Written by Matt Clifford, former script writer for The Young and the Restless, and directed by the show's former associate head writer Mellinda Hensley, Across the Room stars Cait Fairbanks (Tessa Porter) and Zach Tinker (Fenmore Baldwin), as well as their fellow Genoa City costars Christian LeBlanc (Michael Baldwin) and Tyler Johnson (Theo Vanderway), in addition to actress Karisa Tate as the woman who catches Zach's character's eye while on her own out-of-sync date with Tyler's character.
We talked with Across the Room director Mellinda Hensley and writer Matt Clifford about the film, which was made possible by things they learned while working on The Young and the Restless.
Soap Central: Can you tell me a little about the film and how it came about?
Mellinda Hensley: It was Matt's concept from start to finish. He came to me one day and [asked], "What would you say if we did a short that was almost all subtitles and facial expressions?"
Soap Central: I saw the Instagram post where you wrote that he started the conversation with "I've got this crazy idea." (laughter)
Matt Clifford: I just walked up to her and said "I need an honest opinion right now." I love writing comedy. I cut my teeth on sitcoms before coming to Y&R, so I love writing comedy whenever I get the opportunity. Across the Room involves two couples who are on their first dates, not a blind date, but they met on a website, and it's a disaster. [...] Two characters just happen to see each other across the room and are aware that the other is on a disastrous date. They vibe immediately, but they do it through their facial expressions, and it's like they can understand each other. We're going to convey that to the audience through sub-titles. Mellinda said, "I want to direct this," and she just got on it. She said, "Let's make this our date to get the script done, I'd love to book the venue by this date, and have the actors locked down by this date." She really took control of it, and we were able to do it. She kept it entirely organized throughout. It was fantastic, because you know us writers can procrastinate.
Soap Central: I'm married to a playwright, and I'm a producer, so we bicker because I'm always on her about how much she's written. She likes to remind me that it took Lin-Manuel Miranda a year to write one song.
Clifford: Did he really take a year for one song?
Soap Central: It took him about eight years to write the whole musical. So, the next time you feel like you're not working fast enough, think of how long it took to write Hamilton.
Hensley: I feel pretty good about myself! (laughter)
Soap Central: I saw your previous short, Apuelogy, which has a dark comedy tone to it; would you say Across the Room has a similar tone to it?
Hensley: I would say it's still in the same vein. It still has Matt's touch to the comedic voice, so there's a lot of quick back-and-forth, silly dialogue, but because this one has a touch of romance, it's a slight twist on Matt's voice. But I still think we keep that fast-paced humor intact.
Soap Central: Is this in any way an outlet from writing dramatic soap material?
Hensley: We are both naturally drawn to comedy. ... All of our shorts are comedy. We currently have a romcom feature that we're trying to find a home for.
Clifford: Writing comedy is something I really enjoy. Because a lot of heavy material has to be hammered out, everyone on Y&R has a great sense of humor. They're very smart. ... They're the hardest working people I've ever had the privilege to learn from.
Hensley: There are so many skilled people [working on The Young and the Restless] who are fantastic.
Soap Central: I agree.
Clifford: You have to have some fun with it. They're coming up with five to six scripts a week, and it's so easy to get drawn into the thinking, "Oh, no, we're on such a tight schedule" that you lose focus on what could be fun, but they always have a way to keep it interesting for the cast, crew, and everyone in the production office. It was an amazing experience to watch in action. It's an extremely well-oiled machine. I am in such awe of how they do it.
Hensley: It's a prime teaching ground. I had never directed anything before [Apuelogy], but I loved watching our directors work. The way that they organize things and the way they were able to get what they want and needed and [were] able to communicate that effectively to the actors in such a small space of time was admirable to the point that I wanted to do it. I shadowed one of our directors for a few episodes to get down on the floor and see what that was really like. So, when I saw the script for Apuelogy, and it was only three actors, I knew if I'm ever going to try, it has to be in this contained space.
Soap Central: Like you said it's a well-oiled machine. It sounds like you took things away from that; you shot Across the Room in only a couple of hours?
Hensley: Yes. I in no way want to sacrifice time for quality. I want to work out a way where we get both and the actors feel they have enough time to get everything. So, we do a day of rehearsal so everybody knows their marks. Since we were dealing with a short, there's not a terrible amount of dialogue, especially when working with actors from Y&R, based on the sheer amount of dialogue they memorize on a daily basis. We wanted to make something and challenge ourselves and give the actors an opportunity to do something they're not used to doing, either. I'm really thankful to have had the experience [of shadowing a director at The Young and the Restless] and to be able to use my time wisely.
Clifford: We did twelve pages in less than four hours. The actors knew their dialogue. The DP was on it, and Mellinda had blocked out every scene beforehand, so it went really well. It's always fun when you have a group of professional actors, who, you know, twelve pages for them in one day is nothing. On Y&R, they could be given 25 to 30 and hammer it out in no time. It's amazing how professional they are and just what they bring to the table and [their ability to] make it look so effortless. It was fantastic to watch.
Soap Central: Can you tell me a little more about the roles the actors are playing? Is Christian playing a waiter?
Hensley: Yes! (laughter) He is an absolute hoot. He does improv and is just a class act.
Clifford: He is great at improv, but he did the dialogue as scripted. You never know what to expect with him.
Hensley: He only brought out an accent twice.
Clifford: That's right. You never know if he's going to show up with an accent -- what's going to happen. That was all part of the fun. He's such a delight.
Hensley: But to your question, it is Karisa and Tyler's characters who are on one date, and then Zach and Cait's who are on the other. Then Zach's character, Ben, makes eye contact with Karisa's character, Alex.
Clifford: They're able to get away with this eye contact because Cait's character, Callie, is the sort of actress who will allow herself to go on an audition that she hasn't booked yet because she's willing it into the universe for herself via crystals, and Zach's character, Ben, is stuck there thinking, "Why did I swipe right?" Tyler's character is across the room on a date with Karisa, who plays Alex. He's a lawyer who is so engrossed in himself and his job that he's on his phone the whole time, which allows Ben and Alex, through facial expressions and subtitles, to connect with each other, despite their disastrous dates, and they end up bonding.
Soap Central: That sounds like a lot of fun, and it seems like everyone worked really well together.
Hensley: I can't say enough good things about literally everyone I've worked with on the past two projects. Our DP Jordan McKittrick is fantastic. The fact that he just speaks my language is something that I am so thankful for. In the planning process, I'll send him scenes of other movies and say, "Hey, is there any way we can talk together to create lighting that looks similar to this or a feeling that's similar to this?" He's totally giving and wonderful. Alexandria, our sound person, was amazing. She was so communicative. She got mics on and off people like it was nobody's business. We understand that everybody's artistry is important to them and that everybody should make the thing that they want to make, because you'll find your people. Like our actors from Y&R. When I approached them, I was like, "We're doing this for fun." They were open to coming out, and they loved the script, which is half the battle. They liked what we were doing and were interested. It really takes everybody to make something great.
Some of the questions in this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Christian LeBlanc has played Michael Baldwin since 1991. Cait Fairbanks joined the cast as Tessa Porter in early 2017; Zach Tinker took on the role of Fenmore Baldwin, Michael's son, last Christmas; and Tyler Johnson brought Theo Vanderway to town this May.
What do you think about Christian LeBlanc, Zach Tinker, Tyler Johnson, and Cait Fairbanks starring together in a project outside of The Young and the Restless? Do you wish more daytime stars would work together outside of soap operas? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.