DO NOT DISTURB, currently available on VOD, is the epitome of accessible independent filmmaking, both in production technique and in content. The film is an five-segment anthology set in a hotel room, with a connective through-line starring Diva Zappa as a maid. Each segment has a different director. Mali Elfman created the premise and serves as producer. She and some of the other filmmakers appear in the movie at various points.
Perhaps the most prominent acting appearance by one of the filmmakers of DO NOT DISTURB is that of Eric Balfour. L.A. native Balfour, been a professional actor for most of his life – he’s currently a series regular on Syfy’s HAVEN, which returns in July – stars in the DO NOT DISTURB segment “Rocket Man” and makes his directorial debut with the film’s first piece, “Duccio’s Madonna.” Speaking by phone from HAVEN’s Nova Scotia location, Balfour sounds like he couldn’t be happier about his directing gig.
ASSIGNMENT X: When did you make DO NOT DISTURB?
ERIC BALFOUR: We shot it right before I started the first season [of HAVEN last year]. Mali Elfman, the producer, came to me, and originally, it was brought to me by one of the other directors, who wanted me to act in his segment. For me, what was really exciting was getting the opportunity to direct something. I wouldn’t say I like directing more than acting, but in some ways, it’s a more complete process. You get to shepherd something creatively from the beginning to a middle to an end. I love the craft of being an actor, but the creative ability to see something through to the end and to be a part of every creative choice that’s made is really gratifying.
I love actors, I love acting and the ability to work with other actors and to bring out something special in their performances and to help tell a story in that way – I really love it and I’ve been blessed to work with some really great actors who I’ve learned a lot from and just having been an actor on sets for fifteen or so years, you learn a lot. You learn a lot about how to approach actors, how to talk to them, how to communicate to them. Some of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an actor is getting to work with directors who really enhance what you do.
Sometimes on a television show, it’s difficult for the directors, because they come in for one episode and they maybe don’t know all the history of the characters. Really, the people who creatively run a television show are the producers. It’s a difficult job as a director on a television show, and so in that way, I guess I prefer the medium of film. Unless you’re a directing producer of a show, like John Cassar on 24 [Balfour played Milo Pressman in Season Six] or somebody like that who’s constantly involved in production. There is an instant gratification that comes with being an actor and so there’s some of that notoriety or attention that you get from being in front of the camera, but it’s certainly not as complete a reward as being a director.
AX: Did you have to persuade Mali Elfman to let you make your directing debut or did you say, “I’d like to direct a segment,” and she said, “Okay”?
BALFOUR: It was a conversation. I said, “You know, just coming in to be an actor in this isn’t something that’s overwhelmingly going to draw me into the project, but the opportunity to do both was something I’d be really open and receptive to.” Then she sent me the script for “Duccio’s Madonna,” and I found it really funny and off-color and it had this really quirky sentiment to it. When I read it and called her back, she was excited about my excitement and passion for it, and I think we just think very similarly, me and Mali, and that has led us to some other projects that we’ve been trying to develop together, because we just have an excitement and passion for telling stories.
AX: Do you have any directors you particularly admire?
BALFOUR: For me, the single person who as a director has most influenced the type of stories I want to tell is Danny Boyle. I love the way that he is always visually stimulating and always tells fascinating stories, and every time he makes a film, he reinvents himself, but it’s always done very left of center, never a sort of overt linear studio film. I like directors who tell stories intelligently and are not obvious, guys like Danny Boyle. Wes Anderson for me is just another incredible director, his movies are always so subtle and yet so completely over the top and amazing.
AX: What were the casting and filming circumstances on your directing segment of DO NOT DISTURB?
BALFOUR: Basically, we each had one day to shoot our segment. I was the first director to go, so a part of my day was spent trying to get the camera working properly, so I lost some time. Shooting [that many] pages in the day is a large task. Fortunately, it all takes place in one room, so that makes it easier, but to be efficient with your shots, you have to really know what you need from your performers and you have to be diligent in knowing where your edits and your cuts were going to be, so that you aren’t wasting time.
From the casting standpoint, Maureen Flannigan, who was also one of the producers, was already cast to play the prostitute in my scene, and Diva Zappa was already one of the through characters throughout all the stories, so really, what was left for me to cast was the john. The actor who I cast, Harris Goldberg, is not an actor. He’s actually a writer, but I knew Harris as a person, I knew some of his idiosyncrasies and some of his quirks. I think he’s a genius writer and I think he’s a fascinating person.
