An Interview with Clay Sills – By Duane L. Martin

 Ok let’s start off by having you re-introduce yourself to everyone. I say re-introduce because this is the second interview I’ve done with you now.

Sure! I’m a software designer by day and an independent movie maker by night. I’ve done a fair amount of stand-up comedy, and that’s where I got my start at script writing… The routines started hanging into a story and the characters got some depth to them and I wanted to find out who they were and what they were up to. I’ve got an awesome wife and two delightful daughters (Veronica is 3 and a half, and Melanie is one year old.)

Before we get to the new film, how about filling us all in on what’s been going on in your personal life in the past year? Anything exciting you’d like to share with everyone?

Mostly Melanie. She looks a lot like me and acts like Trish, so she’s the polar opposite of Veronica. It’s nice having two distinctly different kids, otherwise the psychological experiments get repetitive. We found out we were pregnant the same day I found out I had thyroid cancer, so I didn’t tell anyone about the cancer diagnosis until I knew whether it was going to be an easy thing to deal with or not. That’s where the second story arc in Happy Firkin Birthday comes from. I called my parents from the hospital once I came out from the anesthesia and said, “Guess what? I don’t have cancer anymore!” They were pissed, of course. The radiation therapy was fun, too. I bought a Geiger counter!

Happy Firkin Birthday is your second film in the Firkin saga, and you had a bit of a personnel change here and there and some great new additions in this one. Tell us about the cast changes, new folks, and what it was like getting back together with the old folks from the previous film.

Oh, the personnel changes were fun. We now have a real actor (JP Marston) playing Gavin, which helps a lot. I belong behind the camera at all times, and the improvement in the craftsmanship of the movie is mostly due to that. Glencora King is Nicola now, and she’s a hoot to work with. In the first half of the movie, she’s the only woman in the bar dressed modestly, and she started showing up to rehearsal in delightfully revealing clothes to get her babe time in. Hubba! The other big change was getting Deborah Childs as Magda. She’s a very successful local actress – tv commercials, lead in the longest running play in Atlanta history, face on billboards, so it was good experience working with her and hammering out a relationship with someone who has a strong set of expectations. We had a MUCH bigger cast this time, and about half of the roles were written after I met the actor or actress in question. We’d do a casting call, and at the end of the day I’d say “I need a Bartendrix for Kimberly, I need a Pheromone Phreak for Vic,” that kind of thing. We’re going to have much less turnover among the main cast for the next one, which will be great; our folks like the characters they are playing, and provide a lot of good input bringing them to life.

Papa Firkin bought a bar in this film, and that’s where much of the film takes place. Was there any specific reason for that or were you just looking for a change of scenery?

Well, it’s Ray’s Bar. Ray and I have been friends for over 15 years, and his character is based on him. That made the bar stuff easy. It’s a VERY good space for the kind of comedy and character interaction we do; it all goes better with drinking and drunken behavior.

What was the deal with the ex-cannibal biker? He seemed like a totally random drop-in character as far as the plot was concerned, and yet he actually played a key role almost as a therapist. Is that what you intended for him from the beginning or did it just sort of turn out that way?

I met Rod Deutscher and thought, “Man, I need him in the movie.” And he served that necessary role in any good neighborhood bar: the stranger you’ll spill your guts to. He also took the moral high ground away from Nicola for a bit, which was nice; I like having characters acknowledge that their messed-up behavior is messed-up. I didn’t give a role to every off-the-wall person I met; most of them were just an interesting afternoon or casting encounter. But I’m glad you think he worked well, because he’s one of my favorites.

 On a technical level, this film was leaps and bounds ahead of your first one. What sorts of things do you see as your biggest improvements and what sorts of changes did you make on an equipment or otherwise technical level to achieve them?

The biggest equipment change was the use of wireless mics. Now we need GOOD wireless mics. The learning curve is the most important. The rest of it was me staying director instead of trying to act, too. I belong behind the camera. I think the most enjoyable part, though, was the soundtrack. Art Linton is an awesome Atlanta musician, and with a bit of luck and a few beers, I hope to have him doing the next 200 movie soundtracks. Give or take.

Do you think your next film in the series will be as big of a leap forward for you as this one was over the first film?

Oh, man, I hope so. We’re going with a combination of wireless mics and boom mics next time, and we’re going to build some real lighting scaffolds so we can get a better visual experience, with 1) better lit shots and 2) shots not decided so much by where we can get the lights in. And we will have a television monitor on set so we’re not relying on the camera’s LCD screen to show us what we’ve got in the can. We’re going to do a little dolly work, too; some stuff to make the cinematography more interesting. It’s not going to be a “Look at all the tricks I’ve learned!” but it’s going to be more visually interesting. Not that we’ve given it any thought. I MIGHT even read a book about it or something, but there’s this whole “driven by demons” aspect to what I’m doing; so far, every time I’ve tried to study it the voices in my head say, “No time for reading, Asshole! We’ve got stuff to inflict on people!” It’s tough.

