April 19, 2006
IFFBoston. The Guatemalan Handshake.As the Independent Film Festival of Boston opens today (and it'll run through Monday, April 24), we offer a little background on two of the films the fest is featuring in the form of Jonathan Marlow's interviews with their makers. At the main site, you'll find the one with Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim, whose Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story screens on Saturday and Sunday. All the secrets of that story are kept secret in that conversation. The same can't be said, exactly, of the chat that unfolds below the jump here. A few moments prior to the world premiere of The Guatemalan Handshake at Slamdance, Jonathan had a freewheeling and not nearly as tight-lipped a talk with writer and director Todd Rohal. You might not call what comes up spoilers necessarily, but if you get a chance to see the film on Saturday or Monday in Boston, or anywhere else on any other evening, you might want to see to that first. On the other hand, I haven't seen it, and the chat's only whetted my desire to. You've made some short films before you made this, your debut feature, premiering here at Slamdance. Tell me about these short films which I have not seen. I have four short films - three made in Ohio and one made in the Baltimore area. The first film I ever made, when I was eighteen or nineteen, was called Single Spaced. It's sort of a combination of film noir stuff and John Waters. It played in the Hamptons Film Festival, the first festival I ever got into, and we won a $2500 prize right off the bat. On your first film. Yeah. And that was your first festival? Yeah. And I was like, "Shit, this is easy!" "This is for suckers! I could do this forever..." I made more than the budget back, you know? Then, of course, never again. I made another film after that which was a really bizarre kind of thing about a living head that's in a bag and this guy gets paired up with him to work together... Like a buddy-cop movie except one of the buddies is a head in a bag? Yeah, exactly. It was about these two guys who get paired-up and one of them never does any work and the other one gets blamed for it, sort of like Laurel & Hardy, but just totally depressing. When did you make your first film? That was 1996, I think. I'd done video stuff and all that. Then I did a thesis film for school called Knuckleface Jones. Basically, the premise of it was that I was going to make a film for which I would be the only audience member. That would be my favorite thing in the world, that no one else would probably enjoy. Because I had made these other films and they got varied reactions. Any time you make something, everyone reacts to things differently. It just seemed like this is how you'd approach something and see what happens. I did and it became a favorite of a lot of people and it played a lot of places all over. No $2500 prize, though. We got a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation. I think they would want it back if they saw what I did with it. It's a little out there; not offensive, but it's just got some weird language in it. It had Piper Perabo, who was in Coyote Ugly. It was her first film. She always pops up on these internet things as being in this film and no one knows what it is, but we met a lot of people through that one, left school and kept going with it, and that film got me a lot of work actually. Then I decided, "Ok, I need to make another short." Before I started to work on the feature thing. I made one more short outside of the school environment to make sure that I'm seeing all these things that I would be otherwise overlooking from doing something in a more comfortable environment at school. That film was called Hillbilly Robot, and it played at SXSW. I haven't seen any of these shorts. But they must be brilliant. [laughs] They're bizarre. They're different. Through those four shorts, were you starting to develop a style of how you wanted to approach filmmaking? Clearly, with Guatemalan Handshake, you seem to be taking traditional genres and finding a way to completely subvert and invert them. It sounds, at least from your description of your first two films, that you were doing much the same thing. "Let's do something that people understand and then throw at them something they won't understand at all." Yeah. From the concept stage, though, I'm not able to think like that. I think if I was, I'd be able to come up with ideas more quickly, but instead, it starts in a totally different way. I wish it was more like that - "Yeah, I'll take this genre and flip it over, take this movie, base it on that and switch it around." What was the starting point for this feature then? For this, I wrote a bunch of short, short stuff. I'd sit down every night and say, "Okay, by the end of tonight I've gotta write, like, one page, one paragraph," whatever. Little short things that are complete, that I would present to anybody as a full piece or a description of a photograph. Actually, looking at Harmony Korine's A Crack Up at the Race Riots, if they gave that to kids in creative writing programs in school - there are so many good exercises that you could come up with in there. So you've got a full stack of ideas, these little stories, and I had to figure how those all worked together and how those characters fit together. That took revising the draft three or four times. How many individual stories make up what became The Guatemalan Handshake? I don't know, because they all started to come together, and then a new draft would fit those together. I can't really remember where they began. Do you