An Interview with Clay Sills – By Duane L. Martin

First off, let’s have you introduce yourself to everyone and let everyone know a little about what makes you tick.

Wow, let’s see. The best way to sum it up is that I’ve always liked to inflict myself on people. I wrote and roped friends into putting on a science fiction play when I was 10 (We were rejected in our talent show audition. When 10-year-olds have a gun fight, no one wants to die. We got stuck in the third scene making zap noises until the music teacher finally said, “Thanks for auditioning. Get out.”) I’ve done stand-up comedy for about 8 years, and collected material for a lot longer than that. I have a survival trait that involves laughing at awful problems I can’t solve, so it’s pretty easy for me to make someone laugh, or at least groan. Sometimes I wander the house late at night, hammering out the bedside manner of a gay gynecologist: “I can’t believe you’re not a natural blonde!” I’m also a libertarian who thinks the worst words a person can hear are “I’m from the government. I need to talk to you about something.”

Who did the cover art for the sleeve of My Firkin’ Family, and what made you decide to do a cover like that? The crayon drawing is just brilliant. It’s extremely amusing and fitting with the feel of the movie as well.

Thank you! I did the cover art, in large part because Veronica (my oldest daughter) is deep in the Crayola Art phase. Give her a stack of printer paper and a box of crayons and she’s happy for hours… As long as Trish (my wife) or I color stuff, too. So I was all warmed up when the need for a cover arose. Also, it expresses the arrested development of the protagonist really well. And it was REALLY cheap. In the back of my mind, I had the unsavory bit of trivia that porno makers spend more on their DVD cover art than they do on the whole rest of the movie. Of course, I’ve got the cover art in my head for the next one, and it’s gonna be crayon, too. So I’m glad you like it.

What made you finally decide it was time to make a movie, and now that you’ve made one, how do you feel about how it came out?

It was a few compelling things. My stand-up material started to hang together into a story I liked. Also, I caught myself saying “I can do better than THAT” so often when we went to the movies that I started annoying myself. Trish is very creative and very supportive, so when I finally said, “I’m making a movie” she said, “Thank God.” As for the movie itself, I’m very happy with it. I had to watch it twenty or so times before I noticed too many imperfections to enjoy it properly. It seemed so overwhelming at the time that getting a completed movie done is one of my proudest achievements.

When you sat down and starting writing this film, did you have it in your head how you wanted it to be or did you just start writing and let it take shape naturally?

Wow, I’m not sure. The basic story arc was there, but when I realized in August 2004 that I was BUYING A COFFIN so I could finish the movie properly, I was pretty surprised. All the characters took on lives of their own. For instance, I had no idea Gavin (the protagonist) had pro-life/anti-abortion leanings until he expressed them. I fully expected him to be an “I knocked you up, so I’ll call you a cab to the clinic” kind of guy.

You had a great cast in this film. How did you assemble them? Were they all people you knew already or did you put out an ad looking for people?

I got insanely lucky with people I knew. Trish has a friend (I hope she still has her… God knows I stressed that relationship a lot during this project) named Terrie Thompson. She hooked me up with many of the core cast members. Her biggest scores were Marguerite (Magda) and Samantha (Nicola) and Michelle (Samantha) and Mimi (Mother Firkin) and Leigh (Faith). I brought in Ray (Thad) and Trish (Trish) and Elena (Natasha) and Pam (Cute Waitress). Elena brought in Addie Gleason (She’s the painfully beautiful jailbait girlfriend.) Oh! Special bonus trivia: Michelle can be seen in the latest Pamprin commercial. She’s the beautiful, confident, and non-bloated business executive. And my dad LOVED making the movie’s whipped cream commercial with her.

Which of the actors in your opinion most closely fit your image of the character they were playing?

Oh, that’s easy. Ray Schumacher and Mimi Gould and Elena Levenfeld. Ray’s part was written for him because I’ve known him for 14 years and hoped he’d take the role. And Mimi is just flat out awesome. And Elena… Hubba. What else can you say? I wrote her part after I got to know her.

Since the first film is always a learning experience, what were some of the things you learned in making this one that will make the next one go smoother for you?

There are two things I’ll do better next time. First is technology. I’ll have much better sound in the next one by using a combination of shotgun boom microphone and wireless UHF microphones. We lost a REALLY good scene with Gavin and Faith because the sound was unsalvageable. You can zoom a camera, but you can’t zoom its shotgun mic. Second is basic directing technique: there will be a lot more time between the ending of the action and cutting, so the edits will be smoother. If my next crew of actors is as good as my first one, the sequel ought to be something we can be really proud of.

Speaking of the next one, you have that in production right now don’t you? Why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about it.

Well, it’s going to be a stand-alone sequel called Happy Firkin Birthday. The script’s main story arc is finished in my head, and about 70% on paper. We’re going to shoot it weekends in September and October and November. It should be finished early in 2006. Its main plot revolves around a major spoiler in My Firkin Family, so I don’t want to give any details about it here. We’ve got Ray, Elena and Pam back for this one. If Mimi is available, we’ll have some Mother Firkin stuff in it for her, too. I’m staying behind the camera this time. Trish is, too, since she’s tired of being “the naked chick” from My Firkin Family. My Firkin Family centered on Gavin and Mother Firkin, and this one centers on Nicola. We’ve got an awesome cast lined up for it… Casting Gavin was tough because I didn’t know I had trouble letting go of the role until the time came to do it. About half of Happy Firkin Birthday will take place in Ray’s bar – Ray Schumacher, the actor playing Thaddeus Firkin, owns a neighborhood bar in Marietta, GA. Like My Firkin Family, there will be a lot of strong, interesting women. Because it’s stand-alone, we will re-shoot a couple of scenes from My Firkin Family with the current cast to provide background.