Looking at the finished product, what was the most satisfying part of this film for you?

Having people who have no need to kiss up to me tell me they like it. People from all walks of life have said, “Man, that was disturbing and funny.” Some people have read the blurb on the back of the DVD or seen a clip or watched it and said, “Too weird for me,” but that is important to me, too. I’ve got a target audience, and those folks were never in it.

You’re actually a big supporter of gay marriage, so this film wasn’t just sort of you making fun of the whole lesbian couple wanting kids thing. Tell everyone what it was in your life that shaped your feelings about gay marriage and why it’s so important that it be shown as a natural thing that has its problems and issues just like any other heterosexual marriage.

My mom came out of the closet about 9 years ago, which was something that helped me think about it. Up until then I hadn’t put any skull sweat into it. We had room for 4 mothers of the groom at our wedding I don’t know if “natural” is the right word because there’s a lot about marriage that isn’t natural; a big part is about fighting your natural urge to find out what the next cute person tastes like. My wife might say it’s also about fighting the natural urge to murder an asshole who really has it coming; but, apparently, I’m getting a better to live with. Or her expectations are lowering.

If two adults want to commit to that kind of “No, really; I’m living my life with you” then society needs to either wholeheartedly support it or get the hell out of the way. There are a lot of positive things to be said about it: the lesbian couples we know who have adopted kids have all taken special needs kids who would otherwise do without a loving family environment, lesbian couples we know have provided a safe haven for a lot of people who needed a little time and a little help to get their lives together (not least of all, helping my mom from time to time.) But that all sounds defensive, like we need to justify it. The truth is, it doesn’t need to be justified in these terms, any more than I need to justify to anyone why Trish and I got married.

If the “Defense of Marriage” folks really wanted to defend marriage as a sanctuary for child-rearing (which is what they claim) then they’d pass a law banning no-fault divorce for people with children. Way too many of these Marriage Defenders seem to like their “irreconcilable differences” endings to their family commitments, though.

At the same time, homosexuals in a committed relationship aren’t any LESS messed up than two heterosexuals in a committed relationship, which is why there’s so much going on between Nicola and Natasha. Their stuff has a lesbian spin on it, but the underlying issues are universal.

 I knew I wasn’t going crazy when I wrote up the review for Happy Firkin Birthday and went to take a look back at the review for the first film and couldn’t find it right away. You actually changed the name of the first movie from My Firkin Family to Merry Firkin Christmas. Was that to bring it more in line with the whole kind of holiday event sort of a theme to the series?

Originally, it was My Firkin Family, Volume One: Merry Firkin Christmas. Then it got shortened to Merry Firkin Christmas. Then we figured out that for family issue comedies, holidays and other celebratory events make awesome and easy backdrops for stuff, so we are sticking with it.

What are your plans for the next film? What’s going to be the next big issue for the Firkins and which holiday are we looking at next?

Next is Happy Firkin Anniversary, and the story will revolve around issues Mom and Dad are having as their 30th anniversary looms. Basically, Mom (the stereotypical crazy artist) decides she “might” be lesbian, and can’t fathom why her sexual dilettantism offends the hell out of her daughter and drives her husband to despair. And Gavin’s life goes through a sub-plot from Wrath of Khan. We’ll start shooting it in November or January.

Are you going to have all the same cast members back for the next one or will there be another change or two?

We want to keep most or all of the main cast. Any change we can avoid, we will avoid. Except for Russian hotties. We’re all about more Russian hotties. So the entire cast might be gorgeous Russian women. If I do that, though, I’ll shoot entirely with helmet-cam.

What lessons did you learn from this film that will make the next one even better?

All the technical stuff we talked about above, for starters, and the experience we’ve all gained from the first two movies. From a story structure, we’re going to have two complete story arcs instead of one-and-a-half or so. All four members of the family will have good, character-changing things happening to them, instead of just two of them. Dad, especially, is going to go through a lot of emotionally wrenching stuff. From an atmospheric standpoint, we will use a lot more extras in the public scenes, to make everything feel more alive. Not so much stuff going on in the background that people get distracted, but enough so that they’ll have that subliminal eye candy.

These aren’t lessons learned, but in the next one we want some nice hilarious gun violence and (oh, please, God. I promise I’ll never ask for anything else ever again) more nudity.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?

Yeah. I get to make movies because my wife is a saint. I love you, Trish!