develop the characters first, or do you develop the plot and then put characters into it? I guess it would depend on where that story started. A lot of it would be written for some people who are in it. I've been writing stuff for some of them to play for four years, then calling them up and saying, "I've got something for you." I've meet a lot of different people that way, or just seeing them on the street and just talking to them about it, you know, asking if they'd ever do it. For instance, the Will Oldham character - did you write that character specifically for him? I wish I did. I really liked him and actually some of his music helped inspire some of the stuff in the film. I thought of asking him to be in something, but it was for a totally different part that was cut out of the film in an early, early draft. I never thought of him for the role he has and it was just stupid; I think he's great. I didn't know who we were going to cast, and I kept looking at people... I was looking for somebody who had a totally original new look and then thought about him for a different role, just a small walk-on thing and he wrote back asking, "Well, do you have anything a little more substantial that I could do?" I thought, "Yeah, why don't you do this?" And he said, "Sure." And he came on and it just worked. How long was he on the project? How many days did you shoot with him? We shot for a month total and he came for about a week and a half and just stayed with the crew in the houses. We were going to give him a hotel and he said, "If you guys are staying together, there's no reason to treat me differently." So we gave him a room in the house. He's really funny and goofy, had a lot of ideas and got mad at me when I had this one idea for a song I was going to use. He was like, "Do not, do not... everything else is fine, but do not use that song." He would constantly bring it up... Really? It was a Southern Culture on the Skids song about atomic power. I found this version they had and we were going to do this whole opening number with that and it was gonna be this total kick off to the film. "Do not even consider that," he said. "They are the most disgusting band." So you honored his wish. Well, it made sense! It just did. With our final soundtrack, I had this huge iPod list of music I thought could fit with the film and it wasn't nailed down until the whole thing was done. It wouldn't have fit and that entire scene would have been cut. It was just ridiculous to consider that song. So how about the character of Turkey Legs? Is that something that developed in the same short story process? It did, yeah. Originally it was a little boy who kept jumping in front of cars, getting hit by cars just to make friends and meet people. We met all the kids in this entire town basically, and we found all the other kids for the film that way, but we just couldn't find somebody that was right. Where did you shoot the film? This town was called Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, outside of Harrisburg. Out of all the young actors that you looked at, this girl was the best of the bunch? Did you restructure your ideas about the character when you changed to role from a boy to a young woman? Actually, I went to see the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players one night and the girl drummer in the band, the daughter, was just - it was just amazing seeing someone outside of a school element. She was going through this home school kind of thing, traveling on the road. She made total sense, so I talked to her dad and he was like, "We make our income (on) tour and we can't go to work for free for like a month to shoot this thing, but it sounds like a lot of fun and we can write a song for you." So then I said, "Let's go look for some other folks, some other girls." We started casting and this one girl came in and she made sense. She was wearing a shirt with snakes all over it. She would just sit in this chair and talk, and talk, and talk, and I wouldn't have to ask a question and she would just talk in this quiet tone and I thought, "Yeah, let's do it." Was she always considered to be the narrator of the project? I didn't want a narrator for the film, but there was so much back-story and so much important stuff that we could have turned the film into a four-hour thing. It just had to be told upfront. It was important just to have a film that you could get into and go with and not spend so much time with this whole other film. It kinda worked like a sequel to a previous script I had written. Oh, I see. You could still do a prequel to this film... It would be totally boring. Her narration is more for the sake of getting you into it. At what point did you select the iconic automobile that is featured in The Guatemalan Handshake? This one stylistic element of the film is a kind of anchor for everything else that happens in it because, not to give anything away, there's a lot of car exchanging going on. Is this your car? I mean, I know it's your car... I found it on the side of the road in Ohio. I'm driving from one town where my parents live to my friend's house on the other side of the state, and it was, like, 2am, and it was out in front of a RadioShack in the middle of this really small town. I stopped and looked at it and immediately started doing research and found that there were only a couple thousand of them on the road. It was invented by this guy in Baltimore, which is near where I'm now living, so I looked into it and thought, "Yeah, this is the perfect kind of thing." I've just been kind of obsessed with that weird automobile kind of stuff. I think