One of the things that makes The Mill Valley Film Festival such an outstanding destination for movie lovers and movie makers is that in addition to screenings of Oscar frontrunners (like 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County and Dallas Buyers Clip) and international hits (like Blue Is The Warmest Color), audiences are allowed to bask in exciting new voices who premiere their passion projects there. This year one of those films is Chris Lowell's directorial debut, Beside Still Waters, which premieres October 12! It will also screen at The Austin Film Festival.
The deeply personal film focuses on Daniel (played by Ryan Eggold) who, after the tragic accidental death of his parents, invites seven childhood friends to the site of their summer memories, a lakeside cabin about to be sold. But the uninvited arrival of his ex-girlfriend -- and her new fiance --is just one of the weekend's unforeseen complications.
Stunning in its simplicity, but also ovation-worthy in its visual audacity, Beside Still Waters is a remarkable directorial debut for Lowell, best known for playing Piz on Veronica Mars and Dell on Private Practice. ETonline caught up with the multi-talented Lowell to find out how he went about bringing this deeply personal project to life, what a night of bad whiskey has to do with it and the acting lessons he learned from directing a film. Plus, we chat about his new Fox comedy, Enlisted, and the impending release of the Veronica Mars Movie!
ETonline: So often when you have an actor directing a film they will also star in it. Was that ever a discussion here?
Chris Lowell: It was a brief discussion, but I think I instinctually knew I'd be biting off more than I could chew, especially with my first film. Looking back, I don't know if I would want to act in something I direct because I enjoy exercising both muscles so much, but they're such different muscles. It would be like riding a bicycle and playing the guitar at the same time. Neither one would feel that good. I really love diving in, head first, with directing and not having to worry about hair, makeup or lines. I got to wholeheartedly focus on putting actors in the best conceivable role in the best conceivable environment to get the best conceivable performances out of them. That was a very exciting thing for me to explore. I learned so much about being an actor by being a director. More than I ever thought I would. Also, this film is so personal to me that I feel like I'm in every frame, so I think actually having my face in there would be too much Lowell. Just overwhelming amounts of Lowell.
ETonline: What makes it so personal?
Lowell: Essentially the film is a love letter to the place I grew up and the people I grew up with. It was born out of my writing partner and I just wanting to explore the world we live in with our group of friends. I know that sounds extraordinarily vain because everyone thinks they have the best group of friends, but that was where it started. I grew up in the house that everyone came to, so we started to wonder what would happen if we ever lost that place. Ironically, a year later we did lose that place. But that was where it began. We started writing it and realized it wasn't a story we wanted to tell about our friends, but about friendship in general. Especially because I believe the bonds of friendship run as deep as the bonds of family do.
ETonline: So does that mean some of the signature moments, like the game of Whiskey Slaps, are things your friends really do?
Lowell: [laughs] There are definitely a few Easter eggs in there that come from my life. Well, they're not really Easter eggs, they’re like Faberge eggs because they're very big and noticeable. But yeah, Whiskey Slaps is something I've done way more than I should have. That was born out of passing around a bottle of some hideous cheap whiskey in college and not having anything to chase it with so my friend Lindsay said, "Well just take a shot and I'll slap you across the face, that'll take the sting of the liquor out of your system." Of course, in a drunken haze, we thought this was the best invention since sliced bread. What I love about that device in the film is that we explore it from two radically different vantage points. The first time is under the guise of feeling eternally young, but the second time you see it, the scene is terribly violent and grotesque. It really turns the feeling of that activity around.
ETonline: The chemistry this cast shares is really special. When you set out to cast the film did you tap your actor friends or was it more formal than that?
Lowell: It was more formal. We only had one table read, about halfway through the writing process, it was when we were losing the house I grew up in, so I very delusionally, and semi-psychotically, decided to move back into the house for the entirely of our escrow period. That's where I wanted to have the first reading. For that, I had a lot of friends because it needed to have that vibe, so it was, like, half the cast of The Help and then my other acting buddies from back home. This movie lives and dies on the chemistry of the actors and I feel like so often in reunion films you see these casts that are stacked with celebrities. And when you’re watching that, you're immediately taken out of the story because you know they're not really friends. It hinders the ability to buy into the premise. Plus, those celebrities are often just offered the job without auditioning or doing chemistry reads. For this film, I wanted to make sure all these actors felt like they were as deeply rooted in their friendships as I am in mine.
ETonline: How did you go about that?
Lowell: Every actor had to audition, they had to agree to rehearsals and chemistry reads. I brought them into the house where we shot for three days just cooked together and ate together and drank together and lived together. Everyone brought keepsakes from their youth and tucked them into the drawers and nooks and crannies, so it felt like this was their own house and like they had memories in the house. And I think all of that shows. We really worked hard on the chemistry and I think the actors were stupendous in their interactions.
ETonline: Speaking of, the chemistry you share with Geoff Stults and Parker Young in Fox's mid-season comedy Enlisted is impeccable.
Lowell: That's a testament to the casting, but it's shocking how quickly we fell into a family dynamic. And I mean shocking. The perfect example is that Geoff and Parker are both, without any prompts from me, flying to the premiere of the film. There's a real love on our set and not just between the three of us, but our entire cast is so freakin' talented.
ETonline: The show was moved from a fall debut to a spring premiere. How do you feel about that?
Lowell: I think it's the best thing that could have happened to the show. To me, shows premiere in September or January. To premiere on a Friday night in November puts us in this no man's land and doesn't give us much of an opportunity to find an audience. I think going on in the spring, in sync with the Super Bowl can only do good things for the show. I think Enlisted is unique and not like anything else on television right now. I think people will really vibe with it, but it's gotta have a chance to find that audience. A spring release gives us that opportunity.
ETonline: Perhaps Fox moved it to capitalize on your momentum coming off the Veronica Mars Movie?
Lowell: Yeah, that's right; it's all because of me that Fox chose to do this. I love looking at the world through your goggles [laughs].
ETonline: What are you excited for the fans to see when the movie comes out?
Lowell: It's going to be a blast. It feels like having desert twice. The first time, when we actually made the show, and now, six years later, getting to come back and wear the same voices is absurd. The reason I'm so confident in the film is because it was always a priority on set to think of how best to encourage and give credit to the fans who made this whole thing possible. There was literally a producer on set whose job was to make sure any information about the film -- whether it was a photo, a little plot detail -- went to the Kickstarter supporters first. That just created an energy on set that is very uncommonly wonderful.
ETonline: Was it strange to go from working with Kristen in a very low-profile capacity to suddenly filming on closed sets and being ultra secretive?
Lowell: Since 2007, when the show ended, the rise of Facebook and Twitter and Isntagram has changed the landscape of everything and how easily everything is shared. But also a lot of that secrecy was due to the fans. I think because there's so much hype around the film, and because the film is a criminal mystery, you have to keep things in a safe until you're ready for people to see it. Otherwise you're losing half the fun by knowing the twists and turns.
ETonline: Well, I'm excited to see it -- and am happy to see you have a much less bang-centric look this time around.
Lowell: Thank God! Honestly, I could have taken a bullet to the head and survived with the amount of hair I had on that show.