Adapting to Brevity: Steven McCarthy on We Forgot to Break Up

Film International

September 16, 2017

By Tom Ue

We Forgot to Break Up is having its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Chandler Levak and written by Steven McCarthy and Levack, the 15-minute short film follows Evan Strocker (Jesse Todd) as he returns to see the band that he has managed following a three-year absence. This absence has seen a change to all of the band members; indeed, Evan is now living as a trans man. Adapted from Kayt Burgess’ novel Heidegger Stairwell, the film features consistently strong performances, both acting and musical. In what follows, I discuss with McCarthy his involvement as writer, musician, and actor in this project. The ElastoCitizens, McCarthy’s ten-piece funk band, are cult favourites on the Toronto music scene. His acclaimed theatre productions such as BlissMalaria Lullaby, and Boblo combined elements of circus, dance, trapeze, and rock and roll. Best known for roles in The Strain, HBO’s Good God, the indie hit Picture Day, and A&E’s The Crossing, he has had the pleasure of working with such directors as Guillermo del Toro, Ken Finkleman, Kate Melville and Robert Harmon. More recently McCarthy starred in Andrew Currie’s ensemble comedy The Steps, sharing the screen with Christine Lahti, James Brolin, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Jason Ritter. In 2015 he wrote and directed his first short film, “O Negative” which has played at festivals all over North America including TIFF, RiverRun, Whistler, Cleveland, Palm Springs, and the Portland International Film Festival. It was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Short Films of 2015 by the TIFF jury and has now been seen all over the world as a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Steven has taught at the Randolph Academy, The National Theatre School, and Ryerson University, and is presently a faculty member at Armstrong Studios. Recently, Canadian Stage Theatre Co. produced his first ever translation, Guillaume Corbeil’s Five Faces for Evelyn Frost. Check out his Web site at stevenmccarthy.net.

Thank-you so much for an excellent and thought-provoking short film! What attracted you to Kayt Burgess’ novel Heidegger Stairwell?

It was the people involved. Nicole and Matt Hilliard-Forde of Motel Pictures had the rights to the novel and were working on adapting it into a feature. They decided that applying for a Bravo Fact might be a good way to kickstart the project into high gear. They first approached me as an actor and I immediately said yes: I loved the cast they were putting together and the idea of being in a band movie was appealing for lots of reasons. Chandler, the director, and I met up a couple of times to discuss the project and she pitched me the idea of coming onboard as a co-writer and I thought “why not?”

Clearly, much of the novel had to be cut and compressed for this adaptation: what were some of the more important omissions?

This film is basically based on only one scene of the novel. Even this was ambitious for a short film with all of the characters we were writing for. I was less tied to the book than others had been and I proposed that we really blow apart the source material and reduce it to its foundations and then re-build from there. We changed the location and that helped give the scene some reality and some urgency. The main elements are all there but the setting and the characters are all quite different. The fact that we knew which actors we were writing for gave Chandler and I quite a lot of ammunition. We could play to the actor’s strengths and idiosyncracies. We also had a few parties all together at my place and Nicole’s and Matt’s place to get to know each other a bit better and that helped the writing process enormously.

How did the screenplay evolve?

Once we’d ripped the source scene back to its foundations we built from there. Chandler and I would meet in cafes and bars throughout Toronto and it evolved quite naturally. For both of us, this was our first time collaborating on a screenplay so sometimes it was tricky. I proposed making a list of archetypes and traits and re-building the characters with these traits in mind. Who’s the Dad of the band, who’s the middle child who feels neglected, who’s the funny uncle? Who likes to complain and do nothing? Who pairs up for lunches and who stays behind to get work done? Looking at the band as a barely functioning family gave us a lot of good juice to go on. Having been a part of my own band, the ElastoCitizens, for more than a decade I could speak from a fair amount of experience.

So much of the film is communicated through silences and through characters’ trying (and failing) to communicate: what were some of the challenges of writing this dialogue?

The best part of the writing was that, in the end, we knew our scenes were going to be acted by phenomenal actors. So, for me, the most important part was getting the structure right – where does the story need to take place? Who wants what from whom? What’s in their way? What are they afraid of people knowing? What are they hoping for? How does one scene build upon another? Once that’s accomplished the rest is just window dressing. We got great feedback from the actors and used it to make the scenes more action-based and less writery. Jesse Todd, our lead, approached me about one scene that was particularly tricky and we were able to have a workshop at my house where we let he and Mark Rendall improvise based on the given circumstances of the scene we’d written. From watching what they did, we were able to throw out the script and create an entirely new one. We also had a rehearsal day the day before we shot and just listening to the actors read is huge – you learn what works rhythmically and what’s holding them up. Actors’ instincts are amazing. I think the key to filmmaking is knowing how to trust your collaborators and those jam sessions were a great example of that.

We know that Evan wrote a memoir, but we don’t know what approach he took (i.e. whether this would be a revenge story or a more factual one): what do you imagine he wrote and why?

I don’t think it would be about revenge. But any memoir, by its very nature, is going to be subjective. I thought a lot about what it might feel like to have the story of your band told by someone else, about the power of the printed word, and the hurt feelings and arguments that would ensue. I think the film is more powerful because the band is reacting to the fact of the book before they’ve even read it, and reacting to Evan’s return, and what it might mean for each of them, in the fragile place that they’re in as a group.

What attracted you to your character Augus?

Like I said, I’m the lead singer and manager of a ten-piece funk band with ten good friends, some of whom I’ve been friends with since we were kids growing up in Sault Ste. Marie. This film and this role was a natural fit for me. This is the second time I’ve written a role for myself but of course it’s quite different from “O Negative.” But yes, I’ve been the guy holding the door to the rehearsal hall open when people show up two hours late; I’ve been the guy putting up posters on Queen at 3 am only to see them torn down a half hour later; I’ve had these arguments and these reunions, these reconciliations. Creating something with people you love is hard work but it teaches you a lot about humility and a lot about communication. That’s what I wanted to bring to Angus: The weight of that responsibility. Bands and groups of all types have weird dynamics, and decisions get made in all sorts of ways. I wanted to show someone who felt that a lot of that weight rested on his shoulders, and who maybe wished it didn’t.

The performance looks and sounds wonderful. How did you decide on the band’s sound?

The director’s favourite band as a teenager was the Dears and so our incredible music director Michael Perlmutter reached out to Murray Lightburn, their lead singer, to see if he would write the title song for us. He said yes! More than that, he ended up coming in from Montreal and coaching us on our rehearsal day. Most of us played the instruments we play in the film already, but he gave us some amazing insight into the ups and downs of a successful indie band. We worked the song at a music jam space and then headed down to the phenomenal Orange Lounge recording studio on Queen West to record the vocals. It was a great way for us all to get to know each other and a real thrill for me to sing his song.

What’s next for this short film?

For that you’ll have to ask Motel Pictures. My job is done!

Have you thought about adapting this into a feature?

They already have plans to create a full-length film, that’s been their plan all along.

What’s next for you?

I’m just about to shoot a guest-starring role on Frankie Drake – a brand new series produced by Shaftesbury. I’m acting in a couple of other shorts this fall and doing a play as well. I’m also working on my own screenplay, a feature version of my short that played at TIFF a couple of years back.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.