if I had a lot of property I'd be one of those guys that had twenty cars out front even though I really don't know how to work the cars or anything. So I found this guy and he was trying to get rid of it and he talked a lot about it and explained a lot of stuff to me and kind of showed me how to wire it and all that stuff, and then we got it and basically started writing it into the film immediately. I just knew it was a great image, you know, this bright orange thing and the green... So all the cars are that color? Oh no, no. They had a variety. They had a red and a light blue. I mean, it was the late 70s. It's a very odd design. Not just the fact that it's an electric car, but because it's very strangely shaped. It's a mid-prototype. They mass-produced them for a while and shipped them all over the country, but if they'd been able to go on a few more years, I'm sure they would have turned into something pretty amazing. It's seems like it's halfway there. It's like it's the front of the car and nothing else. So immediately it made sense that Donald would be driving this car, and it would be a car that would be fetishized by his father. The story keeps folding in on itself and you keep learning more about the characters as it develops, which means essentially that your audience has to be smart and that may be challenging for some people. I'm not saying that audiences aren't intelligent. What I'm saying is that we, as a culture, have been taught to expect that films need to be made at a fourth grade level. I was immediately taken with the film because it expects the audience to participate. You have to follow it, because if you walk away from it and come back, you may not have any idea where you're at. Yeah, I hate that it's gonna be a hard film for people to watch, but if they watch it a few times... then that sucks, too; you know they have to buy two tickets or something. The story is so simple and sort of dumb, sort of basic. This guy leaves and it's obvious that he left because he's in the most terrible situation. Maybe he's not such a great guy, but if you were ten years old and you were living with this situation, you would have absolutely no idea what was going on until you start figuring things out. And nobody's gonna tell you directly, so you figure this out as you go along, and that's what I wanted it to be like as you're watching the film. She [the narrator] is getting little bits and pieces from these people and she's putting it together as it's going on, but it's so complicated to figure out who these people are and what's really going on, especially when you're just thrown into this mix. But that's the whole point of the film, I guess. Once you are able to figure things out, it does make sense and makes a simple plot much more complicated that way. Except for the dog. How it comes back to life? So the dog comes back at the end. "Wait a minute, no - we know the dog is dead." That's because you've got this other character that's working inside this film, which is like an additional story, a parallel story going on that's not related to any of the characters in the film, and every time she's on screen, it's through her point of view as well, so we're seeing all this stuff that's going on that makes sense to her in the same way that it makes sense to the ten year old, Turkey Legs. But when we see this older woman, it's basically, you know, what happens after you die. Do you realize that your gone? Because this woman is actually gone, but we're watching her last few thoughts before she disappears as well... So, in a sense, the story is the Turkey Legs story. All the characters occupy the same world so none of them are out of play. Although, in any story like this, The Addams Family or whatever, you always have the anchor, that character who's the normal one and, in this case, it's kind of the daughter of the so-called Guatemalan immigrant, the derby driver, who aspires to be a derby driver as well. She's kind of... well, I hate to say the sane one because she's really not any different than anybody else, but she's kind of the older sister figure for Turkey Legs in a way. I mean, she's the closest link to the narrator because the story is simple but constructed complexly. How difficult was it to write it that way, so that it would come across in a satisfying way from beginning to end, so you don't lose the audience, so they don't go, "This is nonsense"? But, at the same time, did some of that come out of editing? Were there changes you made in the editing process that cleaned it up a little bit? Yeah, because pacing was so, so, so important and difficult and there are scenes in there that I wasn't sure were - I mean they work really, really well, all the scenes themselves, but you put them all together and you hit the two-hour mark with the cut and it needs to be ninety minutes. Because of that frustration factor, that's kind of what came out of editing. So many things that happened in production lengthened a shot and that extra fifteen seconds you're adding just takes it to the next scene to make it seem like it's ten minutes too long. But otherwise, it sticks to the script exactly. Even the ending, how it cuts back and forth from scene to scene to scene... Does that answer your question? You just tightened things up and made scenes a little shorter here or there to get it down. It is just the natural result that, during the shooting, time expands. It's just a question of trying to compress it again. We had this huge, long opening with too much narration and great, great shots. The thing was, we didn't want to do wide establishing shots of an area, ever. There