If You Find Yourself at Wits End, You’re in Luck: An Interview with Mike Finazzo by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

The bittersweet tale of the sometimes joys and frequent pains in the life of a young(ish) African-American stand-up comedian, Wits End marks the directorial debut of Mike Finazzo, himself a local Baltimore comic.

Set in the sparsely populated clubs that mark the lonely destinations of it’s hero’s road show, the film mixes humor and pathos in equal measure. As Jason Barnes, the protagonist, makes his way from gig to gig, meeting with both laughter and jeers, he questions his life’s mission and whether it isn’t time to give it all up and transition to something more stable.

Made on a very tight budget, Wits End reflects its limited means in a lo-fi aesthetic that is initially distracting, but to which the viewer gradually becomes accustomed as the emotional power of the script and the fine central performance by Jason Weems (also a Baltimore-based comedian) take over. At under 90 minutes, it is well worth watching, especially for those who appreciate their jokes tempered with meaningful drama.

witsend-1Wits End (Mike Finazzo, 2016)

One of the major strengths of the movie is how it never oversells Jason’s existential dilemma. In part this is because of Weems’ pleasantly laid-back vibe, but also because of Finazzo’s gentle hand with his major plot revelations. Always a minimalist, he bides his time, waiting until we are fully ensconced in one kind of story before switching gears in a final dramatic coup de grâce that packs a poignant punch (delivered with a light touch, however).

Finazzo also creates moving and amusing supporting characters who throw obstacles and opportunities in Jason’s way as he seeks liberation from a past trauma. By the time the film ends, we’ve grown to appreciate all of them, quirks and all, and are happy to see Jason move beyond the crisis that had placed him very much at “wit’s end.”

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Wits End played this past October at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival, and is now available for streaming online, in a “pay what you want release.” Just visit the film’s website (www.witsendfilm.com), where a “donate here” link takes you to PayPal if you choose to contribute.

To mark the occasion, I reached out to Finazzo with a few questions about the film’s origins and production history. What follows is a brief digest of our email exchange, edited for clarity.
jason-and-kelly What made you want to make a film?

I’ve always wanted to make movies and have had a few failed cracks at it. In 2010, I started doing stand-up comedy and got fairly successful at it and started traveling a lot with it. That’s kind of where the movie started, in a way. After a few years on the road, I decided that I missed trying to make movies and kind of HAD to make one. Being a comedian, I decided to write about what I knew. So I thought of this movie about a lonely comedian on the road and it became the movie that I had to make.

When did you start writing the script?

I started writing in March, 2015.  We worked off a detailed 50-page outline that had some dialogue in it but was more focused on every beat that each scene had, descriptions, etc.

What did you shoot on, and how long did the production and post-production last?

We shot on a Canon Rebel t3i, for 18 days in August/September, 2015. I edited the movie for several months after that and we started screening the film in February, 2016, and all through last summer.

How did you fund the film?

The movie was actually all funded by comedy. Whenever we needed a little more money, I would take a stand-up gig that I didn’t want to do and put all of the money into the film.

How did you find your crew, including cinematographer Kevin Brennan, sound recordist Rex Zareiff and editor Len Derringer?

Kevin and Zareiff are old friends of mine that are super talented and doing great work in art and film in their own rights. When I wanted to make a movie, I started with them because they’re great guys on top of being talented. Len Derringer is a pseudonym. I edited the movie but got sick of listing my own name in the credits. I knew a woman that did porn and used Gwen Derringer as her stage name. So I decided to have Gwen’s much nerdier brother Len edit the film.

Any production difficulties to share?

No major production difficulties or drama … the toughest thing was scheduling. Everyone worked for free so we scheduled around their availability. Everyone in the movie is so talented and in demand, so it was tough juggling everyone’s limited availability. For example, Jason Weems is an amazing comedian. He’s been on a few different seasons of Last Comic Standing and he tours regularly. He’s really in demand as a comedian but he’s also a father of three. Scheduling the 18 days was definitely a challenge but worth it because he’s so great.

I agree! Congratulations on completing the film.

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Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.

Once again, to watch Wits End (and to make a voluntary contribution), visit www.witsendfilm.com.