A ROOM FULL OF NOTHING: The Whole World Has Disappeared, And It’s All One Couple’s Fault
Filmed and released before the devastating impact of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States, director Elena Weinberg’s A Room Full Of Nothing dramatically thrusts audiences into a post-apocalyptic version of a city that’s increasingly become unfriendly to the artists who helped make it one of America’s creative landmarks — Austin, Texas.
The first feature film produced by Weinberg and co-star/writer Duncan Coe’s TurtleDove Films, A Room Full Of Nothing can be streamed on Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and FandangoNOW.
In this environment lives Barry (played by Coe), a stage actor whose confidence is rocked by a negative review of his soon-to-close play, and Phyllis (played by Ivy Meehan), a struggling artist whose work is unsupported by her friends and the fine art community at large.
After a disastrous exhibition of Phyllis’ newest painting, she and Barry make what turns out to be the most monumental decision of their lives during a nighttime venting session in their backyard: they ask the Universe to make all of humanity — both good and bad — disappear.
The next morning, Barry and Phyllis’ wish is fulfilled as they learn they’re the last two people on Earth. In a deserted Austin, the couple enjoys the infinite freedom they get out of their fateful decision: free travel, no laws or regulations to consider, and all the privacy they could ask for.
Yet as the unbelievable circumstances of being humanity’s sole survivors unfold, Barry and Phyllis’ survival may be as endangered as their relationship is, and their supposedly facetious request for “alone time” may be impossible to undo.
Partially funded through indie filmmaking icons Mark and Jay Duplass’ “Hometown Heroes” production grant through Seed&Spark, A Room Full Of Nothing premiered last March at the Method Fest International Film Festival in Beverly Hills. The film then made its Texas debut at last November’s Austin Film Festival. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, A Room Full Of Nothing wrapped up its theatrical run this past March at the Lake Travis Film Festival.
As the final feature production that Weinberg and Coe worked on before departing Austin for their current bailiwick of Los Angeles, A Room Full Of Nothing’s cinematic depiction of Texas’ deserted capitol city would become a hauntingly real sight in the Lone Star State and around the world as the first few months of the coronavirus outbreak passed.
Just as the film’s characters questioned their talents amid the rejection of their un-supportive friends, Weinberg and Coe felt as much disillusionment with their beloved hometown’s hostility to its creative community as they did doubt about their artistic abilities. From those concerns came A Room Full Of Nothing, a movie that’s part post-apocalyptic drama/part commentary on the personal challenges of creative life.
Chris Hadley: You’ve described this film as “a break-up letter to Austin”. In what ways have your professional and personal experiences — both good and bad — inspired the creation and concept of A Room Full Of Nothing?
Elena Weinberg (director, A Room Full Of Nothing): I’ll let Duncan answer this one more in depth since he wrote the script, but I will say that a lot of the little moments (in the film) — like the painful audition scene and the struggling artist not being appreciated at her own gallery opening — are definitely pulled from real experiences.
Austin touts itself as an artist-friendly city, but more often than not (in non-COVID times, anyway), you’re playing shows, opening art galleries, having screenings, etc to empty rooms. It’s rare to get paid to do art there, which is so crazy for a city that calls itself the “Live Music Capital of the World”. It’s just hard to sustain yourself there. So, in that sense, we realized we needed to break up with the city we loved (and still love) so much in order to find fulfilling work that pays the bills.
Duncan Coe (writer/co-star, “Barry”, A Room Full Of Nothing): Elena and I were both born and raised in and around Austin. We got art degrees from St. Ed’s and were involved in multiple ways in the Austin arts scene — as actors, producers, patrons, and Elena as a member of a local theatre awards council. So we’ve seen all the ups and downs. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in Austin — for a place that claims to be the custodian of the “weird” — a lot of the weird has died off with nobody taking up the mantle.
Music and theatre venues are getting shut down constantly. There’s just no space left for us. The Austin City Council sold off all the best parts of the city to commercial real estate developers, and I know how bitter that sounds. So for Barry and Phyllis it is very much struggling (to live) in a city that doesn’t value art — unless it means patronizing a festival where badges are $1,000 a pop.
CH: A Room Full Of Nothing has been compared to films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and other post-apocalyptic “last people on Earth” movies. Did those inspire you in any way, or did you set out to make yours a more unique take on the subgenre?
Duncan: Is inspire the word? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I love that movie. Easily top 10 for me. I guess my writing has always gravitated toward the supernatural — even when I thought I wanted to be a playwright. I think I just find comfort in stories that don’t fit into a box. I think it’s easy to come onto the scene with a movie that fits into the four boxes, but it’s more rewarding to do something that isn’t going to please everyone.
Elena and I have had several conversations where we talked about how easy it would be to do a solid indie rom-com and how we could knock a movie like that out of the park and solidify ourselves in that manner, but the idea felt disingenuous.
I remember sitting in the audience at SXSW (South By Southwest) during the year where the programming for the narrative competition block had half a dozen movies that were coming-of-age stories and I always kind of thought, “I don’t want to be programmed in a block with a bunch of movies that are exactly like mine. We’d rather do something a little off kilter that provokes people than something safe.”
My favorite feeling in the world is someone coming up to me at the end of the movie and saying, “what did the ending mean?” and then being able to clap back at them and say “what do you think it meant?” Whatever their answer, it’s the right answer.
CH: Discuss how you conceived the film’s story and characters, and how those elements developed throughout the course of pre-production.
Elena: We knew we wanted to work with specific people, so we made sure to meet with them early on and give them a say in how their characters developed. Ivy (Phyllis) and Danielle Evon Ploeger (who plays Phyllis and Barry’s hyper-critical friend Suzie) are two in particular that were really important for us to bring on early on.
