The UW-Madison alum’s first “featurette” gets its world premiere on April 6 at the Wisconsin Film Festival. (Image: Runde, right, with Tim West in “Played Out.”)
Writer-director-editor James Runde‘s 53-minute Played Out is the culmination of his various experiments in short film in Madison over the past several years, as it affectionately and realistically depicts characters juggling everyday responsibilities in concert with their passions.
In Played Out, that largely manifests in terms of musical pursuits with father of two, Booda (Tim West), attempting to make a name for himself in the local hip-hop scene while dealing with newfound stressors in his home; Leslie (Leslie Walker) suddenly quitting her job while looking to support her son as a single-parent and playing in a local punk band; and James (James Runde)’s commitments to the aforementioned band as lead vocalist while keeping promises to his mother (Jill Runde) for the occasion of his younger sister’s birthday (Gabi Runde).
In the process, Runde not only elicits some surprisingly memorable and honest performances from his own friends and family, but successfully channels complex feelings about Madison (his hometown) into each of the stories, favoring a relatable, lived-in verisimilitude of its neighborhoods over a romanticized or touristy portrayal of its central campus hub. The film will screen on April 6 at the Marquee as part of the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, where it has also received a Golden Badger Award.
Runde recently spoke with me about the origins of this project, how he came to cast his friends and collaborators, the unique challenges and opportunities of filming in Madison, his unusual approaches to both production and post-production, and the next ambitious film he’s co-writing.
Tone Madison: Played Out feels very much like it’s in the tradition of Bujalski’s “mumblecore” genre. It’s kind of a hangout movie in terms of its content and making, but I also think it’s deeper in its examination of working class struggles—the characters’ hobbies/passions that coexist with familial responsibilities, whether that’s being a parent yourself (as in Booda, Alicia, or Leslie’s cases) or being responsible to your sister or mother (as with James!). Did your musical hobbies primarily inspire this narrative? How did you decide on the right way to approach it?
James Runde: I would say, yeah, that probably was the way in. Now that I think back on the whole thing, the kernel for the whole project emotionally started with a music video that I made for Tim West [who plays Booda]. He’s actually a rapper whose [stage] name is Big Daddy Earl. He’s a Madison hip-hop artist, and I did a music video for him in 2015 that was called “Purpose Of Man.” It was about becoming a father for a second time and taking on these responsibilities and finding his own as a black father, which for him, has certain connotations. The song was very inspiring to me, and the approach he wanted for the video was like “film the family in its everyday life.” Coming out of that, that’s probably where it first started for me, and I thought, “This could be extrapolated into a film.” The music video gave me the template where I thought, “Okay, if I just have these three characters who are some of the more interesting people in my life, and [let’s] just examine their families similar to the video’s structure, and try to spin a narrative out of that and just let them take it where they want.”
Tone Madison: In conjunction with that, the opening credits read that it was “written by the cast.” So, I’m wondering if it required more or less scripting than some of your other shorts, like White And Lazy, which had its premiere at the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival?
James Runde: There was less of my scripting than White And Lazy. That film was well-scripted even though I did give the actors a little leniency to improvise their lines. The exchanges were pretty well-structured, whereas in this one, I was thinking, “Okay, this is the instance where we’re going to turn the cameras on; from there, we’re just gonna let it go wherever it goes.” That was especially the case with Tim and his actual family where I would give them the basic premise of the scene, but they would pretty much write all their own dialogue.
I did write out a whole screenplay in classic form for this movie, but it would be really hard to see any of those lines in the final version. So, definitely more improv-based. When I say “improv,” it’s not like I’m turning the camera on and telling them to do something special. We’d do rehearsals and tease it out from there.
Tone Madison: But you didn’t do a table read or anything.
James Runde: No, no. And not for White And Lazy either. Generally, I gave the script to the actors so they would understand the scenes, but then I kinda relied on their memory of the script to inform how they were gonna play the part. I feel like that’s a good way to go about it, because each human being is understanding of what the scene is supposed to be on camera, which is probably closer to real life than a script read out verbatim.