Since this is actually turning into a series of films, how many are you planning on making in the series, and what other kinds of films would you like to make as well outside of this series?

I’m planning to make at least one more after Happy Firkin Birthday, and probably two or three. There is a lot of story I wanted to pursue in Happy Firkin Birthday that we couldn’t do because of budget, so we will have plenty for one or two more. The third one will center on Magda (Gavin and Nicola’s mom) with a good bit of Gavin in it. There is a good bit of lesbianism in all three… Not for sexy but for story. My mom came out of the closet about 8 years ago, and so that’s given me the insight and material to make that kind of story line important to me and something I could do. As for other movies, I have at least three more in my head outside the Firkin movies. I have an idea for a really original science fiction movie, a dark Tim Burton-esque children’s comedy, and a drama about a televangelist. I hope to hit the televangelist one in 2006 or 2007, depending on when we do the third Firkin movie.

What sorts of films and or filmmakers inspired you over the years and led you to the point where you decided that it was time to make your own movie?

Well, Kevin Smith inspired me to try and make a movie. Clerks was amazing, with enough first-timer flaws in it to convince me I ought to try one. And Tim Burton is just wonderful. I can’t wait to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He puts his stamp on everything he does, and he’s given me the courage to make mine as weird as I want. David Cronenberg does, too. I love Cronenberg. His ultra-low budget early films gave me a lot of courage, too. There will be a bit more weird in each one I do. One of the bits in Happy Firkin Birthday involves stealing a satellite feed from a Far East satellite to show a whacked out, Cantonese, aquatic cock-fighting game show in the bar. Which is sort of an homage to Videodrome, now that I think about it. Happy Firkin Birthday will also have a tribute to Psycho in it. So I’m stealing from the best, and getting my Russian hottie actress into a shower scene! Whoo!

What kinds of problems did you run into during production? Usually getting proper lighting and good sound can be difficult. What sorts of things did you do to get past your technical difficulties?

The sound was the hardest. It’s where I’m concentrating the most for improving the next one. Lighting wasn’t that bad because shooting with a video camera is a LOT more forgiving than film. The biggest thing you’ve got to do is watch out for over-saturation, and the zebra markers cameras have now make that simple. I got around the sound where I could in the post-production editing by raising or lowering the sound levels. But we left about 5 minutes of really funny stuff out because the sound was not salvageable. Unfortunately, it was very context-sensitive, so I’ll have a hard time using the writing somewhere else. I used Studio 8 to edit with, and though I curse how buggy it was on the XP platform, it made altering sound and video levels for video import really manageable. If you’re lighting a low-budget movie, Home Depot halogen work lights and canvas or foam core reflectors/diffusers do yeoman’s service.

When you got done editing the film, did you have a hard time saying to yourself, "Ok it’s done, and it’s just how I want it," or was it difficult to stop yourself from constantly tweaking it here and there?

It was a long slog, but it’s hard to give you an accurate assessment. It seemed so overwhelming that I often let it sit for days or weeks between editing sessions. If I‘d just sucked it up and charged through, I could’ve had the movie done months earlier. I did the editing in discreet scenes, which broke out into chapters. Looking at My Firkin Family now, there’s something like 17 or 18 chapters, and they each work out to be about 4 minutes long. That may be the influence of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons from my childhood: I had a powerful urge to push an awful lot of story out as quickly as possible. I was worried people wouldn’t sit still if I had too much build-up in one spot or another, but some of my favorite comedies are like that, too. Airplane is so frenetic you have to watch it three times to get all the jokes. There are parts in Kingpin where your laughter is more horrified than humored, and you haven’t gotten over one when the next one hits.

What sorts of things do you do when you’re not making films?

Chase my two-year-old daughter around the house. Hang out with my wife. Drink beer with my best friend. I work as a software architect at a giant telecoms company, and it’s amazing how many creative people are paying the rent and the CD duplication fees that way. The lead singer for Cinetrope (cinetrope.net) works about a hundred feet away from me. I’m hoping they’ll provide the music for the next one.

If you could give anyone wanting to make their first film one piece of advice, what would it be?

Write the script. Rope your friends into acting. Buy a video camera, a mic you can hide where people are talking, and some halogen lights. Make the movie. Don’t say “someday.” Don’t say “if only.” Making this movie means I’m driving a beat up old Tacoma instead of a new Tundra. Great. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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

If you want to make a movie, make it. If you want to parachute jump, go do it. When you’re 90 years old, rocking by the fire and sucking your gums, you’ll be glad you did it. And you’ll be glad every day until then, too. And if you want to see My Firkin Family, buy a copy. We’ll BOTH be glad you did.

If you’d like to find out more about My Firkin Family or pick up a copy for yourself, you can check out the film’s website at http://www.myfirkinfamily.com.