Alex Beh, Actor, Writer, Director
Interview by Laura Piety
I’m sitting in the Hollywood outpost of a chic boulangerie, amidst the shiny bustle of Los Angeles types grabbing breakfast and a latte. A stone’s throw from Melrose Avenue and Paramount Studios, the chatter around me is mainly industry focused, as is the norm for a mid-morning meet in this part of town.
Hugging my bucket of coffee and perusing the breakfast menu, I’m waiting for Alex Beh, an emerging filmmaker who has spent the last seven years in LA doing good work and diligently climbing the Hollywood ladder through a series of commercials, acting gigs and good humored short films that speak to his keen directorial eye and unique visual aesthetic. After a committed stint in the city making friends and connections, gathering a close knit network of peers, producers, DPs and casting agents, to name but a few invaluable playmates, he’s now on the cusp of his next career chapter, catalyzed largely by the completion of his first feature film of his own direction, Warren.
Currently doing the rounds at film festivals across the county, Warren, in short, is a wonderful movie about a guy trying to get a girl back, but if you strip back the surface is actually a far more comedic and surprisingly poignant look at a dreamer choosing the road less traveled, fighting for lost love and its resurrection, and negotiating family hardship. It has taken over a decade to get from conception to sale, and with its semi- autobiographical note, is clearly a picture close to Beh’s heart.
Alex arrives dressed in the kind of Hipster-Bro-Hollywood attire that befits this boy-meets-man, curly hair amuck and sneakers a go-go, pulled together in a kind of bizarrely polished style that actually… works. He’s all intrepid over-familiar energy with a genuineness that can sometimes be mistaken for Hollywood front. It’s not. A true creative, his heart on sleeve moments quickly slip into high octane energy that can manifest into ‘life of the party’ personas at the flick of a switch. Having known Alex for the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching him grow up, evolving his desire for approval, love and emotional vulnerability from an achilles heel to the very thing that makes his story-telling wonderfully unique and foundational to his future career, something that clearly shines through in Warren.
Meeting him today, he seems to have settled into his skin in a new way. With this first feature behind him, and a second on the way (much like a new child), Alex is carving his own niche and genuinely making it happen. The previous day he’d been with his lawyers sorting distribution rights for Warren while pulling together the team for his second feature-length, The Next Darling, which is currently in development.
“It would actually be fun to do a movie about an interview, a bit My Dinner With Andre, you know?” he notes as he tucks into his eggs and I switch the recorder on. I nod and smile politely. I haven’t seen it. My film knowledge, even though I’ve made a bit of a foray into Hollywood myself, is not what it should be. Alex’s, on the other hand, is pretty exemplary. With a particular penchant for John Hughes you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could quote the genre better. I have no doubt that Alex’s work will build to have a recognizable feel too, his brand concisely embodying a classic aesthetic that holds a tight appreciation for the way movies were made in the past. There’s an honesty to them too, as he isn't afraid to tackle the harder issues of life, present and future themes through a truthful, comedic lens. And so, on the note of story style, inspiration and curation, we start the interview.
As a kid, what was the thing that sparked your love for motion pictures?
I don’t know where it started, it’s probably just something that was in me, but my Mom’s also a drama teacher, and she exposed me to film and theater from a young age. I remember seeing Grease on stage and really loving its theatrics. I also wanted to watch The Blues Brothers all the time.
We’d watch plays and movies very critically as a family, so early on I started realizing what was a good performance… and what wasn’t. I guess the awareness of the truth of a scene, capturing its essence, and moment, was a skill instilled in me from my Mom.
Growing up, my brother was in and out of the hospital a lot, so we’d have to make the hard times fun and interesting. My Mom always had a great way of making people laugh during times of hardship. I had this endless goal of making my sister laugh. My Dad’s also a bit of a goofball and had quite a sarcastic nature to him, but would observe moments in a really truthful, funny way. In improv I continued to learn how much truth there is in comedy, and how important it is in every scene. An interaction with a waiter for example, can be really boring or funny, depending on how true you play it.
I guess it also came from just following what you’re supposed to do in life. In 2005 I found myself at the southern tip of Africa looking out to the bottom of the ocean. Instead of feeling like I should stay there and help people, digging wells or something, which is what I expected, I had this sense that I had to go to LA, be an actor and make films.
