Whistler Film Festival Presents – Acquainted

When I was up in Whistler for the WFF, I was fortunate enough to attend many parties and meet many talented people. Most of the films screening there were having their world or North American premiere.  One film that I had the good fortune of watching was Acquainted. It was written and directed by Natty Zavitz. I had met the publicist, Owen Cameron on opening night of the festival. As a representative of Hollywood North Magazine, I strive to see as many Canadian made films as possible and help spread the word about its magnificence and the actors, writers and directors behind them. Before I had the opportunity to watch the film however, I had four actors from the unique production to interview.

The first actor from Acquainted was Giacomo Gianniotti.  He plays the lead actor, Drew in film and is also a co-producer. Giacomo is best known for his role in Reign, Greys Anatomy, Station 19 and Natty’s previous film Edging.  

 

“How did you first hear about the project?”

“My producing partner, Jonathan Keltz and I started the production company Fired Up Studios a couple years ago. We’re both two guys from Toronto that came up as actors who had access to a ton of really incredibly talented people, from cameramen to gaffers, grips, DP’s as well as writers and directors. We thought, why aren’t we creating content, why are we not reaching out to our community and doing things for ourselves? So we formed the company and started aggressively searching for content and began burning through scripts from friends and other people. We finally landed on Acquainted from a common friend of ours, Natty Zavitz. He is the writer and director of Acquainted. He had written this beautiful screenplay that was mildly based on a time in his life being in love and heartbroken living in Toronto and how he navigated that. The film explores the ‘what if’ he had entertained an advance from a woman.  It’s been a dream of sorts to imagine if the hello would’ve led to a phone call the next day that may have then led to a date. What would’ve happened if he’d gone down that imaginary road? The seed of it was true and lived.”

 

“What is the premise of the film?”

“It’s a film about two couples. One night the woman from one relationship meets a man in another relationship at a bar and chemistry develops. They reveal to each other that they are both in committed relationships. They try to keep the relationship plutonic but it quickly turns romantic which forces them to face the difficult decision to abandon their current partners for each other or to remain in their current relationships.”

 

“This is your first feature that you’ve produced. How did the entire process go for you?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever met an Indy filmmaker that’s had a smooth story. There were definitely a lot of bumps and bruises along the way. We financed this film independently and that was probably the biggest challenge. Finding investors and other people that believed in the script enough to invest their money into. It was solely financed through private investors. We didn’t have any government assistance at all so we went with plan B. The creatives and everyone involved believed in the film enough, which brought us past the finish line.”   

 

“Did you cast everyone out of Toronto?”

“Pretty much. Everyone is Canadian with the exception of Adelaide Kane, who is from Australia. She’s a lovely actress and friend that I met on the set of Reign, the CW series. When we were putting the cast together, we thought Adelaide would be perfect for the role of Cheri, the best friend of the female lead.”

 

“How long did development take before going into production?”   

“It took awhile. It took us two years to make the film. The first year was spent on applying for funding. We were very hopeful but we got denied. We never had a plan B at the time so the next year when we re-approached, we had private funds from private investors as well as other sources we had applied for. If we had received the grants, great, but if we didn’t we would still be ok to make the film. We went with plan B and it was difficult but we made it work in thanks to everyone that believed in it.”

 

“Will this film make its way into TIFF?”

“We’re not sure yet. This is the beginning of our festival circuit for the film. We’re just getting started and this is its world premiere. We’re all Canadian and it means a lot to us to be able to have the premiere at a Canadian festival. There’s very good energy up here and a special vibe.”

“How did you prepare for the role?”

“Going into it I was essentially playing my director. I spent a lot of time with him and was living in his home. I had spent a lot of time talking to him about the moment he was in this relationship and what it was like to meet a new incredible woman that stole his heart while he was already in a committed relationship.”

 

“That must’ve allowed you to feel empathy for the character as well as the guilt associated with having a taboo relationship?”

