Adult Problems: An Interview with Dan Sallitt
A little less than a year ago, American director Ted Fendt, who saw in me an avid searcher of so-called hard-to-find films, introduced me to Dan Sallitt’s cinema. At the time, I had never heard of Dan’s work. Browsing the Internet, the screencaps I saw couldn’t really tell me what his films were like. I remember reading about similarities between his films and Eric Rohmer’s, which isn’t necessarily a good thing when you know Rohmer’s name has been used in many contradictory ways, and often only about any bourgeois marivaudage. I think I saw All the Ships at Sea (2004) first, and I was taken aback by the simplicity of this film, and I understood Dan Sallitt to actually be a true heir of Rohmer. Something about being fair with every character, something about precisely written yet freeing dialogues.
Although I had done short interviews with “unknown directors” (including Taiwan’s Huang Ming-chuan) in the past, I had the desire to push this experience further. What is it like to make films over decades when the system seems to ignore you? As I watched Dan’s work, I had the feeling that his films were so clear, so filled with emotions, that they did not deserve the “unknown films” label. His deep movies, made with a welcome economy, are for everyone. I don’t think Dan Sallitt ever shot a film with the idea of staying under the radar. This is especially true with his two recent features, The Unspeakable Act (2012) and Fourteen (2019).
As I started corresponding with Dan, I heard that Fourteen would premiere in various European film festivals, and it seemed like the perfect moment to conduct this interview. Dan’s films are luminous by essence, but I hope this interview can shed just a little more light on them.
Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986)
You were about 30 years old when you directed Polly Perverse Strikes Again! What led you to making films?
I discovered cinema all at once when I was 17 after walking into a screening of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944). Before that, I was just a dilettante no more interested in film than in other arts. Immediately I started seeing hundreds of films a year, and by the time I was 18, I’d discovered the politique des auteurs, or at least the American version of it. I was a math major in college and had intended to become a mathematician, but at 19, I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker instead. After college I went to UCLA film school with the intention of trying to enter the film industry by selling scripts. I was too immature to realize that I was psychologically unsuited for Hollywood, or for any film industry; but I had figured that out by the time I was 25 or 26 and began to think about returning to the East Coast and making independent films. Then I landed a film critic job with the Los Angeles Reader. It was very exciting and rewarding, but I was much too busy as a critic to make films, and I started to think about leaving the job after a few years.
The movie is produced by EZTV, a production company and exhibition venue founded in Los Angeles in 1979 by John Dorr and other people (including Michael J. Masucci, who plays the cinema manager in Polly Perverse). How did you come in contact with them? How did your project fit into their structure?
EZTV began exhibiting videos in 1983, the year I became a full-time critic. I knew John’s name from my auteurist friends in L.A., and I made a point of covering his screenings as often as possible. John knew that I wanted to make films, and at one point he offered me the use of the EZTV facilities and equipment. In 1985, when I was thinking about quitting my critic job, EZTV moved to a new, much bigger space in New Orleans Square in West Hollywood. It looked like a big, unfinished movie studio when I first saw it, and it put ideas into my head. Soon I left the L.A. Reader and started to work on Polly.
In those days EZTV had very little structure, and John made it possible for all kinds of different artists to work there. We had to share the 3/4″ equipment and give it up whenever EZTV had a paying customer. John never even asked me for money, though the company needed it badly. My films were not completely unlike John’s, but he gave the same support to many others who had nothing whatsoever in common with his approach to cinema.
Two of the three main actors of Polly Perverse Strikes Again! had already appeared in John Dorr films: S.A. Griffin in Approaching Omega (1983) and Strawn Bovee in Dorothy and Alan at Norma Place (1982). Strawn Bovee kept playing in your films: we can see her in All the Ships at Sea and Fourteen. On the other hand, Dawn Wildsmith (who plays Theresa) came from a B-movie background and achieved a certain celebrity in that realm. How did you assemble such a cast?
I was ignorant about casting at that time. I thought that actors were much more malleable than they were, that a good actor should be able to adapt to nearly any role. I liked S.A. and Strawn in John’s movies, and I cast them without an audition or a second thought. I believe I heard of Dawn through Mark Shepard and Pat Miller, who had a low-budget horror mini-studio within EZTV. Dawn showed up for her audition in character, swearing and swaggering like a drunken sailor. We were impressed.
My attempts to make S.A. act outside of his comfort zone alienated him immediately. Dawn started friendly but lost sympathy with the project halfway through. Strawn became our friend, hung out with us after the shoots, helped us clean up locations.
Lately I rather like S.A.’s performance, as different as it is from what I intended. In his method-y way, he makes sure he’s always real. And these days I think character is internally contradictory by its nature.
The Polly Perverse scenario is about adulthood and inhibition, so one is surprised to learn that you were not even 30 at the time it was made. Where did the original idea come from?
Young people generally make “older” art than old people, don’t they? I had the idea for Polly when I was 25 and wrote two-thirds of the script then. Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing and Joel Oliansky’s The Competition were in American theaters near the end of 1980. I admired Theresa Russell and Amy Irving in those films, and the contrast between them made me think of the dualities in old Hollywood comedies. I thought of taking the story of Bringing Up Baby (1938), bringing out the sexual undertones, and giving the character of Miss Swallow a fairer shake than Hawks and Dudley Nichols did. The character of Theresa in Polly is named after Theresa Russell, though the other female character’s name was changed from Amy to Arliss at some point. And Nick’s last name is Huxley, like Cary Grant’s character in Baby. I had exactly one film industry “pitch meeting” in my life — in 1981, I think — and I told the producer that Polly was a cross between Bringing Up Baby and The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973). He hadn’t heard of either movie.
One cannot say that Polly Perverse contains the seeds of your cinema to come: it is already a great “Dan Sallitt film.” A very precise film, made with confidence. How is it that your idea of filmmaking was already so well shaped?
