In 1859, British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote about evolution through “natural selection” in his On the Origin of Species. Dan Faltz offers a surprising twist on the old theory in his disturbing, often farcical psychological thriller, “Weak Species” (2009), which has screened at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the Stuttgarter Filmwinter, and other prestigious festivals. Based upon the edgy writings of poet/novelist Dennis Cooper, Faltz’s film leads us into the conflicted minds of two seemingly different high school students. Steve, an aspiring artist, uses his good looks and brilliant mind in Nietzschean ways, to gain power over other gay men more sensitive than he. Steve particularly enjoys toying with George, a frail boy from a troubled home. It is what happens outside of the cloistered world of school that defines George and leads to the film’s shocking conclusion. Dan Faltz checked in with me to discuss his film.
Who are the weak species in your film and in our larger society?
The title comes from a line in one of Dennis’ poems – in his poetry he describes how he and his gay classmates view themselves as weak in comparison to the straight athletes. But these characters are confident in their pursuit of sex, and able to withstand torment and even torture – so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. Kids can treat each other pretty terribly, can’t they? I think we all feel misunderstood as teenagers, no matter who we are— like we don’t belong.
What is your agenda in exploring what some would call beyond-deviant activity?
Hmm. I guess the sex interested me in what it revealed about the characters–what characters communicated to each other, and what it told the audience about their self-worth or need for love. People act differently during sex; they work things out, communicate to their partners, let off steam. We see different sides to people during sex. It’s a private place that reveals things about us.
What attracted you to build a film from poetry, and particularly the poetry of Dennis Cooper?
Dennis’ prose is very minimal, like poetry – he gives information with few words that are choice and descriptive. That seemed to suggest filmmaking – revealing only details of the larger picture; bits of streetlamps or suburban rooftops, school lockers. And I loved these characters and wanted to audiences to see them.
Tell me more about Dennis Cooper’s recurring themes and how you manipulated these?
Closer, concentrates a lot on the idea of knowing someone from the inside out vs. knowing someone on the surface level. Steve thinks he knows Cliff, then realizes he only knew Cliff’s physical beauty, his surface. In the book, the sexual acts are more scatological, the evidence of what’s inside a person. Dennis’ characters are very blunt in their desire to cause pain and receive it, so I re-purposed the sex to be more of a power dynamic – being in control vs. giving up control. Fisting occurs in the novel, and seemed like a good way to show just how willingly George makes himself vulnerable to absolute strangers.
Is “Weak Species” an adaptation of Cooper’s work or more personal in nature?
There were parts of his novel and poems that I wanted to integrate; I had to find a way to link characters and situations – Steve’s dialogue is largely Dennis’ poetry – the idea of a secret species became the through-line. I came out very early; I’m sure my experiences are all over the film in ways I don’t notice.
How did you find such exceptionally believable actors for such disturbing roles?
I had an amazing casting team, who were into the project completely. I was lucky to find such talented actors willing to go to these scary places, and with sincerity and real commitment. I think they were able to take this material and find the truth is each character. Paul Tigue (Phillip) and Hugo Armstrong (Tom) say and do such horrible things and make them seem reasonable and realistic. And the kids make us care about them from the start.
Describe your direction of the actors. For example, did you use method acting techniques, or something else?
The goal was to make each actor feel safe enough to get their hands and hearts dirty. And they just blew me away each time. I’m certainly still learning how to direct for sure, and this was an opportunity to use techniques I’d learned from the late Nina Foch and my other fearless mentors from USC. I was lucky to meet with Allen Coulter, who gave me lots of advice and encouragement, and corresponded with other film and TV directors. Everyone was into it and completely committed, which was humbling and rewarding.
Was the film strongly scripted or did you allow a good deal of improvisation?
We stuck to the script, but let actors make changes when they felt things didn’t sound natural. Dennis’ dialogue writing is very poetic, which can sound unrealistic when spoken. We had to find a balance.
You explore the world of gay males, but could your characters just as easily be heterosexual?
I wasn’t surprised when Dennis told me that most of his fans are straight guys – his teen characters, their alienation, cruelty and loyalty are very universal. I think he gets kids’ voices very accurately; I wanted to stay true to that. These kids are in charge of their sexuality in a way I think we don’t see often.
Do you have trouble speaking from the heterosexual viewpoint in the film—as for example, when you show us Cliff’s friends when they discover Steve’s journal?
In other projects I’ve identified mostly with female characters. I think this film comes from the viewpoint of these particular characters, who are gay teens. At one point I discussed obscuring the women in the school scenes – to show the way Steve and George only see who they can sexualize. In other books, the characters are more pansexual or even straight. But this story and these characters warranted a certain viewpoint.
I think Cliff’s friends are very realistic, at least from my memory of high school. With Cliff and his friends, I had the guys improvise or embellish their lines; I wanted them to be as real as possible – their dialogue is a stark contrast to the way Steve communicates. Zane in particular, is very funny.
Can you talk about Cliff, the popular football star who dies so dramatically and abruptly? What type of person is he?
Cliff is just a regular kid; a popular football player with a girlfriend and a good group of friends. He’s certainly nicer to Steve than his buddies, until Steve begins to push him and make him uncomfortable. He discovers a side to himself he didn’t know before. And Steve becomes something dangerous to avoid. Dennis makes a point of killing this beautiful object of obsession, which leaves Steve without an idol to project upon.
Steve, the protagonist/narrator is very complex. Do you see him as a good or bad person?
