Typical actor, I thought. He’s totally faking it.
I liked Shawn Romias the minute I met him at our casting call in downtown Placerville, but on the first day of shooting Better Than Crazy, when he sent me a message that he was sick and wouldn’t be showing up, I was convinced he was putting me on, that he had changed his mind about working on the movie. I knew that ours wasn’t exactly a $90 million Hollywood project with fancy trailers and top-of-the-line craft services, but even if BTC was relatively low-rent, I was perturbed that we didn’t have our whole team rarin’ to go on our debut shooting morning.
Thanks to some excellently efficient tricks Thaddeus had up his sleeve, though, we were able to shoot around Shawn’s absence pretty easily. It was bizarre for some having Lolita the mannequin sit in for Robert in group reverse shots, but after a few fits and starts, we found our sea legs. That afternoon, Katherine had been in touch with Shawn and she reiterated that he felt really bad not making it, but he told her he was so ill he could barely even speak on the phone. I appreciated this, but tried my best not to let on that I was bent out of shape about it.
But when Shawn showed up the next day, he was all smiles. He looked a little worse for wear when the camera wasn’t on him, but when we yelled “Action!”, he was completely in the moment, running on all cylinders. After a rocky start, everyone who was supposed to be on set was in attendance – our great work began.
After this initial shooting weekend, though, I got whatever Shawn had, and it decimated me. I’m not one of those guys who gets sick a lot (knock on wood), but I can rely on one good cold per year to knock me down flat for a weekend. This bug that was quickly passed around the BTC group made the worst flu I ever had seem like a case of the sniffles. I was a mess. Some of the producers got it, at least one other actor was pummeled with it that next week – those early Better Than Crazy days were tough on our bodies.
As it turned out, though, it was a trial by fire that brought Shawn and me close as director and actor: it was a squirrely introduction to our relationship, but it nonetheless was a memorable one. That next weekend, I went out of my way to apologize to the poor guy, telling him that I had no right dismissing his excuse for not ignoring his grotesque disease and showing up on set for opening day.
Shawn brought exactly what I knew he had within him to Better Than Crazy. The character of Robert has opportunities to rattle off zingers like his other cousins, but in a decidedly more reserved fashion. Robert and his sister Sarah (Deborah O’Brien) are this close to being shocked and offended by their long-lost cousins at the beginning of the film – within minutes of entering Caroline’s (Amy Bruni’s) home, Jack (Aaron Daley) and Dave (Nick Leonti) make off-color jokes about themselves and other family members that almost get Sarah and Robert to blush. They get in on this action eventually, but it takes a while for it all to come into shape.
So it’s through Robert’s uninitiated eyes that we as an audience approach the family dynamic within Better Than Crazy – for better or for worse, he’s our conduit into the dimensions of these cousins’ bizarre interplay. And Shawn played this perfectly. He hadn’t met Aaron and Nick before that first weekend of shooting, and the effect of this was electric. Having been pals for years, Nick and Aaron were frisky and ferocious with their wordplay on and off camera, and when they’d begin going off script, they would almost inevitably get a belly laugh out of Shawn (and most other folks listening). Shawn wasn’t as comfortable veering off the scripted page as my buddies from high school were, but this hesitation ended up serving the end result wonderfully.
It kept building itself up, really. Aaron especially would start almost playing to Shawn and not with him, volleying over gags and jokey prompts that he knew Shawn would respond loudly to. And in an ever-complex way, as Aaron made Shawn laugh harder and harder, Shawn would inspire Aaron’s whip-smart asides to escalate in breadth and subject matter.
Upon multiple occasions, during the process of shooting Better Than Crazy, Shawn referred to Aaron as the funniest person he’d ever met. Whether this was an in-the-moment off-hand remark or not, it’d compel Aaron to go even broader with his dialogue, which would inspire even more maniacal laughter in Shawn. It was a fascinating back-and-forth to spy on through a camera lens.
Shawn was up for anything, too. At the end of the first act of the movie, Robert passes out in a hedge after drinking too much beer, and he tolerated Thaddeus and I getting multiple takes of him sliding off his seat and into that shrub that was likely filled with bugs and spider webs and whatnot – we even staged an elaborate shot zooming in on him as he sawed logs among the beasties. It didn’t faze him one bit.
That’s what I loved about working with Shawn on Better Than Crazy and what keeps his performance in the finished film feeling so bright-eyed and alive. Shawn’s no naïve square, but neither he nor his character in the film had ever met forces of nature like Aaron and Nick, and the immediacy Shawn brought to the fold feels unhinged and hilariously volatile.
I can’t wait for you to see it for yourself. Shawn won’t let you down.
– Mike Restaino, writer/director of Better Than Crazy