By Chris Gore | October 13, 2001

Was making the film cathartic in any way? ^ Art isn’t therapy (where you communicate to yourself), it’s communication with an audience. And it’s work. So the catharsis comes in meeting people who have been affected by the movie. I get emails every now and then from a stranger who says he’s contacted his brother after a two years’ rift, because of my film. Things like that are really nice. Now, with the disaster of September 11, I’ve been getting a whole new set of responses, with people thanking me for telling a story of surviving death — especially spectacular, horrific death — and also for the scene with the Muslim man at the end. The film has a unifying message, I guess, because in life, everybody dies. Not to be the bearer of bad news, or anything.
The film is a living tribute to your mother. Do you think she would be proud? ^ The film doesn’t even begin to capture her personality — it only shows my response to her loss. Sometimes I still find myself thinking, “Mom’s going to like this movie, I think it’s her taste,” and then I remember it’s about her, and she won’t be seeing it.
Helicopter is not typical of your satirical or parody short films making the rounds these days and it has perhaps played more festivals and received more awards than any short film this year. What do you think is the secret of the success of that film? ^ Well, I don’t know that it’s the most successful film of the year — some people don’t like it — but the people who like it are vocal. I think death is not something that’s addressed head-on much in movies, and for those who like the movie, it speaks to something that’s neglected. Death is totally ridiculous, and so incomprehensible that it can make you want to kill yourself and laugh at the same time. I tried to make an entertaining film–provocative, spectacular, colorful, horrifying, sometimes funny, and true to the feelings of loss. People appreciate that because it’s not a common subject. The human brain, which is able to love, cannot comprehend the truth that disaster, cancer, accident, or any other assault on a person’s body actually destroys that person and takes them away from you. The film addresses that incomprehension. I’m obviously not f*****g around in this movie. Maybe that’s what people like.
Audiences leave the theaters ripped apart emotionally after having experienced the film, but I wonder, how do you feel when you see it? ^ I love listening to my brother’s beautiful music, so I enjoy it. And I don’t like to rip people apart — but I am happy when people open up. I think it’s really healthy to cry if it comes from somewhere deep instead of a manipulation. I know that when I cry for real, I feel reconnected to myself. I tried to make a movie that was specific to my life without causing pity–I wanted to make people think about their own lives, to open a window.
What was the best screening of the film? ^ The student Oscars, because the screen was big, the sound was great, I’d just won a prize (mitigating my Sundance rejection), and my twin brother was watching it for the first time on the big screen. His music really rocks. I wished my sister could have come down from San Francisco. She’d wanted to be in the film (as had I), but I’d decided against us playing ourselves because I was worried it would be off-putting to an audience, and furthermore my brother really didn’t want to do it. I found mostly untrained actors, went the “reenactment” approach, accepting that the acted scenes would be as unreal as the animations. But I did my own voice, and my sister did our mom’s voice, and my brother sang the closing song, so though our faces aren’t up there (except in one baby-photo), our voices are.
What made you want to use toys to illustrate some of the most dramatic moments of the film? I personally feel that somehow those scenes are made more tragic by using those childlike symbols rather than the actual vehicles. ^ After the memorial concert for Bill Graham, whom my mother died with, my siblings and I were given this limo ride home by Graham’s company, which was weird anyway, but on top of that there were crowds of thousands outside thinking we were the Grateful Dead. Nothing felt real. I felt lost, disoriented, small. Creating a toy world in the film, with a car pulled on strings, seemed the right choice for me, especially given that I built train-set models with my brother when I was little. It took far longer than I imagined it would to create the models, but it worked. I couldn’t afford to recreate a huge traffic jam at a concert for the film, anyway, but even if I’d had a million bucks to do it, it wouldn’t have been emotionally right to show the gauntlet “realistically.” It didn’t feel realistic when it happened in reality. The same goes for the helicopter crash. The black-and-white animation represents on film how I saw the accident in my mind the moment I got the phone call, and then over and over whenever I tried to remember my mother’s face. What a terror it must be for those who lost someone on the 11th, having to see the disaster on CNN and try to connect that image with their lost loved one. Anyway, I tried, throughout my movie, to illustrate the way the mind in shock tries to remember. Emotional accuracy instead of “realism.”
What was Helicopter‘s budget and how long did it take you to make it? ^ It cost 100 times as much as Culture, and took 800 times as long.
Can you give me a breakdown of a timeline for making Helicopter, when you came up with the idea, writing the script, production, completion, first screening? ^ I wrote script in September ’97 in one night… casting, preproduction… shot the live action over 6 days in February ’98, except two scenes… finished those scenes in two days in May… worked on the animation and the models all summer… shot the models in September ’98… Carl Huebner finished the animation around the same time… shot Culture in fall ’98… edited Helicopter for another year… worked on sound and music… spent four months negotiating the 16mm, VHS, Hi8 blow-up to 35… mixed it… had my first print in early summer 2000 in time for the student Academy Awards.
What problems did you run into during production in terms of keeping that budget so low? ^ My crew was tiny and I had so little flexibility in the shoot, it was really a strain on everything. If I’d been making it for a real budget I wouldn’t have been acting as my own damn intern the whole time. Also, the editing took far, far longer than it would have if I’d been able to pay for an Avid for a solid block of time. Sometimes I’d wait a week for a two-hour slot in the middle of the night. The wait was agonizing. Amazing to realize Final Cut Pro didn’t exist when I started the film.
How do you top Helicopter and are you working on a feature? ^ I don’t try to top Helicopter. I don’t plan making the same film twice. But it’s difficult, because people expect a certain mood from me, depending on which of my films they like. “Oh, you made Culture, how about a gangster movie?” Uh, are you on crack? “You made Helicopter, now make a feature of it!” I tried to distill a field of potatoes into a shot of vodka with Helicopter, and I won’t be undoing that distillation, at least right now. I’m writing an adaptation of a Greek play, and a fantasy comedy, and a few other things, and if I told you any more I’d have to kill you. But yes, I plan to make a feature.
At the risk of divulging the “filmmaking secrets of the universe,” would you offer some filmmaking wisdom to the Film Threat audience? ^ Trust your gut, I think is the most important thing. Every mistake which hurts me later comes from not trusting my gut. But don’t take your gut too seriously, either — have a sense of humor. And don’t imitate anyone. And try to pay people with money, because you’ll find out nothing comes free. And please don’t make parody shorts anymore, in the name of God. ^ There are a lot of stories behind Helicopter, questions people ask at festivals about why and how. The film is not a documentary — all choices are made to communicate. The straight unedited truth is too specific and confusing, it must be digested by the filmmaker first, and then presented in a new way.
Tell me what you’re working on right now. ^ I’m writing a script, and writing my senators, and trying to enjoy life (dancing and ukulele, not necessarily simultaneously). I’ll be making a feature but I’ll talk about it when there’s talking to be done. I hate talking about something before it’s ready, that’s Hollywood.
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