“Is it taboo though? One of the things we try to explain in the film is, what is the modern relationship and what is taboo? Your definition and my definition are different, which is why everyone will have a different experience watching this film. Everyone was brought up differently with different religions, different backgrounds, and different values. One person may watch it and feel that its cool and empowering, where another may say they would never do that. We feel its very unique and our relationships are quite different from our grandparents time.”

 

“Considering you’re comfortable with the idea of having relations outside your own committed relationship, did this film change you in any way or did you feel that way before your involvement in the film?”

“I absolutely did but I had to play a guy that wasn’t quite there but was going through something that would eventually teach him that. I think a lot of gender stereotypes are created when we’re young. It’s something our parents tell us, such as the girl that likes to hang out with guys and she must be… but maybe she just likes those guys and is having a good time; it’s her life. If they’re happy, who are we to judge? In going back to your question, it was something I definitely learned. When I read the script, I felt sorry for the character because I saw myself in him from my past. I couldn’t wait to go back into that and coach this character into this journey that I’ve already kind of experienced in a way myself. It was therapeutic to be honest.”

 

“What do you expect people to walk away with after watching this film?”

“I hope it questions their relationship if they’re in one.  I hope it sparks conversation with their partners. It could result in them breaking up or it could help strengthen their relationship to a new degree they didn’t think was possible. It will provoke because it deals with infidelity and that’s a tricky thing. Like you had mentioned earlier about taboo; what’s considered taboo for one may not be for the other. I think infidelity to the same degree is different from case to case. What you might think is infidelity, I may not think is infidelity. If you go for a drink with a woman but don’t touch, kiss or do anything else, somebody might think that’s infidelity. If you kiss a woman that can be considered cheating or infidelity. Somebody might think a kiss doesn’t mean anything but if you love them that’s cheating; the emotional distrust, that’s the cheating, that hurts. We all have different definitions of what that means and the film tries to examine the definition of infidelity within the four characters.”

 

“When you first received the screenplay, were you looking at it with producer eyes or actor eyes? Also, did you recommend any changes?”

“Absolutely, the script went over a lot of drafts. When we both read it we fell in love with the story but knew there were things that needed to be changed. We loved the heart of the story and we knew with a few changes and more drafts we could easily get it there. In the two years it went through many drafts.”

 

My next guest actor was Laysla De Oliveira. She plays the lead female Emma and is best known for her roles in Covert Affairs, The Gifted and Nikita.

“You play Emma, opposite of Drew. How did you get involved in the film?”

“I used to work at a restaurant where Natty’s girlfriend worked. This film is loosely based on a relationship he had for 6-7 years. Having met Natty through her, he had previously written a short screenplay Onto Us and had asked me to be in it. We had a great experience making it. When he asked me to be in this film and play the lead, I introduced him to my boyfriend, who later became a co-producer with Giacomo and is in the film. It’s funny because we all kind of met in the restaurant.”

 

“Considering this film is about relationships, what did you take away from the story?”

“What’s opened my eyes is the way people perceive the movie. When people leave the theatre they have completely different opposing views on each character. For example, with my character, people either love me or hate me and I feel like it’s a projection of their own past relationships. This is a movie that really does that. Living in an age of social media and options at your fingertips and being in a committed relationship and deciding what you want to explore/where you want to be in life as the coming of age is happening. The movie really explores that.”

 

“Were you living in LA when you became involved in the film?”

“I was living in LA and we were trying to get the movie made while we were looking for funding. Natty would fly to warm LA for rehearsals near the beach when we could. We had a lot of rehearsals, which were great because I was working on another film in Canada at the same time. Rehearsals were so important because some of the scenes are very long which made for a lot of pages needing to be memorized. We couldn’t piece them together or separate the scenes, we really had to know the entire scene. There were lots of walk n talks.”

 

“With the long scenes/takes, was the director attempting to do something different from other directors?”

“Yes, he likes that style. You have to be so sharp because if you make a little mistake you need to start back at the top. It becomes like theatre in a sense because your emotions get to progress as the scenes progress. As the actor, you’re a little nervous because you don’t want to screw up and go back to the beginning. We had so many rehearsals and are so close that it took much of the nervousness away and made it a safe space to work in. You really get to see some great chemistry.”

