Dead Dad is the feature debut of Ken J. Adachi, who with the help of his good friend Kyle Arrington, co-wrote a story about three estranged siblings dealing with the death of their father. Adachi and Arrington succesfully used Kickstarter to fund their project and now, thanks to a lot of hard work, are seeing Dead Dad get released. We got the chance to talk to the young filmmakers about the journey to their very first feature.
I read somewhere that the idea for Dead Dad came from Kyle. If so, how did that come about?
Kyle Arrington: Around the same time, Ken J. Adachi [director, co-writer] and I felt the need to make a no-budget feature. We had talked about working with each other but we hadn’t landed on an idea yet. I remember having one of those days where I couldn’t shake these morbid thoughts about dying. All I could think about was how people would react to my death. It made me really think about the state in which I’d be leaving things with my family, friends, wife, etc. And then the idea for Dead Dad hit me and I immediately called Ken. That was a funny conversation too – very short. I just said that I had the story. I pitched him and he just said, simply, ‘Okay, let’s get to work.’
Can you talk about the process of you two writing the movie together?
Kyle Arrington: For about three months we met every week, just talking about our own families, sharing stories and just spit-balling about what our three main characters would be going through. We had decided to swap writing drafts rather than write together. By the time we went to pages, we had a really solid outline so the drafts just kind of flowed right out of us. We didn’t want the script to be gospel so there was a lot of space for improv. We also knew that every scene would feel different once it was on its feet so we weren’t very precious with each and every line. I’d say that the film is about 50 percent exactly what we had in the script and 50 percent moments that we found and wrote on set.
Ken J. Adachi: For me the most exciting and challenging stage of writing this film occurred during production. I knew going into it that we needed a strong, yet flexible script to accommodate the lack of resources and a hectic schedule. The process was like an evolving puzzle, a month long domino effect of rewrites. We would shoot for a weekend with controlled improvisation and then spend the rest of the week rewriting the script to adapt to the changes. The actors and producers would often ask for pages in advance, but we would be doing rewrites until call time. We were incredibly lucky to have a talented cast and crew who were willing and able to adapt to the constant adjustments.
Kyle Arrington: One of my favorite things about writing with Ken was our time on set. While filming, he was the director and I was an actor. Ken would call ‘cut’ and then we’d both become writers, tinkering with the trajectory of the scene. It was really exciting as an actor to be able to adjust the story when things weren’t working.
Was it always the intention for Ken to direct and Kyle to star?
Kyle Arrington: Maybe Ken always intended for me to be in the film but when we first started working, that was the furthest thing from my thoughts. Ken pitched it to me in a pretty hilarious manner. He said, ‘We don’t have any money so you’re gonna be Russell.’ How do you argue with that?
Ken J. Adachi: Kyle is a dual threat, an amazing writer and actor, and that was the main reason I approached him for collaboration in the first place. He also exerts kindness and we really needed that characteristic to balance out Russ, who could’ve easily become the least likable character in the film. All this fed into the early stage of my writing process without Kyle knowing and I pitched him the idea to play Russ when I knew he couldn’t say no.
Speaking of unlikable people, all the characters became unlikable at some point in the film. Was that intentional?
Kyle Arrington: Absolutely. I can’t imagine a scenario when you spend an extended time with family that each person hasn’t in some way annoyed you or done something you don’t approve of. It was important for us to level the field and not have one character stand out as ‘right’ – the one who the audience sides with from start to finish. Everyone needed their own journey and everyone is flawed. We wanted to show that in a very understanding, honest way.
Ken J. Adachi: And I also think grieving is inherently a selfish act. Everyone mourns in their own way and most people choose to only understand their own process. By creating three characters with distinctly different approaches to grief we wanted to challenge the audience to take sides like the siblings do in the film. If all three siblings were likable and relatable to every viewer then we would’ve been ignoring the complexities of the situation.
There are many great moments that capture the process of grieving alone and as a family. Which process did you find most difficult to convey?
Ken J. Adachi: I can’t say one was more difficult than the other to convey because we approached the script with equal weight on both processes. The siblings’ individual grief feeds into the family dynamics and their interaction together affects the way they mourn alone. And when I reflect on the film, it’s hard to think of a moment that is not affected by grief. The real challenge was maintaining the tone we wanted and not let the sadness consume the film.
But is it challenging to create likable characters, who are stuck in an unfortunate situation? How do you work around that?
Kyle Arrington: I don’t particularly think that’s the real challenge. I think making the characters’ reactions to the situation believable is. We didn’t shy away from Russ, Jane or Alex making emotional or dumb decisions because it felt more realistic for them not to handle their father’s death with the utmost grace considering how estranged they are.
Ken J. Adachi: When directing, I was constantly aware of this issue, but more specifically to tone. We wrote the script with an even balance of humor and drama, but once we got into production the actors embraced the tragedy of the situation. We did a lot of rewrites to bring back the humor and give the characters more depth. So as a director I was working in reverse in regards to your question. I was making sure the characters were not one-dimensional and creating more opportunities for the viewer to relate to and like the characters.