When it comes to casting, a lot of people like watching people audition. I’m not really a big fan of that. I feel like I’m fascinated by personalities and by people and what they bring to a role, so most of the time, I would rather cast somebody who I love to watch regardless, and just allow them to bring what is special about them to the role. That was the case with Harris. I think a lot of the time people in casting get hooked up on the idea of what they think the character is supposed to be and what is on the written page. Sometimes there’s a leap of faith that you have to take when you’re making movies and television shows.
People spend a lot of time trying to find out if people have chemistry with each other and if they can do this or that, and I think a lot of the time, you have to believe something and then go for it. I only had a few days of prep and I got a couple nights to rehearse with Harris and Maureen. I think if anybody is communicated to the right way and understands what they’re being asked, they can give a performance and they can do something special. It’s my job as a director to bring that performance out of them and to put them in a situation where they are emotionally connected to what they’re saying and that they have a reality.
AX: Now, did you work on the script at all, or did you shoot it pretty much as is?
BALFOUR: I did do some work on the script. There were a couple little things that we adjusted. When I read a script, I often read it from the viewpoint of an actor, and so I’m constantly looking for why do the characters do something, why do they make that choice? So there were slight adjustments I made in some dialogue. There was one speech that I actually added in, because we needed to know why Maureen’s character was willing to engage in this sort of odd game and there’s a moment where she’s almost cruel to Harris, and she feels that, so she shares this story. It was something I knew a bit about and there were some personal motives for putting that story in there, but it all led to creating a moment between them that allowed there to be an even higher level of tension.
AX: With Mali Elfman being the daughter of Danny Elfman and Diva Zappa being the daughter of the late Frank Zappa, was there any kind of rock music sensibility in the production?
BALFOUR: The coolest thing about Mali and Diva both is that they come from these very special, creative families, and it’s a testament to who those families are. They don’t carry any pretense or ego. Diva is a really special being. I’ve actually known Diva since we were kids, and she’s just a special person and she’s a special artist in any which way she decides to express it. So although it was not a lot of time that we spent together working, I loved directing Diva and I loved seeing how she understood the emotional consequences in the choices that she made as an actress. I would love the opportunity to direct Diva some more, because I actually think she brings something special to the screen. She is without ego in who she is and she’s very confident in who she is and very comfortable with who she is, and she is uniquely beautiful and just really fascinating to watch, because she doesn’t feel like an actress putting on a performance or concerned with how she looks from this angle. She’s very honest in how she moves through the world and it comes across on the screen.
AX: In your onscreen segment of DO NOT DISTURB, you and Lindsay Pulsipher [of TRUE BLOOD], have some unusual opticals applied to you. Without giving it away, there are moments where you’re embracing where it looks like you might have had to leave room for the CGI. How was that filmed?
BALFOUR: We were sort of standing apart. To really understand that story, you’ll have to talk to Petro Paphadjopoulos, the director. I was really just there to support Petro and do what he wanted us to do. He had a really clear vision of what he wanted.
AX: Were you saying to yourself, “Damn it, why weren’t the cameras working like this when I was directing?”
BALFOUR: Yeah, exactly.
AX: You said you felt strongly about bringing certain things to the script. Going forward, would your preference be to be a writer/director?
BALFOUR: I do have a passion for writing and I’ve written a couple of scripts on my own, but it just depends. I think the one thing that I did bring to the table as a director and as an artist, it sometimes may not literally be writing the script on my own, but I can see where things need to be adjusted in the script from a dialogue standpoint, or from a story standpoint, to make it flow more honestly sometimes. I just want to be a part of things that I’m excited about. When I think about films that have inspired me to want to be an actor or to be a director, to be a storyteller, I want to be a part of things that do that, Although I enjoy writing a lot. I don’t profess to have – I mean, I’m fascinated by writers and their abilities. I think there are things that I bring to the table, but I have so much to learn and there are people who are so skilled and just innately know how to weave the story together. I like working with writers.
AX: Do you have anything else coming up that you can talk about?
BALFOUR: Nothing that I’m going to talk about just yet. [Elfman as producer and Balfour as director] have got a couple things in the works that we’re excited about [including an adaptation of the graphic novel JESUS HATES ZOMBIES]. Right now, it’s time to focus on DO NOT DISTURB and hope people are going out and seeing it and Season Two of HAVEN, which starts July 15.
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