One of the best film critics working today is Matt Zoller Seitz, whose invigorating analysis of today’s cinema is published in the New York Press weekly newspaper. And one of the best independent filmmakers working today is Matt Zoller Seitz, whose new feature Home is currently on the festival circuit.
No, there aren’t two Matt Zoller Seitzs running around. Brooklyn-based Seitz is latest critic to find his way out of the screening room and behind the camera. And not unlike fellow Gotham reviewers like Jeremiah Kipp, Rachel Gordon and Bilge Ebiri (not to mention our own fearless leader, Chris Gore), Seitz has tapped into his knowledge of cinema to craft a memorable work of great wit and emotion.
“Home” is a bittersweet comedy about the various complications and conversations that ebb and flow during a party. Blessed with a diverse ensemble of talented young actors and imaginatively shot within Seitz’s residence, “Home” is a vibrant celebration of language, love and the many hiccups that occur in the course of communications.
Film Threat caught up with Seitz at his office at the Newark Star-Ledger, where he is also the television critic for that Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper.
How does being a film critic shape your ability to helm a film production? After critiquing films for so many years, did you feel an unusual amount of pressure once you found yourself behind the camera? ^ I studied visual art in high school at Arts Magnet in Dallas. I took classes in painting, sculpture, printmaking, you name it. Then I studied film production at Southern Methodist University. I shot short films on a 16mm wind-up Bolex and cut them on a Moviola or Steenbeck, though I preferred the Moviola because it reminded me of the flip books I used to make when I was a kid. I also took a video production class where I made short news pieces and documentaries and then edited them. But at the same time I fell in with the folks at the campus newspaper and started writing a lot of journalism, mainly film reviews and editorials, and when I graduated I got a job at the Dallas Observer and have been mainly a journalist ever since. But I had some technical training and facility going into it, so that meant I wasn’t totally flying blind.
Where I think journalism really came in handy is all the hours spent on sets. I’ve been on hundreds of film and TV sets over the last fifteen years for visits ranging in length from a couple of hours to a few days, and I was always looking and listening, and whenever the person I was supposed to be interviewing couldn’t talk to me, I’d usually find myself getting into a conversation with someone else on set — the DP, the gaffer, the boom operator, the key grip. I’d ask them really detailed questions about what they did, how they got their job, what sets they’d been on, what was their favorite or least favorite thing about the job, and I mentally filed all that stuff away.
Then about three years ago I produced a feature by another filmmaker, Kenneth Delvecchio — he offered me the job when we were at a screening together and he saw me drawing storyboards in my reporter’s notebook, which is how I am able to remember particular shots and describe them in my criticism. And on the basis of those drawings, and whatever esthetic or historical sense I have of movies, he asked me to be his co-producer, which seemed bizarre to me, but I was intrigued, so I accepted, and I brought in my old friend Sean O’Dea, an independent documentary filmmaker I went to college with, to join in. That movie, a really perverse thriller called “Tinsel Town,” never got theatrical distribution, but it was a 24 day shoot spread out over a month and I learned a lot about camera placement, lighting, budget issues, communicating with actors and the 24-hour-in-a-day rule. So I went into “Home” with a certain amount of political or managerial knowledge in addition to the technical end of things.
There’s a difference between knowing something and understanding it. Going into “Home” I knew about depth of field, crossing the axis, eyeline matching and the like, but I didn’t know that every actor and every crewmember needs to be dealt with differently, and that when you’re shooting outdoors in downtown Brooklyn at night, with the garbage trucks and jackhammers and planes and police cars, you have to have body mics to get good sound, and even if you have them, you still might have to do some ADR later, because that’s the industry standard.
I definitely felt pressure, but in retrospect I’m not sure it’s that it’s tied to being a critic, or that it’s different from the pressure that any other moviemaker feels. I never worried that much about whether fellow critics would praise or pan the movie, and if so, whether they were really responding to the movie or to the fact that I’m a critic making a movie, because none of that matters. I was mainly concerned with getting it done, getting it to professional standards given the time, budget and equipment limitations, and demonstrating a fresh sensibility. I did feel pressure to make the movie personal and idiosyncratic, even if it meant being uncommercial or making some viewers scratch their heads and go, “What the hell was that?”
“Home” has a fairly extensive ensemble for such a small production. Why did you opt to bring so many people into this story? ^ I have notoriously eclectic taste in movies — everything from De Palma, Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Spielberg (who express emotional reality in dream-inflected language) to directors like Steve Buscemi and Whit Stillman (whose movies are more representational, more interested in performance, body language and a real world vibe). But for this movie I tapped my fascination with realistic ensemble pictures, particularly movies by Robert Altman, Stillman, early Spike Lee and Richard Linklater, Buscemi, Alan Rudolph and of course, John Cassavetes, who created American independent filmmaking as we now commonly think of it.
