Alex Moreland talks to John Wesley Shipp and director Andrew Lyman-Clarke about their new film Night Sweats, what they think ‘art’ really is, and more…
Andrew, I know you’ve been working on Night Sweats for quite a few years now. What’s that process been like? John, when did you come on board, what drew you to the project?
Andrew Lyman-Clarke: I’ll pop in first to set the chronology. I believe I started writing Night Sweats in 2010 or 2011, almost nine years ago. My producer and friend, Seth Panman, actually worked for a company similar to True Healing, a shady self-help company. He met somebody through that company who actually wanted him to film them spreading a disease in New York. That was the genesis of the project – we thought, wow, that there’s no way we could work on that documentary. That’s too unethical. But maybe we can make a narrative film based on that.
Seth wrote up a 19-page little prototype script and I really liked it. I started working with that and I worked on it for about four years. I think I wrote 25 to 30 drafts? There were a lot of drafts. Because we had certain twists and certain reveals that we wanted to occur in the story, and structure is everything in screenwriting, it took a while for me to get the structure right. There were also a couple of page one rewrites. I think I did two page one rewrites where I scrapped everything that I had before and went all the way back to the beginning.
It was a long writing process and I got feedback from a lot of people as I was writing. When I finally felt like I was ready to shoot it, we started filming a Kickstarter trailer. We still played with some of the ideas and the shooting style and stuff, and that took six months or so to shoot that. Then we did a Kickstarter campaign – mind you, I was working different jobs throughout. I was working at Cosmopolitan as an editor while we were prepping the Kickstarter campaign – raised some money and that was that. It was the fall after the Kickstarter campaign when we did the shoot, which, of course, took a bunch of pre-production and planning and casting.
That’s where John enters the story. First, we were doing some casting just off Craigslist and trying to find people outside of the system. But then we brought on a great casting director, Donna McKenna, which was really important for the film, because she got all these submissions for the different roles. One of the submissions was John, and we were just really excited to work with an actor of his calibre, having looked at his reel materials and his shows that he had been on. Also, I thought that there was a good audience match, like fans of John would also be fans of this film, and it would bring the right type of people to watch the film. So that’s how he came on board.
John Wesley Shipp: Yeah, I’m definitely a hired gun. I was not involved in the formation of the overall arc. That’s all Andrew and Seth; I was brought in to play this very interesting part. I liked that they wanted him to be ambiguous. As Andrew mentioned before, there’s a lot of ambiguity in the film, which creates a sense of almost being… off-balance. Which the whole experience of coming to New York can be, and was for me in the late seventies when I dropped out of college and came here. This is a guy who… We’re not sure what his motives are. At what point did his desire to do good and find a cure for a disease turn into spreading a disease so that you could find a cure and get rich off the cure?
Playing all of those ambiguities for an actor is very interesting. You don’t get to do that all the time in a network TV situation, because they do want to put you in a slot. You’re there to fill a very specific part of the narrative that they want to tell. In the context of an independent film, you do get to play. You get to say, “Well, what about this? Well, what if I did this? And oh, that does work. Okay, I’ll do that. Oh, it doesn’t? Okay, well what do you want me to do?”
I’ll never forget before the big blow up scene. Seth Panman had told me that he had a boss that seemed perfectly reasonable and rational up to the moment he lost his shit. Suddenly he’s in your face screaming, foaming at the mouth and you’re totally caught off guard. It happened so fast you don’t react. Then it’s over and you go back to business as usual – he said that that’s what this guy was like.
I patterned part of my performance after that. In fact, I kept doing takes of the one scene where I really chew Yuri out – you think, give me one, just one, where you just really go at it, just do it. That’s what they put in the film. It was a very energetic and collaborative process. When you’re doing independent film, you better go in with the spirit of, we’re all on the same level and we all want to make a good project. I don’t know any more than anybody else; we’ve got to figure this thing out together, because we’ve only got so much money and so much time. We’re here to serve the vision of the filmmaker who is working out a vision for what will be the rest of their career. My job is to deliver the performance that I’m being asked to give to serve that vision. I’m very clear about what my role going into a situation like that is.
ALC: I’ve just got to say, we were and have been so fortunate to have you to work with. Because I don’t think every actor has that enlightened of an attitude toward it. I think, when you’re acting, you get to be in the spotlight, you get to turn yourself inside out and it’s a lot of work. It’s very hard. But I think that sometimes it can become more about the actor and less about the vision. I just really appreciate that you looked at it that way.
JWS: Well, thanks, Andrew. For me it’s so much more fun because if you’re… I think actors get self-protected. If you go in and you’re protecting yourself against which you’re afraid you might be asked to expose, that will kill whatever creative impulse you might otherwise have been able to bring to the situation.
What was your working relationship like?
