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Notes from Underground: Interview with Frownland Director Ronald Bronstein

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Notes from Underground: Interview with Frownland Director Ronald Bronstein

Propelled forward with an excruciating need to communicate, yet filled with so many thoughts clogging up his brain that he can only sputter out half-baked sentence fragments tethered together by apologies, Keith Sontag (played by Dore Mann) is the socially maladjusted main character of Frownland. The pivotal question any viewer has to ask before watching this uncompromising independent feature by first-time director Ronald Bronstein is whether they would want to spend even sixty seconds in his company.

He’s self-described as a “troll from under the bridge”, and the opening twenty minutes of the picture has this borderline incoherent creature desperately trying to connect with his catatonically depressed girlfriend Laura (Mary Wall).

In real life, we’d probably run away from Keith as quickly as possible. Even as a movie experience, Frownland presents as much a challenge to the spectator as getting into the world of Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe—and that film was an easier sell inasmuch as the halting, listless bourgeois housewife Carol was mostly framed in wide shots that set her against the backdrop of her sparse apartment or various banal landscapes. Frownland careens you around with Keith in extreme, distorted close-ups with a wide-angle lens. Shot in 16mm with unflattering naturalistic lighting and palpable grain, Frownland is underground cinema at its most feverish and spontaneous. When Laura disappears from Keith’s life, he throws himself at other unsuspecting friends-as-victims, who in various ways try to rid themselves of this pest.

It’s like watching Frankenstein’s Monster clumsily trying to make friends in an urban hell zone. Let’s pretend for a moment that Frownland, which might be described as a downbeat indie drama or a pitch-black comedy of embarrassment, is neither of those things, but instead a horror film. Even though there is no element of the supernatural and no mounting body count (unless you count the number of friends Keith loses during the running time), the mortifying events that unfold are of watching a monster walk among us. If we have sympathy for monsters, it’s because we recognize in them the most extreme limit of our own humanity.

Bronstein openly acknowledges the creature feature aspect of Frownland—the opening image is of Keith watching a B-movie monster flick on late night television. When you look at Keith in the tradition of monster protagonists, his misunderstood nature and desperation for love achieves a kind of pathos. That doesn’t necessarily mean we love him and want to hug him, either. We aren’t coddled by any cute or friendly tics in Keith, and we’re not invited to feel superior and mock him. Bronstein presents him, warts and all, and allows the viewer space to form their own conclusion.

A little over the halfway point of Frownland, the monster is temporarily abandoned in favor of a long digression following Charles (Paul Grimstad), Keith’s ego-centric roommate, who takes to the streets in search of employment after failing to generate any income to pay his bills. As Charles endures his own humiliations, it deepens our perspective on Keith. “At least he can survive in New York City, pay his bills,” said a colleague, in a tone of begrudging respect. Frownland doesn’t tell us what to think, or where to place our empathy, but it does ask challenging questions about our attitude towards others. By the climax of Frownland, are we rooting for Keith as he makes his last stand for self-respect, or do we want to see the villagers pick up torches and burn him? What are these attitudes of fear and repugnance, and why is it so uncomfortable to examine that part of our selves?

Made on an ultra-low budget with a crew of friends and cast largely comprised of non-actors, Frownland is also a testament to the integrity of do-it-yourself filmmaking. The scrappy film look immediately brings to mind cinéma vérité, and Bronstein cites George A. Romero, Frederick Wiseman and Mike Leigh as inspirations. The scenes were constructed during a lengthy, improvisation-based workshop that continued throughout the two-year plus process of making the movie. It was rewarding to discuss the process with Bronstein, as well as Frownland’s compelling themes. The filmmaker proved to be most sensitive, contemplative and articulate about this powerhouse debut.

How did Frownland come about?

When I got out of school, I felt pretty bankrupt sitting around trying to formulate or devise projects. I was going down the dead end path of comparing my work to what everyone else was doing, and figuring out how I could top it. I could never clear my head and tap into what represented me, and all the things I naturally brood about when I walk down the street. I’m not interested in straight autobiography, but I tried all these various methods to tap into something personal. I even got to the point where I was tape recording my life with a hidden microphone and transcribing the experiences I had that I thought were dramatic, and seeing if they had any life. Slowly, I started to find patterns with what I wedded to the page.

I had a wretched run in my twenties in New York. I don’t know if it’s my nature or if there’s something about living in a city like this that ferments how I feel about the world. You’re young, and surrounded by so many people, which can be dehumanizing. On the one hand, you’re crying out to connect, or you want a girlfriend. On the other hand you’re smushed in with people so closely that if you’re on the subway and someone’s arm rubs against you, it can feel repugnant. The operative traits in my personality at that time were insecurity and intolerance. Those things do not work together. They are working against one another. On one hand I was really judgmental of others, and on the other I was wanton of other people’s attention, and I wanted to explore that in my work.

I wrote this script, and that whole period was marked by a growing disenchantment with script writing in general, mostly because I am interested in capturing inflection, and how inflection forwards communication. Whether it’s my limitations as a writer, or limitations in the form itself, the script process is good for getting concepts and ideas down on the page, but I found it was impossible to capture the subtle dimensionality on the page, especially over ten different characters. The script felt leaden, and the thought of making an actor read that script felt humiliating, so I backed off of it.

This led to a kind of workshop where you developed the script using actors and non-actors, building characters, scenes and situations with them.

