Christian Detres: I watched Situations, the short you directed, wrote, and acted in, and was impressed as all hell. I’m thinking, “Look at this new talent I’ve never seen before!” and IMDb’d you out of curiosity. Dude, you’re in everything! I love your work. Funny how much a beard can change a face: Mayans, Vinyl, Orange is the New Black, Parks and Rec, Twin Peaks! I’ll compliment your acting, I guess, because, yo, chameleon man. You obviously have range, but you are really, really good at playing a dickhead.
Greg Vrotsos: Hahaha, it’s just what I’ve always kind of wanted. I just love disappearing into parts, and it’s like, you know, it’s just fun. All my friends who know me know how much I actually love comedy and that I laugh more than anything else. I had been kind of typecast for playing heavies, but I think “Orange” is the thing that shifted that. When I first got on the show, Officer Hellman, my character, was the new heavy, but the writers really tapped into the comedy of it all. That sarcastic, witty, frat-boy dickhead was really, really fun to play.
CD: I would not have assumed that you weren’t down with comedy at all. I think from the first couple of lines you deliver in Situations, I mean, the comedy bones inside you are evident; they’re obvious.
GV: Listen, man, it’s like one of those things. Frustration can kind of be a blessing, right? It’s a beautiful thing when you recognize, “This is where people lose hope; they give up. And this is how people push through.” I wanted to do something more free, something more my vibe: less heavy, still snarky. Keep the comedy, but let’s make this guy real. You can audition and read for parts and say, “I can play this, and I can play that,” but if you want these other roles, you’ve got to pin it down and shoot it yourself. A big part of getting “Situations” moving was wanting to break through the clichés and what people mostly see out of me. You have to put it out there if no one else is doing it for you.
CD: I’m covering a lot of the shorts for the Richmond International Film Festival. I’ve talked to a bunch of directors; I’ve done a bunch of interviews. There’s a thing about yours and another one, which I hope you get the opportunity to see, called Candice by Tyler Martin. He wrote, directed, and starred in his piece as well. The thing that strikes me the most about Situations and Candice is the dialogue. Absolutely flawless. I was sucked in immediately. The acting in both is remarkable as well. I want to attribute that to the talent knowing the intent and subtext of every line—as if he is inside the writer’s mind (which he is). Being the director also makes sure that the take you keep is the one the actor feels most confident about (because duh, you’re the same person). When Nick, your character, is on the call with his brother—I could see that conversation happening exactly that way in real life. It was incredibly natural and delivered by an actor intimately connected to the script. It was really well done.
I’m writing this piece pointed at young and/or up-and-coming filmmakers who are going to be at the festival this coming week. For their information, what are the differences and challenges (or benefits) when writing and directing for yourself? How is it different? How does it differ between when you’re writing for an eventual cast?
GV: First of all, I love conversations and dialogue. I’ve always been one of those guys who just sits back and listens. I love observing people go through emotions. I feel that listening is my strongest quality when it comes to writing dialogue. When I’m crafting a scene, I start from the very beginning of the conversation. I go from the initial “Hey, how you doing,” all the way to how the characters exit the exchange. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll use all of it, but from there, it’s about trimming the fat and expanding where the flow feels natural or interesting. I really play with it, always saying it out loud as I write.
Beats are very important to me, as are space, subtext, and all the nuanced elements. It’s easier to write words for myself, but when I’m writing for other characters, I aim to give them distinct voices. You don’t want to fall into the trap of having all the characters start to sound the same. To avoid that, you have to figure out who each person is and where they come from, even if that backstory is never explicitly stated in the actual story. From a writer’s perspective, you have to give each character a motive and their own unique mindset. To me, that’s what makes writing fun.
I honestly believe that my ability to tap into naturalism comes from socializing a lot, talking to many different people, and being both vulnerable and open. If that makes any sense.
CD: That makes perfect sense. So much of it comes across like the conversations I have with myself in the shower. When I’m telling myself what I should have said when I was talking to that person like three hours ago. Like that mirror sequence when he’s rehearsing his banter with an impending date he really doesn’t want to go on. I mean, that’s me right there. As far as I can tell, that’s everyone. It was such an honest scene—fucking hilarious too.
GV: Haha, me too. I’ve met people randomly or through friends, and come to the end of that exchange, I’m walking away, reflecting on the conversation, and I’m like, “What the fuck did you just say to that person? ‘The hell, man?” That was so much fun to riff on. Yeah, we just let the camera roll and I just went into this self-doubting shower conversation rant with myself. Everything that you see on that screen was written, though. A lot of people think most of it was improvised.
CD: Oh, no, no, I could tell the difference. The fact that the script had a loose feel but was so refined is where my astonishment comes from. Because the delivery was very natural. I wanted to get into naturalism with you. Because that’s an elusive thing for a lot of writers. And sometimes, you know, we tend to have a lot of lofty speech, soapbox-style pontification. Rantings of woe and consequence and stuff like that—just a little too self-important. That works for Shakespeare, not so much for a verité style. What do you tap into that gives you the ability to bring that to the screen?
