ND/NF Discovery: Russell Harbaugh’s “Rolling on the Floor Laughing” (USA)

Posted by Michael Gibbons on 3.29.2012

Rolling on the Floor Laughing
Our popular New Directors/New Films shorts showcase continues with Shorts Program 2, screening on March 31 and April 1. Check out the trailer for Russell Harbaugh's Rolling on the Floor Laughing and don't miss the screenings this weekend!



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Describe your film Rolling on the Floor Laughing to someone who hasn’t seen it.
It’s a 19-minute film, set during the kind of summer party that I remember fondly from childhood. The drama involves a pair of adult brothers meeting and terrorizing their mother’s new boyfriend.

What was the most memorable day of shooting like?
We shot for six days in the house where I grew up and where several years earlier my dad had passed away. My mom was still living in the house at the time—she’s since sold it—and I remember the entire week of production as one extended holiday.

The night before we began shooting, I gathered the whole crew in our living room and showed a sequence from Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, the one where Gerard Depardieu, playing a loveable low-life, brings a pregnant Isabelle Huppert home to meet his family. It’s a terrific scene and notable for how it allows the dramatic situation to exist and flourish without heavy lifting by either the dialogue or the camera.

I was interested in a similar kind of naturalism in our short, which meant preparing an unusual shooting method: broad lighting plans, tail-slating scenes, quick camera setups. I was anticipating the frustrations that might stem from this kind of shooting and also from avoiding the etiquette that most were accustomed to on-set (we only rarely called “ACTION!” for instance). I’m not exactly sure what, if anything, watching that Pialat sequence meant to the crew, but I’d like to believe that it created a sense of solidarity in what we were aspiring to. Without a doubt, the best moments of our film are those that include accidents or improvisations mixing casually with what was scripted. Creating an environment that invites that kind of freedom for an actor takes an entire crew willing to indulge the process. I was lucky to be working alongside people who not only seemed open to the process, but as invested in its potential discoveries as I was.

If you could work with any artist alive, who would it be and why?
There’s a whole crop of young male actors that I would count myself very lucky to work with, though none more than Tom Hardy. I’m curious what kinds of choices we’ll see him make in the next couple years post-Batman, but I hope he’ll continue doing a range of projects that take his talents, and not just his physique, seriously. 

Susan Sarandon, Ian McShane, Ciaran Hinds, Sigourney Weaver—These are all actors I’ve been thinking of as I’ve been writing.

Describe your very first experience with filmmaking.
As a sophomore at Wabash College, a small liberal arts school in central Indiana, I took a video camera along for a class trip to New York. I shot a lot of footage, taught myself Final Cut Pro, and started spending entire days down in the basement of our library, week after week, cutting a little 20 minute video of the trip. It was a real thrill and felt outside of any academic requirement. Making that was the first indication that I might want to pursue filmmaking seriously. I spent my remaining years in college making other small projects and creating independent study courses that could offer film study.

Today, that community still means a lot to me and I owe them a great deal. When raising the budget for Rolling on the Floor Laughing, which was my thesis film at Columbia University, we raised over $20,000 from various people affiliated with Wabash. I was literally cold-calling board of trustee members throughout the country and timidly introducing myself and the project. I’m enormously grateful for their support. It’s a special place and I hear they’ve recently introduced several film courses.

What is your favorite movie and why?
Impossible! I’ll list the films and filmmakers that had the most influence on this one: Maurice Pialat (The Mouth Agape, We Will Not Grow Old Together, A Nos Amours, Le Garcu), Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game, Trip to the Country), Marcel Pagnol (The Fanny Trilogy, The Baker's Wife), Philippe Garrel (Emergency Kisses), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Lucrecia Martel (La Cienega, The Holy Girl), Eric Rohmer (La Collectioneuse), Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore), and Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander).

Even in this list, I’m sure I’m missing several titles, though the above were specifically helpful in trying to decode the various techniques used to create films that feel like spontaneous shouts of story, though also use an evocative, deliberate camera.   

From what types of art, other than film, do you draw inspiration?
Every now and then, I’ll go back to my favorite painters. The Croquet Game, one of Bonnard’s early paintings, is a favorite of mine and has a clever foreground/background trick that’s applicable, I think, to making movies-- especially those that use improvisation. Kent Jones wrote an interesting essay that’s related to this in the January/February issue of Film Comment. It seems to be print-only, but it’s worth tracking down. In preparing ROFL, I looked at a lot of Bonnard (I gave our production designer, Cole McCarty, a book of Bonnard interiors to study his table settings) and also Vuillard and James Ensor. 

What is your favorite food to eat on set?
Cigarettes.  I’ve since quit them, but yeah… I don’t remember eating much.

Do you have any rituals or rules for yourself while you’re working on a film?
Some of my friends don’t like watching movies when they’re writing or prepping a movie. They don’t want to clutter their imaginations with different techniques and shots and ideas. I’m the opposite. I like watching things all the time. For me, it helps jar loose new and fresh ideas.

Which parts of the filmmaking process do you enjoy the most? The least?
I love the way that a dramatically loaded environment, combined with a well-designed shot can unburden an actor of the need to do lots of nonsense. In my limited experience, I’ve enjoyed discovering that if you allow the camera and the situations within a story to do the heavy dramatic lifting (meaning you choose both correctly), your performances can be judged not by how well your actors are creating drama, but by how honestly they are responding to it. It’s a difficult thing to pull off because it requires an actor’s absolute trust of the material, each other, and the moment. But when it works, that’s my favorite part. 

My least favorite part?  The festival process can be thrilling, but it sucks getting rejected and even when we’ve been invited to good ones, I’ve discovered that I’ll automatically go looking for things that other people are getting that I’m not. That’s a lousy, stupid game and I don’t enjoy the version of myself that seems forever willing to play it. I’d rather be making movies. 

What was the biggest surprise you had while making your film?
Stephen Plunkett. He plays the older brother in the film and he knocked my socks off. I’ve known him for some time and when he joined our movie he’d just been cast in Lincoln Center’s War Horse, so I was familiar with him and knew that he was good. But he wasn’t just good. He was movie-star good. I’m excited to see what’s in store for him in the coming years and I’m anxious for the opportunity to work with him again. 

Shorts Program 2 screens on March 31 and April 1. Follow Rolling on the Floor Laughing on Facebook.

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