I was fairly arrogant about the cinema at that point in my life, as is painfully obvious from my film criticism of the time. It’s not so bad for an artist to encourage his or her arrogance. Maybe I went a little too far in that regard… in any case, I didn’t lack confidence. I did a storyboard and cutting continuity for Polly, just as I’ve done for all my later films, with every shot and cut planned in advance. And it worked, more or less: there’s maybe one cut that bothered me, but the finished film is quite similar to the film on paper.
Speaking of precision, one notes the stability of the frames. The locations in Polly Perverse, even though characters walk through them, often seem a little empty. A bar, a train station, a living room… archetypal locations but observed with a tone that’s almost tongue-in-cheek. It also shows a Los Angeles devoid of any well-known landmarks. This is a stretch, but the film somehow reminded me of S.O.B (Blake Edwards, 1981). Maybe because of the beach scene.
But nothing happens on my beach that’s as bad as what happens on Edwards’… I wonder if the passage of time has made both Polly and S.O.B. look like documents of a Los Angeles of the past. For me, the sense of location in Polly is overwhelming now, and I didn’t think about it much at the time.
The stillness of my frames, and the reliance on long shots, might have to do with the mathematical aspect of my personality. To this day, I like to make cinema as simply as I can, with the minimum number of effects needed. I tend to write that way too.
The characters do not want to decide between a steady life and the call for adventure. At the same time, they keep on revealing weaknesses as if they could not cope with one or the other.
I think Nick has chosen the straight life. He’s paying a penalty for that choice, he’s really not very happy — but he remembers how untenable his life of indulgence was, and he’s willing to be a little unhappy if it means stability. He really got a pretty bad deal from life! I think that’s true of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby too, but I wanted to make it a little clearer here. Theresa and Arliss are more stylized, I think. They are aspects of Nick’s psychology as much as they are people, and when they trade some characteristics at the end, it’s a bit like the interchange of symbols in a dream.
Dialogue is an essential part of your cinema. Your characters talk with each other, but that doesn’t mean that they always understand each other (or even themselves!). Shouting and crying are also an option. It seems that the characters can’t always find the words to name an idea or a desire.
I think dialogue functions for me a lot like the way it does for Rohmer: as a form of realism. The people in my films talk constantly, not because I have plenty to say to the audience, but because people talk a lot in life.
In Polly, Nick doesn’t want to name things. He’s trying to repress a big part of his personality. Arliss feels, as many people did in 1986 and do today, that it’s good to talk about feelings, to identify them. And Nick keeps telling her: just leave it alone, things are fine, I’m trying not to be in touch with my feelings. Of course, things aren’t fine, and Arliss sees that and redoubles her mission to drive everything out in the open. But really there’s something to be said for Nick’s praxis.
Could you tell us more about Theresa? She appears in the film’s first shots — ”an almost Fullerian opening” — and continues to push the other characters to their limits. Her sexual desires are constantly highlighted: is it a sign of something deeper?
The first scenes of the film are presented in psychological terms: we see thoughts of Nick slowly travel from Theresa’s subconscious to her consciousness. But that’s a ploy, an attempt to make it easier for the audience to accept Theresa as a character, where in fact she’s basically a fictional device, always in the right place and in possession of the right facts to drive Nick’s repressed desire out into the open. Her extremely overt sexuality is just a forceful way of suggesting how unruly the unconscious is. The idea of delving into how Theresa ticks is pretty far from my mind.
It seems to me there will be no “fictional devices” disguised as characters in your following films. Somehow, the other characters, even if they can’t compete with Theresa in attraction and in the display of desire and violence, have more meat on their bones, so to speak. They are ”real” characters that also function as theoretical devices (such as, perhaps, Tommy in Honeymoon). But I may be wrong about that.
Maybe you’re right. Polly has the structure of a comedy, and that seemed to me an invitation to greater abstraction. I think that the later films also contain characters who are disguised as psychological creations but who are really conceived in conceptual terms. For instance, Mimi in Honeymoon actually manages to change a lifelong behavior pattern — that’s not something one sees very often. Virginia in All the Ships at Sea walks grandly into the world at the end with no possessions or money. Jackie in The Unspeakable Act is a puzzle that I didn’t want anyone to be able to solve. In Fourteen, likewise, I tried to hide the nature of Jo’s psychological problems from myself.
In which contexts has Polly Perverse Strikes Again been screened? More generally, what were the odds of such a film being distributed in the U.S. at that time?
Polly has barely been shown at all. There were four poorly attended screenings at EZTV in 1986. Then nothing until a single screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York in 2013, as part of a retrospective of my work. And it screened at another retrospective in Madrid in June 2019. That’s it.
We didn’t really think too much about wider distribution: we assumed that the technical quality of the video would prevent that. In retrospect, though, 1986 was right in the middle of the emergence of the American independent cinema as a commercially viable movement. Polly wasn’t in a position to ride that wave, but at least the wave was happening.
You were planning on quitting your job just before you were able to direct Polly Perverse Strikes Again! Twelve years later, you finally made your second feature, Honeymoon. What happened?
In 1987, I decided that I had to stop working low-paying film-related jobs and took an entry-level position at a computer software company. That turned out to be a really good decision: without the salary I get from technical jobs, I would have never been able to save the money to have a self-financed filmmaking career. But that first tech job kept me very, very busy.
Even so, I started another EZTV production in 1989 for a film called The Odalisque. It probably would have been a short feature, perhaps even shorter than All the Ships at Sea (64 minutes). After one day of shooting, one of the lead actresses said she would no longer work on the film unless I gave her control of the lighting. We parted ways, and I never found anyone else who could or would take her role. I ended up using the structure, though not the subject matter, of The Odalisque for All the Ships at Sea.
And then I sang and played guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band from 1990 until I left Los Angeles in 1992. So I guess it was a combination of factors that contributed to that filmmaking gap. As soon as I got to New York, I started hatching plans with some friends to make independent films. I wrote one script that I finally decided was too complicated to shoot. What with that setback and various other delays, it was 1996 before I got onto a set again.
