A young man -- a little lost, lonely and confused -- sits in a motel room. The phone rings. A stranger is on the other end. And she wants to talk dirty.
So begins "Easier With Practice," a dramatic character study which opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York, the debut film from writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Adapted from a GQ magazine article by writer Davy Rothbart, the film stars Brian Geraghty (from "The Hurt Locker" and currently at the Mark Taper Forum in "The Subject Was Roses") alongside Kel O'Neill, Marguerite Moreau and, as the sultry, unseen voice on the other end of the line, Katie Aselton.
The young man, Davy, is a self-published fiction writer on a makeshift book tour with his brother driving around in a station wagon, and he begins to embark on a phone-only relationship with Nicole, the woman on the phone. As their conversations veer between a startling sexiness and an awkward tenderness, he becomes increasingly cut-off from those around him, putting more emotional investment into his handset than the flesh-and-blood opportunities that appear right in front of him. Davy's relationship with Nicole, if one can even call it that, builds to a conclusion equal parts heartbreak and shocker.
Alvarez and his producer Cookie Carosella are distributing the film to theaters themselves. After having been turned down by numerous festivals, including Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca and Berlin, the film premiered at the CineVegas Film Festival last summer, where it won the grand jury prize. It then played the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it won the inaugural Best New International Feature award. It is nominated for two of Film Independent's Spirit Awards, the Someone to Watch Award and Best First Feature.
From page to screen
Alvarez, 26, graduated from the University of Miami in 2005 and moved to Los Angeles that summer. He and Carosella met when they were both working in the office of Warren Beatty. Alvarez first read Rothbart's article when the subscription to another magazine was replaced with issues of GQ. The potential for the first-person article to be adapted into a film struck him straight away.
"It just hit me," Alvarez said. "I could immediately see how it could be scripted and what the tone would be and where the emphasis of the characters would be. It seemed right to me, and I'd never felt that before.
"It was a combination of the emotional and the practical. It wasn't just the story, it was the way it was told. He took the story of having this lewd and graphic phone sex relationship with this woman and actually made it into a sincere and honest look at himself and where he was in his relationships with other women. It was this story that was about phone sex but its intentions weren't just to be provocative."
The film was shot over 20 days in Albuquerque, N.M., during the spring of 2008 -- Geraghty had already shot "The Hurt Locker" -- for a budget that Alvarez says was less than $1 million. Shooting the phone conversations proved to be one of the biggest challenges of making the film. While initially they tried it with someone actually talking to Geraghty on a phone line, there was a lack of intimacy, so instead someone stood just off camera reading him his opposite lines.
Aselton, who saw her own directorial debut, "The Freebie," play recently at Sundance, recorded her half of the phone calls later, at a post-production facility in Los Angeles. Despite the closeness of their on-screen relationship, Aselton and Geraghty only met at the film's first screening.
No cutting back
Working with cinematographer David Morrison, shooting on the Red One digital camera system, Alvarez opted to give the film a distinctive visual style, in part by not cutting away from Geraghty during the film's numerous phone calls. He felt reassured about the decision when he saw the Romanian film "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," which features many long-take shots, just before beginning production.
"The biggest risk on the film from the get-go was this decision that we weren't going to cut away on the phone calls," Alvarez said, "we were just going to be watching this guy talk. The notes I got from everyone who read the script was, 'What are you going to show' or 'Why don't you show him imagining a woman' and I don't really like devices, it's about trying to strip away all those things, finding more subtle ways to tell the audience what they should be paying attention to.
"I always felt if it was the right actor, it's intriguing just to watch someone listen."
A remarkably assured debut, "Easier With Practice" has had a circuitous route to its theatrical release. Neither Alvarez nor Carosella expected to find themselves putting the film out themselves -- working on poster designs and delivering trailers to movie theaters -- but such is the way of the current independent film scene. Even as they were struggling to find a festival willing to premiere the film, they remained confident that it would eventually find its way to audiences.
"The movie's place in the marketplace has been really confusing," said Alvarez. "I think when we were making it we just thought it would be a Sundance film, so at first there was disappointment at 'no' from Sundance, 'no' from South By [South West], 'no' from Tribeca, 'no' from Berlin -- what were we going to do? But then the festival world has been really giving to us, and I'm almost kind of grateful for it. It has been ups and downs, but the ups have been better than the downs."