Saturday, November 14, 2009
PURE JAZZ: an interview with filmmaker Ryan Andrew Balas
I reviewed Ryan Andrew Balas's second film, Carter, back in June; on November 24th, it will be playing at New York's Anthology Film Archives. In anticipation of his film's premiere, Ryan and I had a short discussion via e-mail, about Carter, dividing audiences, the biblical Jephthah, and improvisation. (Spoilers below, though knowing what happens in the film spoils none of the magic of how.)
TOM: Sminch. The name itself is a little odd, Jeb Sminch, and he has these big glasses and moustache, he has this very particular body language, this very peculiar way of looking at things, his vow-- every aspect of his character seems to otherize him, to keep us at a distance, on the outside. We never really get to "know" him. Was this something that was planned from the outset? Was the question of "why" he does it ever intended to be resolved, even obliquely, or was it always a MacGuffin, a way to get the story going, to get us into this world and these characters?
RYAN: Jebadiah Sminch, as a character, is designed to have some moral ambiguity. I feel like it's important that he asks more questions than he answers, not just on an intellectual level but to serve as a defense mechanism to the aspects of life and himself, that he doesn't really understand. From the story point of view, the concept is certainly an entrance into a life that has a lot of layers but nothing about Jeb Sminch was created to merely push plot. I just wanted to spend time exploring someone who found this life to be so absurd that they felt they deserved the last laugh.
TOM: To be clear, I didn't mean to imply that anything about him was created mechanically for plot purposes-- he's a very organic and I think well-drawn character-- it's just that the film operates so much outside of him, that it is, as the title implies, really from Carter's point-of-view, and that, even after he "explains" why he's doing it, the audience, like Carter, still doesn't have a full understanding. I think-- and I could be wrong about this, as I certainly haven't sat down and measured it out minute-by-minute-- but I'm pretty sure Carter actually has more screen-time than he does, and other than the short prologue, she's given the first and the final scenes, the first and the last word, if you will. What prompted the decision to focus on Carter or to approach Sminch mostly through her eyes?
RYAN: Everything returns to Carter. As we shot the film, I found this to be true, over and over, the world seemed to revolve around Carter. For Jeb, it's not so much about whether or not he is ready to go through with his vow, but if he can truly leave her. We made the decision, after shooting the first bedroom scene with Julia (Carter), that we needed to see Jeb Sminch's life through the reflection in her eyes. I think, at some level, Carter represents the part of Jeb, that doesn't really understand this life. She is the question, he's asking.
TOM: So would you say that the greater emphasis on Carter evolved during the production? I know that the film's dialogue at least was largely improvised-- how improvised would you say the film was structurally/stylistically? Did you always have the same ending in mind? Or how about the scene with the two women going through his clothes?
RYAN: Yes. Absolutely. I felt that even when we were shooting stuff with Jebadiah alone, the scene was still screaming Carter. In the end, when he is looking in the bathroom mirror, I just hear him repeating her name over and over in his head.
The film's concept is based off of a one act stage play that I wrote in 2006. The play is about 15 pages, and takes place on Jeb's 25th birthday. We shot that script and it was going to be our "daring" 15 minute, no cutting, opening to the film. It simply didn't work. And was the first to hit the cutting room floor. However, some of it has made it back into the directors cuts. As we began to see that the story was going to be stronger told as Carter reflects on the past few days---structurally the film became wide open with possibility. For the majority of the film, I had an outline, with locations and conversation topics to work off of. We shot a majority of the film in order, basically applying the information we gained in one scene and using it at the next location, ultimately have a solid emotional direction for the climactic arc that takes place at the park. I knew what I was looking for, but I had to work to find it. The film was improvised, like jazz is improvised, we had a foundation to work off of.
Conceptually, the ending has always been the same. However, the film's ending is far more open than the stage plays ending. The stage play "A life in rewind" is the sort of answer to all the questions. It will be on the directors cut dvd, in one form or another. And like I said---aspects of it, have been cut into the final directors cut of the film. As a side note, I remember work shopping the original stage play in class, in LA, and trying to justify it as a dark comedy by saying that it's funny like an old lady falling out of a window could be funny. That concept still needed a little work.
The scene with the two women dressing up in Jeb's clothes, was shot a few weeks after the rest of the movie, and after had already done a rough assembly of the film. I felt it was important to explore Carter's life, after Jeb. I think there is something oddly sexual, and equally maternal about that scene and that is pure jazz.
TOM: It's my favourite scene in your whole picture, and the two women play off each other very well.
RYAN: Thanks. It's probably my favorite as well.
TOM: How much did Sminch change, as a character, from the play to the film? And Carter? A lot of improvisational filmmaker depends on a person's natural charisma or draws on their personality/experience. Was Carter based in some ways on Julia Porter-Howe? Her performance certainly seems more naturalistic than Mark Robert Ryan's. (And, as I'm sure you're aware from watching the acting in my own film, I don't mean that as a knock against Ryan; was that performance more "constructed" in any way?)