was never to be shot that would be like, "Here's a mountain side." It needed to have something else going on, so you'd have to meet another character for a second for those sequences to feel like, "Now we need to take a break and see the landscapes." But let's figure out these landscapes through the people that are in it, so we have these little breaks that are the kid in the wheelchair, the baton thrower, that kind of stuff. Constantly feeding us information, even though it seems completely irrelevant; they serve as the little breaks between that. One of my favorite moments is from their childhood, the Spank Williams character that Cory [McAbee] plays, and you did a great job evoking that period. The little scene where they're watching television, that's really fabulous, and also his stunt is pretty impressive. So, now that again, was itself its own self-contained story point that got worked into the whole or...? I think I wrote that story by itself and it ended up that was the last thing written into the script. Originally he was supposed to be this eight-foot-tall black guy, but then Cory kept writing, "Is there a part for me in the film?" And I thought, "It just seems great, we'll give him a mustache." So we changed that around, and the story just kept rewriting itself. I think it might have been an entirely different film if I hadn't brought that in. Yeah, it comes out of nowhere, really. So, how did you know Cory originally? I met them in Maryland when they brought American Astronaut around and Skids, who's a projectionist here, introduced me to his stuff and an old professor of mine told me about The Ketchup and Mustard Man, and finally, I saw that stuff and I was just crazy about it. I met him and Bobby [Robert Lurie] who's the other half of the Billy Nayer Show, and I was like, "My job is creating DVDs and doing design," and it was just like, "Can you just do an American Astronaut DVD?" So I sat down with them and did stuff. Really, okay. So you did the shorts thing and you did American Astronaut. Yeah. Ok, I didn't make the connection. So I'd go out and shoot some shows with them and things like that. We're trying to work on a live DVD down the road. That would be smart. I think I just hit it off well with both of them. I think Cory liked the sensibility, which was like, "Everybody's working for free on this film, I'm gonna work for free for these people over here." It's like this trade back thing. Cory's interested in that, so he was like, "Yeah, let me come out and do this." Yeah, he does some physical stuff; he does the man on the moon, the cowboy thing. When he does the run for the jump I'm like, "Yep." Cory just moves his body in a way that... he's like a cartoon almost. It's really unreal. That whole sequence, there's like a fifteen-minute cut of it. It works so well as its own short film, but in the middle, it needed to be trimmed down. He did some of the funniest stuff. There's actually a landing target that he has on the ground with these balloons on it and we have him looking at it and checking the distance and calculating everything and then practicing how he's going to land. That'll be an extra at some point. He's just phenomenal in terms of what he comes up with. It really felt great to work with somebody that would just be like, "What if I do this, this and this?" It does great stuff for us. In Will Oldham and Cory McAbee, you have musicians that act, as opposed to actors that also write music. Was that important, knowing you have folks involved that have these other skills that could they could bring to the project rather than casting full on actors? Yeah, I didn't want to have name-names in the film. One, because it would bring on all kinds of union issues, and two, if I make a film, it's gonna be completely coming out of nowhere. It has to be completely different and feel very real. If Nick Nolte is standing in the middle of a scene, everyone knows who that is. It's like shooting in New York City, it's too familiar. I wanted it to seem like it was taking place in an entirely different country. So it was kind of a debate, putting them both in there. But Will hasn't been in a lot of stuff, and if you get him doing something different, that'll be fine. So having him and Cory there, and them being musicians, too, they understand performance in a different way and aren't so concerned about how their lines are coming across. They have a different sensibility about how they present themselves in front of people, especially Will, coming up with a new persona every year. So that just seems to work, finding musicians to do quiet smaller parts, or even loud insane things. You just know their performance will be based on how you've seen them live, and that's a good way to go about casting. There's a sequence in the center of the film shot in black and white and there's a little musical interlude. Was that one of the iPod pieces that had been selected or was that something that was written for the film? Yeah there was this Moldy Peaches song... Oh, that's the Moldy Peaches song. Yeah, and the guy who shot the film, my friend Ritchie, gave me this CD. Listening to it, I thought it would make a great sequence, so I put that down and it had all these different scenes that would go in between their singing. I talked to Will and Sheila, who played Sadie, the other character in that scene that sings with him, and we changed the lyrics up so they reflect the movie a little bit more. They went to a used bookstore and came back with lyrics. I have no idea what they really refer to, but to me, it made sense because it was things I saw around town and things