Filming a low-budget, independent film can be challenging for many directors. It’s even more difficult for a first time helmer with limited resources. But newcomer Alexander Poe, who wrote, directed, executive produced and starred in the upcoming New York-based comedy-drama Ex-Girlfriends, relied on his friends and colleagues to help create the realistic tale of trying to navigate romantic relationships. Also aided by Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter, who starred in and executive produced the film, Poe was able to explore his comedic side without the pressures of a larger budget film.
Ex-Girlfriends follows Graham (Poe), a writer who’s disheartened by his latest break-up, and his attempts to rekindle the spark with one of his ex-girlfriends, Laura (Kristen Connolly). While reconnecting with Laura and trying to win her back, Graham discovers that she’s dating Tom (Noah Bean), who’s also in a relationship with another one of his ex-girlfriends, Kate (Jennifer Carpenter). Graham and Kate, who are still friends, team up to split Laura and Tom up, and end up discovering aspects about themselves along the way.
Poe recently took the time to talk with us over the phone from New York City about Ex-Girlfriends, which premiered at this year’s Austin Film Festival. He spoke about where he came up with the idea for the comedy-drama, what the casting process for the micro-budget film was like, how the limited funding affected where he could shoot around New York and more.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: You wrote the screenplay for Ex-Girlfriends. Where did you come up with the ideas for the story-did you base the story on any of your own personal experiences?
Alexander Poe: Yeah, sure. Definitely some things came out of experience, but they became fictionalized along the way. I was just coming out of film school, and was at the point in my life where I was getting ready to make my first feature. I was sorting out my path, from being a student to going out into the real world.
I wanted to make a movie that captured that uncertainly and all the drama of trying to get to that next stage in your life. What the characters were going through was kind of what I was going through in relationships and the process of graduating into adulthood as a filmmaker.
We Got This Covered: Like you mentioned, Ex-Girlfriends is your first feature film after graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate Film program. Did your experience at Columbia influence your film-making style on the movie?
Alexander Poe: Absolutely. I did a lot of theater before I came to Columbia, and that certainly informed a lot. But studying with the professors at Columbia really refined my skills and made me the kind of filmmaker I am today. Especially working with Eric Mendelsohn, who’s a directing professor there and my adviser, and Malia Scotch-Marmo, my screenwriting adviser, really shaped the way I think about story.
Actually, the producer, Jennifer Gerber, and the Director of Photography (DP), Gregory Kershaw, also went to Columbia and had studied with Eric and Malia. They really have the same vocabulary about how to talk about story, so it was very much a Columbia project. It was strongly influenced by the way Columbia teaches you how to value story-telling and characters over production value.
We Got This Covered: Besides writing the script for the film, you also directed Ex-Girlfriends. Did writing the movie help you with your directorial duties once you began shooting?
Alexander Poe: Well, it’s funny-I think writing a movie really isn’t anything until you’ve completely locked picture in the edit room. I mean, stuff would change on the day, with the location challenges we had and the time constraints. The in the edit room, I was still writing.
So for me, I think the distinction between writer and director on this project was a little blurred. Overall, I think I was a little bit more filmmaker. There was collaboration with Jen the producer and Joe the co-producer, as well as the DP. But it was definitely a director-writer type of movie and story, so it worked out well.
We Got This Covered: Ex-Girlfriends marks your feature film directorial debut, after you helmed several short films, including The Break-Up Tour; The Eight Percent; I Graduated, But and Please Forget I Exist. Did your experiences on your short films influence the way you shot your first feature?
Alexander Poe: Oh yeah, absolutely. We didn’t have a whole lot more resources or money on this one than my shorts and student films. So this was really shot the same way, with a tiny crew. I guess understanding how to work with those limitations on student films, and knowing how to shoot in New York, and how to make this work, was certainly what made this possible. Also, working with collaborators who were also writers and directors themselves, I really trusted their professional opinions and creative sense.
We Got This Covered: Ex-Girlfriends was made on an ultra-low budget, as you’ve said you’d rather make a low budget movie now than a bigger budget film that you have to wait several years to get into production. Why was it important to you to start shooting the film right away on such a small budget?
Alexander Poe: I really wanted to share the story in a moment where it was still relevant to me. I think this is much more concept driven than character-driven, which I think is great, and has its place. I think if you’re going to get noticed as a filmmaker doing small, character-based comedy, it’s probably a wiser move to go out and make the movie yourself. Then you have the actual movie as a calling card, instead of trying to take a script around.
It’s that age where there’s a whole lot of easy access to writing and film production, and it’s created a different market place. I think years ago, you could get a little more funding for a movie. But I think you have to go the extra step now to see it through.
I wanted to get this done the way I saw it in my head. I had access to great actor friends and a bunch of film school friends. They actually like spending time making a movie. I find it more interesting than trying to get money for something. You don’t actually need a big budget in order to be effective.
We Got This Covered: Before you began working on Ex-Girlfriends and decided to make it yourself, you tried making films in many other ways, such as writing spec features, working as an assistant and making the shorts and sending them to festivals. How did those experiences influence the way you made Ex-Girlfriends?
Alexander Poe: I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors in my life, including actors and writers like Bruce Paltrow, who really shaped my notion of film. Also working for directors like Donald Petri influenced me. I also worked on the set of a Steven Spielberg film. Watching those guys work was a totally different thing, and great to understand somebody else’s methods. I think anything you do in the film-making world is going to inform your sense of being a film-maker, and how to best go about that.