Another weird thing that happened when we were in Nairobi. Star Wars released there the same day as it did across the world. It made me realize that it was a business I wanted to get into because it was such an influential medium and a communication tool that could speak truth into global culture.
How did you make the transition from improv to LA?
In the summer of 2005 my Mom called me and told me she was divorcing my Dad. My brother had been sick a bunch too, so I went back to Chicago after college, instead of going to LA or New York to be an actor. I wanted to make the most of the town while I was there and knew it had a film, improv and commercial scene. My three step goal was to get an agent, book some commercials and get involved in film and improv. Second City, Improv Olympic and the Piven Theater are all based there.
I started at Second City and had a moment that I guess everyone wants, the teacher pulled me aside and told me I had to keep acting, that I was in the right place. It was this weird moment of a voice coming through someone else telling me, “You got this.”
So I continued in the improv scene and absorbed it all. It lay the foundation for everything I wanted to do. I then made my first short film, Sugar, and brought it to LA.
You’re a little further along in your career now. What advice would you give to someone just pitching up in LA, feeling this is what they’re supposed to do?
I would say you should go to improv classes and root yourself in understanding how a scene works without a script. I would also recommend acting classing and doing your work. No one's going to pluck you out, give you the 'golden ticket' and out you on set unless they know you can deliver. The thing that gets you that golden ticket is doing the work and studying the craft.
Improv is helpful for writing too, it’s foundational for helping you think on your toes and create something out of nothing, which is what you’re doing when you pen a script.
One of the first things I learned was to 'follow the fear' and to do the thing that scares the hell out of you.
Also, go out and meet people!
What about for someone who’s been here for 3 years and wondering whether it’s going to happen for them?
You really have to start asking yourself the hard questions- do you love this enough to be broke? Will you do whatever it takes to get by to accomplish the goal of doing well, whatever that looks like for you? Do you like the town? Do you like the people? You know, you have to love it all.
Also, I'd ask what you were doing to create your own success. This is just my way of doing it, but I'd say raise 5 or 10k, write a 5-10page script and go make a short film. Use a cool DP that you know and proper equipment.
Sugar was a pretty daunting film to make, it was a complicated shoot for my first one. I went for it. It was imaginative and fun and people loved it, but I don't know if you have to do something as extensive as that… but because it was my first film I kinda thought “Why not?” Now I think more about producing as I go too, I think you have to understand what is simple enough to accomplish within the means you have.
Start writing your feature scripts and don't worry about the budget. Just go and write the script you want to see on the screen.
Lastly, how are you contributing to the town? You can't just expect LA just to give to you. What are you giving to the movie industry? You give by working your ass off and getting great at what you do, it just takes a long time. I think Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours is so necessary! The industry needs you to have 10,000 hours because you're contributing to the narrative of culture globally.
Be excellent and keep working at it.
Let’s talk about the process and emotional journey of making Warren.
Warren started on October 6 2003. It was a notion I had about a guy trying to get a girl back. I’d just been through a break up and realized this was something I needed to write. I originally thought I wanted to work with kids, but when I had the idea for this movie, it changed my path.
In 2004 my musician friend Matt Wertz called me and asked me to go on the road with him. While I was on the road I was writing ideas for the movie and trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, we were also getting pursued by managers who wanted to rep Matt.
One of these guys managed the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day and he exposed me to Hollywood. We were getting flown out, put up in hotels, driven around in town cars and being taken out to these wonderful dinners in Beverly Hills. I remember one night we were at Morton's and I saw Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Kathy Bates at a table. I realized I loved the town, the energy, the opportunity, and California in general. At the time I was just this tour manager who didn't know what he was doing.
One early morning a car picked me up and we were driving along Sunset Boulevard, going West towards the 405, and it was just beautiful. It was just that stretch when you leave West Hollywood and go into Beverly Hills, the sun was rising and it was this epic moment. I knew I was supposed to be here.
Anyway, back to Warren. I had this book, ‘All You Need to Know About the Music Business’ and I lost it on the last leg of the tour. It signified an exit from that and an entrance to the movie business. I bought Final Draft and wrote a draft of Warren, but shelved it.
