1 Movie, 3 Friends, ‘5 Doctors’
Many kids grow up with dreams of having careers in entertainment, but few will ever realize those ambitions, and the number who get to do so alongside the same friends they romanticized “Hollywood” with as adolescents is difficult to imagine. For Matt Porter, Max Azulay, and Phil Primason, childhood and high school friends, they could not only be on the precipice of breaking into TV and film production, but with the release of 5 Doctors — the movie they’ve spent the last six years making — they’ve been able to realize at least one part of those dreams together after having individual successes along the way.
Porter was co-creator of the digital series Good Cop, Great Cop, which helped him get a deal with Comedy Central to make the web series New Timers. Azulay’s also been pursuing writing, acting, and directing sketch comedy, while Primason wrote a script that has since been attached to Billy Crystal and Barry Levinson called Revival. For 5 Doctors, the three-headed team co-wrote the script, with Porter and Azulay directing and co-starring in a film about a hypochondriac actor (Azulay) who needs to be driven around by his friend (Porter) while he returns to his hometown in New York (the same town they grew up in together in real life) to see all of his doctors.
If that seems a little bit meta, it is. And that’s not something these three friends were unaware of while filming this surreal, close-to-home independent film, nor are they unappreciative of the opportunity to be able to make this movie together. Those chances seem rare.
5 Doctors is available on iTunes tomorrow.
So what was the genesis of the idea for 5 Doctors, and why this story for your first foray into film production?
Matt Porter: The genesis of this is we were starting, together and separately, to realize that we were moving in this direction where we felt like if we had a feature that we could put together, creatively and all logistics involved, it felt like we were — not ready exactly, but it felt like the next goal. We were talking about ideas that were a little bit big or things we would have to sell or raise money for years to make, then this idea came from one of those shorts we made. One of them was this idea that was based around a very viscerally relatable thing for all three of us growing up in the suburbs outside of New York — this feeling of entering your mid-to-late 20s and starting to build your own life but not quite pulling out all of the roots of where you come from. A funny, lightly sad example of that that the short latched onto was the idea of not changing where your doctor appointments are. Something about it is very funny, relatable, and a little bit sad. We talked about it as a fun to way build out a road movie in a way that is also very makeable, in the sense that it would star Max and I, we would shoot it in Hastings where Matt and Phil grew up, and quickly it became this thing that felt correct from a logistics production side, but especially from an emotional side because the humor and heart of it felt very visceral to us in that moment.
Max Azulay: Just to give a little context too, the three of us were just a few years out of college at the time. We started writing this in 2012, and we all kind of knew that we wanted to have careers in film. We were very much individually and together banging our heads against the wall and freaking out silently and not so silently on how to make that work, so I think it was born out of that as well. It’s very much a story about getting yourself and your career off the ground. Once we started writing about that it really came quick, because it was what was in our brains already.
What is the timeline of making a movie like this one, because from conception to the upcoming release, it seems that indie films can take much longer than expected? What did you learn from this process?
Max: I would say it was more work than we expected at first. Like Matt said, we originally wrote something and kinda said “Hey, we could shoot this in a weekend almost.” Very bare-bones and small and doable, and then it started to grow and become a real thing; it became real and the amount of work was just huge. We also wore a lot of hats on the movie, and I think there was a naivete about us like “Yeah we can do it all.” Then we learned that it was a lot of work and not so easy. It’s been, what, six years since we started. It’s endless amounts of work, but it’s also very exciting to be committed to this one thing for so long.
Matt: Charlie Hankin and I had just done the first season of New Timers around the time period where this was really coming together. New Timers being a web series felt like a big production and it felt like a good learning experience with direction, but I think what I personally was most surprised by, and the three of us have talked about this a lot: I really thought that you could make a feature and treat it like just making a series of shorts, taking the same lessons that we had learned making shorts that were 6-8 pages, or shooting 30 pages of a web series in four days. But I think the biggest shift work-wise was that it’s not just that the workload is different, it’s that the whole lifestyle and ethos of it is different because you’re making something that is truly sellable. There’s an actual commodity to it that none of us were used to because we were coming at it from the love of the game side for so long. There is a way to make a feature that is even more bare-bones than we did, and for a while we thought it might be like that, but quickly it became clear that we would be on the lowest end of what is a legitimate means to make a movie. Which requires a production company, paperwork, lawyers, investors, and all these aspects of selling your product and putting together a functional small business that we had never dealt with before.
Any personal experiences that inspired the film or moments in the film?
