Here is a fun clip from 5 Doctors, a new film written by Max Azulay, Matt Porter and Phil Primason, and directed by Azulay and Porter. A funny, sometimes bracingly honest coming-of-age story, 5 Doctors follows a struggling young comedian (Azulay) as he returns from Los Angeles to his hometown in upstate New York. There he meets with a sequence of doctors—five doctors, to be precise—about a mysterious set of symptoms, while avoiding his friends and family. Well, except for one friend, Jay (Porter), who drives him all around town while dutifully trying to figure out what’s become of his old friend. The film is out next week on a slate of on-demand platforms—more on that here—and after you watch this clip, you can go pre-order it on iTunes for less than the price of a sandwich. A sandwich!
Matt Porter, who stars as Jay in addition to writing, directing and editing the film, is a comedian and writer based in New York City. 5 Doctors is his first feature, but far from his first venture into filmmaking. I asked him a few questions about making the movie, as well as art and life more broadly. Here they are:
Paste: You made 5 Doctors with your childhood friends in a town near where you all grew up. How much further does the loose autobiography go? Was it hard for any of you to go home again, or to leave in the first place?
Matt Porter: The autobiographical element runs pretty deep—Max Azulay and Phil Primason, my co-everythings on the film, both grew up in Hasting-on-Hudson, NY, where we filmed. The high school we used was their high school, the diner was their diner, and as a result, every location and character in the film had a personal resonance for them, and for me. When we began writing this film in 2012, I had recently left my job teaching at the high school where I went (like Jay), and Max was working to establish himself as a writer, director and performer, doing live comedy and making sketches (like Spencer). We were all living in New York, knee-deep for the first time in the crippling anxiety associated with post-collegiate life, making short films and wondering what our lives would turn into. When we landed on this premise as a potential feature idea, it quickly became clear it could be a great storyline through which we could explore some of this uncertainty.
We all had those little details in our lives that tied us back to where we came from—the address on our ID, our cell phone family plan—that felt, on the surface, fine to leave as is, but upon further reflection, were often wrapped up in our complex feelings about needing to cut the cord that connects you home in order to grow but unable to face that actual moment of cutting it. It’s kind of like a form of emotional hoarding or something, and like any kind of hoarding, it becomes a blindspot, usually quite harmless, but over time, it can turn into something that is actively impeding your life. Flying across the country to visit the doctors you went to as a kid like Spencer does in the film felt like an especially poignant and visually dynamic way to tackle these ideas. In terms my own personal blindspots, I only found myself a dentist that wasn’t a 40-minute train ride outside the city a year or so ago, and I am 30 years old (this is how old a grown-up is). So, needless to say, this film comes from a personal place for all of us.
Paste: You made a whole lot of shorts before embarking on a feature. What did short-form prepare you for, and what were you forced to learn by doing?
Porter: For years, Max, Phil and I made short films under the name Dial Tone Pictures. These films really helped us hone our ability to collaborate, both as writers and as filmmakers, and also helped build out our creative community and our body of work. I have also personally spent years collaborating with Charlie Hankin under the name Good Cop Great Cop, writing, making web series and performing live as a duo. On this film, all of that short-form experience definitely gave me the skill set to get through the shoot itself—once we got into it, it didn’t feel so different than shooting 22 shorts in a row. I’d say biggest differences between short-form and a feature existed in every other aspect outside those shoot days. Writing, re-writing, pitching, fundraising, crewing up, establishing business entities, years of pre-production, casting, test screening, film festival submissions, legal logistics, distribution, publicity and so on—all of these aspects have been a constant learning process, and still are.
We’re still learning every day why making a movie is so different than making shorts. The simplest way to say it is that feature films are a business commodity, with inherent value, and shorts, for the most part, are not. It means you need to learn how to “sell” your work in a new way, and learn to keep the momentum going over years and years. Ultimately, however, those skills that we did have going in, knowing how to communicate with each other and with a crew, how to know when you’ve “got it” and that it’s time to move on, how to lead a team and create a good working atmosphere, those skills were maybe even more important ultimately than all that bigger picture stuff.
Paste: This scene just about encapsulates Spencer and Jay's relationship: light and fun on the surface, corrupted and parasitic underneath. I think I'm safe saying it's important to you, in your art, that serious things also be funny and funny things also be serious. Can you talk a bit about that?
Porter: I think most of my artistic heroes are the ones who confuse people who try to sort things into genres. This film is pretty clearly a “comedy,” but I think Phil, Max and I are all irrevocably programmed to bring dramatic sincerity and heart to our writing, no matter how “funny,” as well as to always stuff humor into nooks and crannies of a story, no matter how “serious.” I think a lot of self-reflective funny people say that they became funny because they grew up using comedy to “cope,” whether it was with sadness, anger or just the ennui of existence (we’re all gonna die, Seth). I think anyone who uses humor to cope with life, if they choose to create art, will inevitably bring that same instinct to the way they express themselves. This film also has butt jokes and people falling over, and we couldn’t be prouder of that fact, but I think the only reason we felt that we “earned” that kind of silliness is because we were leading with insecurity, fear and sadness, and letting the humor form in the distinct dissonance between those things.
Paste: In addition to co-writing the film with Phil and Max, and co-directing and and co-starring with Max, you also edited it with Joanna Naugle. Those are all fairly draining jobs. Which one took the most out of you?
Porter: I’d say the acting was maybe the most draining. I still really enjoyed it, but I think I am more naturally built for the other roles, and in order to act well I learned that you really need to let go of those other more overarching perspectives and focus on your own character’s very limited perspective. It’s tough to do this and then snap back to giving direction to other people or thinking about the camera. Luckily, I had the support of Max and Phil throughout this process, so I knew I could “disappear” for a little bit into a scene and they’d keep the car on the road.
Paste: Finally: I know you worked as a teacher for a while. Would you ever do it again? What is it about high school-adjacent stories that still feels so potent after so many have been told?
Porter: I love teaching. A lot of my immediate family are or have been teachers, and I hope I get to teach more in the future. I think part of what I love about teaching, and what I think makes stories set in high schools so ubiquitous and often so meaningful for people, is that we all remember what it felt like to be right on the cusp of finding ourselves, and how powerfully malleable your mind and identity can be at that time. In a way, we’re all acting out the roadmaps that were drawn during this crucial developmental time. Through creating art about that age and that time period in life, I feel like we can help people confront that emotional wiring, and better understand the ways in which that wiring has shaped us, for better or for worse. Through teaching, I feel like I can reach kids at that actual moment of the mold setting, and with the tiniest of nudges this way and that, lead them towards a more curious and inspired worldview.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.