Newell/Falzone’s uncommon approach to improv indie

Actors Seth Unger and Erica Unger

From the imaginative and colorful opening title sequence of “Close Quarters,” we are in the hands of debut feature filmmaker, Jack C. Newell, who is firmly in control of his craft.

Director Newell, a Columbia College adjunct faculty member, and writer/co-producer Ron Falzone, a tenured Columbia professor, teamed up for their second film together to create what can be considered a breakthrough film in the non-traditional way it was written and shot.

The story is about two young coffee shop baristas (Seth Unger and  Erica Unger, real life husband and wife), who must come to terms with their own relationship while being bombarded by the very different issues of their diverse customers.

Newell and his 22-member cast largely improvised their scenes around Falzone’s scenarios in this slice-of-life Chicago story that allows us to sit back and revel in the nuances of everyday life.

I caught up with Newell and Falzone and asked them about the project.

GRANT: Why did you set the story in a coffee shop?

Director Jack NewellNEWELL: Coffee shops are like modern-day Roman bathhouses. People do incredibly private things in coffee shops, which is essentially a public place. People break up, they fall in love, they gather to celebrate or grieve, they do business, or just come in as a brief interlude in their day.

I knew there were some storylines we needed to have — the baristas for one – that were always going to be the center of the universe.   We knew we wanted people coming, going, and living their lives in this coffee shop. 

GRANT: How did you approach the scenarios for the various people in the coffee shop that come and go?

FALZONE: The three of us – Jack, Joe and I – got together several times to hash out storylines and through-lines.   I wrote a spine script — the story of the two baristas — and built the scenarios around that .  Then I created the scenarios for the different groups that came and left the coffee shop. 

NEWELL: That gave us our framing device. Then, it was just a matter of selecting which story lines we felt dramatized what I wanted to talk about.  We had to get the right improvisers and then I directed them that way on set.

The ensemble cast was strong across the board with a wide variety of talented Chicago performers improvising their roles based upon stories created by Ron.

GRANT: So the actors never saw anything that was written.

FALZONE: No. We said to them, ‘This is where the scene starts and this is where it has to go.’  Everyone loved the process.  No one had done this before.  The actors made discoveries in front of the camera they ordinarily never get to do. 

GRANT: And the  next step was to shoot the film.  

Writer/coproducer Ron FalzoneFALZONE: Here, Jack moved the actors  on and off the scenarios, all with the intention of discovering who these people were and what were their larger issues.  

I coordinated the story, writing the script after the scenes were shot.  I’m used to writing and leaving, but here I was on the set taking notes like crazy.  I boiled down some 500 pages of transcribed notes to 45 pages that were added to the spine script.  I wrangled  these into a guide script for Jack and editor Jill Dibiase to work from in the editing room. 

For me, personally, I’m just thrilled to have created an independent Chicago film without gangsters, no middle-aged men wondering about life choices.

GRANT: What was the one reality you had to keep in mind throughout this process?

FALZONE: That the dialogue I would edit did not necessarily mean that the performances were at the right pitch once the cuts were made. 

For this reason, I really clung to the idea that it was a guide script in the truest sense of the term.  It could give the director and editor  an idea of through-lines, but ultimately they were the ones who were going to have to make it work.  And that they did.

GRANT: You said improv actors here are very special.

NEWELL: There are improvisers elsewhere, but not at the level here in Chicago. ‘Improv’ is like the sixth sports team here (Bears, Bulls, Cubs, Sox, Hawks).

GRANT: In the cast are  some of improv’s very best: Bill Arnett Mark Belden, Jim Carlson, Colleen Doyle, Kate Duffy, Erica Elan, Jet Eveleth, Noah Gregoropoulos, Lyndsay Hailey, Greogry Hollimon, TJ Jagodowski, Bruce Jarchow, Tim Kazurinsky, Sharra Lasley, Holly Laurent, Nicky Margolis, Susan Messing, Danny Mora, Linda Augusta Orr, Dave Pasquesi, Erica Unger and Seth Unger.

FALZONE: This city draws people who are serious about the craft, because they want to play with the best. We had a crew of alumni from Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University, who worked incredibly well together. The film schools here really enable smaller productions to crew up with talented, eager, and serious people.

Additional credits:  DP Stephanie Dufford, using a DSLR platform; assistant producer, first AD, Vince Singleton; graphics design for the title sequence by Protokulture designer John Michaels; sound designer, Marina Bacci, assistant engineer at Optimus; production designer Mary Margaret Bartley of M&M Designs.

“Close Quarters” is currently making the festival circuit worldwide with an anticipated Chicago debut in 2012.

Julian Grant is an acclaimed indie cinema filmmaker and a Columbia College professor.  His latest film is award-winning “Fallen Away.”  Email news of your project to