The film is produced by Static Productions, which, according to IMDb, produced only your five features. I believe this is your own company?
Yes. Until Fourteen, it was just a name and not a real company. If someone writes a check to Static Productions, I can now cash it.
This time you shot on exquisite 16mm. The night scenes have a very specific bluish light, a kind of light we also see sometimes in Polly Perverse. In a way, one could say that Honeymoon is your most obviously beautiful film: 16mm, the forests and lakes, and a nice love story (at least at the beginning!).
I’m not a celluloid loyalist, but film looks great, I must say. I had never worked with a professional crew before and was still learning how to talk to them, learning which aspects of craft to accept and which to reject. So cinematographer David Park and gaffer Frank Stubblefield deserve a lot of credit for the film’s lighting.
Honeymoon focuses on two friends who decide to get married out of the blue: Mimi (Edith Meeks) and Michael (Dylan McCormick). Edith Meeks gives a great performance in Honeymoon, as she would in All the Ships at Sea. How did you meet her? Is it because of her roles in Todd Haynes’ films?
I heard of her from two different sources at the same time. My girlfriend at the time grew up in Memphis with Ira Sachs, and the three of us had brunch together one day — this was after he’d shot The Delta (1996) but before its premiere. He and Edith had worked together for Eric Bogosian’s company, and when I described the role I was trying to cast, Ira thought of Edith and recommended her performance in Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991). And then, right at the same time, I went to a screening of my friend Michael Gitlin’s adaptation of Poe’s Berenice (1996), and Edith had one of the lead roles.
There are a lot of good actors in the world, but most of them don’t cross one’s path at the moment one is making a film, and I feel very lucky to have been able to make films with Edith. The contrast between her and Strawn, who had been my go-to actress in L.A., really struck me. Edith is infinitely complex, involute: everything she says and does suggests multiple inner feelings. And Strawn’s gift is her piercing clarity: when she looks at something, her line of sight is like an arrow. Thinking about the two of them together gave rise to the idea for All the Ships at Sea.
The character played by Dylan McCormick reminds us a little of S.A. Griffin in Polly: a handsome man, well built, but with weaknesses. And you’re about to shine a light on this fragility. Of course, in your films there’s nothing wrong with having weaknesses.
Right or wrong, we seem to have them… Something about Dylan really works for my films: I always feel his intelligence on camera, and the slight, humorous distance in his line delivery matches the way I like my lines to be read. My friend Gary Walkow made two very good Los Angeles films with Dylan that have almost never been shown: Be My Baby (2016) and Radio Mary (2017).
The first scene is almost ironic. Mimi and Michael, in a car at night, seem to have an argument. They are about to break up, even though they are not officially together (it’s only their second date). And then there is an ellipse of two years.
I guess it’s a sort of irony. The first scene serves as a preface to the main story and is disposed of in a light fashion, though in itself it’s emotionally heavy. If not for the remote camera position, it could almost be the start of a Jacques Doillon film.
Mimi and Michael seem irresistibly attracted (literally and figuratively) to each other, as in the scene in the bar where Michael offers a cocktail to Mimi and goes to another table to drink with other friends. In the next scene, they are face-to-face again. Moreover, Mimi’s musical game says it all: “It’s coming and you can’t stop it.”
Interesting observation. In my mind the idea came first — a couple who had forbidden themselves romance but discover that they simply like each other more than they do anyone else — and the attraction of bodies in the spaces of the film followed from that.
Michael and Mimi’s wedding is a sort of Pascal’s wager at a delay. They’ve been in love for years, and talked a lot about it, but getting married is still a leap into the unknown. Particularly the sexual aspect.
I started with the idea of the chaste marriage, wondering how such a thing could happen with today’s sexual mores. Then I reverse-engineered that idea: what kind of people could plausibly do this? Mimi had to be an extreme and unusual person to make this happen — and I like extreme people, so the idea began to look more interesting. And Michael had to have a mental commitment to Mimi, so that she could summon him any time. That kind of commitment often turns out to be easier to sustain in one’s mind than in practice.
Maybe the real Pascal’s wager is Mimi’s two-thirds of the way through the film. The chances that a marriage with such an unstable dynamic can be saved may be very small, but Mimi still needs to try.
There certainly is something Rohmerian in Honeymoon. Watching your films we can perceive an influence from the classic American cinema, but also from authors such as Eric Rohmer and — this is less obvious, but All The Ships at Sea is dedicated to him — Maurice Pialat. Could you tell us about the foreign filmmakers who helped you create your cinema?
I saw my first Rohmer films when I was 17 or 18, and I instantly wanted to make films like his. I never had that reaction to any other filmmaker, however much I loved them. Rohmer seems to me the essence of cinema, the one who shows us exactly how much and how little one needs in order to make films. Pialat I came to much later, and it took me a longer time to understand him. The first section of Honeymoon, before the marriage, was inspired by Pialat’s freedom with time jumps. But the treatment of time is a corollary of Pialat’s approach to art, not a central theorem, and I don’t think I captured his spirit in Honeymoon. Years later, I think I’ve finally learned Pialat’s real lessons: his mistrust of pure fiction, his idea that people can be accurately represented by throwing together unrelated scraps from biography, improvisation, accident. Fourteen is the first of my movies that I would say is made under Pialat’s tutelage. (I dedicated All the Ships at Sea to Pialat because he died during post-production, not because that film resembled his.)
What was your idea when shooting the several scenes where Mimi and Michael are naked? No one who watches Honeymoon can forget the two lovers’ grueling first night. You choose to render this event by means of duration.
When I first had the idea of showing that particular honeymoon night, I said to myself, “Oh no! Don’t do that film!” It took me 24 hours to accept that that was going to be the script I would write. If that scene doesn’t pollute the entire movie for the viewer, it would just be cruel or sensational. The nightmare had to be inescapable, so that it wouldn’t be entertainment.