RYAN: Jebadiah, as character, has remained fairly consistent. In the stage play, I played the role, so there were aspects of my personality, and physical tics, and so when Mark was given the role, he brought his interpretation of those qualities along with a whole new set of ideas, and quirks. Jeb is still Jeb. Stubborn, absurd and sincere.
I think the character development for Mark, and Julia has to be understood in the context in which they each related to the material.
Jebadiah Sminch views life as being absurd, and so I think Mark approached the character as an absurdist. This doesn't mean that he didn't personalize the experience, but the performance had to come from some place darker and more mysterious. On the opposite end of that spectrum, Julia connected with the suicide aspect of the material on a more personal level. She has experiences in her own life, that allowed her to connect more naturally with the way Carter approached Jeb.
As the director, I'm always searching for the real moments, the aspects of my actors personal character that can be used in the context of the story that we build. I think this kind of improvisational approach to work, allows there to be more naturalistic performance and creates a deeper personal collaboration with the people I'm working with. So in short, yes, Carter is based entirely on Julia Porter Howe and Mark Ryan, as they experience extraordinary circumstances.
TOM: I like how you describe Sminch as being stubborn and sincere. There's a certain religious aspect to his character-- the way he says that his suicide vow is sacred and holy because it is a promise to God. There's a certain similarity to the biblical Jephthah and his vow, the way he backs himself into a corner, perhaps rashly. And of course the names Jephthah and Jebadiah sound quite a bit alike; was this an intentional link for you? And: would you consider yourself at all to be a religious person?
RYAN: That's a really interesting connection, that I wish I could say is intentional. It's not.
However, the name Jebadiah is meant to sound entirely biblical, and the "Jeb" is Israeli for "Beloved Friend". I'm really fascinated by this link between our Jeb and the biblical Jephthah. The idea of making a rash vow to God, and the connection with a sole female character. Jephthah is forced, by a vow to God, to kill his only daughter. And in many ways, our Jeb is doing something horrible to the only woman in his life. Good find, Sir! That's the beauty of interpreting art (Can I call it that?!), we can find connections outside of intention, based on our own personal experiences with the work.
I'm interested in being a human being. Does that make me religious? I don't know. I think it's very interesting how much culture factors into one's religious experience. I'm a Midwestern transplant, so I'm certainly deeply impacted by an average religious upbringing. However, the question of God was never really posed until I moved away from that influence and I began to really deconstruct my existence. I can say this, I'm curious what happens when we die. There are times when I think we become dirt and other days I imagine something larger, more profound. Even more, I find something really profound about dying and becoming the soil that the tree's growing their roots into my body. Ultimately, we find purpose and that's why we go on. I feel that, at some level, I make very spiritual films. I don't think that means I'm professing answers, but really, I'm asking questions, and to me, that's a far more spiritual experience.
TOM: I'd agree that Carter has a spiritual aspect; that opening waking-up sequence especially is very striking, the attention it pays to movement and light, to time itself-- it begs introspection without being at all verbal. And then, to contrast that, you have the scene in the office, which is frankly very profane, and also very verbal, where you have Sminch's coworker talking about men have sex with horses and suggesting that they rape people while they sleep. It's a very vulgar character, and while he serves as a foil for Sminch and the scene itself as a foil for Carter and her first scene, do you think it might be a little bit too much? Or is a "little bit too much" entirely the point?
RYAN: In a way, I hope these sort of "spiritual" questions I'm attempting to ask, can act as the through line that connects all the work, as a whole piece. And someday, I can look back at my films, and have a bolder, more articulate understanding of where I'm going.
The question "is it too much?" is reason alone, for that scene to be in the movie.
Yes, Jeb's friend is extremely vulgar. He talks about sex in a perverse, disgusting manner. The idea of "sleep fucking" is horrible. But, as I watch him, I'm reminded that he's human. And more so, I hope to be reminded that I'm human. As for the experience Jeb is having, it's far bigger than that. Jebadiah is faced with the ugly side of being a human, and it's perverse and all a "little bit too much". He is mentally preparing to end his experience as a human being and the only bit of solace he has left, is humanity, and it's currently suggesting they make a porn website and rape sleeping people. In a dark way, they are both searching for a "real" experience.
I chose to juxtapose the morning introspective scene with Carter and the darkly profane office scene with Jeb and his friend because I don't want to make safe films, I want films that reflect my own humanity. The beautiful, the curious and even the darkly perverse.
TOM: Do you think these darker aspects of humanity have anything to do with Sminch's decision? Do you think the ugliness in the world is part of what compels him, part of what he finds absurd about it?
RYAN: I think its certainly an aspect of what he finds absurd, but I don't know if I would necessarily say that it's what compels him.
Jebadiah wants to be in control of his life. His vow is a self fulfilling prophecy. He could have chosen to save himself and get married to someone, anyone, before the deadline. In a way, he gave fate the opportunity to deliver, and was let down. So he committed to his own path. Mark Ryan once described the character as "wanting to be his own God".
I think the ugliness in the world certainly effects Jeb, but he accepts it as truth, just the same as he accepts the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with soda.