JWS: Oh, it was terrible. It was awful. We were always at each other’s throats. Literally. No, it was perfectly fine. Andrew always knew exactly what he wanted and yet at the same time was flexible enough to hear ideas if I maybe had another point of view about a moment. But they – Seth and Andrew – both had pretty much worked out who they wanted this guy to be: a very capable administrator, married to dubious practises, which could both help in the long run and be murderous in the short run. I enjoyed the entire process.
ALC: Yeah. I really enjoyed working with John throughout. He was in a position of coming into a small independent film as our star. I was concerned before he came on – well, maybe he’s a diva, maybe he’s going to walk off set or do something crazy that would really screw up our film – because you just don’t know. He was a good get for us, so I was nervous.
John just was the complete opposite. He was the consummate professional. Right from the beginning, it was clear that he really cared about the project; even though it maybe wasn’t on par with being on The Flash, John really put in 100% and was always super prepared for our scenes. He would provide ideas and just a really great, really great professional.
JWS: Plus, it’s always a joy to work. I’ve done independent films before and there’s a wonderful energy on the set. You’re not answering to… The joke about network television is by the time the script gets to you, it’s got 20 sets of handprints on it. Everybody has an opinion about everything. And with [an independent film], even though it’s on a tight schedule and a tight budget, there are people with strong ideas about what they want. There’s the experimental feel about it.
I get to play a character, Nick Frankenthaler that isn’t the kind of character that I’ve most recently played. And I loved working with the young cast that Andrew assembled – and, of course, the great Allison Mackie. So I was in great company. And I always look at whatever work I’m doing, whether it’s Broadway or network television or independent film, as this giant sandbox. And if you don’t hop into the sandbox, grab a shovel and a bucket and start playing, then you miss a lot.
Let’s stay with that idea of creativity for a moment. When I was doing my research ahead of this interview, I came across your YouTube channel Andrew, and you’ve got this video from quite a few years ago – around the time you started writing Night Sweats, I think – where you said that you think all art is fundamentally about communication. Do you still think that now? What would you both say to that?
ALC: Yes, I’ll definitely hit that first. That’s really funny that you found that video. When I was in, oh, I guess, middle school or perhaps late elementary school, me and my friends used to have these long philosophical conversations. We were grappling with the idea of what is art? It seems to be really hard to define and it was problematic for us. It was troubling to us. We couldn’t figure it out. But we talked about it for one full day. What is art?
We came to the revelation that art is simply communication. It’s basically somebody creating something in whatever medium, and that is a product that is put out into the world with the intent of communicating something to others. People who will see it or hear it or experience it in some way.
I definitely still believe that. I mean, I’m an open-minded person, I’m open to other definitions of art. But the way that I approach it is that I am creating something and putting it out into the world with a “message” for others to see and to think about and to chew on. I think that’s the value of it.
I think there’s ways of looking at art and movies and stuff that are a little bit more cynical or jaded, where there isn’t really a purpose of communicating something. It’s just to pass the time or something. I’m not really with that. I’m all about trying to say something, especially when you spend nine years working on something and you pour your heart and soul into it. I wanted it to have some kind of meaning.
JWS: That fits right in with my feeling. Nothing is more frustrating to me – as interesting as the dialogue may be, as fascinating as the actor’s choices might be, as snazzy as the shots might be, if I, at the end of an hour and a half, don’t know why the film maker wanted to make the film, then I feel like that’s an hour and a half of my life I’ll never get back.
The fact that a film maker, that Andrew, had something that he wanted to communicate… The communication is so layered. The macro, that’s Andrew and Seth’s job. What do they want to say? The communication with me with them is to find out what that is, decide whether I can serve that. My communication really is between the other members of the cast, the other characters. How do we form the communication? Suddenly I’m working in a scene with two young, very truthful actors – and, of course, Alison Mackie, who everyone knows. You realise that you’re not acting, you’re telling the truth. You’re communicating in a pure form. Those are building blocks that go to communicate the overarching idea of the filmmaker who you’re there to serve – I get goosebumps just talking about it in those terms.
What do you think Night Sweats is trying to communicate?
ALC: It’s a cautionary tale. I’m using the medium of film, which is a very experiential medium. We watch films almost the same way we experience life. I wanted to create an experience for young people, an experience of a heightened, thriller-ised world that is dangerous. A world where there are these threats, these hidden threats, and they come from many different directions. The purpose of it is to expose young people to what I think is the real world – it’s a jungle out there. There’s a lot of people out there and a lot of institutions out there that are not what they seem that have some kind of hidden agenda.
I had to figure out my world view to create this film. I look at things from an evolutionary lens: we’re all animals. We’re all organisms trying to survive, and some people’s agendas are more selfish than others. I think that some young people grow up a little bit sheltered from that. That’s great, I’m not saying that’s bad, but when they get out into the real world the veil gets pulled back. With this film, I was trying to do that in a heightened way, tear that veil off, just rip it to shreds. This kid Yuri Burkin, moves to New York City from the country. He’s kind of innocent. All of a sudden his friend dies of some mysterious disease – by the way, diseases are a threat that are out there that’s very real, that people need to be warned about – and he’s meeting shady business people who have these hidden agendas that are very insidious and stuff.
