Film director Matt Amato, in his own words, hates directing kissing and love scenes. “It’s just–it’s awful. It’s terrible. Because it’s a private matter and you want it to appear private, yet there’s 30 people standing around them,” he says. Amato recently shot his first feature film, called “The Makings of You,” in St. Louis during the summer of 2013. It stars Sheryl Lee, best known for her role in “Twin Peaks,” Jay R. Ferguson, who currently has a supporting role as Stan Rizzo in “Mad Men,” and Grace Zabriskie, also a veteran of “Twin Peaks.” “I feel bad for them that I’m actually asking them to do this, but they’re very professional. They’ve been through this before, and we were playing a very respectful game amongst ourselves,” says Amato. He winces when opening up a personal act to a public audience, or even mildly private one. “I don’t want any nudity or violence in my movies. I’m not interested, at all, in that. What’s most interesting is what’s going on inside–how these characters are feeling towards each other.”
The film is a love story centering around Judy, played by Lee, and Wallis, played by Ferguson, both middle-aged protagonists who are dissatisfied with the circumstances of their lives and find an undeniable attraction to each other. Set in the gritty, burnt red Midwestern sunshine and brick, it’s a return to Amato’s hometown. “I had some great parents who have a great love story. I was a witness to that–to their love, and I’ve always been inspired by it. Their equality, I would say, in their marriage. I was always looking at the woman’s point of view and the man’s point of view and I got to see both, like we all do with our parents.”
Amato returned to St. Louis from Los Angeles to shoot and edit the movie through the L.A.-based film production company he co-founded, called The Masses. “I feel like I’ve learned about the city for the first time, exploring,” he says of coming back. Amato scouted filming locations all over the city, for a total of 50–somewhere around 20 is normal. The trailer for the film features the heat of a quintessential Missouri summer, the sky shining bright, and shots of the two main protagonists running up the stairs, catching a moment of prolonged yearning between them. There’s the lush green of summer, and shots that make the Mississippi River look like a smooth sheet of glass. Cut to a typewriter banging out the words, “Nothing happens until two people fall in love.” Cut to him pushing her on a swingset at dusk, the sky turning bruised purple and blue with clouds. Cut to a kiss. Cut back to the typewriter again. “And then the whole world changes.” Pause. A period.
“A filmmaker explores. Or, they should explore,” says Amato. “I’ve learned incredible things about St. Louis since I got here, and then fell in with a group of filmmakers in a very vibrant scene that’s Cherokee Street right now. It’s a blast.” He rents out an editing space from First Punch Film Production on Cherokee, a large loft surging with the energy of creatives: cameras, art, books, random arcade games, and computer monitors are everywhere, all haphazardly thrown together. Underneath the large monitor where Amato has been feverishly editing a full cut of the film, there’s a miniature, unbound version of the full script. All of a sudden a giant Great Dane named Hektor, belonging to one of the employees of First Punch, runs by, a burst of air scattering the tiny pages all over the floor in his wake.
Amato also rents an apartment here on Cherokee, just across the street from the film studio. “That’s my apartment–with the blue book,” he says, motioning through a window across the street to a second-floor window, which is indeed propped open with a blue hardcover book. Thick black hair spills out of the back of his hat and a small, chipper dog named Vancouver follows him around everywhere he goes. She’s a rescue, found on Vancouver Avenue in East LA. “I found her story amazing and decided she needed to keep that name because it’s part of her history. We tell her story in the movie,” he says.
Largely by chance, Amato moved to LA after returning to St. Louis from Columbia College. He flipped a coin in his driveway, choosing between New York or the West Coast. “I moved west and didn’t know anybody, just got in my Jeep and went–scary,” he remembers. “It was hard the first couple of years. You just meet a bunch of freaks when you first get there, and then I started meeting some good people.” Starting out, he took a variety of odd jobs to support himself. “Just every shit job imaginable,” he says. Moving to LA served its purpose for him then, and returning home serves a different, grounding purpose now. “I wanted exciting friends–I wanted all that, and I got it. it was a great big California experience. But I think I’ve come to the place that I need to be as a storyteller.”
His inspiration for “The Makings of You” came years ago when he saw a woman on a bus in Chicago, back in college, with two kids and a black eye. “I was looking at her while she was on the bus and thinking about her life–what kept her going, and if she had any ideas of romantic love left after being beaten, because clearly she was.” She morphed into an imaginary person, a character he likens to a ghost, inside his head. “I just started asking her questions. Where are you going? What’s in your pockets? What kind of shoes do you wear? Who do you live with? So it all started from her, and then other visitors happened, and those were the other characters that appeared. They’ve been in my head for a long time. About 20 years.”
The characters began to haunt him. “You walk with them in your life, and they start to talk,” says Amato. “I don’t know really how else to explain it–it’s kind of like a ghost story. And then the actors make it real … I sound like a crazy person, but they’ll–if you walk with them, if you give them the time, they’ll talk.” Seeing the woman on the bus made him think about the idea of real love, what it meant, and how it could become part of people’s lives who may have given up on finding it. “I feel everyone’s lonely. I feel that’s even more universal than love. To evoke that is something that I would love to do, as an artist–present portraits of how people are when they’re alone. We’re all very different when we’re alone than how we present ourselves.”