that happened to them, personal things, things they thought were funny and that made sense for the back-story of their character. We shouldn't know, really, what their jokes are, but it's a very intimate moment. So do you perceive that there will be things in the film that audiences will react to in a way that is not the way that you intended? For instance, the fact that certain parts of the story are unresolved. Or that you have the aspiration for Sadie, who is pregnant, to be a derby driver? I question every single bit of it. Because now that I've seen it however many hundred of times, sometimes I'll look at it and think it makes absolutely no sense and wonder how anyone could sit down and watch this. I try to clear my head and wonder how this is gonna look to somebody for the first time. But to me, that's what I wanted. I wanted you to walk into it with the expectation that you're seeing this "doc" about drug smuggling, you don't know what the title means and the trailers are throwing you one way and our post cards another way... I definitely worry that people aren't going to like it. If it were a Sundance screening, for instance, audiences would be less kind to it because they expect to be spoon-fed and here they really don't have any idea what to expect. With it being Slamdance, you're still bringing in a lot of the same people and a lot of the films that have come out of here are very similar, I think. Well, that's the biggest difficulty with Sundance, and I suppose it will happen increasingly with Slamdance as well. People make films that fulfill audience expectations of what a film that would go that route would be and those are the worst kinds of films. I really wanted to like The Station Agent. I really wanted to like it. But I wondered, "Why didn't you take a least one more step forward in this film?" Instead of just keeping us in the same place and changing around the elements you're using. Just something a little bit more. We can make little steps in progress in terms of how we watch films. When I saw American Astronaut here, now three years ago, I was shocked because I never would have imagined that a film like that would play here. And then it became clear: "Oh, it went through because Cory's short had played here." So there was a kind of history; it wasn't as if it were out of left field. But like your film, it requires a lot of the audience, and most audiences just can't give that. They can't give themselves up to the film to become part of the story and let it work. It's so unrealistic. No one would ever do that. But that's what a movie is for. If all a movie was about was recreating reality then there would be no need for them. And so movies that are only to reproduce reality, their surroundings... Like the opening night movie here at Sundance, which you have not seen, Friends with Money, is the epitome of everything that's horrible about American films. "Let's get a bunch of boring people together and sit them around a table and have them talk about their inconsequential problems as if they're really important and nothing of what these people are saying is of interest." Imagine you go out to dinner and there's somebody at the table next to you that just is talking about how horrible their lives are. "Look, there are horrible lives in the world and yours is not one of them." Now imagine that for two hours. That's my nightmare. Well, it wasn't two hours but it felt like two hours. So your film creates a world and asks the audience to accept these characters and those characters are true to the world they live in. They do all the things they would do in those conditions. Nothing rings untrue about anything that any of those characters do. I don't want to say it changes how you look at reality. I think the film is really based in reality, definitely in terms of how these people are reacting - much, much, more realistically than other films probably here at Sundance. Well, that's why, with the woman with the missing dog, there's more honesty in her performance and the way she's dealing with this grief - when we see her at the Chinese restaurant eating everything off the menu - there's more honesty in that than in any of these films that aspire to be real. Even though it's maybe hyper-real or whatever, maybe it's beyond what any normal person would do, people will do that. They react to things in different ways and everything that she does is consistent. She never breaks from that thread. And I think that's where audiences will react favorably to the film. Because it's consistent in its construction. It never deviates. I think when people try to make films like what you've done, when they do it poorly, they just go off. "I'll just keep throwing things in there and just be wacky for it's own sake." And that never feels real. So a lot of that is obviously writing and rewriting and working through the story and the way you photograph it. You shot it in 35mm and few people at this festival do that anymore. Is it screening on film? It is. It's our first print and it's not the best print. But you're insistent on showing it in 35mm. You shot it in 35mm. You finished it in 35mm... I had a big ordeal with that here. Would they rather not show it in 35mm? They wouldn't because they have to pay for the projectors and it actually ruined my relationship with a bunch of people. I arrived and people were like, "You have to be a nice person to these folks." They called and said they'd like to show the film. I said, "Great. You know we're going to have a 35mm print," and then, she's like, "Well, we're not going to have 35mm projection." Okay, I can't show it. "You're