Anne Marie Cummings – Conversations in L.A.
By: Krista Ann Freego
Q) Please describe Conversations in L.A.to our readers who have not watched your series yet.
A) That’s a two-fold question. I definitely want to address the technical side first. What makes this series unique is that each of the episodes, or conversations, are single-shot episodes – the cinematography is continuous. There are no cuts. It’s like theatre on film, except much more cinematic. We see a lot of these single shots in film, but rarely for twenty-to-thirty minutes straight. The Oscar-winning film Moonlight…that film actually had a number of long takes where the camera moves are clearly choreographed and continuous. Regarding the story of Conversations in L.A., it’s about an older woman experiencing pet loss, menopause, a mid-life crisis and to make matters worse, she’s quit her job at Amazon because she just can’t continue doing the same humdrum job that she’s been doing for the past ten years. Then, she meets a much younger man who surprises her for his age. He’s an old soul who awakens everything in her. It’s definitely not your typical older woman, younger man, cougar-cub type of relationship. It’s very much a story about two people, despite the twenty-year age gap between them, who connect and have very real conversations about life, love, age, being in a relationship and coping with the challenges two people face when they’re in love. Conversations in L.A.is about Michelle and Gus, but it’s also about the people in Michelle’s life and in Season Two we meet more of the people in Gus’ life. Yet, at the end of the day, the heart of the story is about being able to be yourself and live life on your own terms regardless of what other people think about the choices you’re making – not so easy to do.
Q) How did you come up with the idea for Conversations in L.A.?
A) Before I moved to Los Angeles two years ago, I was running a theatre company in Upstate New York and my work as a playwright started to move and shift gradually into more cinematic work. My theatre company even moved into a movie theatre, the only independent movie theatre house in Ithaca. So, the last six months I was in Ithaca I was writing Conversations, a series of scenes, none of which were related. The first was called Theo and Chloe, a story about two people sitting in a veterinarian office talking about having to euthanize their pets. I put that away for a year once I moved to Los Angeles so I could work on my first feature Eat Bitter, Taste Sweet. Once I got my feature to a solid place with a director attached to it (Wendey Stanzler, “Sex and the City”and the new TV show “Divorce”), I picked up the Theo and Chloe conversation and changed the characters to Gus and Michelle just so that I could have material that I could act in for my reel. You see, before I moved to Los Angeles I had spent my entire life working in the theatre as a professional actress, playwright, director, artistic director, produce, and it wasn’t until recently that I decided that I needed to explore film and television. Bottom line – I didn’t have a reel so I had to write my own material and act in it in order to show my work as an actress. Not long after I cast the actor playing my co-star – Gustavo Velasquez – it wasn’t long before I realized I had a series on my hands.
Q) Is Conversations in L.A.your first foray into web series?
A) I don’t think of Conversations in L.A.as a web series. I think of it as a digital drama series since we received three actor Emmy nominations for it in the category of digital drama series. It was also very interesting to me that all of our competition at the Daytime Emmy’s were major networks. I got a kick out of that actually! Regardless, Conversations in L.A.is my first series and it certainly won’t be my last; I have a few others that I’ve developed and I’m very excited to produce those as well. However, Conversations in L.A.is a very thrilling project for me because I get to use all of my skills as an actress, writer, director and creator of new, fresh, and exciting content that has a very unique vision and style to it.
Q) You are the creator, writer, director, star and one of the cinematographers for this project. What was it like wearing all those different hats?
A) Well, regarding cinematography, I should just say that it’s only occasionally that I have the time to shoot and when I do it’s only the intros or the outros to some of the episodes. Yet I love shooting those intros and outros when I can – it’s like taking a mini vacation with my Sony A7R2 for a day or two – lots of fun. But to answer your question, it’s tough wearing all these hats yet my mind is well equipped to do it. However, this wasn’t always the case. It’s because I’ve carefully developed each of these skills and at some point as an artist it all takes off for you. Some of it is the decision you make in your mind in terms of who you are and on the flip side it’s how much you’re willing to push yourself in order to grow. A lot of people have the ability to be actor-writer-directors, but many people aren’t willing to stretch themselves because it’s incredibly hard work and that can be a scary thing sometimes. It hasn’t been easy for me, but there’s a great quote I love, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” I guess you could say that the sea I’ve sailed has been very rough which is why I’m able to do what I do with relative ease now. I like to think of this period in my life like the drip series phase of Jackson Pollock’s career – I’ve slipped into a magical period of my career.
I should also add that I consider myself very lucky because there are actor-writer-director’s out there whom I’ve admired. The two that come to mind are two who use small crews: Ed Burns and Woody Allen. Both of them really stand out for me. Actor-writer-directors are a rare breed. Sometimes it’s hard to describe how my brain operates and how it’s developed over the last few years, but as long as people appreciate and relate to my work that’s what matters most to me. And, of course, I love it when the actors I’m working with love the material and get excited by rehearsals and shoot days. Acting-writing-directing – this is second nature to me now and now that my mind has been stretched in this way I can’t go back to anything else really. I’ll never go back. [laughs]
Q) What led you to choose the medium of digital series for Conversations in L.A.?
A) I’m a big fan of Louis C.K. and artists like him who create their own content and then own it. I knew that I wanted to do that once I made the decision to move forward with Season One. And I’m well aware that I could have put this all on YouTube, but there’s something about creating your own website for your own series. Making that decision feels more like something I would do – it’s unique to me. I think of conversationsinla.com like iTunes except I get to control what’s up on the site. There are director commentaries, actor commentaries, a gallery page, a downloadable poster and interviews. Maybe this is the birth of me becoming a show runner! I would love that!
Q) Only the pilot of your web series is available on YouTube, the full season is available at the official website for the series conversationsinla.com Is this why you only chose to put the pilot on YouTube?