He’s certainly cruel in the way he treats others, but he’s just trying to feel good about himself in lieu of his family. I think we identify with him at first, then see how he hurts those around him. He’s in a state of emergency, like George, so he re-imagines his life the way he wants it to be. For his obsessing over perfection, he learns the beauty in others’ flaws. Audiences seem to enjoy when George knocks him down a peg; it’s fun to see that.
Who do you see as the most dangerous character in the film and why?
Phillip is probably the most dangerous character. Unlike Tom, who makes clear his intentions from the get-go, Phillip is a sadist disguised as an innocuous neighbor. He coldly refers George to Tom for disposal once their affair is over, immediately after their touching break-up – we how easily he can turn off his emotions.
As a filmmaker, do you consider yourself dangerous?
I’m a very happy person, but seem to be drawn to authors and stories that present the world as I see it – gritty, flawed and beautiful nonetheless. I was very involved in ACT UP in San Francisco when I was 19. I think with my creative work, I go back to those first exposures to so much death, such anger and sadness, people in such states of emergency – and try to sort all that out. Make sense of it. And I still think that there is an uplifting message; how lucky these two are are to have found each other. They’re on their way to getting better, perhaps.
Is George a victim, manipulator or person of courage?
Well, he’s self-destructive, suicidal, but he also has a lot of agency – he knows what he wants and makes an effort to find it. But what he wants ultimately, is to feel, and at his darkest moment, he feels things – fear and pain – but is able to value himself and his life for the first time. He becomes strong enough to take care of someone else as well as himself.
How would you define love in this film and in general?
Love is a mystery to these characters; they are desperately in need of it, but are chasing something other than love. They end up feeling what could be love for the first time – huge, scary, beautiful feelings. I think love is a bottomless, scary and huge-feeling.
Both kids are desperate for love, but each is unaware that love is what they’re after – at the end, each is finally more capable of loving, perhaps.
Do you relate to any specific character in the film?
Hmm. I suppose I relate to several; I definitely relate to being seized with desire, and to being self-destructive in my youth – being hurt and hurting others in order to feel better. But I also relate to the growing up, becoming capable of taking care of myself and others.
You choose to base your movie in a High School. Do you feel that the cruelty among students toward each other is indicative of the outside world?
I think high school is a particularly cruel place; maybe it prepares you for the life as an adult. In that environment, though, it seems so normal, doesn’t it; Folks are just mean and that’s how it is. My adult life certainly hasn’t seen that kind of cruelty since; maybe we learn how to treat each other better by going through that trauma.
I notice there are no maternal figures in the film—other than a fast cut of George’s hospitalized mother. Can you speak about this?
There is a maternal figure, in George’s counselor; she becomes the voice of his missing mother. Lynn is an amazing actor and does so much with so little. And when she offers him understanding, he goes far the other way, as teenagers often do.
All male adults, with the possible exception of the man who entices George into his car, are shown as cold sadists. Why is George attracted to such adults?
I don’t think George’s dad is a sadist, I think he is struggling with a son he doesn’t understand. But George wants to be cared for, payed attention to. So he finds men who will dote over him sexually; concentrate on him and take him over. He equates that force with being loved, feeling protected. He is very pro-active about finding dangerous candidates for sex, a whole secret life he hides from his father.
I think George’s dad and Steve’s parents are simply struggling with children they don’t understand and want to protect. Certainly the acts between George and the men he picks up are very meaningful to these characters – they make an effort to find others willing to participate.
I do love the extremes showcased in your film. Can you speak about those pertaining to sex bordering on rape, and of course, the agenda of the sadistic “anatomist” who almost kills George?
George’s arc with Tom is almost unchanged from the novel. Tom is consistent; he’s death, really, on a mission to take people apart. He’s the furthest extreme of Phillip’s fascination with knowing someone inside-out. Someone can only die once, and once it’s over, Tom can’t repeat it with the same person. We see how special he feels it is, and how much he wants his ‘partners’ to be willing and involved in this once-only experience. And he is absolutely in control.
Do you think most people are attracted to those who can manipulate them in some way?
I’m not sure; I think we choose different partners for all sorts of complicated reasons, realistic or fantasies.
I think these kids are attracted to danger, not manipulation. And I think that’s a very realistic detail on Dennis’ part. I think George’s attraction to being dominated is the feeling of being taken care of, being cared for.
The final scene feels a bit comic, as do portions of the preceding scene when George almost loses his life to a deranged experimenter. Can you speak about comedy in this seemingly tragic tale?
Dennis puts humor in the darkest or most inappropriate places; you want to cover your eyes and laugh at the same time.
Is “Weak Species” moralistic, a love story, or something else?
I think my story is more moralistic than Dennis’ original material; it’s his characters through my filter. In Buddhism, to suffer is the human condition; I this is a story about learning to take care of ourselves and each other; Steve isn’t sure if what he feels for George is love, but he has found he actually cares for someone, a scary, new feeling he likes and wants more of.
What type of project will you tackle next?
I’m developing a feature film version of “Weak Species,” which is much closer to Dennis’ novel – I think it’s richer, funnier and scarier – parts of the book I couldn’t put in the short. I’m hoping to find some fearless producers and financing. I think it’s a scary, sexy film, and can’t wait to take audiences there. I also have a project based on the murder of transgender Gwen Araujo, and a violent Noir script I’m kicking into shape. I can’t wait to make another film – it’s just the thing I love most; makes me fizz.
“Weak Species” screens March 17, 2010 at the NY Anthology Film Archives as part of New Filmmakers New York.