Launching his career at 17, Alex D’Lerma started a popular radio show in Los Angeles, where he then trained and worked as an actor and filmmaker. In 2006, he founded “The Cinema Gym,” acting and directing for a camera workshop and “The Looping Walla Group.” D’Lerma currently teaches acting and directing at his Cinema Gym in Burbank and periodically for UCLA Extension. He has directed seven films and written six. His latest feature “Fear, Love, and Agoraphobia” powerfully explores the symbiotic relationship between an agoraphobic man and a female Marine as they struggle to escape their personal prisons. Written, directed, and edited by D’Lerma, the poignant drama/comedy has been showered with awards including multiple accolades from the Hoboken International Film Festival, Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, and the L.A. Playhouse West Film Festival. In this one-on-one interview, D’Lerma reveals his passion for filmmaking and the challenges he faced in bringing “Fear, Love, and Agoraphobia” to the screen.
What was the genesis of this film? What was the spark that set the script in motion?
Alex D’Lerma: The two leads in the film, Dustin Coffey and Linda Burzynski have been in my acting and directing class for several years. Dustin had a few roles in television but neither he nor Linda were able to get that “first movie.” I specifically wrote “Agoraphobia” for both of them and tailor-crafted it to their unique talents. They’re really good character actors. But as you probably know, in Hollywood, youth, beauty, and how many social media followers you have are valued more than talent. It’s tough for character actors.
So the idea of combining these two interesting characters, where did that come from?
D’Lerma: When I decided to write something specifically for Dustin, I imagined a very modest budget. I’d been encouraged to try horror but it’s not my specialty. I wanted to dramatize loneliness and being depressed and how you crawl into a little cave not wanting to come out. So I mentioned the idea of agoraphobia to Dustin and how it would dramatize loneliness and depression. Dustin agreed with the idea, saying he had grown up with someone who struggled with that condition.
Polar opposites Maggie and Chet formed this interesting symbiotic relationship. What were you looking for when you cast these key characters?
D’Lerma: Originally, the alcoholic female Marine, Maggie, was not in my first draft of the script. After the first draft, I realized it was boring. It needed something because I really wanted to be authentic in how he saw his character. I didn’t want his character just to engage the audience and or get attention. I needed someone to counterbalance Chet. So I added Maggie, who is actually a former Marine and can go from vulnerability to volatility in two seconds, and do so authentically.
What challenges did you face in writing this story?
D’Lerma: Adding Maggie was a tricky counterbalance to Chet. The tone is tricky. During shooting my crew said this won’t fly because Chet doesn’t do anything. But once they saw him on the screen, the liked Dustin’s very internal performance. He did a lot of research, interviewing medical professionals and agoraphobic individual about the condition. We’ve been getting some interesting and positive feedback from people who suffer from agoraphobia in the U.S., Australia, and Germany.
What challenges did you face in directing the film?
D’Lerma: Money, money, and money (laughs). As you know, there are different levels of moviemaking. To say our budget was modest is not an exaggeration. We shot in greater L.A., where the permitting and support process was not ideal, especially for low budget films. On the positive side, not having a lot of money forced me to get a bit more creative. For example, in trying to save on extra locations, the end result turned out better.
The film has several intertwining messages that dovetail nicely. What do you see as its core message?
D’Lerma: The core message was exploring people who feel trapped in their own lives. Either from forces greater than themselves or from their own life’s choices. So for Chet’s agoraphobia, for Maggie’s alcoholism, and for her imprisoned husband—all three are “trapped.”
Why did you load Maggie with so much emotional baggage?
D’Lerma: Yeah, I always say truth is stranger than fiction. There have been things from my friends and family where I’ve said if you made that a movie, someone would say it’s too much. No one would ever believe it.
The editing was tight and the scenes dovetailed nicely. Were there some challenges you faced in editing?
D’Lerma: I’m really proud of the editing. One of the challenges was the screenwriter, me. You’ve heard the phrase that a screenplay is written three times: first by the writer, second by the director, and third by the editor. When I was directing, there were a few scenes that just weren’t working so I had to figure out why and quickly. Two to three times, it wasn’t the actors, it wasn’t my cinematographer, it was me as the writer. In editing, the challenge was to get a couple of little pieces that weren’t in the script and were not yet shot. So I had to write those two little pieces, shoot them and cut them into the movie. Then it seemed to work better.
What do you look for in choosing a film you want to direct?
D’Lerma: Something that appeals to me because it’s such a long involved process when you’re doing everything. It’s always a super tight budget, so out of necessity, I wear multiple hats so the project can get made with the money that’s available. I really have to be emotionally invested in the project because I get to a point where I get sick of my own script, then later, in editing, I get sick of that process. Like in this project, I wouldn’t edit for a month. You want to do something new and you’re constantly having ideas that come to you and you want to jump ship from what you’re currently doing to do something fresh. But once it’s all done, you can enjoy it and your baby is born.
What are some of your favorite character-driven films?
D’Lerma: “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansen. It’s such a hard movie for most audiences to view because it’s so different. “Harold and Maude,” the romantic black comedy/drama directed by Hal Ashby, that was an oldie but goodie. And “The Long Goodbye” and “Short Cuts” by Robert Altman.
Can you talk a bit about The Cinema Gym?
D’Lerma: It’s a series of acting and directing classes that I started in my own studio. When an actor comes to L.A., one of the things they do, even though they have a theater degree and basic training as an actor, is continue to work on their craft in scene study classes or improv classes. You’re always either in a play or in a class because you want to keep growing and fine-tune your craft. As an actor, I had a lot of success on the stage. But when I tried to transition into camera work, it was difficult for me. I had success with comedy; drama was tougher, even though I was good at drama. And I didn’t understand why.
Over the years as an actor, I started to develop a process for myself. In making that transition from stage to screen, I had always been told there’s no difference—acting on stage and camera was the same. For some unique people, it’s not a problem and they can adjust very quickly. But for a lot of actors, it is difficult, so I was frustrated why there wasn’t a class out there that was doing it the way I had formulated the process in my head. When I transitioned from acting to directing—with all the lighting and editing—I mapped out my format for my class. It was supposed to be just one night a week for just a few months. But I discovered that my theories on incorporating the technology with the directors and actors actually worked. I wanted my classes to be affordable, practical and effective using technology, but it wasn’t a good business model.
Most of the classes in L.A. are business first and the art is second. So I make it like the Actors Studio used to be. If students can’t pay, I’ll work out an arrangement with them where they’re assisting me with something, or they may need mentorship or guidance in creating their own script. I also noticed there was no place to practice directing like there is for actors. Young directors sometimes have to wait two years for their next project.
Finally, as an actor, I’d get frustrated with directors because I wasn’t used to their language and their lack of attention in the way a theater director would work with me. I also noticed that on set, you’d have two camps: the tech people who may not be creative—but they really are—and the actors. And the two wouldn’t mingle too much. This didn’t make sense to me. But when you bring the disciplines of acting and directing together, they cross-pollinate. Directors pick up on actors’ vocabulary, their process, and what like and don’t like; and actors pay attention to directors, their process and what they need. I tell them: learn to be a collaborator.
Check out the trailer.