‘Person to Person’ was as intimate to shoot as it is to watch: An interview with writer-director Dustin Guy Defa

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On her first day as an intern at her local news organization, librarian Claire (Abbi Jacobson) quickly learns that murders and other heinous crimes can become banal when seen on a daily basis in a newsroom. “Person to Person” seeks to show its audience that the banal events of everyday life can also become the reverse — lively, introspective and full of whimsy.

The film flaunts an impressive cast given that “Person to Person” is writer-director Dustin Guy Defa’s first feature film — though it appears that Defa had attracted some prior attention for his short films. The comedic energy that earned him recognition for his shorts certainly carries over into this film. What also translates is Defa’s ability to create characters that feel as authentic to us — the audience — as our own friends.

Perhaps this is because the first character we meet in “Person to Person,” is not only based on Defa’s close friend, Bene Coopersmith, he is portrayed by Coopersmith as well — and named after him. “The very impetus for making this movie is my relationship with Bene and how that’s played out — and what I’ve learned from him,” said Defa. “I’ve learned how to be a friend because of Bene.”

In fact, Defa made a short film with Coopersmith, also titled “Person to Person,” in 2014. The short follows Bene, a vinyl junkie and music vendor, in his daily interactions and romantic entanglements. “I knew I wanted to make another movie with Bene, but I wanted to open it up,” Defa explained. “I wanted to have as many different kinds of people as I could and still make it all work.”

Bene is the only character in “Person to Person” that is based on someone from Defa’s life, “everybody else is free fiction,” Defa explained. He approached the film by reflecting on the needs and desires of each character. One character, Ray (George Sample III), is seeking to recover his broken relationship, another is trying to solve a murder and tries to make a bold career move at the same time. Coopersmith’s character is endearingly in love, trying to take care of his depressed friend and grow his record collection at the same time.

“All of them definitely have aspects of me,” said Defa, who identifies with Abbi Jacobson’s character, Claire, who’s in a “bad place” emotionally and professionally. Meanwhile, Claire’s boss, Phil (Michael Cera), is desperately trying to impress her professionally and woo her sexually at the same time — to no avail. “I’ve definitely tried to make a girl like me in very stupid ways,” Defa laughed.

“Person to Person” plays with scope in an attempt to make these everyday minutia feel significant, both narratively and technically. The film gives visual weight to its characters’ inner turmoils through lengthy closeups that allow the audience to focus on expressive tension. Defa’s previous work on shorts helped him develop this directorial style that shines in his first feature.

This project itself was ambitious in scale, particularly because it had such a small budget. “We had so many locations and so many characters — and we were moving around a lot,” said Defa, “We had to be sure that production was moving really fast and very smoothly.”

For this reason, pre-production and planning was incredibly important. Defa had little time to rehearse with the many actors in his ensemble cast. “The production was a lot of fun and, some days, very, very hard,” said Defa. Each actor only worked with Defa for about a week. Defa described the varying cast cycles as “fresh and fun,” but the constant change also brought challenges — including time constraints.

But for Defa, there was no difference between working with non-actors or first-timers and high-caliber professionals such as Cera and Jacobson. “The only people who make it through the whole entire movie are the crew,” he said, whereas with films with fewer leading characters, the director has time to work with each character individually throughout the production process.

“One of our goals for production was to keep it intimate, the way I’d always been working,” he said. “There were no egos on set. It was all extremely friendly, everybody was very dedicated.” He described an intimacy on set that stemmed from mutual dedication and close relationships built along the way. “We were all very close,” said Defa.

That warmth and affection permeates the viewing experience of “Person to Person” as well. The film manages to make New York City feel like a character in and of itself — the space feels homey and comforting — in addition to people that feel equally familiar as well. The film is a promising first feature for a director that seems adept in cultivating natural narratives. Defa says his next project will be “quite different” from “Person to Person,” but he will no-doubt bring his unique blend of fiction and authenticity there as well.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].