Having fallen out of tune, the two lovers try to recover the right tone. But they hover between talking frankly and playing little games of seduction. As if talking openly about it would undo them.
I think they both realize quickly that following their instincts leads to very bad results. So what’s left is for them to be unnatural with each other. It’s not a good situation. They both try their best, but they keep doing damage.
Mimi and Michael are facing a whole lot of difficulties, but the movie refuses to pity them. At the same time, the two characters demonstrate a tremendous force of adaptability.
It’s really amazing that they can stay together. In real life, I dare say it would be impossible. The film’s tone changes two-thirds of the way through, with a documentary section about the man who lives in the town and about the coal fires burning underground. And Mimi returns from the documentary a somewhat different person. It’s really a fictional transformation disguised as a psychological one.
Would you define Honeymoon as a melodrama? There aren’t many directors reinventing this genre lately.
It doesn’t feel exactly like melodrama to me, though I know what you mean. Are Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950) and Voyage to Italy (Rossellini, 1954) melodramas? In a way, I guess. I try to disguise the wild fictional stuff as psychological realism.
What was the reception for Honeymoon?
It was accepted by very few festivals and no major ones. It was a difficult film for many people, which I understand. It was hard for viewers to like Mimi, and the film doesn’t work properly unless one can maintain sympathy with her. I had a number of early screenings for friends and cast/crew, and the pattern was that a lot of people would leave the room without comment, a few would give me awkward compliments, and perhaps one person would be enthusiastic.
In terms of American independent cinema, were you able to ”ride the wave” with Honeymoon?
American independent film was quite strong at that time, so there was a wave to catch — but I wasn’t on anyone’s radar, except for that of a few critics like Bill Krohn and Kent Jones. The film has screened more often at retrospectives than it did when it was new.
All the Ships at Sea (2004)
You shot with video again for All the Ships at Sea.
Video had become acceptable to festivals and even distributors in the time between Honeymoon and All the Ships at Sea. I shot in video because it was so much cheaper, not because I loved the way it looked. But I discovered that post-production was actually enjoyable with home editing, whereas post-production on Honeymoon was just as difficult as every other phase of the film. With Honeymoon, I was always waiting for people’s time and usually paying large amounts of money for the privilege. But I edited All the Ships at Sea in my living room and ended by doing the sound editing and color correction at home as well. Even if one doesn’t have the needed skills, one can usually pick them up by trial and error and still finish more quickly than if one needed to plan post-production around others.
The beginning of the film is quite unsettling. At first, the tone is similar to that of your previous films, but the conversation is all about religion and the mysterious sect that Virginia (Edith Meeks) was part of. And Virginia and Evelyn’s (Strawn Bovee) mother seems really harsh with her daughters. The father is virtually absent. Somehow, older people were absent from your previous films (except in the quasi-documentary section of Honeymoon).
I like extreme ideas, and then there’s always an internal debate about softening them to make them more naturalistic. I remember hesitating over the mother saying, “You two were a failed experiment,” then forcing myself to write it just as I’d imagined it. I had only a little screen time to suggest how the girls grew up, and I decided I might as well make it count.
I don’t mind having older characters. The first two films were about love relationships, and I guess I didn’t feel the need for too much social context. But then All the Ships at Sea and The Unspeakable Act were about family.
More than the Hawksian verbal fights of the previous films, the dialogue in All the Ships at Sea reminded me of 19th-century New England novels. Maybe this is because the film deals with mystical themes in detail.
The film was born out of my feeling that Edith and Strawn shared a New England vibe and might plausibly be sisters. Even though Strawn was born and raised in California. And then the concept was that the sisters would talk about ideas, so we drifted pretty far away from Hawksian interplay. But I wasn’t actively thinking of Hawthorne or anyone like that.
The movie is set in the same place as Honeymoon, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Does that house or region have a special meaning for you?
I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and the house is my parents’ vacation cottage. Shooting there was mostly a matter of convenience: certainly I wouldn’t have shot twice in the same location if I had other inexpensive options. But I enjoyed being able to show the area, to fill in the film with familiar social and geographical details.
There is an awkward feeling between Evelyn and Virginia, but you play with it: sometimes letting it appear plainly, sometimes making it disappear via editing and rhythm.
Virginia isn’t talking at all when Evelyn takes her away to the cottage, so awkwardness is built into the first part of the film. And Evelyn’s awkwardness goes deeper than we may realize at first: at film’s end we realize that she survived her childhood by pushing down all feelings for her cruel family, and that bargain with herself included suppressing her feelings for Virginia, just for good measure. Virginia, when she starts talking, has a self-possession that seems to be a result of her ideological indoctrination. But that too has a deeper aspect: Virginia always has had and will have a desperate love for her older sister; her feelings are not in doubt.
There may be two stories being told at the same time: the one on screen and the one in the gaps in the narration. Virginia walking in upon Evelyn hiding a knife may be a hint of that.
There’s a lot that’s not shown in this movie. Certainly the sisters’ horrible childhood, for one thing. And then we’re invited to conjure up sinister images of what went on in Virginia’s cult. The quiet pastoral setting is in counterpoint to these undertones.
I said that Polly was a very mature film in terms of your age when you directed it. But I don’t think you could have made All the Ships at Sea in 1986. This film tells of a different kind of maturity.
It’s hard for me to say. The surface of All the Ships at Sea is rather austere, but underneath the surface are romantic ideas about undying love, renunciation, and the power that belief gives. I think I always need some form of romanticism to excite me about projects.
As you said, everything Edith Meeks says and does “suggests multiple inner feelings.” But in the film she declares having nothing to hide. Does she really believe in that?
Virginia is an ideologue: she needs to present herself as an example to others of the benefits of her ideology. This of course becomes more difficult when you’ve had a nervous breakdown, but we see her working at integrating her new circumstances into her ideological framework. I think she believes everything she says, but it’s amazing what people can make themselves believe when there’s something at stake.