Duncan: The idea of the story came out of money limitations. We knew we were going to be making a movie for no money, so my first thought was, “what about a movie with no actor? We’d save so much money on actors’ fees.” Bam! The “last man on Earth” idea was set. Then the discussion came to location (filming) and we knew we could save (money) if we did a “cabin in the woods”-style movie. So a single person, cabin in the woods…a loner during the apocalypse in their own home. Bingo.
I started writing that and showed Elena some pages (of the script). She was like, “what if we gave him just one other person to talk to so the dialogue isn’t so boring?” So the single character became a couple. Then the main conflict came from the debates I have with myself about my worthiness on a day-to-day basis. “What the hell are we doing this whole art thing for?” That’s what Barry and Phyllis try to answer.
CH: How did you find the film’s cast, and how did the extra funding you received from the Duplass brothers’ “Hometown Heroes” filmmaking grant boost the quality of A Room Full Of Nothing’s production?
Elena: The cast was pretty much a melting pot of people we’ve worked with before, either in TurtleDove capacity or in the commercial world, that we wanted to see more of. No auditions really took place for any of this. Having the Duplass name on our film really opened things up locally for us, though. We were able to write letters to locations and local restaurants and plead our case for in-kind lunches and location fees in the name of “Hometown Hero” status, which, to be perfectly honest, above pretty much anything else, we could not have made the movie without.
Duncan: Out of the 17(?) days of principal photography, I think we got all but two meals donated. That came from cold calls to local restaurants being like, “look, we’re making this thing, it’s local, we’re for real, people believe in us, we’ll promote your business in any way we can, please donate a meal for ten people.” Most everyone came through.
CH: Austin continues to be a rapidly changing city, which makes living there increasingly harder for its creative community. Talk about the role that Austin plays as a character in and of itself in this film, plus the recognizable locations/characteristics of the city that are represented in A Room Full Of Nothing.
Elena: Like I said earlier, Austin is an artistic city that pays virtually none of its artists. It’s incredibly hard to sustain an artistic life there without spending most of your hours grinding it out in the service industry or some sort of day job. Right now, it feels like the artistic community diminishes as the tech startup life flourishes in Austin. While we didn’t necessarily go (in) that direction with the story, it’s definitely a nod to the disappearing opportunity we were experiencing.
CH: In filming A Room Full Of Nothing (before the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown was instituted), how did you end up pulling off the sequences that took place when Austin was literally empty?
Duncan: It turns out Austin likes to party hard on Saturday nights. which means Austin is dead on Sunday mornings. So a couple hours of camping out in strategic locations got us the shots we needed of an empty downtown, except for the shot of an empty I-35. That was some movie magic. I’ll never tell the secret sober. Oh yeah — my drink of choice is a tequila soda if you ever want to bribe me.
CH: Was it a matter of timing, or did you have to convince people to leave parts of the city so the desolation depicted in the film could be visually represented? Was it both?
Elena: 100% timing. There was one day where we had to rework our whole shot list because there were a lot more kids and dogs in a park than the previous (three) scouts of the location, but we made it work.
CH: What impact has making A Room Full Of Nothing had on you, especially given where we are now in a world that has already seen deserted spaces because of the coronavirus lockdown?
Elena: It’s wild, really. We never planned to release the film in a worldwide shutdown — we had a deal in place long before any of this started happening — so it was really just lucky timing on our part. It definitely feels like a different movie than when we made it in light of what’s going on in the world right now. We had lots of people texting us right when it came out about how Austin felt “just like A Room Full Of Nothing” which was really crazy.
Duncan: I guess there’s a sense of accomplishment that I always kind of expected there to be but (I) didn’t quite know if I would ever get to that point. This was our first film and it was very much an exercise in getting it done and (it was) a labor of love.
We always planned to do a festival run (for the film) and then if people liked it we’d find a way to bring it online, (but) we never expected to get a sales agent and a distributor right after our first festival, which just kind of supports the idea of going out and doing it. Like, anyone contemplating making the leap into a feature film: take a cue from Nike and “just do it.”
CH: How has the lockdown affected you — not just professionally (especially as it relates to getting A Room Full Of Nothing to audiences and the other projects you’ve been working on), but also in a personal sense?
Elena: We are both so lucky that we have full-time jobs in production that didn’t stop when the lockdown started , so a lot of the effect the lockdown has had on us has been personal. I’ll let Duncan give his own personal perspective, but for me, it’s been a lot of longing to see people who aren’t my work friends (although I love them) and wanting to figure out how to bring more “green” into our apartment. We started this lockdown in a super beige concrete box of an apartment and I’ve basically just been hoarding plants to try to keep a grasp on the outside world.
Duncan: Yeah, the lockdown has kind of been our own personal “Room Full of Nothing” — where we’ve really questioned the things that make us happy. Turns out it’s nature (thus, the 1,000 succulents that now adorn our bookshelf) and art (thus, the brand new recital piano taking up space in our otherwise tiny efficiency apartment in Koreatown). Just as (it was) with Barry and Phyllis.
CH: Now that you’ve left Austin for Los Angeles, what has your time spent in Austin, and the experience of making A Room Full Of Nothing, taught you about the demands, rewards and disappointments of being artists?
Elena: For me, it’s taught me that the same disappointments will follow you anywhere, but that there are actually places that will pay you for your expertise.
Duncan: 100% what she said. I was looking for work in Austin for a year straight and couldn’t get a phone interview to save my life. But people in LA will actually hire you to do the thing that you’re good at. The hustle is the same, though. Still have to put yourself out there to get noticed.
Find out more about A Room Full Of Nothing on its official web site: