How did you come up with the term “Sabbatical?”
It was sort of a joke. I was in a relationship for many years with a guy who actually had a sabbatical program at work where every few years you got to take a chunk of time off, and it was just a term that was in my mind. It kind of mapped onto this concept—people taking a break from their relationship—really easily. I also thought it was a funny word, so I have always been enamored of it.
Do you see yourself doing a sabbatical?
I know it sounds like a dodge, but I’m not sure. I could see being in a relationship with someone who would support that kind of openness. On the other hand, I know that my insecurities would really get stirred up by it—in that sense, I’m more like Sam in the movie, who initially is very threatened and made a little nutty when Phillip suggests taking a break. So that would be a challenge for me to experience. I’m not sure I would be as graceful about it as Sam turns out to be.
Don’t you think most sabbaticals would end up being a step along the way to a breakup?
I think it’s a really interesting question. For every couple it would end up playing out differently depending on their particular issues. Where are they in their relationship, and what are their reasons for wanting to take a break? I think it is absolutely possible for a healthy couple that has gotten into a rut to do something like this. You know that point that some long-term relationships get to where the couple is not relating to each other any more, but at each other? And everything for them has become so habitual that their identity as a couple becomes more powerful than either one of them is individually? That to me is the really interesting territory for people to think about taking a sabbatical. What it is to be on your own again, making your own decisions, thinking for yourself for a while, and reconnecting with what makes you interesting, as opposed to the identity you get as a couple. There could definitely be some couples on the verge of breaking up and this would be a gentle way of doing that. You know, trying that breakup on for size before doing it. But honestly I think it would play out very differently for each couple.
A sabbatical like you define it in the film isn’t exactly for the faint of heart.
I think it’s a very powerful thing, to say we are not going to take this relationship for granted. Periodically we are going to step back and really look at ourselves and decide if we want to continue this or not. And if so, we will make a mindful decision to come back again. We will not be on auto-pilot. I think that’s a very strong and loving thing to do.
Did you write Sabbatical with the actors in mind, or did they come to you through the casting process?
Both, in a way. It wasn’t just because I was a lazy writer, but the actual script came together very late—right before we shot. I knew from the beginning that the film would be the conversation these two guys had on the day they came back from the sabbatical. I knew who the two characters were—they’re from a feature film script I wrote with my friend Erin Engman. So I wrote up a little short scene to use as an audition piece, and then we had an open casting call and that’s where I met Michael and Ross. Then the three of us got together and we basically did a workshop. I started by asking them a hypothetical: if you took a sabbatical, what would you do? And through those conversations and talking about the issues, and exploring what these characters might be experiencing, the script came together. It was a terrific process because by time we got to the shoot, Michael and Ross owned it. It was a great way to work.
Could this film have been about a straight couple or is it unique to a gay couple?
I don’t think it is unique to being a gay couple at all. While I’ve been working on this film, I’ve had conversations with people all around me, gay and straight, and this is definitely an interesting concept to people. It is just part of the culture we are in right now. People are looking for a different model for relationships moving forward that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the traditional marriage model in the past, and that goes for straight couples just as much for gay couples. I think the subject is bubbling up in our popular culture, where there are now lots of frank and socially acceptable conversations about open relationships.
What was the casting process like?
Michael: Both Ross and I read for both roles, Phillip and Sam. And when we talked about it later, we learned that we each kind of wanted the other role--I wanted to play Phillip and Ross wanted to play Sam, but we got cast the other way.
Ross: Absolutely, yeah, when I first read the treatment and the little bit of the script that I got, I gravitated more towards the Sam character. Because he’s such a gregarious, goofy, wisecracker type, that’s something in my own life I gravitate more towards. But it was a nice challenge and a nice reaction to get from (writer/director) Glenn Kiser and (casting director) Brett Greenstein, with both of them saying, “I think it could probably go either way, but this role is probably better for you.” I trust directors and casting directors implicitly. You may think you have this idea of how you’re playing the character or what you bring to the table, and you see the playback and say, “Wow, that’s the exact opposite of what I had in mind.” And I think it’s very astute. When I got to the set the first day I realized this was the character I was supposed to play the whole time.
What kind of preparation did you do before you started shooting?
Michael: When we auditioned we just read a couple of pages from what we thought was a full script for this short. But when we got cast we realized that there really was no full script, there was an idea, and Glenn really wanted our input, which really frightened me at first. We talked about the idea—what would it be like to take a sabbatical? What would this character be going through? What would it be like for you? Have you ever had anything like this in your real life? And we shared stories of our real lives and we batted around the idea together, just the three of us, and then we re-met again in a few weeks and Glenn had taken all of that personal stuff and translated it into what you will now see as the film “Sabbatical.” Because it was so personal and endearing and we listened to each other in that first meeting, the material was really rich to our own ideas and our own personal stories, so that really set the tone to get right in and act in a way I’ve never gotten to act before.
Ross: I’ve definitely worked on films where they will tell you in the audition process there is no script right now, there might not be a script when you arrive on set, and it’s just going to be a very improvisational process. “Sabbatical” was kind of in the middle—there was no script in the beginning, and it was scary at that point, because we’re opening our secrets and stories to strangers. But after Glenn, Michael and I had our little workshop session, we had a full script when we shot the movie. And it was so refreshing, because I’ve never had freedom as an actor to give so much of my personal stories and my personal experience and infuse that with the writing and the character. I’ve never had that pleasure.
How was the dynamic between you on set?
Ross: These men have been dating for several years, and they’ve known each other long before that. It’s always so difficult to create that in a believable fashion and make it look effortless. And I think the thing that helped me as an actor was Michael. He’s hilarious, he’s easy going, he’s fun to work with. He fell into that character so fast that it allowed me to play on set. We had this sort of witty banter off-screen, and then that translated into on-screen playfulness, which wouldn’t have been there. The only way this movie will work is if there are moments of light-heartedness and playfulness within the drama, and within the rather serious and risky nature of what they are proposing, which was very helpful. So thank you, Michael, for doing that.
Michael: Of course! It was wonderful the alignment of energies between Glenn, Ross and myself. We were all easy-going, no pretension types. We really listened to each other. We just picked up this wave and really rode it with respect and professionalism and lots of laughs even between the serious takes. We had a lovely safety bubble around us, respecting each other’s work and doing this process together.
So do you think Sabbaticals can work?
Ross: I don’t think the film would have asked that question if the answer was definitely no. I think they can definitely work, but it really requires so much trust and honesty, and an openness--a level of communication that I think is missing from a lot of couples. A lot of people like to assume things are going to be fine—that if you’re seemingly on the same page and have the same tastes in movies and music and this and that, that’s what constitutes a successful relationship. But I think we are reaching an age now where we don’t need each other, and I know that sounds kind of provocative and controversial, but we really don’t need each other any more in terms of the very basic necessities of life. You used to get married back in the day because you needed someone to help you on the farm and then raise children. That model has been long outdated. I mean it’s just extinct. So now we have this ability to be completely independent, and be completely self-aware and self-reliant, and the question is, do I want to give my time and my heart and my emotions to someone? If the answer is yes, we get to create an entirely new emotional reality around that.
Michael: Try thinking of a relationship like a machine that is working really well and then all of the sudden it gets stuck, and for some reason it’s not working. It’s still a good machine and you don’t want to get rid of it, but sometimes you have to take it apart and clean the gears and then put it back together so it works again. I mean, why can’t we have the same type of a thing with our relationships? And I think that we can. Dolphins in the wild, you know they pair for life, they mate for life, but then they go outside their relationships and they sleep with other dolphins and then they come back to their relationships. So I think everybody should take a trip to Sea World and explore their own lives.
Ross: And that’s why I love this movie so much. It’s constantly encouraging. It is not a betrayal of traditional relationships or traditional marriage, but a challenging of it. We’re not saying it’s wrong. If it works for people, hey, more power to you. We’re just saying constantly be striving for growth in your personal life and your life together as a couple. Always strive for that.