Mar 23, 2017
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Alex Herz Makes a ‘Normal’ Feature
by Carol Anne Lehrman
Filmmaker Alex Herz, two years ago, with his sister Jenna and his younger brother Griffin, the subject of his new film. photo: courtesy A. Herz
ALEX HERZ IS NOT YOUR NORMAL
middle-aged filmmaker, making movies about serious issues with the nuance and flair of an experienced pro—but only because he is just a sophomore in college. Nevertheless, the 19-year-old, California-based filmmaker recently wrapped his first full-length feature film, “A Normal Life”, shot in just 10 days, all in Marin County, this last July, see the trailer
This is the latest of the thirteen films Herz has written, directed and edited in the last 14 years, starting when he was just six (see
). Writing narrative fiction and producing films about people, who don’t often have their stories told, has been his inspiration. Indeed, his latest film brings that closer to home (for summary of Herz's early work, see cS'
This precocious filmmaker’s latest film, “A Normal Life” is a semi-autobiographical story, strongly influenced by Herz’s experiences as an older sibling to his brother Griffin, who has Down syndrome. As Herz sees it, Down syndrome isn’t a disability but rather a simpler, normal way of life.
The film follows a protagonist, Michael (played by Sam O’Byrne, who has two acting gigs under his belt), deeply concerned about his younger brother Nathan’s growing urge for independence. As Sam prepares to depart for his first year at college, he’s forced to confront his parents regarding how he feels they are restricting Nathan (played by newcomer Trevor Barella).
Beautifully scripted, “A Normal Life” delves into the roller coaster ride of raising teenagers and navigating family dynamics rather than focusing strictly on Down syndrome, which becomes more of a back drop.
Writing ”A Normal Life” was a passion project for Herz who had wanted to write a feature story about Down syndrome for some time but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Although he had written and produced a short documentary about Down syndrome for a summer school project, which consisted of home video footage of Griffin doing normal, everyday things, this was not what he ultimately had in mind.
While many writers wait a lifetime for their epiphany moment, Herz had one during an intro class at Northwestern University, Chicago, in his freshman year. “I was sitting in class, and so many scenes came into my head that I thought I’d explode if I didn’t write them down.” He snuck out mid-class and went back to his dorm to write.
Scene from Herz's 'A Normal Life', with Sam O’Byrne playing a Herz-like character and Trevor Barella, an actor with Down syndrome, as his brother. photo: courtesy A. Herz
Recalling and regurgitating conversations and occurrences with his family, the screenplay was complete in three weeks. “Of course I dedicated the necessary time to my studies as well," he added.
Alex recalls being comfortable with a subject he was so familiar with, yet he confesses, “I was terrified because it was so close to home and I wanted it to be just right so my family didn’t feel betrayed.”
During his spring break, Alex discussed his new screenplay with his parents and explained that, while he had used some family conversations, he had also exaggerated the story. His goal was “to paint an accurate picture of living with a high-functioning disability in a modern world.”
He then discussed the film with his brother, who loved the idea. However, when he tested having Griffin act in a few scenes, it became apparent that Herz would have to cast another young teenager with Down syndrome. As with most younger brothers, Griffin wouldn’t listen to his older sibling.
Herz’s belief in the subject matter gave him the confidence to convince investors as well as his cast and crew that “A Normal Life” was a project worth making. Fueled by the financial and emotional support, Alex dove in and succeeded in writing, financing, casting, shooting and editing the film in less than a year’s time—a feat rarely achieved by seasoned filmmakers twice his age.
Once the screenplay was written, filming plans unfolded quite quickly. A post on Indiegogo helped generate financing, and within three weeks Herz had raised almost $10,000. “It was a humbling experience having people in the community show their support.”
By early summer, Herz had tapped into his local Marin County film community to gather locations, actors and a behind-the-scenes crew. He even managed to entice well-known LA-based composer Christopher Parker to create the musical score on acoustic guitar.
In addition to casting the distinguished actor and acting teacher Bettina Devin in the role of his mother, Alex took advantage of large network of actors Devin had and brought her in to cast the other principal roles and most of the extra roles, garnering her the casting director and producer credit.