A) Yes. I don’t think of Conversations in L.A.as a YouTube series. Sometimes YouTube feels like a free-for-all place where people create whatever they want and put it out there for the entire world to comment on. I think of conversationsinla.comas a special channel, so to speak, where you can tune in and enjoy without the gossip and litany of comments that people randomly make on YouTube. Half of the comments are genuine and thought-out and the other half are mean-spirited. I think of YouTube as a wonderful venue, but not necessarily the venue I always want to visit and it certainly isn’t one that I can call my own. Nothing like building your own site! The trick is always how to get people to find out about your work!
Q) Your series discusses a duck, a dog and a hamster. Are you a pet lover?
A) Very much so. I love all animals. One of my favorite organizations is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a baby elephant orphanage that’s run by Dame Daphne Sheldrick with the primary goal of rescuing baby elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers.
Q) I don’t know if most people are aware of this, but you also foster a baby elephant named Rapa. How did you come to foster a baby elephant?
A) After my dog died a few years ago, my parents told me about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and I looked into and fell in love with all the videos they put out there about the orphanage and the baby elephants they rescue. Seeing the baby elephants helping each other with their own grief – and they experience very human-like grief after their mothers are killed – I found great solace in dealing with my own grief. It’s hard to explain, but adopting RAPA and giving to that organization helped me heal. Continuing to give and care keeps me connected to my heart.
Q) I lost the very first dog that I ever had, in 2009, her name was Willow. It very traumatic and meaningful and still has an impact on me today. I thought in your series that you really did a service to it, with regards to that. People who haven’t had that connection, they just don’t know or understand. Their reaction is “it’s just a dog or a pet, move on.”
A) It’s true. Losing a dog, cat or any kind of pet you have is very traumatic. There were a number of people who said to me, “She was just a dog,” but the truth is she was more than just a dog, she was part of my family. Losing my dog was like losing a child.
Q) I read that you found your male lead (Gustavo Velasquez) in a somewhat unusual manner. Please share the story of how Gustavo came to be your male lead?
A) [laughs]So, I was sitting at a Starbucks and it was about to rain and I was talking to my friend Vanita [Harbour], an actress who ended up getting cast in Conversations in L.A.and later winning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress. I was telling her that I wrote this scene and I needed to find a young actor for the role. Well, just at that very moment I looked to my right and saw this young guy (Gustavo) sitting across from this actress reading lines from a play. I remember the play too, Golden Boy by Clifford Odets. I knew the play from college. I studied at the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University so that drew me in right away. So, Vanita gets up to get a refill on her coffee and I decided (because every once in a while I have these moments where I take some crazy spur-of-the-moment risk) to get up, walk over to the table next to me, interrupt the two actors, give them each my business card and tell them to call me because I’m casting for some of my work. Well, the next day Gustavo emailed me and sent me a link to his reel. I watched his reel several times, saw genuine moments in it and emailed him back with ten pages of a scene and told him to meet me the next day so I could read with him. The next day, we met at Lemonade in Beverly Hills, sat outside and read the scene. I gave him notes, he took them and ran with them. The rest is history!
Q) I saw on your Twitter page that there will be a Season Two. If so, are there any spoilers you can share with our readers?
A) Now that we’ve gotten to know Gus and Michelle, Season Two dives deeper into their relationship and the relationships they have with others. The tag line for Season Two is “Friends, Family, Therapy. So, that should give you some idea – lots of deep and crazy conversations! Outside of Michelle and Gus there are some recurring characters from Season One, but for the most part there are a lot of new characters. We get to meet Gus’ sister, Gus’ “friend,” Michelle’s brother and sister-in-law, Michelle’s new pet loss therapy group and Gus and Michelle’s couple’s therapist. Also, on the whole, the crew is more grounded in the choreographed longer scenes and the work reflects it. There are eight, maybe nine episodes in Season Two and they’re all around thirty minutes with the exception of one which is actually almost an hour! All of the conversations in Conversations in L.A.are private and very deep, but the ones in Season Two are deep like “The Sopranos” meets “Breaking Bad” meets “Six Feet Under” kind of deep.
Q) Is there anything else you would like our viewers to know?
A) There are a lot of well-known and very talented and interesting actors in Season Two. Rebecca Metz from “Shameless”and “Better Things”; Jack Plotnick who has done a plethora of material on TV and film, he is practically a star! Mark Lewis, who was in Demolition with Jake Gyllenhaal, Sterling Jones – he was in Lone Survivor with Mark Wahlberg and then other film and TV actors such as Alyssa Rodriquez, Leland Martin, Steven Rockwell and his wife Melanie Rockwell and Chris Damiano and his wife Tami Tappan Damiano. It’s also really great to be working with friends of mine from Carnegie Mellon University’s drama program who have been a part of this. I’m proud I went to that school, had amazing teachers and it’s just so wonderful to work with people who have great training but who also really get and appreciate what I’m envisioning. They all love rehearsals and they all have the patience and stamina for our shoot days. It’s an intense process. We have at least ten, three-hour rehearsals per episode with two or three camera rehearsals before we actually shoot. The rehearsals are spread out over the course of one month, typically, and what I love about that is that it gives actors a chance to really sit with the material. I believe in that gestation period of just letting the words, the feelings and the life of the character in a scene sink in and get into your bones. The process is similar to that of the process for stage actors. It allows actors to sink their teeth into the work, not just have a wham, bam, thank-you-ma’am kind of acting experience. Acting is so important, yet for a lot of TV and sometimes film, it’s rushed in my opinion. As far as I’m concerned if the acting isn’t there, no matter how great the writing and directing is, the work will fall flat. So, we take more time to produce a season just so we can really enjoy the process, not just the end result!