By Liz Nicholls, .ca
“At Christmas all roads lead home.”
As the stand-up comedian heroine (Amber Nash) of How To Ruin The Holidays discovers, evasionary tactics may stall this inevitable Yuletide GPS, but it will not change the destination.
There’s a parallel inevitability that has led Kevin Gillese and Arlen Konopaki from Edmonton, onstage and live, across this country and the border, through Europe, Down Under — to this their first feature film, a resonantly funny comedy with a bold palette of dark tones, starring Amber Nash.
Written and produced by Gillese and directed by Konopaki, How To Ruin The Holidays has been a fave on the festival circuit so far. And it’s having a month of theatrical releases in select cities, like L.A., Atlanta, Toronto and Edmonton (where a debut at Metro Cinema earlier this month will be topped up with another screening there Nov. 25), before it has a digital release through Amazon in December.
“It seems like all roads were leading to this for many years!” declares Gillese, with the kind of buoyant vigour Edmonton theatre audiences know from his time here as the artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre and his Fringe appearances then and since with Konopaki in their improvised show Scratch!. “We had the short film That Was Awesome (an award-winner in 2018 and now available on YouTube). And this is a natural progression!”
The word “organic” does not go amiss in this Gillese/Konopaki improv-to-film story. The writer and the director are in the Zoom ether hovering over America. Gillese is in his adoptive home town of Atlanta where he moved from Edmonton in 2010 to spend a decade as the artistic director of Dad’s Garage, Rapid Fire Theatre’s sibling improv company. Konopaki, a U of A theatre school grad, is in West Hollywood where he moved from the Big Apple after five and a half years (and a master’s degree in film directing and cinematography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts).
“We wouldn’t be doing a feature film if Arlen didn’t have the passion for film and directing he has,” says Gillese, who identifies his own passion as writing…. I’m not married to any particular form, improv, plays, film. It’s what you’re doing with it that counts. I also have a passion for bringing things together and making them happen.”
Konopaki muses on their drift from stage to screen. “I think even when were doing Scratch! full-time, we always had an eye on film and television.” Screen, it turned out, was the itch that had to be Scratch!-ed.
The pair met at Rapid Fire Theatre, as star improvisers. By 2005 they’d created Scratch!, one of the company’s biggest, and most internationally travelled, hits. In this intricate format, the duo intertwined three high-contrast storylines all based on audience suggestions — at escalating speed, with pellmell physicality, switching characters on the fly as they went — until, improbably, the narrative threads came together at the end.
“Kevin and I bonded creatively,” as Konopaki says. “And we both had a vision of what we wanted to do, make it our full-time thing…. “If we do a really good job, get really good at it, and stand out anywhere, it can support us financially.” Says Gillese, “I remember a turning point…. If we want to make this a full-time gig we can’t half-do it. We have to kind of go for it!”
And they did. Scratch! never stopped touring, one-night stands in Australia, Europe, across the Fringes. “Looking back at that period,” says Konopaki, “it was a really gratifying time…. We put the work in, to be as good as we could be, to do a show that would stand out, that everyone would remember and talk about. And I think we did. We took pride in that.”
In 2015 Gillese and Konopaki took the Scratch! format, with its intercutting of narratives and genres, and role-switching, into a 10-episode web series with an absurdist bent. Hart of America, produced by Dad’s Garage, is named for the hard-ass tough-talking cop character Grace Hart played by Nash (best known as the voice of the combative Pam Poovey in FX’s animated series Archer), Gillese’s wife and a comic actor of striking versatility, witness the assortment of other characters she takes on in the series.
In How To Ruin The Holidays, Nash is Michelle, an increasingly exasperated stand-up struggling to make a go of it in L.A., who finds herself cornered into going home to Atlanta for Christmas for the first time in years. Which means dealing with her dysfunctional family: Dad (Canadian comedy star Colin Mochrie), an eccentric doomsday preparation-ist; sister Andrea (Kate Lambert), a hopeful screenwriter; and lively special needs brother Mark (Luke Davis). It’s at a moment that turns out to be a turning point in all their lives.
The idea, as Gillese explains, has personal roots, planted when he moved to Atlanta 13 years ago. “All my family is up in Edmonton. So I know what it’s like to be living away from your family, only getting updates, from snapshots, once you pop home for the holidays.” And, as in his movie, he has a special needs brother.
“It was easy for me to take those experiences and put them into a narrative…. L.A. is a substitute for Atlanta. And Atlanta is a sub-in for Edmonton. When it’s framed like that, it sounds very dramatic. But It wasn’t much of a stretch to use humour as a lens…. Me and my siblings we’ve always used humour to handle all things!”
In How To Ruin The Holidays, “my number one goal was making the actors shine,” says director Konopaki. “Which wasn’t hard!” He and Gillese discovered Davis, a wonderful special needs actor, in a Dad’s Garage partnership with an Atlanta acting program for adults with cognitive, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. Davis, the star of their That Was Awesome, is a true find, funny and charismatic.
Gillese’s goal, he says, was to give the cast a chance to show what they could do, beyond more usual audience expectations. Mochrie, for example has intensely dramatic, emotional moments, like the intimate scene where he talks to Michelle about her brother. “It’s one of my favourites,” says Konopaki.
And the film gives Nash, “best known for voice work” as Gillese says, the chance to show her on-screen range as an actor, a character “who’s constantly under siege from everyone around her.”
For a remarkable $300,000 Gillese and Konopaki have made an indie movie that looks and sounds top-drawer. Included among the favours the pair got was the expertise of an entire sound department (from Floyd County Studio, who make Archer). And, unusually, raising the money started with crowd funding, before other sponsorships were landed.
There are startlingly dark aspects to this new holiday comedy. And Gillese admits he initially had his doubts about its “genre-breaking” aspects. “It is for sure a Christmas movie. It is for sure a comedy with elements that aren’t.”
“Early in the process I’d gotten feedback to ‘pick a lane’, either go for a heartwarming Christmas movie or an adult comedy … don’t muddy the water. I found that very distressing; I think the best work is when you have both those flavours next to each other.”
It was Mochrie to the rescue, with a pep talk. “Kevin, you’ve got the rest of your career to compromise. Just do what you think is good!”
Tickets for the Nov. 25 screening at Metro Cinema of How To Ruin The Holidays: metrocinema.org.