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Noam Tomaschoff & Chelsea Frei’s 'Tankhouse:' From improv to premiere

May 13, 2022
4 min read time

Vertical Entertainment's upcoming comedy Tankhouse from director / co-writer Noam Tomaschoff and writer Chelsea Frei stars comedy legends Christopher Lloyd and Richard Kind, alongside Tara Holt and Stephen Friedrich. Inspired by the writers’ own experiences, this affectionate parody of the theatre world kicks off when thespian couple Sandrene and Tucker (Holt and Friedrich) are banished from New York by their long-time guru Buford (Lloyd). When they attempt to regroup and start a new scene in Fargo, North Dakota, they discover that Fargo already has a theatre company led by Sandrene’s ruthless former drama teacher, Mr. Mortensen (Kind).

Rife with immersive theatre attacks, alleyway sing-offs, sabotage, and cast bonding, the film’s genesis (much like avant-garde theatre) had humble beginnings: an eight-minute improvised mockumentary film that Noam and Chelsea had put together as their “last hurrah.”

“We were struggling writers in New York about to move to LA, so we got our comedy friends together who came in with these hilarious improvised characters based on the craziest person they knew at theatre school,” says Chelsea. “At the time, we had a bunch of other writing projects going on for agents and managers because there was this pressure to make stuff for reps. But this, our passion project, was what financiers were excited about.”

Frei adds, “[the short] took place in a small city and had the idea of ‘city meets country,’ but the script for the feature didn’t exist until Fargo entered the picture,” shares Noam. “We got to tailor the script to a place that already existed.”

“In an odd way, having these locations and working backward to write scenes for them was the most fun,” chimes Chelsea. “We had imagined what Tankhouse was, and getting there (to the city of Fargo)–it was mind-blowing to see our dreams come to reality.”

“[Tankhouse has] gotten compared to Waiting for Guffman, but we wanted to lean into a stylized, more heightened version of that,” she continues. "Like how runway fashion boils down to H&M, crazy theatre in New York boils down to what we see on TV,” says Noam. “We took the avant-garde [of theatre] to its extreme, so the characters were also really extreme. But they’re still really relatable in their wants and desires.”

“Noam and I, we both also come from Shakespeare/classical backgrounds, so language was very important, especially for Sandrene and Tucker, our two leads,” Chelsea shares. “Everything they said mattered. Words mattered to them.”

Because the movie was so stylized and specific, it was important to Noam and Chelsea to keep things simple. “Two-minute sketches don’t require a whole lot of structural integrity,” says Noam. “This needed more structure, but we knew if the structure was abstract, it’d be confusing.” So they decided to keep it more “traditional on a structural level” so that audiences could keep track of what was happening. “Because this was so stylized, there were a lot of corners. If you overload it, it would collapse.”

Even then, they discovered they could’ve kept it even simpler. When asked about an animated sequence, one of the most whimsical and memorable set pieces of the movie, Noam shares, “It was the first thing we came up with.” He jokes, “Nope, that’s a lie. It was the last thing we came up with.”

“The beginning sucked. It was scripted and shot, but it wasn’t working, and we couldn’t reshoot,” he continues. “Luckily, we knew this animator who was friends with the DP. Given the parameters, we could do whatever we wanted, so we looked at what was missing.”

Chelsea nods, “That was one of the biggest things we learned. The beginning is the hardest part, but it’s the most important part.”

Another thing they realized was the potential that exists outside of Los Angeles. “An amazing thing a lot of people don’t realize is that between the coasts of America, hundreds of these vaudeville theaters were built in the ‘20s,” Noam shares. “There is a 2000-seat theater sitting in Hutchinson, Kansas! It’s huge, ornate, just like the one in Tankhouse. It feels like an untapped resource.”

One of the many heartfelt messages of Tankhouse is the potential to build bridges through art. By shooting on location in the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo, it feels like the movie lives up to its own message.

“What I’m most proud of on overseeing the production side of things was that I told the cast and crew they could do all the things they wanted to do that they couldn’t do on other sets,” says Noam. “Because theatre comes in all shapes and sizes, you can take more risks. So I told them, ‘Don’t peel it back. Go all the way with it.’”

With their movie’s nationwide release just around the corner, what piece of advice would Noam and Chelsea share if they could go back in time and high-five their younger selves? Chelsea shares, “The first sketch we shot in Central Park was seven years ago. It was the first thing we made, and it was so hard because we had no idea what we were doing. It got, like, 20 likes on Facebook. But that was the most rewarding thing in my life–and the start of my writing career. I could post something I made online, and people could see it. I finally felt like I had control over my career.”

“Everyone has the ability to create things, and that will always serve you,” says Noam. “That’s how people find you to do the big thing.”

Tankhouse is currently playing in theaters.

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