We shot the movie in three sections spread out over 18 months. It was always intended to be a feature, but the original idea was to make a feature over the course of many years, sort of like Michael Apted’s UP series, but with actors in fictional situations. The movie was always called ‘Home,’ and it was going to follow one couple — Bobby, the guy in the suit who comes to the party without knowing anybody, and Susan the co-hostess, who he falls in love with — over the course of seven years, watching the progression of their relationship in self-contained scenes or sequences. There would be flirting, courtship, sex, love, moving in, breaking up, marriage, kids, and so on. I wrote a 20-page script that was originally intended to be the first section of that movie, where Bobby and Susan first meet at this party.
But when we cast the secondary and incidental characters, and I saw how resourceful the actors were, I realized I could represent all the different stages of that central relationship through an ensemble in one night, rather than having two characters slog through it over seven years. That necessitated re-imagining the whole movie based on what we got during that first shooting period, then filling it out and finishing it out and then going back and shooting some more if we felt that another scene or a different scene was needed, or in some cases just another shot or two.
There was also a practical component to making it an ensemble picture, then complementing that choice by varying the movie’s tone and visual style. I know from being a critic and a festival juror that one of the biggest handicaps in independent cinema is a grinding uniformity of tone, often incarnated by focusing exclusively on one or two characters and one or two modes — drama, comedy, romance, what have you. When a movie like that works, it’s amazing, but when it doesn’t work, it’s like being trapped on a cross country flight next to a stranger you really don’t like. I thought one way to guard against that was to try to give the movie as much variety as possible — variety of rhythm and composition, variety of characters, variety of modes, switching from droll comedy to slapstick and then over to uncomfortable dramatic moments. That’s part of what I love about Altman. He gives you the whole human carnival — drama, comedy, social criticism, pure atmosphere — all in one package.
There was also a playful aspect to the ensemble thing. I thought, Well, just because it’s shot in a two floor apartment doesn’t mean it has to feel small. Let’s try to pack as many people into this thing as we can, because once the population density rises to a certain point, it just becomes funny, like the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera” where it seems like everybody on the ship is packed into one tiny room.
“Home” is an ironic title, given where it was shot. Did you always plan to make the film in the comfort of your residence? ^ Yes. In the original conception, when it was one couple over several years, it was also going to be set in one house. I knew these two really terrific actors New York actors, Jason Liebrecht and Nicol Zanzarella, who had stage and film credits and tons of experience but were basically just working people like me. I wanted to see them in romantic leading roles — they just happened to audition for a short film I was casting a few years ago and they clicked so well that I thought it would be stupid not to write something for them. But unfortunately they weren’t in a position where they could take a few weeks off and just work on a movie, and I didn’t have the money to pay for a concentrated, extended shoot anyway. So I decided to write something that be modular — where if we shot, say, one or two chapters then had a three or six month gap before we shot the next one, and the actors came back with different haircuts or slightly different vibes, there wouldn’t be a continuity issue. The best way to do a project like that and totally control it was by shooting it in my apartment.
There was also the whole matter of locations, which is something that often sinks even the best funded, best organized independent films. On “Tinsel Town,” which had a very complicated plot spread out over a lot of locations, there were days where we didn’t get every scene or shot that we really needed to tell the story, and going back to the same location and getting permission to use it again was a huge pain, and it cost money, too. I decided that if I ever decided to go ahead and direct a movie I would be sure to design it so that I could control it.
That turned out to be the best decision I made, because we used the apartment not just as a set, but also for equipment storage, a rehearsal space, a production office and later, for editing and sound work. I could wander around the house at night with a sketchpad, storyboarding shots or working out blocking issues, without worrying that a manager or security guy was going to kick me out. My brother Richard Seitz, the sound designer on the movie, lives upstairs from me. Most of the foley work was recorded in the same rooms where the scenes were actually shot. The funny thing is, it’s really not a big place, but because we shot in every room as well as in the front and back of the house, and we used wide-angle lenses and a high contrast lighting scheme, it made the apartment look gigantic. Now some people think I live in Xanadu and others people ask me if we shot on a set.
We really abused the hell out of the house, though. But it was strong and beautiful and resilient, and it gave the movie kind of an old movie feel, just because it’s an old house, a sort-of-brownstone that’s over a century old. It’s skinnier than the other brownstones on the block and it’s built from some kind of sandstone, which means it’s actually disintegrating like the House of Usher. It has a particular personality, kind of a feminine personality. As the shoot went on, people actually started to talk about the house in anthropomorphic terms. One night when we were shooting really late and everyone was getting kind of punchy, I saw my production designer Michael Owen accidentally scratch paint off a wall while he was moving equipment around, and he actually touched the scratch and said, “Sorry.”