I think the shorts, and going to festivals and meeting directors who were starting out and doing the same level of work as you, is great and beneficial. I think it can go a bunch of different ways in trying to be a film-maker; you can go to film school, spend time in the industry and make contacts that way, and I think they all work.
We Got This Covered: Speaking of going to festivals, your short, The Eight Percent, won the Delta Short Film Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was your reaction when you found out that you won the award, and do you hope to bring Ex-Girlfriends to film festivals?
Alexander Poe: Well, we premiered Ex-Girlfriends at the Austin Film Festival 2012, which was an awesome experience. That festival’s really about screenwriters and learning screenwriting. So it was really a perfect fit for this movie, with a writer trying to figure out his life. I think it really played well there.
Tribeca’s another great festival. I had fun with that short film, because I won first-class tickets anywhere around the world where I wanted to go. I got to go to Japan and Southeast Asia for the first time, which was a really cool experience. So yeah, I think festivals play a big role, obviously. Not only in getting your movie out there, but also in networking with other filmmakers, who will hopefully be collaborators and allies in the future.
We Got This Covered: You cast Jennifer Carpenter as Kate in Ex-Girlfriends several days before you began shooting. Why did you decide to cast her in the film?
Alexander Poe: It’s funny, we actually had another actress cast in the role. Since I was acting in the film myself, and it was a very small production, I wanted to work with actors that I had worked with in the past. I had worked with Kristen Connelly when we were in college, and all the other actors were close friends.
Then we were a week away from shooting, and our lead actress dropped out to do a TV show, unfortunately. So we were totally stuck, not knowing what to do with the production. But Kristen’s manager, Michael Lazo at Untitled Entertainment, had been a really big supporter of the script. He gave me a ring, and gave me a list of clients at Untitled he thought would be right for the role.
Jennifer jumped out at me from that list. She’s so great on Dexter, and I thought she had a lively energy to her. I was really excited at the prospect of working with her. But I had no idea if she would be adaptable to these conditions, which are far different than a big TV show. I was encouraged when I met her over coffee, though, because she was so passionate and ready to jump in, and make it however we were going to make it at whatever budget level we had.
Jennifer was really a champion of the project along the way. She then came on as an executive producer when we were done, to help us make sure it got out there, so we were really excited to have her on the project. It definitely became a different thing when she came on board, and everyone was so excited to work with her on set.
We Got This Covered: Speaking of Kristen, you previously directed her in Please Forget I Exist. What was it like to direct and co-star with her on Ex-Girlfriends?
Alexander Poe: It was a whole lot of fun, because we worked together at Middlebury College, where we both went, and we made a bunch of short films. She was in my first short film that I shot up in Williamstown (Massachusetts), and she’s a highly trained actress. She went to Middlebury and the Williamstown Theater Festival and Yale Drama school. So in a way, there’s not a whole lot of directing you need to do with an actress who’s that talented. It was really fun to play off of her. To have that experience on set was really fun.
We Got This Covered: As you were writing the screenplay for the film, you set the action in locations that you were sure you could find, such as bars, apartments and New York streets and parks. What was the process of actually getting the locations like, since you didn’t have permits for many of them?
Alexander Poe: The locations were definitely tricky, because we didn’t have really have money. New York is a really friendly city, in terms of shooting. We didn’t really need a permit for a whole lot of the stuff we were shooting outside, because we didn’t have enough equipment to actually qualify for needing a permit.
But we stole some of the locations in Grand Central, because you can’t really shoot without a pretty serious permit. But you can take still photographs, so we shot a few scenes on a (Cannon EOS) 5D, which looks like a still camera, around Grand Central. Whenever we’d get kicked out of one location, we’d hustle to another part, where they hadn’t quite discovered us yet, to shoot a few shots.
It was that kind of movie; we had a lot of friendly bar owners and restaurant owners who kind of donated their locations to us. Everything was kind of shot in my neighborhood, down in the West Village. It was a real communal kind of feel.
Although, I had almost gotten kicked out of my apartment for shooting here. That was a little bit tricky, because we almost got kicked out on the first day. Then we had two more scheduled days of shooting in my little apartment, which is a fifth floor walk-up. But somehow, we got by. It was definitely a challenge along the way, but I love shooting in New York. Everywhere you look, it has such great production value and art direction.
We Got This Covered: Are you interested in shooting in New York again in the future? Are you interested in continuing with low-budget films, or would you be interested in making bigger budget films in the future?
Alexander Poe: Yeah, I love shooting in New York, it’s where I made all my movies, and it’s the place I love filming. Although, Los Angeles has a lot going on, and I’m happy to be there, too. I’m happy to be shooting small movies like this, but hopefully the next one’s a little bigger, just to make it a little bit more comfortable. I don’t think we can make too many micro-budget movies in a row. But it all comes down to the script, and what the story calls for. This one was a small, personal comedy, and I think the budget really fit.
We Got This Covered: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether writing, directing and/or acting, that you can discuss?
Alexander Poe: Sure. I have a script called Brightside that we’re trying to get financing for right now, and I’m really excited about it. It will also be shot in New York. Then I also have a pilot and scripts going around, and we’ll see which one gets picked up first.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Alexander Poe for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out Ex-Girlfriends when it’s released on VOD and iTunes on Tuesday.