Making an independent film is hard work. But it’s a little easier if you have limitless optimism and no idea what you’re doing. Sas Goldberg and Jake Wilson are old college friends and theatre students who decided that if they wanted to be stars, they would have to take matters into their own hands. The duo co-wrote and co-starred (with Wilson behind the camera as director) in the new indie comedy Are You Joking?, an offbeat look at the life of Barb Schwartz (Goldberg), a twenty-something New Yorker stuck in a dead end job and longing for a creative outlet, and her childhood friend Billy Morrison (Wilson), a professional dancer who doesn’t let the fact that he’s wrapped up in a political sex scandal stop him from pushing Barb to pursue her comedic side. The film has been performing well at festivals and was just released on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and cable On Demand, with an October 20th premiere scheduled on Hulu. I talked to Goldberg and Wilson about their history, the new movie, and the challenges of making an independent film.
Let’s go back to before you started working on this film. What’s your history together?
Goldberg: Jake and I both went to Michigan together, the University of Michigan. We met at a Theta Chi and Kappa Alpha Theta party where Jake hit on me.
Wilson: I was straight back in college, so I was in a frat. Sas came to the party dressed as a little whore and really caught my eye. I was like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” and she was like, “Do you?” We were kind of best friends from there on, instantly.
You were being serious when you said you were straight in college? You definitely tried to hit on her?
Wilson: Oh yeah. She was really my type. But also, let’s be honest there was always kind of something going there…
Goldberg: Jake went out with a lot of girls in college. He met more girls than the straight men.
Wilson: When you’re the straight guy in the musical theatre program, you’re the pick of the litter. Sas and I had this instant connection right from there. We always made each other really laugh. We always had a kind of separate friendship apart from all of our other friends. It continued until we eventually moved to the city after college. Sas is from New York, but I moved to New York after we graduated.
How long was it before you started working on creative projects together?
Goldberg: Several years, no?
Wilson: Yeah, it was a couple of years. I did this musical web series called The Battery’s Down, pretty much immediately after moving to New York. I realized that no one was going to hand something to me. I was getting close to a lot of things and realized that I wanted to start making stuff for myself. I played a version of myself trying to make it in New York. There would be original musical numbers in every episode. This was before Glee, before Smash. Sas joined in Season 2 of the show. She played a twin, which was kind of fun because there was zero production value. We had to figure out how to do split screens with two versions of herself. That was kind of the first thing we did together. Years after, I had transitioned from doing that. My friends were like, “You should produce stuff.” So I started producing unscripted reality TV, working my way up in that world, learning how actual production works. But I was like, “I don’t even watch reality TV. I don’t want to be doing this. I want to write something else.” So I asked Sas, “Do you want to write a movie together?” That’s where this movie came from.
Sas, what were you doing in the interim between The Battery’s Down and this film?
Goldberg: I was doing really great things for myself, basically waiting at home for my agent to call. It was really working out well for me.
Is it safe to say that this script is a little bit autobiographical for the both of you?
Goldberg: Actually, no. I’m not like Barb in that… I was doing theater, but I wasn’t taking control of my career, if that makes sense. I was under the impression that I was gonna be given an audition and that it was going to be a breakout role. It’s not like Barb in the sense that I was depressed or in that sort of mode. But I will say that I find myself in Barb a lot and I know Jake finds himself in Billy. But it’s not an autobiographical story. My family was very supportive of me and things like that.
Wilson: But you could take it to the point where Billy pushed Barb to do what she wanted. I’m not saying Sas wasn’t doing what she wanted, but I kind of came in to her life at a point and was like, “Hey, we can do this. Nobody is going to hand us starring roles in a movie. No one is going to give me a feature film to direct. We have to do that ourselves if we want to make it happen.”
Goldberg: He changed my life is what he’s trying to say.
Since you two decided to do this on your own, how did you handle things like raising money, budgeting, casting, assembling the entire picture? It doesn’t look like a necessarily easy movie to make.
Goldberg: It was made in 15 days.
So that had to be a ton of work. Can you talk about what it’s like to be first time independent filmmakers?
