A Spiritual Journey Through Filmmaking: Actor Gabriel Furman on 'Mother's Day'

Monday


“My writing came out of acting,” says Gabriel Furman about his short film, Mother’s Day, in which he stars alongside Academy Award winner Melissa Leo. The story about a mother and son together for the last time marks Furman's writing debut. Written during a difficult period in his life, Mother’s Day was inspired by conversations between Furman and his own mother. He was at the Actors Studio, working on the role of Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman, when the idea came to him. Onstage, Furman made a simple choice for Biff: “What if this is the last time I’ll ever see my mother again.” 

Later that day, the story was “literally clawing at my brain.” Aside from sketch comedy, Furman had never written a script and admits, “When I first wrote it, I didn’t know what was happening.” He found encouragement from friends and fellow actors Mark Borkowski and Karen Giordano. Borkowski, also a writer, told Furman, “Let it pour out of you. Let it come from your soul.” Once the story was written, Furman realized that he could turn it into a short, and Melissa Leo would be perfect as his mother. Shot on location on Long Island, the film was completed in one long winter’s day. With little time and money to spare, the basement of a house was converted into a hospital room.

“Every time there was an opportunity for us to freak out, I said, ‘No. This is the gift. Really accept it.’ Everything just fell into place with that mentality.”

Gabriel Furman




The film directed by Jeff Tan, a friend of Furman since they were seventeen-year-old dancers working the bar/bat mitzvah circuit, was shot in two parts. During the first half, Furman says, “We would just drop into it as soon as it was 'action.' When it was 'cut,' we would joke around with each other and with the crew.” It was pretty much the same for the second half of the film, where Furman had to cry a lot. Leo grabbed Furman’s hand and the rest of the world slipped away as they went through the scene. “Everyone was just quiet for like, two and a half hours as we shot.”

Afterwards, Tan approached the actors quietly and asked if they were okay. “I was like, yeah. Why?” Furman recalls. “Jeff said, ‘Because you’ve been crying for two and a half hours.’ I said, ‘Yeah, keep going.’” It was an adrenaline rush for the cast and crew, as well as an exercise in acceptance. Letting go is an important theme for the native New Yorker who grew up in Far Rockaway, and turned a love of hip hop into a breakdancing career that took him out of the projects and around the world. When obstacles appeared because of inclement weather, he kept calm. “If this film was meant to be and was aligned with my greatest good and joy, then I was going to trust.” Furman chose to concern himself with the acting, and let Tan handle the rest. “Every time there was an opportunity for us to freak out, I said, ‘No. This is the gift. Really accept it.’ Everything just fell into place with that mentality.”

“I want someone to watch what I do and go, ‘Fuck. I don’t think I should be watching this.’ It’s that real.”

Melissa Leo

Leo was one of the first people to whom Furman showed the script. “I wanted her opinion,” he says. He describes working with the actress as playing catch with someone who “really knows how to throw the ball at you. It was one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had in my life.” Leo was present and generous, holding his hand while she was off camera. Both were committed to giving back and forth, an experience Furman describes as “an actor’s dream. I feel that our jobs as actors is to put up a mirror to the human condition,” he says. “I want someone to watch what I do and go, ‘Fuck. I don’t think I should be watching this.’ It’s that real.”

Mother’s Day was conceived at the Actors Studio, where Leo and Furman are longtime members. He calls the institution, co-founded by director Elia Kazan in 1947, “a gym for actors,” a place to go anytime to fine-tune one’s instrument. In the past three years, Furman's projects at the Actors Studio have involved strong women. In addition to Leo, Furman has collaborated with influential actresses Ellen Burstyn and Estelle Parsons, who recently directed him as Judas in playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Of working with Parsons, Furman marvels, “I don’t think I’ve ever been pushed so far out of my comfort zone. She’s a real actor’s actor. Estelle’s got no agenda. She’s done it all,” Furman says of the actress whose many credits include Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the sitcom Roseanne. “She loves actors. She loves good work. She just wants to help.” Playing Judas was a challenge. Parsons urged him to let go. “I tried to resist, but Estelle said, ‘Just let it come out.’" The lesson was something that Parsons had tried imparting to him for two years in other sessions where they had worked together.

“You’re so fucking good, but I can’t see you," Parsons admonished, but Furman had no idea what she meant. "You’re bullying your instrument.” It finally clicked while rehearsing a pivotal scene between Jesus and his fallen disciple. “There was so much raw anger in me that when I was talking to Jesus, my body was shaking. She said, ‘Don’t worry about anything. Every day we step on the stage is a new day, and that’s what makes theater fresh.’ I realized I just had to breathe, relax and trust it. It finally clicked three weeks ago,” Furman laughs.  

“You begin to see the reason for things when you can see at least fifteen reasons for why they have happened. The truth is, there's a thousand.”

In the summer of 2014, Furman acted opposite Ellen Burstyn in a production of  Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Working with Burstyn was similar to working with Leo, but with “the warmest, grandmother feeling. It forces you to be real. She’s looking into your soul,” he says. “All that Ellen demands is that you look back at hers.” Furman counts the actress as a mentor with whom he discusses spirituality and consciousness more than acting. A Sufi priestess, Burstyn was the first person to teach Furman how to meditate.

She also introduced him to a shaman who told Furman, “You begin to see the reason for things when you can see at least fifteen reasons for why they have happened. The truth is, there's a thousand.” Such is the case with Mother’s Day, the experience of which has been a fruitful journey. It has grounded Furman, shown him how acceptance truly works and connected him to like-minded artists. “At festivals I have met some of my kindred spirits who care about craft and love it just as much as I do.” The film has gone on to garner several awards, including the Special Jury Award at the Golden Panda North America International Short Film Festival and Best Actress for Leo at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. “We just keep going,” Furman says. “I’m really grateful.”

Click here to visit the official website for Mother's Day. 
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