GV: I think it starts from what I said earlier about listening and absorbing the rhythms of conversations. That’s the foundation of it all. When you try to make dialogue sound more serious or profound than it actually is, that’s when it starts becoming either melodramatic or repetitive. It turns preachy, like standing on a soapbox.
I’ve found that stripping away the pretense allows you to communicate more effectively at eye level. You can convey love without even using the words “I love you,” for example. What we do as artists is to humanize these imaginary moments we’ve created. Actors gravitate toward this authenticity; they really just want to play. The success of a scene isn’t solely dependent on the words; it also relies on how those words are delivered.
When you make things real, raw, honest, and stripped down, both the writer and the actors have the freedom to explore the moment. The writer can showcase their talents, and the actors can play with a beat or a physical action, like the drag of a cigarette or a certain look. There’s more room for everyone to bring something to the table. I often find that less is more.
Take, for example, the moment in the bedroom scene when Chelsea says, “You know what my father told me? You get to know the real motherfucker as he’s walking out the door.” That line works so well because it comes from real experience. It’s my truth. I had a family friend tell me something similar. He meant that you don’t see someone’s true face until they stop seeking your approval. When you write what you know, tap into that experience and pin it down, it can turn into a sort of modern poetry, if that makes any sense.
CD: Having that stinger at the right place at the right time is like hitting a bull’s eye. But you really have to know where that bull’s eye is. You’ve got to be looking for it, find it, and then put it there. Yeah, aim before you shoot.
GV: There’s something beautiful about stripping away all the nonsense of Hollywood and all that big production baggage. I love independent film, and I love the collaboration of it all. You can’t do anything wrong; you really can’t. Just try things, just play, because the real moments are the ones between the lines. Think about a scene: we physically have to get across the room. And there are these words, but there’s also this subtext. We find a way to get over there, naturally. I think that’s when it becomes playful; that’s how the script kind of sings. It becomes a game. The moments you get from playing with space, words, and meaning are ones you can’t really write. Those are the moments you need to happen, but you have to allow that within the writing.
CD: Just hearing you talk about that reminds me of an old theater exercise. I was once an actor myself, a long, long time ago. We would be given the opening line of a scene and the closing line of a scene. You had to start with the opening line and then ad-lib your way to that closing line. The scene would always evolve into something completely different from where the conversation started. The cleverness lies in being able to construct a conversation that actually goes somewhere, has meaning, and ends naturally. So, it’s not like you’re just blurting out the ending line because you can’t get to it, you know what I mean?
GV: That’s a great exercise for learning to run with the ball. No need to worry about how am I going to get out of the scene? or how am I going to get to this part of the scene? When you break free and just be in the scene, you see freedom in the actor. Whether it’s a smirk, a laugh, or whatever, they can trip up on a line, and it doesn’t even matter. If it looks and sounds natural, then you can just be in the moment and play.
CD: Yeah, that just becomes part of the performance at that point.
GV: I’m a huge fan of Cassavetes, cinema verite, and that handheld style. Outside of the writing, you also have to know visually how you want things to look. It has to match the dialogue style—the realness and the rawness of it all. That’s why we favored the handheld camera for this. We didn’t do anything crazy; we kept it real, just let it be natural, and let the camera find its way around the actors.
CD: A lot of indie filmmakers often come from a production background, or they’ve spent enough time around production to focus heavily on the technical aspects like lighting, cameras, and lenses. These are things you can control, so it’s an easy focus. But I also find that there’s a certain style of acting that has become the hallmark of homegrown indie films. It’s usually not great and feels very much like “I’m in a movie.”
What stands out to me are films that have taken the time to develop natural pacing in the language. These are the films that resist the temptation to make every line profound. The dialogue should build up to its key moments in much the same way a good joke does—with timing, phrasing, and context. Everything that precedes the punchline or key moment is essentially the climb up the mountain; it’s all setup.
When I watched Situations, it struck me that you’ve prioritized these often-overlooked aspects. You’ve shown other filmmakers what needs to be emphasized. The journey to your key points in the script doesn’t have to be heavy or profound all the time. What’s important is laying a strong foundation, a bedrock if you will, upon which your key moments are staked. It’s about achieving a balance between natural language, physicality, spoken words, and camerawork. When these elements are delivered authentically, without betraying the moment, you earn a genuinely impactful climax.
GV: You nailed it right on the head. We do our best when we’re not using cheap gimmicks. Filmmaking as an art is all about human connection. Many movies have become primarily escapism.
CD: There’s a lot to escape from these days though.