Kyle, for you, what were some of the challenges of playing Russ, the unappreciated sibling? Was it easy to do since you created him?
Kyle Arrington: I am definitely more of a writer than an actor. I did some acting in high school and college but it had been years since I even considered giving it another try. So, the real challenge for me was just that – acting again. Creating the three siblings was such a gratifying experience because Ken and I were putting a bit of ourselves in each of them so we could always sympathize in any given situation. The hard work was already done in my head, so bringing Russ to life was a very welcome challenge. But honestly, I never felt that worried. Ken is so talented and focused that just working with him made me feel confident. Plus, acting with Jenni [Melear] and Lucas [Kwan Peterson] made even the most difficult scenes fun and gratifying. The goal was to not bring down their performances with my own, so I really gauged it that way.
Ken, is there any particular scene in the film you found extra-challenging to film or direct?
Ken J. Adachi: The party scene for sure, we had one day to cover over ten pages. The entire team had to really come together to pull it off. Production did an amazing job wrangling extras throughout the entire day. The actors had to improvise more than any other day. Our ACs stepped up and operated B and C cameras. I remember at one point Kyle was doing rewrites while I was directing a scene and the 2nd unit was off filming extras in the opposite end of the house. I still don’t know how we pulled it off exactly, but I do know it wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing cast and crew.
Was Kickstarter always the way you wanted to go about raising funds for Dead Dad?
Ken J. Adachi: I was so eager during pre-production I was going to get this film made no matter what. I had two thousand dollars in my pocket and I was ready to go. When I told the producers they laughed in my face. That’s when Kickstarter came into the picture.
Kyle Arrington: We knew that we could make the film for just a few thousand dollars and crossed our fingers that enough people would donate $20 so we’d reach out Kickstarter goal. The teaser we filmed encapsulated the tone very efficiently, so we knew we were putting our best foot forward. But everything changed when our incredible executive producer found us through the site. It worked out better than we could have imagined.
We know that there are a lot of well known artists who use Kickstarter for their projects. Do you have an opinion about this?
Ken J. Adachi: I think it’s great. If their fans are willing to support them, then more power to those artists; they deserve it. They definitely are not taking donors away from smaller, lesser-known productions like ours, so I have no complaints.
Would you recommend Kickstarter to other filmmakers, who aren’t well-known and/or making their first feature?
Kyle Arrington: If you have a good idea, an excited crew, and are struggling to find money then absolutely Kickstarter is a great platform. I’ve seen so many poorly filmed or just generally boring Kickstarter pitches, so my primary advice would be to create an interesting video and show prospective donors how excited you are about the project. But be realistic with your goals.
Ken J. Adachi: Yup, what Kyle said. Filmmaking is expensive and we all need to find money somehow.
Brett Erlich is more of a commentator than an actor, but he’s absolutely great in Dead Dad. Though his part is brief, the speech he gives made for a memorable scene. How did you come about casting him?
Kyle Arrington: I had worked with Brett previously and was pushing to get him for Eli. We considered a whole slew of people for the part, but once everyone saw what Brett was capable of, it was clear he was perfect for the role. Plus, he and I had a built-in friendship that helped considering our characters are best friends.
Ken J. Adachi: And I still feel incredibly lucky to have Brett in our film. Not only was he perfect for the role, but he also provided much needed energy and command on set. I asked him to treat the party as if it was truly his own and gave him free reign over most of the scenes with extras. For example, the gift opening scene was completely improvised.
You made this film on a very low-budget. Any crazy scenarios you ran into in the filmmaking process?
Ken J. Adachi: I think all our stories are on par with any production, but the craziest part of this project is the communal bond that existed throughout and after the film was finished. In nearly every single project I’ve worked on there has always been some level of apathy from the crew, but on this film, where we basically abused the kindness of our friends, we miraculously made out without burnt bridges.
Kyle Arrington: Totally. And I really believe that camaraderie started early because we wanted everyone to feel like Dead Dad was his or her project – not just Ken’s and mine. Instilling a shared sense of ownership made the production fun and incredibly memorable.
Do you want to focus on independent films in the future, or would you also like to work on bigger studio movies as well?
Kyle Arrington: I really love the spirit of independent film. But I have no qualms with working on a big studio feature. As long as the story is good, it doesn’t matter that much to me.
Ken J. Adachi: The end goal has never been to work on ‘bigger’ films. For me filmmaking is a need, an obsession. As long as I am able to direct a feature film every two to three years I’ll be fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to work with a studio or anybody who is willing to fund my projects. Though based on the current state of the industry and the type of stories I’m interested in, I doubt the studios will come knocking on my door anytime soon and I have no intention of seeking them out.
And lastly, what do you want people to take away from this film?
Ken J. Adachi: One of the core messages of the film is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s important to consider that when tragedy strikes and I hope our viewers can come to understand that idea through our film.
Dead Dad will be available on DVD and VOD starting February 4. You can view the film on iTunes.