Tone Madison: Continuing in the same vein, could you talk about the process of casting your friends and collaborators as versions of themselves in the film? Because many of them are performers already, did you feel it was a natural evolution of that artistry? Maybe you have some funny or revelatory anecdotes about this process as well.
James Runde: One thing that one of my mentors in film school [avant-garde filmmaker and professor J.J. Murphy] always told me was that the safest bet for good acting is to cast a musician. So, that comment got my brain going about that. When I got done with film school at UW-Madison, I was thinking, “Who can I cast in this movie?” And J.J.’s line about musicians stuck with me. I figured Tim [West] would be a natural, and Leslie Walker naturally lights up a room, at least when we’re hanging out in person. So I thought that might make for an interesting performance combination and types of people we probably haven’t seen together in a movie ever before. That was a wise decision in the long run, because both Tim and Leslie did bring strong performances.
Your point about them playing versions of themselves is well-taken, because Leslie isn’t really a single mom in real life, and there’s certain aspects of Tim’s life that are half-true or partially fabricated. And even in mine, too. The “version of yourself” is really poignant to me, because it’s not really a true documentary. It’s kind of in this space where it’s like you’re using who you are and your names, but teasing out the parts of the characters that might play well in concert with the other stories, which was sometimes a challenge.
I also got worried about these people being okay with this version of themselves. These are my friends, and I did this rigorous process where I was trying to get their feedback if there was something that they were uncomfortable with in the script. They kinda got annoyed with me after awhile of asking them, “Is this okay?” [Laughs.]
As a filmmaker, you have a lot of responsibility, and especially as a young filmmaker and a white guy, it’s really important to listen and make sure everyone is cool with the contents. For my family, I kinda just had this hunch that my sister Gabi might give the best performance, especially because she always was kind of a performer growing up and had a really expressive face. Even in photos of her, looking back, she’s always striking a weird pose. So I thought she’d be the best one to bring out the drama between me and my family.
Tone Madison: It’s unspoken to some degree as well.
James Runde: Yeah, and also I thought people could relate through a younger sibling’s eyes, like maybe looking up to your older sibling who, now, as an adult, is less in their life. But yeah, my family was nervous about acting. Some of them have done it before in some of my other movies, but in this one our family is more on showcase in a different way. But they all were good sports.
Tone Madison: I’m glad to hear that. The film, from its opening moments, appears to be a tribute to Madison, evident in the title cards that feature watercolor/ink illustrations of various parts of the city—maybe they’re landmarks or not. Who made those, and how did they get involved with the film?
James Runde: I can’t remember the name of the guy who did them. The story is that I found them in an antique store on the east side, and they’re from like 1969. But they were just these prints. [The artist] had done a folio of watercolors in the ’60s sometime, and the whole set was just sitting in this antique store for like $30, so I thought I’d just buy it for my house. Some of the ones that worked the best [of the 12 or 15] I put in the title sequence.
Tone Madison: Oh, I thought that you had commissioned someone to do them!
James Runde: No, I was just being an opportunist. We’ll see if they end up making the final cut, ’cause I might rearrange the credits, but I’m hoping to keep them in there in some form. More to the question about the opening minutes being a tribute to Madison, I feel like that was something I was thinking about a lot in this movie. I grew up in the Madison area and spent like 25 years here, so it has a lot of complex connotations to me as my home, but I’ve also seen it change a lot. I have mixed feelings about it. So, I was kinda trying to capture all of that in this film and sort of package Madison into an hour.
Tone Madison: Along with that, in terms of shooting here, what kind of unique challenges presented themselves or opportunities did the city afford you?
James Runde: First of all, the Department of Communication Arts was able to help me get equipment. So that was a huge advantage to shooting in Madison, as the cost of equipment was extremely low compared to anywhere else where I’d have to rent from a camerahouse.
Tone Madison: You work for the Comm Arts Department, too, right?
