox for me to play in. When it turns into something I can be proud of, that’s two birds with one stone!
What opportunities are there in the independent film industry that don't exist working for a big house production company?
I mean, hey, I’d be lying if I said I’m not fitting to sell out in the name of the vast resources that a big production company can offer. It’s ridiculously exhausting making films on an indie level and always involves getting people to work for less than they’re worth. But out of that comes an opportunity to make something built purely from passion. I work hard to find inspiring individuals at every position on my set and then embrace their ideas as much as possible, because that’s what indie film is about.
What is the best life and career advice you have ever been given?
“Sit down, don’t talk, just watch what my hands do.” That was from my first mentor, legendary music video editor Brian Kushner, whom I assisted in my first industry job. Under his instruction, I would sit for hours in his suite behind him, watching him cut videos; It was amazing how much I could pick up from just watching the way he approached a piece, his methods of constructing things, and how his pieces would come together.
Whenever in the presence of talented people, it’s tempting to want to ask a million questions and have them tell you everything you know. Often the best thing you can do is just shut up and watch them. Even now, on set, I like to just observe my collaborators perform their specialities whenever possible.
How has film changed in the digital age? Are movie screenings a dying art?
I think movie screens will stay around as long as people want to get out of the house, but it’s definitely changing.
I could screen a short film at a dozen film festivals and if I’m lucky–share it with 1,000 people. That number can be dwarfed by screening online to people all across the world, and without any of the time or money needed for the festival circuit. In this case, I was even able to share it with Chuck Palahniuk himself through his social channels, which resulted in him sharing with his fan base. It’s just a crazy level of connection between artist and fans that occurs on the digital level.
That being said, a movie screening with a pristine presentation and a passionate crowd still makes for a communal experience that can’t be matched. Long live movie theaters!