Your cinema is built on duos. In this regard, All the Ships at Sea is your most radical film.
Without a doubt it’s my most practical film! After the self-defeating complexity of Polly, and that script that I had to throw out in 1995 because it had too many actors and locations, I tried, starting with Honeymoon, to approximate the low-budget ideal of two actors and one location. All the Ships at Sea is as close as I’m likely to come to that. After that, I began to move away from hermetic drama: partly because I felt I was running out of ways to trap characters in locations, partly because I was drawn to filmmakers like Pialat, who need to jump through time and locations to undermine the fiction.
It seems to me that something you like in Rohmer films and that we can find in your films is the capacity the characters have, each in their own way, to list, count, and display all the possibilities that life grants them.
Rohmer’s characters often have concepts of who they are and of why things happen, and Rohmer shows the world as being a little less neat than these concepts imply. At least that’s the “contes moraux” format. I don’t know if I’m quite like that. I guess most of my characters are pretty smart and can talk a good game. Evelyn’s beliefs are destroyed and she has nothing to replace them with, but she’s able to narrate her crisis for us. She’s on a Freudian journey: it’s no fun while it’s happening, but if she’s strong enough, it might ultimately be a good thing for her.
Unlike your other films, All the Ships at Sea has a two-level story structure: there is Evelyn and Virginia, but also Evelyn and the Catholic priest. In a way, she tells the story.
I didn’t have a script until I thought of borrowing the flashback structure from my unfinished film The Odalisque. After that, I could start writing. Flashbacks aren’t just a style preference: they’re also a tool, and sometimes you need them to solve dramaturgical problems. Without the Evelyn/Joseph framing device, All the Ships at Sea just trickles away at the end. Evelyn’s inner state, and how it is reframed for the viewer, is where the drama lies, and the flashback structure lets me access her inner state at the right times.
Could you explain or speak about the title?
It’s a phrase that’s associated with Walter Winchell, who was famous in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s as a radio news commentator. He would start his broadcast with “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North and South America, and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press!” So the title evokes the world of the parents that still hangs over the sisters. And it’s also a poetic allusion to distance and calm and sadness.
With All the Ships at Sea and The Unspeakable Act, it seems to me that you choose to deal with subjects that “can’t be mentioned,” at least in films. Subjects that one doesn’t easily imagine as the central element of a script because they touch on very sensitive matters. Yet, by totally dedicating yourself to the story and mise-en-scène, you’re able to tackle subjects such as religion and sects, impotence, or even brother-sister love and the possibility of incest.
I have a divided personality in this way — a little like Rohmer’s, I dare say. On the one hand, I’m drawn to extreme material, to sexual material, and the energy to do a project often comes from this transgression. On the other hand, I need to prove to myself that I’m a good little boy, and so I play all this material matter-of-factly, without sensationalism, as if it were just another part of life. Perhaps Rohmer’s transgressions seem much smaller… but there’s generally a “don’t” in his films, a desire provoked and not fulfilled, as there is in mine.
The Unspeakable Act (2012)
Speaking of incest: in an interview with Filmmaker, you said that you like making family movies because “you can show the strangest, most dissonant behavior and still remain well within the bounds of the everyday.”
Family members regularly speak to each other with a level of cruelty that friends can only hope to attain. It’s true of established love relationships too, to a somewhat lesser extent. And with this goes a lack of self-concealment: family knows all your horrible defects, so why bother hiding them? This can be an amazing boon for the writer, for dramatic effect as much as psychological. And the boon is so often wasted: all those fond parents in movies, those affectionate gestures between lovers, are generally intended solely to send a signal to viewers that they’re on familiar terrain.
The film speaks directly and frankly of incest. Is this a way to defuse the mystique and actually speak about many other things?
The idea of incest excited me mostly because of the directness and frankness. I really have little or nothing to say about incest: I like it as an extreme gesture, and as a way to force the viewer not to leap to conclusions about the way Jackie’s mind works. What’s really fun for me is the strength of Jackie’s personality: her total lack of shame about her desire; how she’s forced into a premature wisdom about how the world processes information; the romanticism that makes it inconceivable for her to suppress a great love for any reason whatsoever.
All the actors in The Unspeakable Act are new to your cinema. How did you proceed? Did you write a script with actors in mind or did you go through a casting process? I believe you first saw Tallie Medel (who plays Jackie) in a TV series?
I tried to cast some of my old actors. I wrote the part of the mother for Edith Meeks, and the psychiatrist for Strawn Bovee. But Edith had recently become the director of HB Studio, a well-known New York acting school, and wasn’t focusing on acting at that time. And Strawn is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and I didn’t have the time or the peace of mind to make a union film, which always adds a lot of complexity and paperwork to a low-budget project.
I find casting difficult and avoid it if I can, but for The Unspeakable Act I was shifting my focus to a new generation, and I had no one in mind when I wrote the younger roles. I started casting nine months before the shoot by word of mouth. I would meet people in coffeehouses, then audition them in pairs. Joe Swanberg recommended four young actors to me (I wound up casting them all — I like Joe’s taste in actors), and Tallie was one of them. Joe had never met her, but he’d seen her in Daniel Scheinert’s short film “I’m Nostalgic” (2007) and struck up an email acquaintance with her. She and several other actors had made a quasi-documentary feature with Scheinert called Everything a Monster Is Not (2010), which Scheinert released as a web series, and a scene from that series is what sold me on Tallie. I cast two of the other principal actors from that film as well.
There was no pattern to the casting process. Sky Hirschkron, who played Matthew, is one of my film-buff friends. Carrie Luft, the psychiatrist, has been in a number of films by Shari Berman, who was one of the producers. Kati Schwartz, Jackie’s sister, I saw in a play while I was checking out another actor. Aundrea Fares, the mom, I found on a casting site.