James Runde: I didn’t at the time when I started the project, but now I do. Another advantage to shooting in Madison is just that it’s not often used in films. Downtown is, though, at least more than any other part. So I was trying to really highlight parts of the city that wouldn’t necessarily get seen in a movie. And I have all these B-roll shots of Madison that never made the cut that are from working-class neighborhoods or places off the beaten path that wouldn’t necessarily get a watercolor painted of them.
There’s all these different sides of Madison, and depending on who you are and what demographic you belong to or what music you listen to, you’ll experience Madison in a different way. I was trying to show a bit more variety. Madison is sort of this hangout, suburban-y town where everyone is driving around and meeting up for drinks. I wanted to have that in the movie, where you’re trying to hang out with all these people and run all these errands, and it feels like this circus of people with too much time on their hands.
Tone Madison: [Laughs] I think that’s accurate. You have the university in the central-west part; it’s kind of the anchor. It’s a city, but it definitely has a college-town vibe.
James Runde: Totally. I always call it a “snowglobe” or something. People just go and get lost in this haze of partying for 20 years at a time.
This is really digging in, but one thing that always struck me about Madison is that it’s a town that never really had an industrial… anything. It had Oscar Meyer and Kipp Corporation but never really had its industrial phase and immigration associated with that so it’s sort of like a government college town through and through. That informs who lives here and what they’re seeking. It didn’t really follow the map of other cities like Milwaukee, say, or Chicago where there was a big boom.
Tone Madison: The run-time of the film is quite atypical at about 50 minutes, which is not quite a feature. I’m not sure why I pulled this out of my head, but it reminds me of something like this short feature by Chicago film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky that Brandon Colvin showed at Micro-Wave Cinema Series. His film is called Ellie Lumme, which is like 44 minutes or something. How much did you shoot originally, and had you considered making the film feature-length? Or perhaps, in the editing process with Alex Seraphin and Casey Long, did you consider maybe developing the individual narratives strands further, perhaps as their own separate spin-offs?
James Runde: I thought about it from a lot of different ways. Last year I submitted just Leslie’s sections of the film cut together as a short [to the festival]. I didn’t have everything cut, and I wanted something to kind of like keep my name out there and tease out this longer project [being Played Out].
For a long time, I thought, “Should these just be three different short films, and should they each be 15 minutes?” Maybe I still will even cut it into that, but I wanted to see the project through its final vision, which is these intertwining narratives in Madison. The knowledge you gain about human beings seeing all three of them in concert with one another. Hopefully, by the end of the film, you understand how you feel a little bit more about families and how they work. We’re all doing this thing together. [Laughs]
But I’ve considered chopping it up a million different ways. More to the point about the run-time, originally the script was like 70 pages, and I was really hoping for the film to be about that length [70 minutes]. The first cuts were over an hour, but I felt that rather than lengthening the film and giving it more of this art film vibe where it would hit this microbudget sweet spot, I felt it would be better to just make it tight. Easier to watch and digestible. So that’s how we ended up with this like awkward 52-, 53-minute time. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed about it, ’cause I had been telling people that it was going to be a feature. I guess I just now call it a “featurette” at this point. It’s like a novella.
Since it’s my first longer project, in a way I am happy that it came out a little shorter. Then, it’s not really considered my first feature. So, I’m kinda happy it’s like this weird thing where people may be like, “Oh, it’s the film where he learned how to make movies.” The next one will be like the real deal. …Not to say this movie is bad.
Tone Madison: I appreciate your self-deprecation, but I’d say this movie is quite good.
James Runde: Well, thank you, thank you. To me, [I’m just] coming at it from a different angle ’cause I’ve spent so much time on it. I really built it up, and it was like grad school for me. I spent 3 years working on it. When you spend so much time working on a project like that and then to have it come out at a weird [duration], and maybe not be what you expected. You kind of get humbled. You’re like, “Okay, filmmaking is really hard. It’s a huge challenge. It takes so much time, effort, and manpower.” Anytime you can get across the finish line and have something that’s viewable no matter what length it is, it’s still an achievement. [laughs] I had to keep telling myself that over and over again. Playing in festival no matter what length is helpful. As long as they don’t mind, I don’t.