Phil Primason: In the scene where Max’s character Spencer goes back and teaches an acting class at his old high school, we cast a lot of those actors with kids that went to Hastings High School where Max and I both went. So we had kind of like this surreal experience of going back to our actual high school to audition current students to act in the scene about Max’s character teaching an acting class at the high school. So that happened.
Matt: Yeah, I can definitely say without naming names that when I was teaching — I went to a high school in the Bronx after NYU — my first job was teaching film back at that high school, and I did that for a little more than a year. I definitely had a student that reminded me of the character Amber in the film who is a student that as a young teacher, she was very aware that our age difference was not very big and that she could sort of try to treat me like a peer in a way that I had to grow up enough to be like “Hey, you’re not in charge so just back off.”
Matt, you made a lot of sketches with Charlie for Good Cop Great Cop, and Max, you had your own experiences in going down the sketch route as well. What would you say after your experiences are the keys to making a great sketch?
Matt: The biggest lesson has been not always treating it like it has to be joke-driven — treating it more like a concept that you want to explore and something where the premise itself is funny too, and it’s more of an exploration of an idea. Charlie and I, what has served us well in terms of what our taste is, the only thing that is king is the exploration of the idea. Initially we were more thinking of them as weird short films, then slowly we embraced that it was sketch. I remember having lists of little ideas written into my phone for years — little nothings, a funny word or dynamic or a trope that I think is funny or interesting or worth sitting in from a realistic place and doing in a realistic, grounded way. I used to think I was saving them for a larger series or a movie idea, but then sketch helped me get less precious and less worried about things needing more than one idea that makes you laugh or that you like.
Max: I always start with the characters, what they’re looking for and what they want. It’s a great way to not make something overly jokey and also emotionally resonant and interesting in addition to funny. It’s always a great way to learn how to write something longer like a movie.
You’re living and working in New York, but how do you see the future for comedy or filmmaking developing in terms of: Do you eventually have to move to LA to make a living in this field? Or can it still be done in New York? Even Max’s character in 5 Doctors has moved to LA to pursue Hollywood dreams.
Matt: I think it relates to the article you shared. [Interviewer’s note: I sent them this Splitsider article on Facebook and the potential death of online sketch comedy.] I had already seen that flying around the comedy-verse because I think it’s a pretty scathing look at the current moment in terms of web, sketch, and being able to support yourself making this kind of comedy in a vacuum as opposed to being back to some huge place with a bunch of money. From my experience — and I’m sure we all have different answers in terms of our path in the industry — I feel like there’s still a very nurturing, meaningful community of creative comedic voices in New York. Even though there are aspects of the old model that are dying off, I know a lot of people that have caught waves of weird resources that have let them do something really special. For me and Charlie making New Timers for Comedy Central, we caught a weird moment where they were willing to put more money than usual into a web series.
Phil: This is maybe a less industry-aware or industry-specific answer, but I think ultimately it’s valuable to work in the place that makes you want to produce the most work, whether that is the collaborators that are available to you or the place itself. I write about New York a lot and this movie could certainly never be made anywhere outside of New York. You have to be careful about making decisions about where you want to be based on estimations that that might not be the most current about where your career is most likely to happen. If you really are thinking about what makes you excited to write, what makes you excited to make films, then that’s a much more reliable barometer for the place where you should be making stuff.
Max: I certainly don’t feel like I’ve cracked the industry at all. And it can be a really brutal thing to try to succeed in. In my real broad advice, yeah, go be where you feel inspired and work with the people that inspire you, and if you become too obsessed with making it and where you should be to make it, you may succeed on some level, but it can be pretty miserable. The reason this was a joyful experience was because we were excited to work with each other and it was so personal, and that ultimately is the most rewarding thing.
Matt: You probably don’t want to print this, I’m not sure, I’ll say it vaguely: Charlie and I made something for a web place that, they paid us pretty good money to shoot a sketch that they wrote and then by the time we were finished editing it, they totally dismantled their original content. They paid us, but they never released it because they moved fully over to memes and reposting other people’s stuff. In a way that can be depressing, but I think that the other aspect of it is that these waves seem to keep breaking, and I feel like people are continuously putting money into these new bursts of interesting original content that it doesn’t matter if you’re in New York or LA. Being in New York has actually been a great way to catch these waves, because a lot of them are not coming out of traditional Hollywood structures, but coming out of media companies and places that are often based in New York. My answer is that it’s worth being in New York still. I think that might change, but on the topic of that article, my reaction is that it’s a terrible thing that these places that were established were broken up, but my hope is that new things will continue to rise — it’s just a question of it’ll ever be consistent enough for people to make a living off of it. That’s the scary thing.
What or who were some of your inspirations, whether it was for this movie, or your sketches, or otherwise?