It seems to me that with a larger cast you manage to give a new dynamic to your cinema. A sort of gentle vortex, with Tallie Medel at the center. She can express multiple emotions at the same time, but in a way that is very different from Edith Meeks.
Tallie and Edith are so different. Edith shows what craft can do when it’s in the service of honesty and integrity. Tallie has a gift for existing in front of the camera, and her existence is somehow more persuasive than the existences of the rest of us.
I mentioned that I started reaching for a less hermetic cinema after All the Ships at Sea. A bigger cast and more locations are part of that. It’s harder to make low-budget films that way, but it’s nice to put your little drama in competition with the larger world. And then casting can become more playful and intuitive. Fourteen goes further in that regard, I think.
I like how your characters see each other every day but still seem to live apart, each in his or her own world.
That house is Jackie’s whole world, not just because she grew up there, but because she doesn’t aspire to anything beyond it: everything she wants is there. So it’s good if it seems big and full of different lives. And then there’s another, more dramatic reason that the characters are somewhat apart from each other. The basic concept of the film is a drama that is entirely formulated and resolved between two children, as if they were on a desert island, as if they were in a Nicholas Ray film. So the parents have to be absent: one is dead, the other is mysteriously preoccupied. The oldest sibling is away at college, the second oldest is an outlier who wants to escape from the family. That leaves Jackie and Matthew, the last romantic couple.
More clearly than in All the Ships at Sea, a character is telling the story. Jackie’s voiceover is somehow related to her analysis — but I guess that, once again, no one is able to fully analyze themselves.
Jackie’s voiceover is simply a way of obtaining the greatest number of exciting moments by juxtaposing her viewpoint with ours. If you analyze it, the voiceover is all over the place: sometimes Jackie is speaking from within the moment, sometimes from the future, sometimes from an emotional distance that we can see she hasn’t attained yet. Whatever creates the most striking effect. I don’t use the voiceover much in the psychotherapy scenes because there’s nothing more interesting about therapy than how our dumb, immovable conscious selves stand in the way of progress.
The Unspeakable Act is almost a teen movie… with parents, graduation, first love, etc. It also takes place over a longer period of time than your earlier work.
A longer period if you don’t count the “two years later” jump in Honeymoon. People often describe The Unspeakable Act as a “coming of age” movie, and it is, but some commentators think that Jackie’s maturation consists of putting aside her immature fixation and moving on to adult emotions, and I think her maturation is her discovery that, even if one doesn’t get the things one wants most in life, one still carries on and is even happy once in a while.
The dialogue in your films expresses a sort of tension between naturalism and an extreme precision. There is a dialectical force that, I think, actually conveys truth. When you write dialogue, do you ever have doubts? Are you always aware of the power it will have on screen?
There’s a bit of a gap between my idea of what I’m writing and other people’s ideas about it. I think writing is always a combination of the writer’s fantasy and a façade of realism. But the fantasy happens very early in the process, and when I’m actually writing the dialogue, I spend all my effort in trying to make the words sound real, trying to make them come out of the mouth in a believable way. And then viewers talk about the abstraction of my dialogue, and I never know quite what to say about that. I wonder if I failed to disguise the abstraction properly. With Fourteen, the comments about the artifice of the dialogue seem to have mostly stopped. I think that Tallie and Norma Kuhling just found a mode of interacting that corresponded more to people’s current idea of realism. Norma especially has a real talent for taking any kind of weird dialogue and finding ways to make it sound natural. And I’m thinking to myself: is that all the “abstraction” was? Does a small shift in acting style make it go away?
It’s possible that the things I care about in performance might not include certain cues about acting realism, which of course change over the years. Maybe the classic Hollywood cinema, which was my first love, stuck with me more than I realize.
Most of the film is set in a big old wooden house in Brooklyn. How did you find the place? Did you have to modify the interiors or did you just adapt to them?
We had no money to redesign a house — we just accepted it. That’s the family house of one of my New York music friends. It’s well known in certain circles as the site of “Brooklyn Woodstock,” a little annual music festival that used to take place in the backyard in the ‘80s and ‘90s, right where Jackie sits when she’s playing a bridge game with herself. Getting that amazing house was one of the two strokes of good fortune that made The Unspeakable Act a success. The other was finding Tallie, of course.
This is perhaps the least New-Yorkish of New York films. At least for people like me who don’t know this neighborhood. It looks rather like the suburbs of a not-so-big town.
When I wrote the script, I imagined it in my hometown in Pennsylvania, and I looked for locations in both New York and Pennsylvania. The neighborhood, Ditmas Park, is familiar to the film industry because of all the big wooden houses there. It strikes a lot of viewers, even some New Yorkers, as atypical of New York.
How long did you work on The Unspeakable Act? Was it obvious from the beginning that you had to deal with the incest theme?
The core idea of the film was Jackie’s unorthodox attitude to her own incestuous desire. So the incest theme was always there. I think I had the idea and started accumulating notes in 2007 or 2008. I was working full-time, so the pace was slow, though I didn’t take any breaks.
Some of my friends and relatives really didn’t like the idea of this project. But I think I was just unable to convey the tone to them, because I shot it exactly as I imagined it, and the people who winced at the plot description were usually kindly disposed to the finished film.
After making four features, do you think that you can totally control the process of directing your films, or do you still have surprises during the editing phase? The Unspeakable Act is as wonderfully precise as your previous films and one wonders if you do a lot of shots or if you allow for some visual improvisation on the set?
Since my first film, I’ve planned the editing on paper, and I pretty much stick to the plan. In the beginning, I was actually more fanatical about following the cutting continuity, to the extent that I would often shoot only the sections of a take that I was planning to use, even when it was easier to let the camera roll for the entire take. I’m looser about that now, but I still don’t shoot coverage in the conventional sense of the word: there’s generally only one way I can edit the scene together. Of course, almost every cut poses some little problem, because of the need to match gestures or adapt to the actors’ dialogue delivery. But these problems are usually resolved without big changes to the cutting plan.