 

“Was it difficult for you to get into character for this project?”

“No, not at all. I’ve known about this character for a couple of years before we actually started shooting. There was already so much exploration that had already been done as well as script work. We’re all so close and I’ve known Giacomo and Aidan Shipley for a while. We were all friends so it was a safe environment for us to explore those kinds of things.”


“How long did it take to shoot?”

“I want to say two weeks. It was shot in Toronto and I remember it going pretty fast.”

 

My next guest actor was Adelaide Kane who plays Cheri, Emma’s best friend. She is best known for Reign, The Purge, Neighbours and Power Rangers RPM.

 

“How did you get involved in the project?”

“I’ve been friends with Jonathan Keltz since we worked together on Reign.  He introduced me to Natty, who is such a beautiful writer/director. Natty had made another film called Edging. When I watched it I was struck by his sensitivity and insight in writing. Most people in their mid twenties to early thirties don’t understand the complexities and evolution of relationships at that age. I loved his movie, so when I heard that he and Jonathan were producing Acquainted I naturally wanted to be involved, to support my friends, to support Natty, who I really believe in. Laysla De Oliveira is one of my best friends. I have a supreme amount of faith in her as an actress and her talent. It was a no brainer for me when there’s so many people that I love and believe in trying to make this beautiful film; of course I wanted to be part of it.”

 

“I noticed you have an accent. Is it Australian and did they ask you to use an American one?”

“It is Australian and no they didn’t. It’s actually the first time I’ve been asked to keep it. It’s been harder for me to stay Australian than it is for British or American because I’ve done those accents for so long I really have to think about it.”

I asked Adelaide Kane to give me a quick example of her American accent and without missing a beat I could swear she was from Denver or Milwaukee.  

 

“How long were you involved in the film?”

“I came on fairly early. Peter Harvey was part of the process and I remember having a meeting where they broke it all down for me. They told me what they needed and what they were aiming to do as well as the dates.  It was a year long process and I was lucky enough to be part of the casting process, which was very cool. I’d never been on that side of the fence before. They shot most of the film without me because I had previous engagements. I came out for my shoot days and spend a week with everyone working hard to get it done as quickly as possible and as well as possible; it was quite the process. Natty has been editing and locking it all up and now, here we are. It seems like we started it along time ago.”

 

“Since you’ve seen the film, what do you believe the audience will walk away with?”

“I really hope the audience will walk away with a better understanding of the complexities and subtleties of newly adult relationships in their twenties. I sincerely hope that this film resonates with anyone that has been through the highs and lows of falling out of love in a long-term relationship, especially during your twenties. Young people can walk away feeling touched and understood about how love can be complicated and sometimes heart breaking.”

 

“Is this character quite different from other characters you’ve played before?”

“Oh yes, it’s very different. It’s my first time playing an LGBTQ character because my character is gay. She’s fun, she’s rough and ready and she’s playing the field. She was a very fun different character to play. I got to relax and just have fun with it so I very much enjoyed it. I’ve been in a lot of different and interesting projects where I get to play in fantasy, history, action and very unusual productions too. I’ve never really done photo-realistic style drama before, so I think this film is exceptional and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.”

 

“Did you have to do any LGBTQ research into playing the character?”

“Not at all, I have many friends in the community. I have some girlfriends in New York that are lesbian as well as gay friends in LA. I chose my coolest lesbian friend to model my character after. I have regular contact with the LGBTQ community and am also a big supporter of the Trevor Project in LA. Supporting the community is really close to my heart.”     

 

My last guest was Jonathan Keltz, the other half of Fired Up Studios. He is a co-producer as well and plays the role of Allan, Drew’s best friend. He’s best known for Reign, Entourage and 21 & Over.

“How did you become involved in this film?”

