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Not An Artist

Austin Film Festival: ‘Not An Artist’ Not Your Run of the Mill Production

The world premiere of Not An Artist at the Austin Film Festival (AFF) offered the audience insights into an alternative way of making films: using improv.

The Austin Film Festival focuses on recognizing writers’ and filmmakers’ contributions to film, television, and new media. Its 2023 run went from October 26 to November 2.

Two of the film’s key creatives, Alexi Pappas and Matt Walsh, answered questions after the screening at Austin’s State Theater and at a session titled “Storytelling on Set: Pairing Improv and Scripted Comedy.”

The Team

Alexi Pappas (Olympic Dreams, Tracktown), writer and director, has created a good beginning for herself in her third career: filmmaking. She previously established herself in athletics and writing. Pappas holds the Greek record for the 10,000 meters. She also led the University of Oregon to two NCAA victories. She has worked previously with Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) and Andy Buckley (The Office).

Matt Walsh (Ted, The Hangover), an established comedy and character actor, helped write the film. Besides Not An Artist, Walsh starred in a second film at this year’s AFF, Bolt from the Blue. A two-time Emmy-nominated actor from HBO’s award-winning comedy series Veep, Matt helped found the iconic sketch/improv theater Upright Citizens Brigade and he recently appeared in Hulu’s Unplugging which he co-wrote and starred in alongside Eva Longoria.

Not An Artist
Matt Walsh has been creating laughter since his days in the Upright Citizens Brigade

Jeremy Teicher, unable to attend AFF, also wrote and directed.

The cast included Ciara Bravo (Ice Age – A Mammoth Christmas Special), Cleopatra Coleman, Haley Joel Osment, and RZA (Problemista, Wu-Tang Clan).

An Artist?

The story takes place at an exclusive artist-in-residency program. Run by a mysterious patron, played by RZA, artists in turmoil face an ultimatum. They sign a contract to unlock their full creative potential or abandon art forever. Then an outsider, played by Walsh, shows up and creates problems for the program and the participants.

Not An Artist
RZA was a member of the Wu-Tang Clan before expanding into acting

How each artist deals with frustration, temptation, intimidation and confusion makes for an interesting story and opportunities for humor. 

The Difference

Normally a film begins with an idea, moves on to a more detailed description – a treatment – and then a writer creates a script which details every scene and line that an actor will say.

Walsh had seen a film made by Pappas and Teicher which used improv. He was impressed by it and Not An Artist began when he met with Pappas over lunch to discuss the idea. Like Walsh, Pappas also had a background in improv, with Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade.

Working with actors in an improv environment differs from in a scripted one.

Pappas recalled, “We had fun with the flexibility of the characters based on the interest of the artist. What has been holding them up? What are they interested in? We were able to talk to them without writing everything out. When Haley Joel Osment got on set, he spouted some of the funniest things. Everybody who was there felt like ‘Let’s do this. Let’s make something cool.’”

Walsh pointed out that not all the actors had a background in improv. He said, “RZA is a force of nature but not a traditionally trained improv performer. In that case, it’s important for the actor to know the background of the character so they can play it real. Ultimately, they work through it with an ‘OK, I can do this’ attitude.”

The Scriptment?

During the Q&A Pappas made references to the “scriptment.” This was a term I’d never heard. Although I assumed it was a portmanteau of script and treatment, I wasn’t sure how you would work with that.

Not An Artist
Alexi Pappas not only is a writer/director but an athlete as well

Later, I asked Pappas about this. She explained: ”We developed an outline of the story with key beats for each scene, which we continued to adapt and personalize for each actor as we cast the film. On set, we allowed ourselves the freedom to improvise and discover what really made us laugh about each scene and leaned into those moments in the edit.”

It worked and Not An Artist turned out to be an enjoyable film that you couldn’t tell was improvised.

For information about next year’s AFF, or the festival’s year-round events schedule, check its website, X postings, or Facebook page.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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