Though I don’t shoot scenes from multiple angles, I generally do a lot of takes of each shot. And then editing is rather intense because of the need to watch everything and to tune into the performances. On the set I’m not always as present as I’d like to be: I have certain goals for each shot, and I try to make sure that the goals are met. But during editing, one can take the time to be sensitive to the texture of the performances, and often the take that achieved all of one’s goals isn’t the best one. It’s also possible to manipulate performances through sound editing, and I’m pretty shameless about inserting bits of dialogue from one take into another.
Do you see micro-budget films as a form of liberty? Given the opportunity, would you direct a big-budget film — in particular a genre film? I read somewhere that you have action sequences already framed and edited in your mind.
Making films with one’s own money means that one can do exactly the movie that one wants to do — provided, of course, that one is willing to do films with small subjects. I’ve never used anyone else’s money for any of my films, so I don’t know whether it’s possible to find investors who are happy to let the filmmaker decide everything. Maybe they exist. In theory, I’d be happy with a certain level of creative participation. For instance, if an investor didn’t like an idea, I wouldn’t mind throwing the idea out or modifying it until we were both pleased. And I rather like the idea of being handed a premise and having to find an approach to it, as long as the premise isn’t completely unsuited to me. But, in practice, I think it’s possible that I would just pick up my toys and go home if an investor asserted himself or herself.
I’d love to do an action film! I loved genre cinema before I loved any other kind of cinema. My first few scripts were for action movies… but it’s been many decades since I worked very hard on any idea that I didn’t think I could shoot with my own money. And I’m sure my concept of genre hasn’t kept up with the changing times. It’s probably best for the cobbler to stick to his last.
You mentioned Pialat with regard to Fourteen. It is true that this is your most chaotic film in the sense that the spectator has to reconstruct the story from disconnected fragments. For example, we know time has passed because Mara has a different boyfriend from one scene to the next. This is a simple story, but it’s often difficult to know what appears or disappears between the cuts.
Cuts between scenes without indication of how much time has passed are certainly a style idea that I associate with Pialat. I also love the way that Pialat refuses to use the behavior of characters to illustrate their role in the story. Jo is an unhappy person who seems to be happy most of the time, which is what we see in Pialat’s films, and which I believe says something true about happiness and about character. Pialat distrusts fiction, and so he can show us how much our ideas about people are beholden to fictional constructions that we impose upon them.
Did you find Norma Kuhling through a casting process? It is true that she has the ability to “normalize” your dialogue. She uses a sort of irony that goes well with her character, a somewhat disillusioned young woman.
I found Norma through her talent management company. I’d never used industry resources before when casting, but Gary Walkow introduced me to people he knew at that company, and I was pretty desperate at that point.
I wrote the script for Tallie and for Kate Lyn Sheil, who had a small role in The Unspeakable Act, and whom I admire so much in Swanberg’s films. But she didn’t want to do the movie for reasons I never completely understood. Then I auditioned some actors whom I knew from movies or plays I’d seen, and I cast Hannah Gross as Jo. But soon afterwards, David Fincher cast Hannah in Mindhunter (2017–), and her schedule became uncertain. I started looking again and found Norma. And then during the shooting of Fourteen, Norma was cast in Chicago Med (2017–2019), and I had to wait on a TV show anyway.
So there are three versions of Fourteen floating around in the imaginary world. But the imaginary world is where most movies live, and only one of those three versions was actually retrieved and brought back to our physical universe. I feel bad about those versions that were never born — especially Hannah’s version, as she really wanted to do the film, and I love her. But Norma completely took possession of Jo. She wanted the role so badly, worked hard at it — every little corner of her performance was thought out, crafted. I’m very happy with the way that character was realized.
Through her work and her child, and maybe without even realizing it, it seems to me that Mara is building a sort of emotional distance between her and Jo. She really needs time to understand it (I think about the last scenes where her little girl cries).
Emotional distance accumulates very naturally. We have to fight it off continually. I think Mara just stopped fighting, and life rushed in to fill the gap with a million things, big and small. Every so often Mara will feel the pain of having lost someone she loved so desperately, as she does when Lorelei becomes upset at the funeral. And then life will carry her away again.
There is in Fourteen one unusual moment, a long and almost silent fixed shot of the train station in Katonah, until Mara leaves the station and the camera starts following her. A way of taking a deep breath? Or to make us feel the weight of time?
The audience doesn’t know yet that Jo has overdosed and had almost died, but I knew, and I also knew what would finally happen to Jo, and I felt solemn at that point. I had always planned to bring the film to a standstill with that shot, but somewhere in the editing phase, I wondered whether I was making a mistake. I finally realized that I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I shortened it.
Actually, the shot is rather action-filled. For much of it, we’re watching a train, and there’s a lot going on with trains. And then we see the way a commuter town works, the people getting into the passenger side of waiting cars and driving away. And then Mara. During the first take, when the camera started panning with Tallie, I had a tear in my eye.
After such a shot, one might think that Jo and Mara’s hometown had never changed. But I think that, beyond the appearances, many things have changed and that they’re strangers there now.
Hometowns are like that. One always feels at first that one is back home. And then one usually feels ill at ease. Katonah is a pretty place. Exterior shots there come out looking like D. W. Griffith’s.
I am once again pleasantly surprised by your sensibility, which lets you handle certain elements (like Jo frequently using drugs) without falling into cliché or the pathetic. Drugs, in Fourteen, are off screen but still produce a sort of subterranean fear. Without being narrow-minded or judging its characters, the film says that it’s our right to be worried when a friend does drugs.
Mara is no prude: she’s dabbled in forbidden pleasures, sometimes with Jo by her side. The viewer may be taken aback by some of Jo’s excesses, but Mara’s worries come on more gradually. The film can play with the contrast between Mara’s familiarity and the viewer’s unfamiliarity.
