Tell me about your background and what led you to want to be a filmmaker? ^ When I was ten I started writing a novel called “The Giant Snail from Brazil,” but the first 30 pages blew away in the wind one afternoon when I found out that Emily wanted to go steady. Later on, after Emily dumped me, I still wanted to be a writer but it occurred to me that I liked movies a little better than books. I took a summer film class at the end of college and then wrote a screenplay, went to Hollywood and got lost. Trying to be a writer (books or screenplays) almost killed me — I was too alone. By deciding to tackle directing, I became an active person.
You’re also an actor having appeared in films like Groove. How do you keep the filmmaker in you in check when you have to act? ^ Usually it’s such a relief to have someone else worrying about the lights or the craft service table falling over, that I’m quite happy to be just an actor. A director thinks so much, and acting is a much more instinctual process, so directing and acting simultaneously is very difficult. The experience on Groove was great because the director, Greg Harrison, was completely open to actors’ ideas, and so I could pretend I was directing myself, but really he was directing me without my knowing it.
What other acting roles have you had? ^ I’ve had supporting roles in a couple cheap features and a bunch of short films. This summer I played the lead in a short called “Oysterman,” as a flasher walking the streets in New York trying to find love by opening his overcoat. The director is Japanese and has a very interesting sensibility, so I’m looking forward to the end result more than anything I’ve done as an actor. Unfortunately for my ego, it was cold the morning I finally showed it to the camera.
What do you prefer, acting or directing? ^ In the moment of performance, nothing compares to acting. But the life of an actor (auditioning, getting haircuts, singing “Hold that Tiger” with cokehead friends) isn’t for me, so it’s best when I get a part by accident and the rest of the time work on directing, which is a Wagnerian activity and is exhilarating for its total assault on my body and mind.
Which pays better? ^ So far, acting. And the hours are better too. But directors are cooler.
You co-directed your first short film, “Frog Crossing” with director Jamie (But I’m a Cheerleader) Babbit. So, how does one “co-direct”? ^ In our case, co-directing worked like this: We drew the whole film on paper first, with complete detailed storyboards. Then, on set, half the crew didn’t even know I was co-directing the movie; we kept it a secret so they would have one director to talk to or bitch about. I was more than the “good cop”, I was the undercover cop. We agreed that if there was a dispute, Jamie would win, because I was the star and shouldn’t have final say in an argument. It worked out pretty well, although on one late-running day she had to delete a shot of cows that I wanted, and I ended up borrowing a camera a few weeks later and driving out to the location with a friend and getting it. I don’t know if the shot was so essential; I just knew I’d end up resenting Jamie if we didn’t have it to work with in the editing room. And we’re still friends.
What the hell is the story behind “Frog Crossing” anyway? ^ The idea came about backwards: we made a film to fit certain parameters. We wanted to make a film that (a) I would be in and (b) wouldn’t require lights. This is what we came up with: ^ A hippie geekazoid is standing on a lonely road, shouting “Brake for frogs, it’s mating season!” to the cars that pass. Meanwhile, a trashy, junk-food-eating girl (played by my sister Nina) in a gas-guzzler is careening down the road, hitting frogs left and right, and crying about it. Destiny awaits humans and frogs.
Tell us the story behind the making of your one-minute short Culture. (And I’m guessing it will take more time to tell me than to actually see the film.) ^ Culture was born from the agony of editing Helicopter, which after almost a year of work was still unfinished. I made Culture because I wanted to finish something in one afternoon. A 60-second movie with no cuts and no camera movement seemed ideal. I’d been performing death scenes since I was ten, often a lot longer than a minute (involving machine guns, pistols, silencer guns, knives, ninjas, hangings, etc) and had often thought it would be a funny movie. The year before I’d decided that if I ever made a death-scene movie, I would call it Culture. More than anything, I thought the name was funny. But it was also accurate.
How long did it take to make a one-minute movie? ^ I took the subway to Queens to get the camera with my DP (Andrew Parekh), then he and a few friends set up the lights and hung the paper wall in a studio at NYU. We lied and said we were doing a camera test. The NYU studio intern said “time’s up” and we hadn’t finished setting up because the mic was glitch-y. We begged the intern to leave the power on for “one more minute” and, without a rehearsal, Andrew rolled the camera and I stepped in front of the camera and did it. The mic held out. After it was finished, I wrote my “Dogma 99” to justify the ridiculousness of our conditions and pretend they were conscious decisions. I wished I could have had a rehearsal, or a second take, so I made a rule forbidding those things, along with eight other rules. In the end, the film was finished in an afternoon for a couple hundred bucks total–we shot the titles on sheets of paper in the hallway. Helicopter took another year and a half to finish.
Get the rest of the interview in part three of GOOD AS GOLD: AN ARI GOLD INTERVIEW>>>