by Paul Hansen 17 March, 2022
In a creative response to the pandemic lockdowns, husband and wife team Deb Lacusta and Dan Castellaneta have written and directed The Long Isolation. The zoom movie is a clever and inventive send-up of film noir tropes. Filmed in black and white and inspired by the 1947 noir movie Lady in the Lake, The Long Isolation also features a very atmospheric music score and songs by Laura Hall.
In addition to being a writer, Castellaneta is probably best known as the voice for Homer Simpson of the long-running TV series The Simpsons. Deb Lacusta has also written for The Simpsons and voiced the role of Isabella. Together the duo has collaborated as writers on a number of projects including such plays as Frankenstein’s Daughter, Fortunes, and Shock and Aww.
I posed some questions to Dan Castellaneta and Deb Lacusta about The Long Isolation. Both also act in the movie which continues to be screened at film festivals.
Q: What was the impetus behind the creation of The Long Isolation. Are you fans of literary and film noir?
Deb Lacusta: Some ten years ago, we created the IMPROV CO-OP, a group of improviser-writers that would meet weekly to improvise and help each other with individual writing projects for TV, film, webisodes, plays, whatever. This then developed into performing long-form improvised one-acts as IMMEDIATE THEATER. But when Covid hit, the performances stopped, and we took our workshops online. We did do a live-streamed monologue show using virtual backgrounds on zoom, which worked well, and we were thinking of what else we could do while being isolated. This was before there were even vaccines, so we were looking for a project to keep us busy even while away from each other. That’s when Dan suggested doing a film noir, but on zoom. And using green screens with photographs as backgrounds to create the various noir locales.
Dan Castellaneta: I had been reading a lot of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and during the lockdown, we were watching old noir films. We were also getting tired of watching online plays and shows using zoom with multiple squares and wanted to do something that used the full screen. We were inspired by the 1947 film noir Lady in the Lake, starring Robert Montgomery as Phillip Marlowe. In that film, everything was shot from the point of view of the detective. We’d just see the suspect or witness and hear the off-screen voice of the detective. We ran with that idea, pushing the limitations of zoom to make a project that was more like a movie or television show. Deb and I made lists of the elements that make up a noir – a detective with a past, femme fatales, not-so-bright henchmen, mobsters, MacGuffin (an object that triggers the plot), evil doctors, etc. We fashioned our characters based on the actors in our company. Then we wrote a screenplay, making sure it was grounded in a detective story reality, but with as many laughs as we could fit in.
Deb: And thematically we worked with the feeling of being isolated, which we all were experiencing. We didn’t want to address Covid directly, because we were overloaded with news coverage about it and the awful toll it was taking on humanity. But we did want to evoke the sense of feeling trapped, which is why our detective, Marlowe Phillips, feels trapped about an impending marriage to his long-suffering secretary -- and he has PTSD from being held in an isolation cell in a POW prison camp. Thinking about other noirs titled The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, we came up with the title The Long Isolation. It’s what our detective goes through in the film, and it’s also the times we lived through in making of it.
Q. Film noir is obviously traditionally shot in black and white. Did you find it particularly rewarding to work in that medium?
Deb: If you are doing a period piece, and it’s a noir, it just has to be in black and white. And for us filming remotely on zoom, it totally worked to our advantage. We didn’t have to worry about color correction. Making everything black and white helped create seamlessness to the scenes. It takes the viewer into another world that isn’t here and now. We were also inspired by Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which is in black and white and has a deadpan sense of humor. The humor is unexpected and punctures the seriousness of the genre.
Dan: Also, Carl Reiner and Steve Martin used black and white in their detective story send-up, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Black and white give it more of that authentic noir feel. Also, for us, everyone had different cameras on their computers. Black and white made it easier for the film to hold together visually.
Q. Was there anything particularly challenging or memorable that happened during the course of making The Long Isolation?
Deb: We all laughed a lot. And we needed to, because at that time with no vaccines in sight and Covid cases increasing, things were pretty grim. Having this project to focus on kept us sane, and kept us connected with our fellow improv players even if it was remotely. We sent each actor green screens, lights if they needed them, and fedoras or any costume pieces they didn’t have. Because we were filming through zoom, each actor had to be their own sound and lighting person. Our amazing Technical Director Allison McSwain would talk everyone through their audio and lighting settings, but each actor’s home had different ambient sounds. So sound editing took a very long time. And we were at the mercy of each actor’s internet connections, so if glitches would occur, we would try to fix sound using another take.
Dan: Because everyone in our group is an outstanding, seasoned improviser (alums of The Second City and The Groundlings), they would add little touches to the script. For example, at the end of the film, when Deb as Vivian becomes amorous with Marlowe Phillips by kissing the camera lens, Jonathan Stark, as Phillips, adlibbed, “Honey, you’re kissing my eye.” And we absolutely kept that in the film.
Q. How do you look back on your participation in The Simpsons? Why do you think the show has been so popular?
Dan: Like most things that become successful, it’s a combination of luck, a lot of work, and the right people in the right place and time. It helped that Fox Television was a new network when The Simpsons started, and they were willing to take a chance on prime-time animation. Another major reason, I think, is that James L. Brooks was able to hammer out a deal with Fox that the show gets no creative notes from the executives. It’s not that TV executives don’t have great ideas, but a lot of them have different ideas. In many cases, the ideas might contradict each other. It’s better to stick with the cohesive vision of the people that created it. It worked for Jim Brooks when he did all those great television shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, and it worked for The Simpsons. Also, the show went against the grain of what was going on with family shows at the time. American families were presented as squeaky clean and in a lot of ways did not represent reality. The Simpsons had a different take on the American family, which made it stand out. And as to the popularity and longevity of the show, it’s because of the top-notch writing. Like the old adage says, “if it’s not on the page…”
Q. Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about The Long Isolation?
Deb: We just heard that we won Best Comedy Film and Best of New Media/Web at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. They are planning on in-person screenings sometime in the summer of 2022 TBA (click for more information). And for more information about our improv company and shows, visit our Facebook page.
Q. Would you like to tell us what your next projects are?
Dan: Covid taught us that you can still see good theater online. Nothing will replace a live theater experience, but you can create material that can still be moving or funny, and broadcast over the internet – and reach a wider worldwide audience. We’re exploring an idea of filming theater productions and streaming them. We’re at work filming one of our plays and streaming it with a theater company that puts its entire season online. I guess you could say, Covid has opened up our thinking about what theater can be.