Inventing the “Flay” (Film/Play) with Campo Santo
In March 2020, Campo Santo was two weeks into rehearsals for Star Finch’s new play, Side Effects. Everything changed overnight as San Francisco became the first city in the United States to lockdown in response to COVID. As a team we accepted the bitter fact that the show would not go on. However, an unexpected opportunity arose in the fall of 2020 that enabled Campo Santo to take a creative leap into the unknown to complete our interrupted journey. The end result was a “flay”—a film/play mash-up.
Star Finch: Side Effects was ready. We were in rehearsals in March 2020, and then the city completely shut down.
How much time passed between realizing the play wasn’t going to get on its feet and the offer to shoot it on a soundstage?
Sean San José: We’d been on the journey for a while when we got to this exciting place in March 2020. I distinctly remember we were at Bayview Opera House rehearsing, and Ashley Smiley came downstairs: “Hey, they’re talking about shutting stuff down.” I was like, “ You’re really tripping. You think they’re going to shut down some greedy city like San Francisco? Please.” Sure enough, within twelve hours, it was shut down. I felt like it was frozen for so long.
Then Campo Santo went online as a group pretty quickly thanks to Juan Amador. I don’t know if it was an instinctual thing, but people were meeting, reading. We were doing Clika, the Campo Santo writing lab. The energy of that felt like, “how do we stay connected and stay generative?”
Our old friend Ramon Diaz, a great artist, had stepped out of theatre and into digital presentations for groups. Ramon asked, “Have you all ever thought about doing a movie?” It fell into place quickly in October.
It was such a gift when Ramon reached out. Boom. Ramon was like, “There’s a digital wall, which means you can replicate a set, which means you can film from separate locations.” And remember that in 2020 motherfuckers weren’t trying to stand next to each other, literally. This “six feet” shit was really real.
We had to be incredibly on the same page about our risks and really passionate about doing it.
Joan Osato: At that point, they hadn’t even developed rules around COVID for working in-person in film/television. There wasn’t a roadmap we could use easily. No one was doing plays, and the shutdown was so complete in the Bay Area. We had to be incredibly on the same page about our risks and really passionate about doing it. We had a crew that was all in, but we all understood how vulnerable we were. We were taking care of parents, taking care of kids.
Sean: It was like, “Wait, we can actually shoot and be twelve feet apart. Wild.” And then we could start thinking about doing it, and as long as every word of Star’s would be recorded, we were going to come out with something. On that last day, I told Joan “If we get this last scene, we’re going to have every word of the play.”
Star: The idea of the “flay” (a portmanteau of “film” and “play”) didn’t come until we had the footage. We went in to film the play, and the soundstage was going to mimic a theatre set. I almost forgot that, on top of everything else, the actors were twelve feet apart on these double sets. For the last two years that we’ve been editing with Thayer Walker and Christopher Sauceda, we have been just looking at the film where the shots of the two sets are merged and both actors are in a single frame. I felt overwhelmed.
What was the initial plan, and how did that shift over those three weekends?
Sean: November 2020
Joan: Weekends only.
Sean: Seven days total. That’s crazy, man.
Joan: The election going on.
Star: COVID, the 2020 election.
Sean: In the beginning we were like, “This is a filmed play.” Stylistically, we were looking at who on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] has done interesting renderings of performance. And we were not trying to trick people into saying we’re filmic. Then, once we got in the space, it shifted to a sitcom kind of vibe. It’s one set, two or three cameras that stay the same. So how do we make the most of that? And that’s not a bad thing when you have Star Finch’s writing.
I’m still amazed by the actors, by the crew that we got to work with. Blown away by anyone that could handle your language. But it was amazing to do a piece that you essentially couldn’t rehearse. “Oh, we did this Zoom rehearsal thing.” Kiss my ass, that’s not rehearsing. Especially the way we do it as a crew. We read our plays, I think, more than most plays get to be read. For Side Effects, we didn’t even have that natural rhythm.
I was stunned by the crew showing up in this fucking warehouse, full of anxiety, and then going, “Okay, do some shit that we’ve never done before.” It was very much a new frontier, which did not feel as thrilling as new frontier sounds. In my brain the whole time I was going, “Record it all, and then see what happens. As long as we get it all, then we can work magic with people who work in this thing called post-production—which we had never done before.
Star: Joan, for certain scenes you started sprinkling your Joanie magic where the lighting was different, you were inserting your unique vibe and flavor. Did you plan that ahead of time?