The drug use and Jo’s bursts of wild behavior are off screen partly because I like the mystery of hearing about aspects of people that we don’t see. And partly it’s because those wild scenes might not have been so distinctive. I generally include only scenes that I think I can do something interesting with, and then the film’s point-of-view and identification structures follow from my choice of scenes.
I was wondering if the last part of the film is like the first night in Honeymoon or the incest in The Unspeakable Act: an element so radical that you need a strong will so you can write about it. Was death a part of the film from the beginning?
The death was there from the beginning. I wrote an email to a friend in 2012 right after I came up with the idea for the movie: everything was very vague except for Mara and Lorelei crying at the funeral, which was described in detail.
I’d never killed a character before, and I felt an obligation to treat the death with great seriousness, not to allow it to be a fictional death that we can shrug off with crocodile tears. All the radical elements in my films that you mention function similarly in a dramaturgical sense, in that one assumes the viewer’s reaction and plays with that reaction or against it. But the emotional tone of these three story elements isn’t the same for me. With Honeymoon, I found the idea of the wedding night painful and needed time to convince myself that I should do the film. With Fourteen, Jo’s death had a bittersweet sentimental fascination that I’ve come to recognize in myself as a secret pleasure in the misfortune of others. So I tried not to encourage that secret pleasure in the viewer. And with The Unspeakable Act, the incest was fun, to be honest — I tend to identify with sexual urgency of all kinds.
Contrary to your other films, Fourteen does not rely on the cultivation of a sense of place. Apartments come and go. But still one feels the beginnings of this attachment to place, thanks to your precise framing.
That’s a nice compliment! I’d like to think that the camera in my films is attentive to the qualities of places, but I’m never sure whether that comes across with so many other things happening.
I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that your characters are less introspective here. This time, it’s the editing — the collage of pieces of time — that conveys to the spectator the possibilities of life.
I think that’s true. In a way, this question relates to your last one about the lack of a spatial center to the movie. Really, Fourteen is a different type of movie from my others. When one must conserve money by having fewer locations and actors, one looks for a dramatic focus to justify this concentration, and drama usually leads to more exceptional characters. Remove the linchpin of the unities of place and time, and everything changes to fit the new form: the drama can go away, and then the people don’t have to drive a drama and can simply live their lives.
Fourteen is also more of a “moving” film: the camera and people move (traveling shots, street scenes where they’re walking), and speech also moves, often via the telephone. The narrative keeps opening new windows.
I think Fourteen has more moving shots than in any of my other films, except possibly for Polly Perverse. The Unspeakable Act didn’t have a single traveling shot, though it had pans. But I don’t start films with rules for camera movement: I just follow the subject matter. And sometimes it’s chance that a camera movement turns out to be easier or harder than the alternative. Even on the last night of shooting The Unspeakable Act, the cinematographer and I were trying to work out a traveling shot that we discarded.
A traveling shot that follows a character has a lot in common with a static shot centered on a character: in both cases, the filmmaker subordinates his or her expression to the need to show the character directly. But there’s a pan in Fourteen that I believe is the first time I ever had the camera move of its own volition: it’s the pan from Lorelei to Mara just before Mara receives the call announcing Jo’s death. I storyboarded that scene with only static shots, but the location that I found didn’t fit my plan, and the autonomous pan was the only way I could make a visual connection between two rooms. But, after the practical problems were worked out, I enjoyed the portent of the gesture. As for the phone calls, they vary directly with the number of locations!
Mara’s desire to write is rarely shown. The only scene where she actually writes is just after Jo’s most violent crisis. But who knows what things transpire in the time between those two scenes?
A baby is born, for one thing. My feeling is that Mara put her writing aside for a while as her life developed, as so often happens. But at a certain age she started improvising her own priorities and began to think that being a single mother while working on her writing might be an acceptable design for living. We see what she is writing only once, in that scene after Jo’s breakdown; but we see her writing in her notebook two other times, both in the film’s later scenes.
Beyond the financial aspect, I believe that you already have a few new projects in mind?
I shot a short film in late April, which I am now editing. I’d never done a short before: generally, my ideas are feature-length. But Agustina Muñoz, with whom I acted in Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena (2016), came to New York for a theater residency and mentioned that she’d like to shoot something with me. I was still emotionally exhausted from the long Fourteen shoot, but I thought that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with such a wonderful performer and person. So I threw a script together very quickly, using some old ideas and some new ones, and consulting with Agustina along the way. The enterprise was undertaken in the spirit of experimentation, but I think that it might turn out to be good. My way of dealing with the short film format was to suppress drama completely: probably there are more interesting ways to attack a new form, and I took the coward’s way out, but I didn’t have a lot of time for artistic soul-searching.
After this short film, I have no plans to make anything and would really like a long rest from this exhausting pastime. I have a few ideas floating around in the imaginary world: one is a sort of dream project that I wrote up 15 or 20 years ago in treatment form. I think it will be too expensive for me to finance on my own, so it may never be made. And Strawn Bovee and I have talked a little about doing another film together, though the idea isn’t developed yet.
Is there one particular thing today that drives you to watch films (your blog is proof of your assiduousness), make films?
Watching films requires no effort! I think that this century has been a wonderful time to be a cinephile, what with the globalization of film communities, so that good films come from anywhere with no warning. I’m also very happy with the proliferation of clips and trailers online in recent years. Relying on the taste of critics has generally not worked well for me, but now we can preview little bits of the actual work and rely upon our own reactions, which means it’s easy to bypass the gatekeepers and create our own maps of the cinema.
Making films too is a natural desire for me: I’ve absorbed the basic knowledge; I don’t need the film culture to set me up properly, or the world to receive the work in any particular way. But the production is just so physically and emotionally draining. Oh well — if it were easy, everyone would do it…
Interview by Vincent Poli, via email in April-May and in Paris, June 21, 2019.