Tone Madison: Especially when people are making selections for the festival, something that has a shorter run-time can be a benefit, because there’s less chance of it interfering with something else.
James Runde: Right. For other festivals that probably don’t know my work, it might be harder to get it in. But I feel like, for the viewer who’s just experiencing it- and less for the programmer- I feel like the 53 minutes is a sweet-spot length. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t mind the length now from the viewing perspective, because I think don’t people get bored of it. Fifty-three minutes, although is not standard, does lend itself well to the project. It’s not really enough material for a feature film, but it’s too much for a short.
Tone Madison: I noticed that you had a team of 7 cinematographers for this production, including yourself. I feel like this is also pretty unusual. How did you come to this decision rather than just have one or two people?
James Runde: It was just out of necessity just because I couldn’t find a DP that I really trusted who was gonna be around for the entire duration of the shoot.
Tone Madison: Trust to be in Madison?
James Runde: Yeah, trust to be in Madison, trust to show up, trust to know how to operate the camera. There are a million people out there who want to be cinematographers, but I feel like to actually find one who actually is good and knows what they’re doing and can really help you on a shoot is a lot harder. A lot of them just want to point and shoot and look like a hotshot. And I feel like that is a problem. So, really, to rebel, and not even encounter that type of cinematographer, what I did was rotate through [UW-Madison] students, who were mostly female, because I found their egos weren’t as big. They would actually work hard and do things I wanted. I reduced the power of the cinematographer on this film to essentially “camera operator.” That said, Violet Wang and Pamanisha Gross were especially talented and helped me immensely.
I knew that asking to use [my friends’] houses, film their families, and to take up their time was already gonna be enough of a burden, and I didn’t need somebody there stalling the shoot for 4 more hours because they wanted to get the lighting perfect. So, I was just like, “All right. Cinematographer is a below-the-line position. It’s labor. I’m just gonna get students in there who want to work hard and want the experience.”
Tone Madison: For that many people being involved, I think the look of the film is pretty consistent. Maybe that can also be accredited to post-production.
James Runde: Yeah, and more to your technical question, one of the decisions I made in post was to edit the film in Cinemascope [2.39:1 aspect ratio]. I found that if I put it in Scope, I could move the frame around and crop it so my framings would all be nice. It gave me a little more leeway to make the cinematography look a bit tighter. It was an option to help with rotating a bunch of amateurs.
Also, we just used minimal lighting. That’s part of the reason it looks unified, as we had the same approach where I only brought a couple lights and the same camera with three lenses. Honestly, most of the film is shot on a standard lens, because I just wanted it to have the feel of just people observing. There’s not a lot of camera movement or dollies. I wanted it to have the feel of just catching these views through a third party’s eyes. Like you’re spying.
Tone Madison: Well, it’s not voyeuristic.
James Runde: [Laughs] Well, yeah. But the feeling like you’re at the bar, and you’re overhearing.
Tone Madison: Kinda literally in the one scene where Booda is trying to get his track “Purpose Of Man” played.
James Runde: Totally. That scene was a lot of fun to shoot, and I’m glad that scene’s in there. To me, those moments are some of my favorites, just because I love the romanticism of somebody coming into a bar and trying to pay off the DJ to play their song and taking over the bar. It lent well to the character.
I kinda wanted audiences to see that, especially a white audience in context with hip-hop artist who’s also a family man. You see him and you empathize with him. You’re with him, you buy into him, and you like him. It’s a release of all this energy he has to bottle up in a positive way. Maybe a lot of Madisonians who don’t necessarily have that context and go out and see something like that at a club where a group takes over a bar, they might feel threatened or worried. The film is trying to teach you to see that as more natural. It’s something to celebrate.
You also sort of get that with James and Leslie in the band practice space with the feedback. These are musicians, and they have this rebellion in them, and you see that come out in their daily lives when it can.