Phil: There’s so many. I would say the first thing that pops to my mind is Tamara Jenkins’ Slums of Beverly Hills. That’s a movie that I really love that specifically we looked to a little bit when we were trying to figure out how to shoot funny scenes that look good and take place in the car.
Matt: Something that was really inspiring in the last bit of time was the show Atlanta. To me, that was one of those things that just felt like it shatters rules and leads with heart. It almost reminds me of what I love about Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze films and this feeling that the heart is so out in front that you almost forgive the lack of realism. Paul Thomas Anderson is another great example where he grounds the characters so deeply that when things step out of reality you almost don’t clock it the way you would because you’re not even sure — maybe it isn’t happening, maybe you’re so deep in this person’s perspective that it’s a bit of a warped moment that you’re following with them. That’s been inspiring, especially for sketch.
Max: I just watched Chris Rock’s special Tamborine last night, and I enjoyed that but that didn’t influence us. It would be weird if it did. It’s very very new. Going back a little bit, I throw Neil Simon out there as a master of dialogue-driven comedy between real characters — he’s always been someone I’ve really looked to, especially in writing a lot of the ping-ponging scenes between my character and Matt’s in the car and stuff. It just doesn’t really get better than that.
There were at least two faces in this film that are very familiar to many comedy fans: Bobby Moynihan and Eddie Pepitone. What’s the story behind getting them involved?
Max: Eddie Pepitone was someone we had in mind from the very first draft, I think, to play Matt’s dad, and we actually shot that in my and Phil’s best friend’s childhood home and gave him the bedroom as a place to go hang out and stuff. It was surreal to go in there and see Eddie lying in my friend’s bed eating a sandwich. That was a great moment.
Matt: We had an amazing assistant director, Siena Brown, and I remember early on being confronted with the fact that this movie had a lot more locations and characters than indie movies of this size usually have and a lot of people coming in for a day or two. The shoot overall was smooth and quite fun for a first feature, but part of what we benefited from was reaching out to people and making an offer of “We need you for one day. Would you do one small cameo?” We worked with a casting director, Cody Beke, which I think was how we reached out to Pepitone. He was someone we talked about even when we had no money, no resources. Of anyone we could cast to play my dad, he was one of two or three ideas that we had and the one we were most excited about. In terms of Bobby, we reached out to him around that same time period through management, and I think it was also helpful that he was from nearby; he’s from Eastchester, which is actually a town in Westchester, even though that sounds confusing. We wrote personalized letters to every person we wanted to cast. We put a lot of energy into appealing to the handful of people that were our top choices and we basically got everybody — Jeremy Shamos, Peter Friedman, a lot of character actors who are maybe less known that we were excited about getting.
Max: Bobby’s role was the one role we hadn’t cast when we started shooting. We had learned he said yes halfway through the shoot, so that was definitely a major moment for us. Very, very exciting.
You grew up together, you’ve worked on many projects together, and now you’ve made a movie together. What’s that experience been like? What’s next?
Phil: We went on a retreat two weeks before we shot this movie. We watched everything we’d ever made together and we talked about all of the simmering, unspoken tensions between us, and it was never a problem again.
Matt: People were nervous to work with us because people who accrued a lot of stuff in New York, like gaffers and grips and friends of us that had done multiple features, they were nervous by the idea of a three-headed creative team at the center because I think they’d probably been burned before by producers/directors/editors/stars being maybe not the greatest kind of working relationship. But really it couldn’t have been smoother, and part of it was that we were sitting with it together and working on it together that there was not a single line of dialogue that we hadn’t talked about and there wasn’t a single aspect to the logistics of production that we hadn’t deconstructed together to make sure we felt like we understood how we wanted to function on set and solve problems together.
Max: We’ve known each other since we were kids and all of us trying to succeed in this business together and separately, and being young, it’s hard. And there’s a lot of, like Phil said, there were simmering unspoken tensions and competition, but also, really at the heart of it was just that we had each other’s backs always. The real upside to it was that we just couldn’t hide from each other, so our work had to be honest because we know each other so well. We don’t let each other get away with dishonest work. That’s really ultimately one of the reasons this project was successful.
Matt: Part of what’s been great for us is that in terms of what we have next, we’ve always been very diligent about being together and working on things together and also holding each other up and helping each other with our own work. Phil’s writing features and TV projects, Max is a performer and a writer, and we’re all pursuing things together and separately. This feels like a culmination of the time period in which we went from not knowing if we would work in this industry to at least having the most baseline level of confidence that maybe we will somehow, kind of, have a career of some sort.
Photo by Sasha Arutyunova.