Goldberg: I think it’s a mixture of two different things. First of all, because this was our first film, I think our naïveté works for us this way. We were never bogged down with, “We’ll never raise the money. We’ll never be able to get Hannibal [Buress] locked down.” We were just like, “This happens. We’ll just do it.” We had optimism the entire time, which is what you need because you can get bogged down by how impossible it all seems. As far as raising the money, we both come from a theatre background. I was a theatre major and Jake was a musical theatre major. We went about raising money how you would for a theatre show. We did readings. We assembled 10 people to read all of the roles. We invited anyone we knew who was ever in producing or who might have money to spend and would want to invest in a film and we just read the scripts in front of them. We did three or four of them and that’s how we raised primarily most of our money. Then we did a small Kickstarter for our post-production. We did those readings and I don’t know if that’s how it’s done in the film world, but that’s how it’s done in the theatre world, so we just did what we knew.
Wilson: We were really lucky to have this all happen so quickly. I had made things with no money, so if we have any money, we’re not going to take no for an answer. The next step was finding a line producer, which was really key. She was the one who would crew up our entire crew, make a schedule, let us know how we were going to do it. We were interviewing a lot of different line producers and a ton of them were like, “OK, this is 110 pages, you have 53 speaking roles, 38 locations… you’re not going to be able to do that much. You have to cut 20 of those.” We were like, “OK, thanks. Nice to meet you. Bye.” We weren’t going to do that. We wanted to make this. I know we could do it for nothing and we have a budget, so we’ll make it work. We started raising money the fall of 2012, in October. We had raised all of the money by the following April and started shooting in June for 15 days, 11 days in New York City and four days in Scarsdale. Then we had the film in the can by the following September.
Goldberg: Because we hadn’t done this before, we didn’t know. Now when I watch independent films I see that they’re much smaller in scope, not as many locations, not as many speaking roles. But we didn’t have that wherewithal when we were writing the script. We wrote like 57 speaking parts and 38 locations, which is kind of unheard of for an ultra low budget film.
What’s the story behind the title change? When looking up info on the movie, a lot of times it showed up as You Must Be Joking. Now it’s being released as Are You Joking?
Wilson: Actually, when we were shooting the movie it was called So Funny. That was the original title. We were talking to some people and our sales agent and they were like, “It really lends itself to reviews to be like, ’So Funny was so bad,’ so maybe change that.” We changed it to You Must Be Joking, which we absolutely loved. Then, whenever our distributors came on board, we changed it because of On Demand reasons. They were like, “We’re going to get the most of our business through On Demand. If somebody is scrolling through movies on Friday night looking for something to watch, they’ll probably have found something by the time they get to ‘Y.’”
Goldberg: We’re kind of the little movie that could in the sense that we’re really small and nobody knows who Jake and I are, so we needed all the help we could get.
You mentioned your recognition. You’re both younger performers and although you’ve been working, you haven’t had any star billing. That being said, you were able to land some pretty awesome actors for your film. You’ve got notable performers from the theatre and comedy worlds. Hannibal Buress, Vanessa Ray, Kathryn Waterson. How did you land some of the people who, for the size of your movie, are pretty big gets?
Goldberg: First of all, we have a lot of friends who are honestly very talented. We came up with them. Either we went to college with them or were in the theatre scene with them. As far as other people we didn’t know, we have two amazing casting directors, Shayna Markowitz and Carrie Gardner, who really hit the pavement, put the script down, and people just said, “Yes.” I think a lot of our actors did it for the love of the project. It’s not like we were paying them a big salary. We had a sense of community. Our set was so fun and lighthearted because everyone wanted to be there.
Wilson: For the people in the comedy world, the few that we didn’t actually know already, I think – and this is me projecting on them – but I think there’s not really any movie out there, or at least none I’m aware of, about the improv scene. There are movies about standup and people wanting to be comedians. But for a lot of people in comedy, they started in improv. There’s probably a special place in their heart whenever they read a script with people in an improv class learning “yes, and” for the first time.
Are you working on any other projects together?
Goldberg: We’re working on a television show right now. We actually go to pitch tomorrow.
Wilson: We also have a special reunion episode of The Battery’s Down that Sas and I wrote together that will be coming out on Hulu alongside the film on October 20th.