Blogging the Crazy – Post #12: Nick Leonti & Aaron Daley

The ringleader goofballs of Better Than Crazy – Aaron Daley and Nick Leonti

“I hate acting.” – Nick Leonti

This position of Nick’s – ironic yet somehow earnest – was repeated during the production of Better Than Crazy a number of times. On our official blooper reel (currently being updated in chunks at our Vimeo page), we capture this white whale of a saying once as he’s lying down on a hotel bed between takes and again during a scene in the garage of our final location where he’s delivering dialogue and putting beers in a fridge, seemingly frustrated by having to do these things simultaneously.

The kicker with this, though, is that like Aaron Daley, Nick Leonti is a crackerjack actor. He has a self-deprecating style that bleeds over into his character’s more convivial aspects, but when Dave goes serious in Better Than Crazy, Nick was able to go with the flow, to drift ardently through whatever emotional quicksand he found himself in, and be first in line to crack a joke once the mood lightened.

And when the feeling on set was light-hearted, Nick channeled his inner stand-up comic and slayed all of us with zingers of all topics and sensibilities. There are three moments in the movie where this devil-may-care improvisation comes through most impressively for me. In Better Than Crazy’s opening sequence, he zigzags from fat jokes to making weird noises with his mouth and eventually – somehow – to embarking upon a long monologue in which he rattles off the types of cute animals his now-deceased great aunt hated with fervor.

Nick, about to flash a hotel clerk for some corn dogs in Better Than Crazy

Then there’s a sequence around the center of the movie where Caroline (Amy Bruni) talks about certain foods she likes and others she doesn’t. Punching into the conversation as only Nick can, he propositions her with an insane staccato-delivered array of additional eats (“Nachos? Beef jerky? Candy buttons?”) , and she weighs in on each one. Again, a semblance of this was in the original script, but as a performer, Nick smelled an opportunity here to really double down on a situation he found interesting.

And right before the end of Better Than Crazy, the cousins have decided to surprise Sarah with unique birthday shenanigans – each has bought her a gift from her neighborhood gas station. We were closing in on the end of a long shooting day as it was, and people were tired and ready to move on to their Saturday evenings, but take-happy Mike Restaino saw a way to utilize this performance lethargy: their fatigue coupled with the monologues each of them gave to Sarah about the dumb-ass toy or pre-packaged food product they bought for her would make them all seem burnt out and loopy, which was perfect for the end of a wine-heavy family meal as it was set out in the script.

We shot a lot of footage of actors describing the beef jerky and water-wings that had been purchased, but it was Nick’s eloquent (and wildly misleading) soliloquy about the plastic Pocahontas figurine he’d bought Sarah that drummed up the most laughs. The cast would all but threaten mutiny when I’d laugh out loud and ruin a take, requiring everybody to start the scene over again, but I couldn’t help myself.

Aaron Daley and Amy Bruni strike up a tune in Better Than Crazy

Aaron Daley is just as hilarious as Nick, which is instantly proven when they riff off of each other in Better Than Crazy, but unlike Dave’s character, who keeps a relatively straightforward arc throughout the movie, Aaron’s Jack gets thrown through the ringer. In BTC, Jack is an aspiring singer/songwriter who can’t quite seem to make ends meet, and for anyone who has known friends or colleagues like that (or is one her/himself), when success is elusive, it makes for a rough road.

But it’s those rigors that inspired Aaron to bring a blend of confidence and emotional scorched earth to his performance. When we gave him a guitar and sat him down next to Amy and her microphone, there really wasn’t much need for direction on my part – all I had to do was triple-check that the camera was on and that lights were on. But even though we identify with this joking Jack, when his work environs go into a tailspin, that big-heartedness is still front and center enough that audiences stay with him.

As I’ve written in this blog before, the character of Jack was the one that was easiest for me to associate with an actor. Aaron had played the role of a tobacco-chewing redneck 4-H leader in my USC thesis film, ShowChickens, and as I prepped early drafts of Better Than Crazy, Aaron’s face was always Jack’s. Aaron has a wonderful charisma about him as a performer, one that I didn’t fully understand until I saw him as frontman for his band Old Hangtown.

Nick and director Mike Restaino getting the corn dog centerpiece of BTC just right

In fact, seeing that band play informed the very essence of the character of Jack. And when I was writing the script for the film, I’d jam with him in San Francisco and sometimes sit in with the band, and these opportunities gave me a chance to construct a kind of somewhat-fictionalized alter ego for Aaron to embody in the movie. On stage he was cocksure and bigger than life, but his music – both the covers he’d choose and his original work – were rife with honest sentiment. I needed Jack to be the life of every party, but also a guy steeped in the more philosophical and sensitive pockets of the human condition.

At the end of Better Than Crazy’s long journey, I watch Nick and Aaron on screen and get all warm and fuzzy considering the ragged glory they bring to their roles. A screenwriting teacher once told me that there are good performances, there are bad performances, and there are the right performances. Better Than Crazy is a challenging experimental movie, one that baffles many who come across it, but it is with beaming pride that I say Nick and Aaron gave their director performances that were everything I’d artistically intended and then some.

I’m grateful to them beyond my ability to communicate.

– Mike Restaino, writer/director of Better Than Crazy

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Nick Leonti and Aaron Daley “put ’em on the glass” in Better Than Crazy