GV: I do believe there’s a time and a place for it, but well, I got into the movies because they didn’t make me feel alone. Whether it’s a 90s rom-com, a Cassavetes film, or basically anything from the 70s, we forget how important it is to tell real stories. Just to show human behavior and interactions honestly. To show the complexities of characters in their flaws, it’s important. We need to see each other, and see ourselves in each other. I think that’s what makes a story like Situations relevant and important, because it’s about complex human beings being just like you, like me. Just being people. We escape to movies where the good guy is too good and the bad guy too bad. There’s no humanity there because no one is completely either of these things.
CD: I know that a lot of these things come together in the editing. How did everything we’ve been talking about influence that process?
GV: A close friend of mine named Max Goldblatt was the editor. Max and I were on the same page from the beginning. He gets it, and a lot of that is because we are both students of film. His first pass was not too far from what is on the screen. He also edited my other good friend Michael Angarano’s first feature, Avenues. I was in that too, so we all kind of know each other. Listen, we shot Situations in a span of three nights, and those weren’t long nights, you know?
One thing I can say that I’ve learned from being on sets is that the best directors are the ones who know what they want going into it, and they don’t second guess it. That contributed to there not being a massive confusion or reluctance in the editing room. That doesn’t mean they’re closed off to, you know, sporadic improvisational moments, whether technical or within the characters, but you just have to know what you want.
The first night of shooting was the phone call and the mirror scene. We shot that in five takes, in just 45 minutes. I wanted to get the magic hour in the background. That scene was with one of my close friends, PJ Byrne, who you probably know because he is in everything (Wolf Of Wall Street, Vinyl, Babylon, Green Book, Evan Almighty, etc.). We cranked that out in 45 minutes. We shot the mirror stuff, and we were kind of done. I just knew what I wanted to do. It might be crazy for some people to shoot a five-minute one-shot to open up a short film, but that’s how I wanted to tell this story. How do we get inside this character’s mind quickly? The strongest way for me was a one-shot because we know he’s chaotic. He’s all over the place, smoking cigarettes one minute and changing his mind about plans the next.
CD: I gotta say, you know Situations could be an episodic show, right? You know you have a series in there, right? Or a feature. I want to see more of this character and his world. It’s a thing with shorts; sometimes the piece is so self-contained that you don’t ever want to see it expand past its perfect little borders. But then, other times, like this, I’m dying to follow this character around and watch him do his thing some more.
GV: Well, I have good news for you then, but thank you. Let me give you a little backstory on Situations. When I was writing it, I had just gotten out of a relationship. I was in my late 30s, dating again, and realizing how treacherous it is. I was also having conversations with other people going through the same thing. In my mind, I was thinking that nobody has really explored this specific time of life—being unexpectedly unattached again, especially in Los Angeles, since Swingers. Even that movie was for people in their 20s. I felt there was no movie for people in their 30s and 40s about being forced back into the dating pool.
You go through this interesting phase where you think, “Well, I’ve gotten this far without anybody; if it doesn’t happen, big deal.” I wanted to write a feature about it, but it had been a while since I’d written or directed anything substantial. So I thought, “Let me just pin this short down, and then I’ll show it to the boys and see what they say.” They all kind of gravitated towards it and asked, “What’s the end goal?” I told them I wanted to write a feature about this. The long story longer is that we’re in production for the feature version of Situations. We’re making it like a true independent film. I want to tell this story properly. It’s a liftoff for me as a filmmaker.
CD: Excellent. I’m glad to hear that, and I will definitely watch that film. A contemporary microcosm of the moment—I don’t think that’s the right phrase I’m looking for, but you know what I mean. It has good “mouth feel,” to throw in an extraneous metaphor. I’m bad at those today, sheesh. It’s real, it’s refreshing, and it’s fanciful in its own way. Many of us aspire to have quick wits and engage in clever banter with style—a simmer of cool, like Bogart and Bacall. We dream of having the competency to connect and surf a conversation instead of crashing through one. That’s the soil in which our shower “what I should have said” confrontation retcons grow.
GV: You don’t know how many times I’ve had that conversation with myself in the mirror. We’re not alone; so many people go through this stuff in different ways and variations. Some have it worse than others, but we’re all going through the motions. Sometimes we just want to relate to someone, to have someone listen to us while we listen to them, and get out of our own way. That’s essentially what my character in Situations needs to do. He needs to get out of his own way. The smashing of the glass in the bar scene is him breaking free in a weird way. He made the decision right then and there: he wasn’t going on that date. He removed the last obstacle in his way and granted himself the opportunity to just be. When he sees Chelsea’s character dump her purse out on the street, it’s a metaphor. She’s saying, “This is me, all over the street, for you. Gaze upon my mess that is me.”
CD: There are so many lessons in all of this. Thank you so much for your time, and see you at RIFF!
Give Greg Vrotsos a follow at @greg_vrotsos