Tone Madison: The film isn’t constantly scored with music, but the songs that are in it perfectly shape the mood of the film. Could you talk about writing music for the film with your own band, The Smells, and having Big Daddy Earl also on there? And then there’s the Alex Chilton song, “Paradise,” at the opening credits, which I wasn’t even familiar with. I had to look up the lyrics. I was like, “Oh, it’s the dude from Big Star.”
James Runde: For The Smells, that song [“1965”] was already written. We played that song for a long time. Now we’re broken up, but for a long time—well, for 5 years—we were a band in Madison playing Mickey’s Tavern. Obviously Big Daddy Earl’s stuff is his own, and the song that’s in it is the one I did the music video for.
The other music was stuff I liked or I thought might fit. There’s the Alex Chilton’s “Paradise,” which I had my eye on. A lot of Chilton’s stuff separate from Big Star I really love. I knew that a lot of the rights had fallen through the cracks, and no one had really cared about that material.
Tone Madison: His solo material is a little more punk rock-sounding, right?
James Runde: Yeah, some of it. It depends on which part. This one is from 1986-87, and it’s when he was getting into more of his like jazz-blues-R&B cover phase. Very cleanly produced jazz and blues standards. He actually wrote the song “Paradise,” so it’s a rare song he penned from that period. Eventually, he just stopped writing. It kinda summed up my feelings towards Madison.
As I was finishing the cut, this Hoboken, NJ, record company [Bar/None Records] bought up Chilton’s mid-period stuff and released it on this compilation disc. It literally just came out on this comp, this past February, but I’m [still] gonna show the film with the song in it during the festival. I reached out to Bar/None, and we’re talking about what kind of deal I could get for the rights. But it’s sort of this murky territory where I’m so small, but at the same time, YouTube will flag that song [if the film’s uploaded].
The Nobunny song, “Not That Good”—I’m not sure if that’s going to end up in the final film. It’s either gonna be them or this local band, The Vipers, who have this song, “Made In The Shade,” that’s really good. It’s about being in a band, so I might use that during Leslie and James’ going-to-band-practice montage. That’ll be a decision I make today, actually. [Laughs]
The other music is gonna stay. Heather The Jerk’s “Sorry”—that’s Heather Sawyer from The Hussy. I think that song might end up being on the next Hussy record, but I have her solo version of it, which I think is the version. And the closing song at the credits is Vacation’s “Teenage Fool.” I’m not sure if it really fits the film, but I like that song a lot, and to me, the nature of the song works. They’re just one of the best bands going right now. I was hoping to have all Madison acts, but that was hard to do and make it cohesive.
Tone Madison: But I think you have an advantage, having previously been in a band yourself.
James Runde: With the connections, yeah. That’s kinda how I got the Vacation song.
Tone Madison: What do you have in the works or in a brainstorming stage that you’re lending your talents to in the coming months or year?
James Runde: I’m really excited about this new project, because it might end up being the first real feature I do if it goes well. My friend Alex Seraphin are halfway through writing what is going to be a feature film called Flower Child, and it’s back-and-forth narrative set in the 1970s and the present day. You follow this kid who made a bunch of money selling a song to an indie punk band who made it big. He got a cut of the money, and he’s trying to give it to his estranged mother. That whole story is intercut with his mother’s story as a singer-songwriter.
That’s the flavor of the idea, really trying to be engaged with hippie culture, and “What happened to the ’60s, and what does it mean to a kid who grew up in Nowheresville?” Sometimes I think we have a codified understanding of [this era]. Especially in somewhere like the Midwest where we weren’t getting culture directly, I feel like being a flower child took on different connotations. So I kinda want to explore that with this film… Don Quixote-type figures that are trying to make it as musicians. Through their own faults, they get a raw deal out of the system.
Tone Madison: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
James Runde: I’d just like to say a huge thank-you to all my cast and family and everybody who helped. Tim West and MCE [MONSTAClick Entertainment]. He and his family did me so many favors, and obviously the same with Leslie Walker. They trusted me, and I’m forever grateful.