It’s totally a cautionary tale geared toward young people. It’s almost like I was writing it or creating it for myself when I first moved to New York City, because maybe if I had watched that film when I first moved here, maybe I would have been a little bit more cautious and made some better decisions. That being said, I have no delusions that film can totally radically change somebody in those two hours. I also thought it would just be a fun experience for those people, those young people to witness this.
And for me, as a man, as a young man, I have a craving to feel like the world is dangerous because it gives me something to push back against. Sometimes, as a young man, I would feel frustrated that there weren’t enough threats in my life. Things that I had to survive or things that I had to overcome. I wanted to give young people that experience, that feeling, of being in the position of this young man who does have to overcome all these crazy challenges and survival situations. So, that was pretty much it.
JWS: I’m glad you asked the question, because just to take Night Sweats as a film that’s out here to bash big pharma, that’s too simplistic. I mean, it’s whatever industry. Whether it’s the oil and gas industry saying, “Okay we’re going to pollute your rivers and we’re going to foul your air. But it’s okay because you wouldn’t have bread on your table every other week if we didn’t give your dad a job, so we’re going to justify it that way.” There’s need for constant regulation of industry, even in an age when regulation in this country has become a bad word. I mean, everything’s becoming deregulated and it’s dangerous. Because, of course, profit motive can dwarf everything else. But I think it’s also important that there’s a personal tie-in, Andrew, given that Seth actually went through a situation like this.
ALC: First of all, John, you’re spot on with the larger message about profit motives and that. But yeah, Seth worked for a company, like I mentioned, which True Healing was based on. It was a shady self-help company that had him going out and interviewing people or getting testimonials from people who had experienced severe traumas. This company was ostensibly to help people, because these video testimonials were then going to be put together into a library, which then people could subscribe to. The idea was that it would help them to work through their own traumas that they might’ve had, to get strength from these other people who are also survivors.
The problem was the company was very shady and the boss would fly off the handle at Seth. The boss would tell Seth, “These aren’t people. These are dollar signs. I need more. You need more interviews”, constantly pushing Seth. And at the end of it, they packed up in the middle of the night. Seth showed up to get his final paycheck and the office was totally gone.
Then a few months after someone who Seth had met through this company, someone who had experienced a trauma, contacted him and asked him to come to a meeting. Seth went to the meeting and the person informed him that they wanted to be filmed spreading a very serious disease in New York City, kind of like a reality show. They were wondering if Seth would do it – he came to me and we talked about it, and obviously we said there’s no way we’re working on that project, but maybe we could make a film out of that. So, the idea for Night Sweats was born.
JWS: Yeah. I find that fascinating, that part to me is very fascinating.
ALC: That’s the core of it, that’s why we put “Inspired by a true story” on the poster. That also feeds into the ultimate message of the film, which like I was saying earlier, it’s a jungle out there. This stuff is really out there. You really need to be careful about who you engage with.
Finally, then, just to wrap everything up – what would you most like people to take away from watching your work, both in general and Night Sweats in particular?
JWS: Let me go first, because I think the more important part of your question goes to the film, and that would be something for Andrew to speak to. I think that, as I said, my job going into a project with young filmmakers like this is to figure out, to the best of my ability, the performance that they want me to give, and to try to give them that performance to the best of my capability. The best thing that could be said for me would be that the way I played my character was a building block along with the other fine actors. My performance was one block in the building of this narrative that Andrew and Seth, as young, exciting new film makers wanted to tell as they go forward. I’m looking forward to the next thriller that they make after this one.
ALC: Right on. Well, thank you, thank you for that approach. Your building block was a really solid one and a really artistic one.
JWS: Thank you.
ALC: As far as what I would want people to walk away with, I think it really comes down to this idea of having had a brush with the dark, seedy underbelly of New York City, and of humanity. Not just people, but the institutions that we create. And like John was saying, the stories that people tell, the ways that they justify bad behaviour to themselves.
I would want people to feel like they had experienced that a bit, and that it would actually change their behaviour a little bit or the way that they looked at things. It’s a very positive mission. And I’d obviously want people to enjoy the ride!
JWS: I was going to say, it was fun.
ALC: Enjoy the twists, the turns.
JWS: Yeah, it’s shot well.
ALC: Yeah, the twists and the turns were a big part of it. I wanted people to be very surprised at the different junctures. Of course, the final twist is at the very end. In interviews there’s a lot of things that I can’t really talk about – but there is a very real public health threat that is addressed with the film that I was trying to majorly caution people about. And I would say that is also a super important piece of what I would want people to walk away with.
John Wesley Shipp, Andrew Lyman-Clarke, thank you very much!
Night Sweats will be opening in New York and on all major VOD platforms on November 14th.