Fast forward to August 2006. I went on a run and I guess I was kind of praying for an outline for the movie. I had years of notes, but no outline. Then, a couple of weeks later I had a moment with a girl, it looked like it was going to be a relationship, but didn't happen. That was the catalyst for realizing I had to write the thing. I came home on Friday and wrote 30 pages. The next day I wrote 80. I had the first draft.
In 2007 I came to LA again to learn about the landscape and got a read from a guy at Anonymous Content. He told me to get a 1 million dollar budget together, make it and take it to festivals.
But it took 5 years to get it going. Finally in 2012 we knew it was time. Our first producer Dallas Sonnier sat me down and said: “It’s a failure if we don’t get this movie made this year.” We got it made. We had investors interested for a while and finally got it all together. Orian Williams came on to produce and the team pulled together too. We cast amazing actors, Jean Smart, John Heard, Sarah Habel to name but a few. I played Warren.
It was a hard, but exhilarating 9 year journey. In 2013 we finished it and we’re now in the process of selling it. With WARREN I got to make a movie that I wanted to go see. It's now a wonderful experience to enter the next project knowing all the elements and comprehensive processes of making a film, selling and distributing it, to releasing a picture and finally letting it live in the place it needs to.
I can now approach the next one highly considering all the pieces.
What does that process of selling and distribution look like?
To quote our sales agent, it’s a buyer’s market. The market is a bit flooded, there’s a lot of movies getting made and people have to sift through a lot of content with how available everything is. It’s becoming easier for people to shoot things and create content.
There’s a real importance of name value on a movie. And there’s a reason why these people are names, it’s because they’re great actors, have done well and people love seeing them. It’s a win-win if people see valuable names on the cast list. That’s what sells. Sometimes it’s a little unfortunate, but it is what it is. They’re trusted on set and in the marketplace.
So I guess there’s a reasonable and wonderful magic to the process.
What is your definition of success?
I grew up by the lake in Winnetka Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago, otherwise known as ‘The North Shore’. Success is instilled in you early on, but what it takes to be successful wasn’t really touched on. I had a rough time with friends growing up and felt like I was alone quite a bit. My family rooted me on, which has shaped my view of what success is.
There's a typical end goal in Hollywood: make millions of dollars, win an Oscar, buy houses and all of that study. But, I think the most important elements of success have to with accomplishing goals, keeping your word and seeing something come through from the onset of the idea to the completion of it.
Each film is a success. Sometimes a great meeting can be a success. It’s important to have the big things, but it feels more about accomplishing the things you’ve set out to do and being cool with that.
Oscars and houses come as a symptom of continuing to do good work. If you’re interested in those things, then great. I feel like being founded in truthful principles and serving people are also elements of success that often get overlooked.
Can you talk a little about the difference between celebrity and talent?
With the preface that I don’t know anything and I’m by no means an expert at this, I think there are wonderful celebrities. I also think a person can look back when they’re 45 and with the benefit of hindsight employ a different wisdom to when they were in their 20s or 30s….
I think celebrity can be a by-product of excellent work. I admire people like Scorsese, Spike Jonze and Matt Damon. Irrespective of how pretentious it might sound, I look up to Rothko, Picasso and even Radiohead, people who became celebrities as a by-product of their work.
I think good talent can beget celebrity or Academy Awards and things like that, but it’s hard to come by. Talent is impressive anywhere it is, regardless of context. It’s just about being a hard worker.
Then, I guess there are celebrities who found fame through a popular TV show or performance in a movie… or other means. There’s celebrity without talent and you take from that what you will. But there’s also under-appreciated talent. Or talent where you’re a hardworking actor, you make a living and get to have your own life. There's just different kinds of fame and I don't think celebrity is supposed to be the goal. It doesn't have much behind it unless it comes with hard work and talent.
I love the notion of being so good at what you do, like a Paul Thomas Anderson or someone like that, that you can do anything you want but you don’t need to necessarily get recognized. I guess there’s this weird fusion of fame and talent and it can be wonderful for some and not so wonderful for others.
What do the next few years hold for you?
I’d like to continue making a movie a year. The goal of my team is for me to be on a show and continue to book roles as an actor, while developing and making movies. So getting this next picture going… and the next, and hopefully working on myself and becoming a more excellent human. I think the future looks like a lot of fun.
For more information visit http://www.warrenthemovie.com
Images: (1) Steven Taylor (2) Paulo Dourado (3) Abby Ross