What is your festivals plan for the film? Are you specifically looking for festivals where you can connect with distributors? And have you met with any festival rejections yet? ^ We had the same festival plan as everybody else, which is submit to any festival that seems important and/or interesting and hope somebody accepts us and that we don’t run out of application money before the end of the year. We got rejected by every major U.S. festival during the first part of the year, except Cinequest, which jumped on us within weeks of getting the screener.
That was kind of amazing considering that throughout this whole process, in the back of my mind, I thought about this movie as a private, personal thing that wouldn’t make sense to anybody but me and the actors and crew who worked on it, and that would probably take years to be discovered and widely seen. We also got invited to the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, the Trenton Film Festival, the Dallas Video Festival and the Independent Film Festival of Boston, where we’re playing a day after “Lonesome Jim,” by Steve Buscemi, whose first movie “Trees Lounge” was a huge influence on “Home.” Hopefully there will be other festivals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had our best luck with festivals that are young and hungry.
We didn’t get into any festivals where there’s a lot of buying action, and in retrospect, that was not a huge surprise. It’s a movie with no sex, no violence, no genre elements and no movie stars, shot in an apartment by a guy who’s never directed a feature before, and it’s basically a zoo with people, mostly unconcerned with exposition and three-act structure. You don’t even learn most of the characters’ last names or what they do or where they’re from. You just watch them behave, and while some profound changes happen, they happen internally and privately, so that if you’re not really into the movie you won’t catch it. There’s a two minute monologue in the middle, in Spanish with subtitles, that’s edited as if it’s a magical incantation, and a long scene in the middle where a prison psychiatrist stands in the backyard interpreting people’s dreams. I just put that stuff in there because it seemed to fit; I could never defend any of it rationally, and if people are baffled I just shrug because it’s what I wanted. Plus the movie deliberately does not allow you to get too close to the characters, which is considered acceptable in European movies but not American ones. Another filmmaker who didn’t like the movie talked about that, particularly in regards to Nicol’s character, who he adored. He said, “At the end of the movie, I felt like I knew her heart but I didn’t really know HER.” And I thought, “Well, I wish you hadn’t described that as a liability, because it’s exactly the effect I was after.”
You’ve been generous in providing supportive reviews for many up-and-coming independent filmmakers. Now that you’ve completed “Home,” has your level of enthusiasm for these filmmakers increased? ^ Not really. I was always supportive of true independents, which I define as people who make movies outside the system, for less than three million dollars, without pre-existing distribution agreements, star names or either one. I wouldn’t say this whole experience has made me more or less supportive. I’ve always taken the same approach toward tiny movies that food critics take toward mom and pop restaurants, which is to say if my response is mixed to positive, I might write something, but there’s no point lavishing abuse on a tiny movie, especially an undistributed one by a newcomer, unless you really, really hate it and want to inflict some damage on it, which I have been known to do.
That said, I’ve certainly gained insight into the process of making, marketing and distributing movies that I hadn’t had before. The simple experience of spending years making a movie, then having to go out in the marketplace and compete against thousands of other movies for a festival slot and be grateful for any acceptance, and then be grateful for any review or mention you get, positive or negative — that’s something I always knew about in the abstract but never personally experienced. Like I was saying earlier, it’s the difference between knowing and understanding. I don’t think I truly understood until recently just how drastically the system is stacked against people who make movies outside of the normal channels.
I mean, I read the trades and Film Comment and Moviemaker and Cineaste, and Pop Matters and Slant and other publications that seek out small, foreign, underground or undistributed films, and Ray Carney’s books on John Cassavetes were my bibles throughout shooting, so I really have no reason not to have understood all this stuff already, on a deep level. But sometimes you still need to experience it firsthand. I didn’t know the right way to wrap a stinger until I had to do it on a set. In fact, I didn’t know you called it a stinger until I was on a set.
I was talking the other night to Bryan Wizemann, a Brooklyn filmmaker who directed a fine, stark, totally uncompromised drama called “Losing Ground,” which premiered at Cinequest alongside “Home.” He wanted to pick my journalist’s brain about how to get the media interested in seeing and reviewing his movie, and I told him the truth, which is, “Unless you’re one of about a dozen movies that hits big at Toronto and Sundance, or that has a strong genre hook, a compelling personal back story or a star in it, you probably won’t get reviewed at length by any major daily newspaper or weekly magazine, because space is tight and editors cannot justify giving up any serious acreage to a movie that doesn’t already have buzz.”