going to throw away your premiere because you want to show it on film?" And I said, "Unfortunately, yeah." The film will stand on its own, so I think you're taking the right stance on it. I felt very, very honored to be accepted into anything. The rejections for this one will be plenty. To turn it down was the hardest thing. It was a decision that was made on the phone immediately, and she said, "We'll have to use an alternate." I'm like, "Go with an alternate, I apologize. The copy I provide you, if you don't have the means to show it, there's nothing I can do about that." So we went back and forth and I became a big jerk. And then they ended up having four other filmmakers come this year with 35mm prints. Oh, well, there you go. I think everyone was kind of behind that, but there have been a lot of shortcuts and I think it's so easy to put it on film when a lot of people are putting it on a DVD player and showing it. I'm not sitting there everyday working on it. And now we have this print and it's not perfect. Your DP, had you worked with him before on these other films? On the short films, yeah. So you're very comfortable with him. Yeah, he's a good friend and a very funny guy and knows his stuff and the crew loves him. I had worked as a DP on a couple of films, TV stuff and so it was very easy for us to sit down and have all these films behind us. With a film as complex as this, did you find it necessary to storyboard everything? Yeah, our storyboards are kind of like sketches, but often I would just make a shot list. I would know the location. I would know what was there and the elements involved. Normally in a film, when something is repeated that I've seen already, I usually get frustrated and say, "God, this movie is only this long, you don't need to show me this again." But in this case, I did not make the connection that the guy at the roller skating rink was the same guy at the power plant until you show it again. "How did I not notice that? How is it not clear to me that these are the same people?" So, how did you do that!? There's so much that goes on in that sequence, you're still trying to figure out and get your bearings. It's so early, too. And it's so bizarre. The actions during all of that are so weird. But it makes sense when you see what he does at his other jobs. He's a very odd character. At what point in the writing stage did you develop that character? Because he's as important as Sadie is to the whole arc of the film. I don't know at what point he came up. He was a friend of mine, so I was always writing the character for him. He's one of the funniest people I know. He's not a very funny person in the film; he's a very depressed sad, sad guy who puts the raw into the deal. It must have been when I wrote the original script, when we had Will's character all through, but when we removed that, there needed to be - in order for someone to move on what would you do after this guy disappears and you realize you're pregnant, you're moving on and you start looking for other people and there's this rebound relationship thing, but it's never, ever going to work. It's so ridiculous, and I guess that's how that came about. He needed to bring to this other character that there's hope that there are other things down the road, things that can happen and that there are a lot of other people out there, but this isn't the one. For both of them, it's just never gonna work and that's just sort of the funny bit. We just want to see that bit of the relationship. In an early screening - we were showing a rougher cut - somebody said, "All the arcs for these characters are incomplete." No one gets what they want, no one wins anything until the guy in a stool gets up on his car at the end and takes his shirt off and celebrates. Every other time he tries to take it off, everybody's like, "No, no, no don't take your shirt off and finally he rips it off and everybody's lovin' it. He's got this full arc; he's the only character in this film... Well, Sadie, even though she doesn't find Donald, she wants to be a driver and her first time out, she wins the $2500 prize at the first film festival she's in. Yeah. Like fifty bucks and a free pizza. But she gets a trophy. They both accomplish something, and even though they're clearly not going to be a couple and nothing's going to come from the two of them together, they have that one moment of intersection and they're going to go off and do whatever they're going to do. Well, I've blathered on enough about your film. I don't know what people are going to say about this film. I know that there are a few people that are big fans of it already, and they're getting it around to the right people, but I think there are other times I could show it and people wouldn't understand why they should watch this or why I would make it. Do you think it's easier to work within this space of comedy rather than trying to do a straight ahead drama, particularly for independent films? I think if you're doing something funny and at the same time saying something serious, it's going to come across a heck of a lot louder. If you're trying to do something dramatic and everyone is talking and having these revelations that are right on the dot, they're useless, you know? I think it is the way to do it, and all my favorite films have that without being outright copies. Like Napoleon Dynamite, which I love, but that movie works as a complete comedy; there's nothing else going on in there. I think the best dramas are the ones that are just as funny. For me that's what works best. I'll just stick with that.
Posted by dwhudson at April 19, 2006 5:01 PM