TOM: Let me come back to the idea of not making safe films, which is something that I admire and an ambition that I share. Did you ever worry about turning off a chunk of your audience with that scene that might have really appreciated the rest of the film? John Grisham once said that a lot of people didn't get past the first few pages of his first book because of how graphically he described the crime, even though the rest of the book was nowhere near that graphic. Do you worry about something like that happening with "Carter"? Or is that part of not being "safe"?
Honestly, I can't say that I've lost sleep over it. This isn't any disrespect to my audience, in fact, it's because I think they are viewing the movie with an higher intelligence level than me. I feel that I've set up the first scene to establish what the film is going to feel like, as far as tone and time go, so the first thing I wanted to do was shake it up a bit. We open on this beautiful image of Carter waking up, and we see, without knowing it yet, what Jebadiah is going to lose. This is juxtaposed with the uglier side of Jeb's life, the shallow surface level aspect. I feel it let's know what it's truly at stake. I also wanted to give Donald, Jeb's friend, the opportunity to be judged and redeemed within a two scene character arc. First we despise him, then we learn to respect him for his deep concern about the grave vow his friend has made. He seems shallow, but within two interactions, the layers unfold. This opportunity to have a second impression, is hopefully another reminder of our own humanity.
I think some people will be thrown off by this, and some critics have certainly slung mud at the concept, but there is a part of me that's excited about this. I've heard it said, that love and hate are almost the same thing. I could lose half an audience by doing something that the other half loves. I've got to stay true to my instincts. I think as time goes on, they will become sharper and I'm going to have a better sense of the best ways to communicate a specific idea to an audience. Ultimately, the only loyalty I have, is to my vision.
I feel no responsibility to follow traditional structure. I think it's safe, and commercially responsible at times, but it's not contributing to the art form. More so, it's not helpful to me, as a filmmaker, to set guidelines in which to work. I want to learn as much as I can from experimenting with time, image and sound and how they can be used to connect with the inner workings of other human beings.
TOM: Would you say that working at a lower budgetary level allows you to experiment? If you were to be given oodles of money-- assuming, of course, you're interested in taking it-- would you feel a need to be less experimental and more "commercially responsible"?
RYAN: I'd say, in the case of Carter, and my first film Sandcastles, spending my own money gave me a lot of freedom to mess up.
My new film "Mother Sister" is crowd funded, and so the major responsibility I feel, is to make a great film. This doesn't meant that I'm being less experimental, I'm just working harder to learn from my mistakes and communicate my idea's the better than before. I would like the generous supporters of my new work, to have a film that they really enjoy and connect with. That's my hope. I'm still trying to be as experimental as ever when it comes to production structure and the way I shoot films, I'm just a little more intentional about it now.
Now If I were working within a system that had financial investors and their was an obligation to make money back in order to continue making "bigger" stories, I would simply bring the right kind of story to the table. I approach each film, looking at what resources will be available to me, then create my story around those circumstance. I'm not writing $75, 000 movies and making them for $5,000. So financial support or not, It's really about the story and what I can say with what I have. I'd like to see my work as being somewhat of a good investment, the production cost is low because the crew is minimal, I shoot everything digital and I have an amazing, talented group of supportive collaborators that care about the work. My web series "The Really Cool Show" is the most "commercial" thing that I make, and it cost's me the least to do. It's got over 9 million views, and with the right business structure, it has potential to be a fiscal success. And we've always just experimented and did whatever we wanted. I don't think there is a true model for financial success, but to make films that you really care about.
TOM: How well would you say Carter communicated the ideas you wanted to communicate? What would you have differently, look at it in hindsight? What do you think you learned from the experience as a filmmaker?
RYAN: I started with a character, and that character was Jebadiah Sminch. I had no idea how much he loved Carter, until we began shooting, and after that, the film wrote itself.
If I would have made the film in any other window of time, maybe it would have been edgier, and pushed the relationship further. I don't know. These films are made during a really special window of time, in which our reality completely shifts and we give in to these beautiful creative monsters that live inside of us. I don't judge them, I learn from them. On that note, The only technical regret I have, is that the sound isn't perfect. I learned not to trust home made xlr to stereo mic jack converters.
TOM: Was Jeb not going through with it ever a possibility? The whole structure kind of hinges on it, and it totally works, but I'm just wondering if there was ever a point where you and Mark Robert Ryan said, "maybe..."?
RYAN: On the morning of Jebadiah Sminch's 25th birthday, Carter wakes up early, she is careful not to disturb a sleeping Jeb. She walks into the bathroom, as per her normal routine, except today is different, today she is going to switch Jeb's sleeping pills with placebo's. The deed is done. She has left two sleeping pills in the bottle, so that Jeb will fall asleep believing he succeeded but awake to find Donald, Maggie and Carter having what was supposed to be his last laugh. Carter exits the apartment en route to get a cake, and breakfast for the birthday boy.
Jebadiah, opens one eye and listens carefully, making sure Carter is gone. He gets out of bed, walks into the bathroom, reaches into the bottom cabinet, and reveals a second bottle of real sleeping pills, he pockets them and exits the bathroom...