“I’ve performed and created characters based on diary entries. Courtney from Wolf’s Canyon originated from being nostalgic for teen horror shows. I wanted to become the opposite what I am now.”
The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Liz Zito.
Laura Parnes: Courtney is a cliché of the teenage film and you seem to play around a lot with clichés. Is there a parody that goes on when you’re riffing on these popular references to adolescence?
LZ: I still relate to shows that are aimed at teenage girls–taking a closer look at what is presented to them–and it’s definitely a reflection of what has formed the person I am today. But I get frustrated when people think Courtney is an alter ego or has something to do with me. I’ve had a lot of conversations about how similar Courtney and [Nick Aliciati’s] Darlene are, but we have completely different relationships with our characters. People really like Courtney (I don’t like her) and want me to dress up like her and be this thing.
LP: I’m curious how you developed and wrote your projects, specifically Wolf’s Canyon.
LZ: I come up with a basic story line just so it’s not insane [laughs]–wait a second, it is insane–but, a beginning and an ending, so it’s almost followable. And I like working with non-performers, without set lines in the script, who can be lost and not exactly know what’s going on. I don’t really know what’s going on! If someone in the cast or crew has a better idea, I want to do the better idea–the funnier thing–and to allow for interpretation.
LP: However you set up the situation, you’re also in it, so you’re kind of pushing or controlling the direction of the scene in quite a few ways.
LZ: When I’m in the scene it makes people more comfortable but when I’m off camera I’ve had to prompt what is going on. I will feed lines if people don’t like improvising. Even in bad acting I’m surprised when it's a great performance. The performance is authentic in a different way. I feel like every character, at the end of the day, has taken a drug and they don’t remember what happened the day before or previous episode. Everyday is a blank slate. I’ve never asked anyone if working with me in this way is fun; I think it is. People keep coming back.
LP: I really didn't realize it’s mostly improv. The way people perform, they already embodying those different adolescent shows they’ve already seen. It feels like the lines are going through them.
LZ: It helps when their names are directly from the shows. If we’re talking to Mr. Fitz, the teacher from Pretty Little Liars, and it’s your friend Stephan performing, it feels like you’re talking to that television show character. Plus Stephan is a really good actor.
LP: And that mirrors playing out ideas of childhood, of acting out shows and scenarios, which took up quite a bit of time for some of us when we were kids. It seems your process, in terms of refining things, happens much more in the editing room, which is sort of different from when I’ve worked with animation where there’s not a lot of leeway in editing afterward.
LZ: I don’t know if it’s a result of an improvising comedy background, but editing is one of my favorite parts of the process. A joke doesn’t always necessarily work until I edit the piece together. And that’s the exciting thing. I also like the episodic. It leaves people wanting more–I don’t know if I’m going to give it to them–but it allows me to take a break while having material to come back to and re-edit. There’s a great gym scene that has yet to be released.
LP: I’ll waste so much time if I’m shooting extra stuff. For some projects I’ve controlled the script beforehand and pretty settled into what I wanted. But [for funding] I was constantly getting notes and rewriting. Those notes were based on what other people were telling me. So I let go of all of that and decided I could make it on bare bones. By turning it into an animation I could go back to all these crazy things I’d put in before that I didn’t think I could realize in film. It was a really freeing moment for me to give up the process of trying to get the financial backing you need to get for a feature film.
LZ: How do you know when something’s finished, like Tour Without End? Is it every going to end?
LP: It’s never going to end! No, I envision it being six hours. I recently went to Houston and did a show. It happened that one of my characters was in Houston and I shot another scene there at Sean’s Hair Salon. It’s an ongoing process but I’m sure something will tell me “you've got to stop.” I do have a lot of fun shooting it. It’s totally guerilla style. Whatever happens happens. There’s a rush of like me saying [to the actor], “now go in to that hotel and book a room” and “if they say this, don’t respond” and “don’t leave until it’s absolutely necessary.” We have a lot of fun doing that and everyone’s into it. It would be really different if they were like “I'm really uncomfortable” but they’re like “yeah, where can we go next?” We’ll get tired at some point. And since it’s about process, how long can my characters take working on this. I’m sure that will inform part of it but then there will be a deadline of the show where I just have to get it together.
LZ: One of the most exciting things for me is coming up with an idea–when the light bulb goes off. It sounds really dumb to say I don’t like performing, because I do it all the time, but I find it really difficult and exhausting. Sitting in front of the camera and having these rules for myself. I find it satisfying when it’s done and I know I have the right take. It’s like “whew, I don’t have to do that again.” It’s weird, but maybe it’s the high I get after a performance. And knowing that if I get a good take it’s exciting. That’s it; I don't have to do this anymore. Torcher!
Now I’m in the process of writing a film where I’m not in it at all. I’m taking a step back to trust other people to be the characters I’ve developed. I want to have control in a different way, to focus on other things I wasn’t able to when I was the performer. I’m at the point where I’m kind of a little sick of watching myself on the screen. I want to think about other things, like writing the story and developing the characters. Even for Wolf’s Canyon I’m talking to someone else about playing Courtney in the future. With the absurdity of the project I can allow someone else to step in.