“Giacomo and I started the company shortly after we met working on Reign. We had one scene together where we hardly talked to each other but we hit it off and really connected.  We were in a position where we were both Toronto actors with a slew of people that we wanted to collaborate with. We wanted to find a way where we could facilitate that and start making our own films. We received the script from Natty shortly after we started the company. We met him and found out he’d done a previous film called Onto Us that played at Canadian festivals. I read the script and fell in love with it. Natty is such an amazing writer with such a distinct voice, which is not easy to find in a young screenwriter. Once Giacomo read it, he fell in love with it too.  I knew he had to play the lead. He was so right for it and it all just snowballed from there. With an Independent film like this you need an army of people to make it happen and luckily it all came together. It’s my first soiree into producing and it’s really been a passion project. I thought once I took this project on I could be a producer that sits behind the monitor and not fully realizing that starting out at this level, you need to wear so many hats. There’s the financing, the crew, there’s everything. Somehow the most amazing cast and crew came together.”

 

“How long did it take you to put it all together?”

“There was some of the cast that we knew we wanted right from the beginning. It took awhile for some and it was quicker for others. The thing that was tricky with a film like this is, you don’t know when you’re going into production. Because we had many relationships with established actors, we were at the mercy of their schedules. We knew we had to shoot in the summer in Toronto and it became a matter of finding the right people that could be in it. What was also wonderful is that the actors were able to be part of the development process early on which allowed Natty to find their voices through the rewriting process.”

 

“I heard there were a few rewrites. Was that part of the polishing process or was it for other reasons?”

“Natty is always going to try and take it deeper. With this film, it was very true. In the time that we had we were able to take it deeper and deeper and then bury it so that it would be in the subtext. Given the subject matter and the relate ability, we wanted there to be enough room for the audience to connect with characters, to inspire to make changes in their lives or to be grateful for choices they’ve made. The film causes some good debate in a sense. They feel passionately about it and there’s people that feel strongly for or against. I’m really excited to see it in a room full of people to see the reaction.”

 

“From what I’ve been told, there’s going to be some mixed reactions.”

“The thing that I love about it is, it’s the perfect kind of mixed reaction as a filmmaker. It’s about getting people talking about the subject matter. People get riled up over defending or reacting to certain decisions or actions by the characters. That’s the dream and something we set out to do.  When we were meeting with people on the financing side there was a lot of push to make this something that was more commercial. That wasn’t the world we saw or wanted to portray. We wanted it to be raw and honest and true to life. Not everything works out and we wanted it to be as authentic as possible.”

 

“How has it been to be so involved in the film?”

“I feel so fortunate that this is what I get to do, both from an acting and producing side. It’s part of me and who I am. I can only be in the deep end of the pool and dive in headfirst. I am very grateful for Natty allowing me to be as involved in the process as I was. It became a real partnership between all of us. I was involved in every editing cut, music decisions; it was really an embarrassment of riches working with the people and everyone involved. I couldn’t be prouder.”

 

“Can you tell me about your character in the film?”

“I’m the bouncing board for Giacomo’s character and what he’s going through.  I’m the one that has the job of asking, what the hell are you doing? He and I are buddies in real life and we’ve had chats like this before. It was fun and easy to evolve into the part.”

 

“This is probably one of the few films that will evoke mixed interpretations/opinions.”

“I’m curious to see who people think the hero or villain is in the film. It’s raw because we’re all heroes and villains depending on the moment in our lives and what’s happening with it. I’m excited because as I said, the negative reactions aren’t negative because they’re fuelled by the emotional response. Given the age of the characters, it’s told through the lens of the millennial generation but I think it’s also universal truths. We’re talking about infidelity and we’re talking about love. We’re talking about what it means to build a life with someone. Those older models of relationships don’t really work for us right now. The younger generation can’t afford to buy a house or aren’t necessarily getting married. They don’t feel the obligation to get married and I think there’s more individual expression. At the same time, the system that’s been built isn’t really serving our generation as much. This film is not just for the younger generation. It has universal appeal.”

 

Having the opportunity to speak to these amazingly talented actors was a very rare experience that compounded my admiration for their film. Having talked to them before watching it really helped build my anticipation. The theatre was packed and as I left, the reaction mirrored everything I was previously told. I could hear people discussing the ins and outs of committed relationships and consequences for stepping outside its boundaries. They have International distribution through A71 Entertainment.  Look for it in the near future.

 

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