It will be the first feature film for The Masses, as well as Amato’s full-length directorial debut. He initially set out to establish the movie company with the late actor Heath Ledger, his longtime friend. “We shared our ambitions to make movies together,” Amato remembers. He’s asked to say Ledger’s name for the camera. “How … how should I put it? Why don’t you ask a question about The Masses?” he says. “The Masses was a production company–sorry, let me start over.” He pauses. “I lived with Heath Ledger when he was 17 years old, and first moved to Hollywood. We started dreaming together–movie dreams. He went off and made it big, and then came back and wanted to see what I was doing and really liked the way I work. He knew of these scripts and stories that we had together, that we dreamt of together.”
Ledger received numerous accolades for his work, including two Academy Award nominations for his work in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Dark Knight.” “As a kid in the Midwest, that’s how you learn–who’s won Academy Awards. You learn about movies that way. They used to feel very important … It’s terrifying for these people to be at the center of that stuff. You know? Being in the center of all that–the light, the glare-all the hatred that’s coming at you. These people walk the gauntlet. They make it look easy, or maybe some do. But it’s no fun. I think it’s a terrifying proposition to be in the middle of all that stuff.”
With Ledger, Amato made several script changes to “The Makings of You” before finalizing the shooting script. “This was going to be the first movie–we were going to do it in Brooklyn at that point,” Amato says. Ledger had aspired to write and direct before his death, ruled an accidental overdose from prescription drugs, at the age of 28 in 2008. Unrelenting media speculation followed, turning a private loss inside out. “I learned to be protective in the wake of Heath’s death. Mystery is a lost art that I’m keen to maintain. Heath was a big believer in the great fun of being a ‘magician’ and a great magician doesn’t reveal his tricks,” says Amato.
Ledger had an influential presence on the script for “The Makings of You,” and planned to make more movies through The Masses. He had already written another script that he planned to direct through the company at the time of his death. “He loved this script and these characters, and was very brilliant, and insightful about how actors would interpret these characters … he just made everything more true. And I think our aim was true,” says Amato.
Amato remained determined to create “The Makings of You.” “I feel like I’m compelled to tell the story. It’s like I’m on a leash. I’ve been on a leash ever since I had the initial idea. They’re still guiding me to tell their story. I’m still telling it. It will be done soon, which will be interesting to see how I feel after that. It’s probably going to be a great feeling of loss at that point.” He calls it a philosophical story about love, how we think about love, romantic love as opposed to real love, and what happens when our romantic dreams don’t turn out how we wanted them to. “The spirit keeps going,” says Amato. “I think romantic love is about our projections in life–our hopes, dreams, all of that, that’s not exactly real. It’s real for us, but it doesn’t play out, so it’s a big dilemma. How does that love touch ground with reality?”
Entrusting his characters to the right actors was vitally important to Amato. He knew Lee from his years working in California and directing music videos through The Masses for legends like Barbra Streisand and Bon Iver. “I knew Sheryl, and I knew it doesn’t get any deeper than that. She is deep water,” says Amato. She signed on for the project after reading the script, and then he set out to find a sufficient male lead to act alongside her. “It’s all about the script. The script’s the invitation to the dance–it’s all about the script. There’s no way to convince someone to do something if they don’t already love it.”
While watching “Mad Men,” Amato came across Jay R. Ferguson playing Stan Rizzo, the flirtatious art director for Sterling Cooper. “I saw Jay’s scenes with Elisabeth Moss, who is a really strong actress, beautiful, and also has that depth. They kept flirting on screen together and I was like, ‘You know, that guy might be really good with Sheryl.’” Ferguson also took interest in the script, and later confessed his admiration of Lee’s work. Amato met with the actors before every scene, and they’d discuss how both Wallis and Judy would experience each interaction. Lee would say, “I wouldn’t hold his hand here, or I’d take it away,” and Ferguson would add, “We shouldn’t kiss here–we should wait for the kiss.”
For this, Amato is grateful. “They felt their own logic through it, and made it a much better script all the way around. The more your script connects with life and reality, the better it’s going to be–always changing it and keeping it fresh until it gets to that point where it feels alive. I think that’s the goal of being a director. Making things live.” He watched Lee and Ferguson become the characters he’d imagined for such a long time. “It was truly fascinating to see their points of view,” he says. “They can be completely glamorous, like movie stars, and fulfill our expectations of what movie stars do, yet be completely real.”
Amato hopes the story will also become a conversation about real love, which he partially defines as constantly giving to another. “Real love is often represented by families, and people who know how to give constantly to each other. I think that’s the nature of real love–that constant giving. It’s possible to achieve that with your romantic partner. I think that’s the goal. Judy and Wallis, our protagonists, have the potential for real love,” he says, pausing as though he might amend that statement. “Yeah–I think they have the potential for real love.” Do they fulfill it? “At times, yeah. But I don’t think it’s to be theirs yet. It’s very complicated the way the story unfolds. Hopefully it feels real.”
For more information about Matt Amato and “The Makings of You,” visit www.wearethemasses.com.