On the set of 'A Normal Life' with O’Byrne on the bed and local actress and teacher, Bettina Devin, as his mother. photo: courtesy A. Herz
“I wanted good actors. Specifically, the lead had to be someone comfortable with and who understood the nuances of disabilities.” Before casting the role of the older brother, Michael, Herz and Sam O’Byrne, who ultimately got the nod, met for hours to talk about their relationships with their younger brothers, which happened to be very similar.
“Sam took the role very seriously and spent time with Griffin before we started filming.” To find an actor to play the role of Griffin, Herz tapped the organization Down Syndrome In The Arts and Media. After several readings with both Devin and O’Byrne, Trevor Barella won them over.
“He had the ability to make people laugh and feel and pick up on the subtle things in a scene to make them truly authentic,” Herz said.
“A Normal Life” is the first film Herz has made, in which he drew directly from his own life experiences, and where disability is a central theme. Yet this familiarity was of little help in making “A Normal Life” since it was logistically infinitely more complex than Herz’s other films.
The run time at 73 minutes is far longer than his other works, most of which time out around 12. During production, he directed and managed a crew of eight (and cast of 12) versus his usual two or three. He had also never worked with a budget of this size.
Editing also took more time and attention from Herz than his other films because of its length and very personal subject matter. “I’ve edited my whole life and I love editing— that’s when a film comes together. The pacing is in my head. But it’s an arduous task, and I can only do it about two hours a day.”
Despite his tight 10-day shooting schedule, Herz emphasizes that the enthusiastic, talented cast and crew were key to completing the film on time. It was not, however, without its challenges such as getting enough sleep, the occasional frustrated actor, police giving tickets for parking in no-parking zones, random people walking through scenes, and not staying on schedule.
“If you don’t have a person keeping you on schedule, you WON’T be on schedule!” Herz says, adding, “It’s all good, actually, because it’s preparing me to work in the real world on real sets.” In his earlier films, Herz experienced some hardships as well. “It’s a natural byproduct of making movies. It’s an imperfect product that comes together in an amazing finished product—it ends up falling into place. I don’t take that for granted. I’m a controlling director type, but one can only control so much.”
Griffin Herz, Alex’s younger brother, poses for a shot in his experimental short 'Simon' (2013). photo: courtesy A. Herz
The crew experienced some magical surprises as well. While filming at Stinson, the beach seemed empty but at a perfect moment, a group of surfers passed them crossing the dunes, paying them no mind. It was totally unplanned and it intensified the richness of the scene.
One of the most impressive qualities of Herz, both as a teenager and as a filmmaker, is his rigorous attention to detail, whether toward the filmmaking process or the nuances of family life. While seemingly straightforward, “A Normal Life” is filled with subtle infusions of teenage personalities. There are moments where one might even forget the Down-related disability and focus on the everyday struggles of any “normal” family.
“I grew up in an upper middle class, white family living in a good neighborhood with no financial issues,” Herz says, but “there are still struggles and difficult choices that have to be made in a family.”
He hopes “A Normal Life” will evoke emotion. “I would love for audiences to cry—a valid response, and for an artist it’s validating.”
The film festival circuit is a natural next step and, “A Normal Life” has been entered in Sundance. “I’d be shocked if I got into Sundance, but I know it’s not personal—I’ll hear the first week of November.” He’ll submit to others as well, such as the San Francisco International Film Festival, Sonoma Film Festival, the SoHo Film Festival as well as some of the disability-themed festivals such as Calgary.
Alex Herz, shooting a scene from 'A Normal Life'. photo: courtesy A. Herz
Can this filmmaker, who demonstrates a maturity far beyond his years, be expected to stay in college? Herz thinks he still has a lot to learn, if not about filmmaking then about life. He is currently majoring in radio, film and television at Northwestern University, and believes it is a great program, which “will allow me to figure out exactly what kinds of movies I want to make, fine-tune my style and do more movie work.”
Sounds like a pretty normal college student.
Carol Anne Lehrman is a film enthusiast who loves writing about young people doing great things and can be reached
Posted on Oct 18, 2016 - 11:59 PM