Shoestring Storytelling

Michael Bulbenko (Cinema Productions Manager for FUJIFILM North America Corporation – EID) joins us to discuss his work on The Anxiety of Laughing, a project that raises awareness about living with cerebral palsy

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Operating as a professional cinematographer and member of FUJIFILM North America, Michael Bulbenko has been immersed in the film industry for the best part of three decades. A long-standing veteran of the cinematic world, he recently served as Director of Photography on The Anxiety of Laughing – an upcoming feature-length production from playwright Andrew Justvig and director Robin U. Russin. Chronicling the hardships faced by a couple living with disability, the film wrapped in just five days on a nominal budget with minimal crew. United by a staunch dedication to the material and its message, his team pulled together to realize a powerful exploration of topics often underrepresented within the film industry. This interview chronicles that story.

“I loved the script. It’s such a wonderful tale about a rarely explored topic,” Michael remarks. “The quality of writing allowed me to explore the perspectives of these characters in interesting, cinematic ways. I really had a lot to work with.”

Born from a stage play penned by lead actor Andrew Justvig, the production began life in a somewhat unorthodox fashion, but it was the crew’s resourcefulness that ultimately bore fruit. Adaptation began with a simple yet effectual realization – one that would determine the approach of the project in its initial phases of conception.

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

“Initially, we planned to shoot it as a staged reading, so when Robin (the director) first got in touch, the request seemed pretty straightforward,” Michael recalls. “He asked me to show up with a few cameras and record a run-through on stage, but after I read the screenplay, I felt like it needed to be adapted into a narrative feature. I wanted to inspire and empower those living with CP, but also aspired to educate those who know little about it. I knew a feature film would be the most appropriate way of capturing these feelings. I was determined to get it right, and in the end, we made it happen.”

Working with a small team and a fixed budget, Michael remains convinced that the story was the most integral element of the movie. “It facilitated creativity in all facets of the production,” he notes.

 

 

 

 

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

“Bringing Andrew’s vision to life was our principal aim. Everything else was secondary. We all understood what the film represented and what it was trying to communicate. When we reached out to prospective talent and crew, the response was overwhelming. Everyone knew it was a relatively small passion project, and that certain concessions would have to be made. Ultimately, that didn’t matter, because a belief in the film’s central message is what materialized. That was an incredible environment to be a part of. It fostered this amazing ethos of collaboration and cooperation. The atmosphere was electric… We all shared a mutual desire to make great art, and that energy was palpable as we worked.”

The production also benefitted from a long-established industry practice: pulling favors. “This film addresses cerebral palsy with such a sobering clarity. Its narrative potency motivated all of us to call in favors, because we all wanted to see it completed. Locations belonged to friends and family members. PAs were a collection of daughters, brothers, and boyfriends. People were willing to contribute because they had faith in Andrew, and they wanted to play a part in realizing his vision.” Combining his experience with the crew’s keenness, Michael counts his lucky stars. “Their assistance was essential. They maintained poise and professionalism in very difficult circumstances, and I’m so thankful for that.”

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

 

“We avoided glamorous lighting set-ups, and when we made changes, they were minimal. It’s a gritty, real story, and I didn’t feel the material lent itself to beauty.”

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Michael’s readiness to praise his colleagues speaks to a stalwart method of working – and it doesn’t stop with his crew. The Anxiety of Laughing boasts an array of top-notch acting talent, with many surfacing from theatrical or non-professional backgrounds. “I think we’re all indebted to the work of the actors. They all pulled through in a way that was remarkable. This film contains long stretches of dialogue, so they all had a lot to remember. In the beginning, it was supposed to be a play, so adapting it for the screen required a lot of forethought. Put simply, there wasn’t time to rework the conversations into a typical beat-for-beat film style.”

Conscious of the issues that often plague stage-to-film adaptations, Michael expresses his preference for diverse visuals, and a desire to avoid any ‘stagey’ aesthetics. In order to reflect the authenticity of the film’s ‘real-life’ concerns, he implemented a specific style.  “We avoided glamorous lighting set-ups, and when we made changes, they were minimal. It’s a gritty, real story, and I didn’t feel the material lent itself to beauty. We avoided filters, and I refrained from utilizing any elaborate movements. I think those choices bolstered the tone of the piece.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

Photo 2021 © Luis Navarro

A mishmash of comedy, social realism and vérité -style chamber drama, Michael was dealing with disparate genre elements, yet he managed to consolidate them into one visually cohesive piece. “I wasn’t fancy. I made sure every creative decision made sense from a storytelling standpoint. I didn’t want to do anything too experimental because that wouldn’t have suited the film. I wanted to keep it real, so I was very conservative with the choices I made.”

Though somewhat traditional in his approach, Michael was also acutely aware of avoiding clichés, especially when implementing Andrew’s story ideas. It’s this perspective that best encapsulates the film’s central message. “This story isn’t tragic, it’s the complete opposite.  We can only hope that those who watch it will find it inspirational and uplifting. Making it certainly was.”

 

 

 

 

You can keep up to date with The Anxiety of Laughing and its release schedule on Instagram