LAFF 2011 Interview: HOW TO CHEAT director/writer/actor Amber Sealey
In her second directorial effort, HOW TO CHEAT, Amber Sealey takes on the taboo subject of cheating on one’s marriage. Rather than the narrative we have seen before with a husband unexpectedly being tempted or making a mistake one drunken night, HOW TO CHEAT has Beth’s (as played by Sealey) husband Mark (Kent Osborne) make the conscious decision to cheat and work to find a partner willing to cheat with him.
As Beth, Sealey also plays against stereotypes and her reaction to Mark’s indiscretion is almost difficult to watch in its honesty and willingness to play into those silences rather than simply turning up the drama. Beth is not necessarily a likable character (which helps us sympathize with Mark’s desire to cheat), but she is always real – a real person dealing with real issues and emotions in the messy way people do.
I spoke with Sealey about her idea of creating a film that takes a subject we may have seen before, but depicting it in a new and fresh way while also exploring the challenges of not only being the film’s director and writer, but also one of its lead actors. And of course asked the question (which I also posed to Osborne), what she would say to someone looking to cheat. How did you come up with the concept for the film, HOW TO CHEAT?
I was interested in the idea of someone making an active decision to cheat, because so often people say it "just happened" and there was no planning involved and I've never really believed that was true. So I thought, “What if someone, more or less, openly plans to do this bad thing?” Mark is a guy who feels like he's been a good person his whole life and always done the "right" thing and that it essentially got him nowhere. He is dissatisfied with his life on the whole and thinks cheating might make him happier. I also wanted to approach the subject of cheating, one that I do think is wrong, with as much compassion for all the parties involved as I could, just as an exercise. I believe that essentially we are good people who don't set out to hurt others or ourselves, but so often do end up hurting just by way of happenstance or as a by-product of someone else's ill-conceived search for their own satisfaction. I wanted to look at these people with as little judgment as I could, not trying to lay the blame squarely on any of their shoulders.
The idea of cheating and how one should react when it happens to them seems like it should be black and white, but as the film shows us, it is rarely ever that simple. Do you think relationships have always been this complex?
I am really interested in the minutiae of people's lives, the small things that happen when we are all in private. And I think most relationships are much more complex than we can know from the outside. Yes, certain things seem like they are black and white. If someone cheats, that is wrong. But does a bad action make a someone a bad person? Does that mean the relationship has to end? I don't necessarily know the answers to these questions any better than anyone does. I think it's all specific to the people involved. And this movie is really just about these three people (Mark, Beth and Louise) and their particular circumstances in that moment. It's not meant to be a moral tale or anything like that. It's just about them and how they react in that moment. But, yes, I don't really think relationship issues can ever be totally black or white.
You portrayed Beth with such honesty and fearlessness, did that come from a good deal of rehearsal with Kent or was it something created in the moment while filming?
We didn't do any rehearsal except for getting together a few times and talking in a fairly casual way about the film and the characters. I like to try and keep it as fresh and in-the-moment as possible so over-rehearsing can sometimes get in the way of that. I also like to film pretty early in the process because often you create something so wonderful the first time and it's hard to re-create that again. But that said, rehearsing can also bring out something new each time, things you didn't see before. So either way can work. But with this film, and with how fearless Kent is, it just made sense to jump right in. It's great when you have actors like Kent and Amanda who will jump in with you and go the distance even if they don't know where they are going to end up.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered having to wear the multiple hats of writer, director and actor? What were some of the benefits to being all three of those roles?
Sometimes it's hard to be as present as I'd like to be in a scene if I'm also directing. I can get distracted thinking about what the camera is doing or how this scene will edit, or I start planning on how I will direct the other actors in the next take. But mostly I just try to stay in the moment as much as possible. So when I'm acting I work to keep the director’s thoughts out of my head. And, likewise, when I'm done filming and editing I try to look at myself in the film as someone else. Otherwise I'd make stupid actor choices like "oh I'm better in that take" instead of choices that serve the story. I think the benefits of wearing all those hats are how much you learn from all the different roles. The film becomes such a part of your life for a long period of time, as opposed to just acting in it where you work for a few days or weeks and then forget about it until you're invited to a screening. When you write, direct and act you get to watch the whole thing develop and really learn from each different stage.
What advice would you have given Mark if he came to you with his dilemma of wanting to cheat on his wife?
In my real life I'm a pretty avid anti-cheater! So I'd probably advise him to talk with Beth more first. But I'm not sure if that would have been as fun of a movie to make!