It was an actualization of that philosophy that performance can be collective in certain regards that we don’t normally have room for in a process.
Joan: Sean and I pulled apart the script when we were talking through design. We have this shorthand in terms of projection/visual design: we know things are going to go in some pretty far out, kind of crazy directions. Then, all of a sudden, we’re in a world where we are actively integrating not only visual ideas but aesthetics into, essentially, a play structure.
We did have an idea of the transitions we wanted. A lot of it was really just the regular interpretation of the script. Where our vision departed from our soap opera set were the two-dimensional side-by-side views.
Basically all of us on production had to learn all the technology on the fly, including the use of dual cameras, syncing, color correction, and lighting—which was not theatrical lighting. It was for broadcast. You give tools to a bunch of creative people, and they do some weird stuff with it.
Sean: It’s ultimately really exciting, but in editing I’d be saying to Star, “Did we make some bullshit out of your play?” We thought it was going to be a two-dimensional, trippy version of a filmed play, and that is not what it is. It’s totally different, the component pieces of actors naturally interacting with each other. Then it has the strength of the intimacy of film. Star said at one point, “Hey we need a new name for this form because this is a different style.” I think “flay” is about right. Flay: film/play.
Another gift this allowed, which we never would’ve done with the play, was for you, Star, to truly direct. I think some titling in theatre is so suspect. What does it mean, and why does it get imbalanced that way? In the way we work, the “director” is never leading on their own. The writer’s idea is leading—always.
This process allowed you to do that. we didn’t have to “do a premiere screening” by any date. We wanted to finish it for ourselves. It let Star be the directorial visionary as a writer and artist. It was an actualization of that philosophy that performance can be collective in certain regards that we don’t normally have room for in a process.
Also, the outside the box stuff was my most favorite. A lot of these moments were shot on the last day. Joan would be like, “Give me thirty minutes,” and then would just come up with this crazy beautiful, emotional visual stuff. Part of me was like, “Damn, we should have done the whole thing like that.
A thing about your work, Star, is that it always creates new worlds. Community building in the truest sense.
Star: I also learned afterwards and in the editing process that I need to unlock the restraints that I put on myself going in. Before I’m even typing out the story, I’m thinking, “Okay, we’re probably going to be in a small space, and how do we make the set not be complicated? How can I make this easier for my team to actualize?”
It wasn’t until we had the footage, and especially seeing where Joan freestyled visually, that I began to wish that the whole thing was shot with just the Bernal Hill background or a shot of Cortland Street. I only realized after the fact that it didn’t have to be in a strict “play” format. Under normal circumstances—well, that situation wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances—but we were under so much pressure that it allowed more room to think out the box.
In the writing I saw that the original set up of two separate acts wasn’t working. I started to think, what if we shuffle the scenes? We’re not on a stage. We can move things around. Once I began to shuffle scenes like a deck, it changed how we were introduced to characters. It changed the momentum. Then it became about leaning into how we could make it trippy. Overall, this process showed me to not limit myself before it’s even on the page, to trust that we’ll figure it out and take that leap.
Would y’all do a “flay’’ again?
Joan: I’d go anywhere with y’all. We’d do a “flay” again or some even more exotic animal or experiment. That was such a great experiment. I know a lot more things than I knew when going in, Star.
Just thank you, thank you for Side Effects, and thank you for the experience and for everyone. Everyone was willing to let go of our comfort zone. None of us were comfortable in doing this. I think we’re special.
Sean: A thing about your work, Star, is that it always creates new worlds. Community building in the truest sense. it also works against so much shit. Not just whyteness as theory and not just whyte supremacy in structure and culture. You look at the circumstances in which we’ve created your pieces, and there’s some heavy duty whyte bullshit to battle. This piece faced several whyte theatres on some whyte control shit. Yet Side Effects would not be stopped. That’s the power of you and the power of your spirit. And God is good. I know that. I feel that. I am affirmed of that when working with you and the spirit that happens in you.
You take us beyond apocalypses in your plays. You take us to Mars, to the spirit world, to the divine. And when Side Effects felt more squarely focused, it was the journey that you took us through that had to build new worlds. We wouldn’t have done this with any other play. That’s also Creator getting us to where we get to.
Joan: My goodness. We’re always on that cliff. That’s good. We like it there. Well, thank you, Star.