I decided I want to be as surprised by the process of making a movie as I am by life itself. I found people that I thought were suited to the roles, and would feed the ideas to them and build the characters and concepts with them. Through massive amounts of rehearsals I would flesh out those scenes and the ideas of those scenes—how best to communicate those ideas through their natural speech patterns—and then I would go home and transcribe those rehearsal sessions. I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pages, which I would then pare down, so it was like writing with somebody’s brain instead of writing with a pen. Once I met Dore Mann (who plays Keith), he became the perfect conduit for whatever that sort of twisted inside-out insecurity was that I felt. This guy represented it much better than I could. He is an amazing guy, and is not the guy in the movie. It’s a performance, but he’s still tapping into something in himself.

Can you navigate me through your process? How did you work with these actors during the workshop?

In early Mike Leigh films, the performances he gets are the [high water mark] for me. They have a heightened, grotesque quality, but it’s so loaded with nuance that it feels real. It’s actually hyper-real. But he’s very tight lipped about his process. You hear he works for several months with actors doing character building, then he networks them, and there’s not much more that we know. I sleepwalked into my own version of that, working independently with each actor, going down all sorts of weird back alleys.

We talked about their job histories, personal histories, emotional histories, how they speak, how they think about the world, taking certain traits that are in the actual performer in real life and exaggerating them and bleaching away other ones that didn’t suit the movie’s needs. You got to the point where you could wind up the actor and send them off in any situation, and they would be able to react in character. After six months of work, you end up having this fully formed character that can react to any form of stimuli you throw at them.

As you’re building one character up, unbeknownst to that person, you’re building another character up in a way to insure that when you network them together, there will be friction. If I’m building up Keith’s character, and having him be hyper-neurotic about whether he will be able to pay his bills, you build up another character [in his roommate, Charles] that is almost pathologically cavalier about these things and feels a kind of entitlement about not paying his bills. When you put those two people together, you have instant conflict that you build into the rehearsal. This leads to the same kind of drama that was in the script, but it unfolds with much more subtlety.

Did non-actors take to these improvisatory methods?

If you look at the full gamut of human characteristics, most of us, myself included, exist in the middle. That’s what makes people functional members of society. Every once in a while you run into those who exist on the margins. They’re more intense, unstable, sensitive or stronger than you are. Those are the ones that, when you put them on the screen, will make the audience feel something, the way life makes us feel something. You can find that in someone who wants to be an actor, or in somebody who didn’t. It might even be harder, in some ways, to find that in professional actors. I’m looking to sculpt characters out of raw personality, rather than try and knock a square peg through the round hole of whatever character I have pre-conceived. Dore is an insecure person, but very confident about expressing that insecurity in front of a camera. He was hell-bent on taking what he felt were the ugliest sides of his personality and purging them in the movie.

How did you develop the relationship between Keith and his girlfriend Laura?

I wondered what kind of girl would want to spend time with someone like Keith? I figured it would be a younger person, someone in high school that was also a misfit. Keith presents himself so poorly in real life that I had them meet online. On the Internet, a relationship has an easier time growing, but on more false grounds. People have an easier time seeing what they want to see in the other person than they do when they are face to face. They started meeting online every night, with me supervising and setting up the time. She had her little AOL profile, and Dore contacted Mary online, in character, and before I knew it that relationship sprung to life. I have a couple of hundred pages of transcripts of all their emails and instant messaging and all that nonsense. It got to the point where this was getting interesting, and they decided to meet.

Again, in character, Dore was very nervous and excited about this, but the second that they met, everything started to fall apart very quickly. They just had no rapport, in a way that was interesting. I decided the entry point for them in the movie would be at a point where the relationship was beyond resuscitation. That’s what happened. Once something terrible happened with them, to the point where he thought he would never see her again, the movie starts at exactly that point where she shows up.

Frownland was excruciating for me to sit through at first, especially during that first 20 minutes. I was having a really tough time—and I can tolerate a lot. I can watch the slowest Iranian film where almost nothing seems to happen. I wouldn’t have bothered watching the rest if my editor hadn’t advised me to stick with it, and ultimately I’m glad I made the commitment. But plugging into Frownland is a huge challenge. Now, I understand that to some degree the movie was shot in sequence. Was the first thing you shot that handful of opening scenes between Keith and Laura?

For the most part, Frownland was shot in sequence. But that opening was not the first scene we filmed. More or less, each character arc was shot in sequence. It’s funny that you bring up Iranian cinema, or even the more modern equivalent of what is coming out of Asia right now, where it’s this sort of conceptualization of the quotidian. You’re watching somebody move through their apartment, making eggs in real time. But there’s something about those movies where they telegraph their intentions as art from the moment the movie begins. In a way, you feel in very safe hands. If you define yourself as an art enthusiast, you can relax into that because it is all framed under this conceptual veneer, for better or worse. I read this quote from Picasso on the back of a magazine that said good taste is the enemy of art, and feel like orientation is the enemy of art. It can help to be thrown out of your comfort zone a bit, and when a film telegraphs its intentions in a way that can be related to other movies, you can feel like you’re being enriched while at the same time being lulled into a very safe zone.

I was excited by the idea of tossing people into an experience that did not have those kinds of semaphores. Where you ask, “Was this good? Was this bad? Is this inept? Is this intentional? Is this a comedy? Is this a drama?” You’re forced to fend for yourself, in the hopes that it would make the film a more impacting experience. I’m not a cinephile, but there are some films and filmmakers I respond to very strongly, and they are very few and far between. I don’t necessarily look to film for my inspiration, but I am a projectionist, so almost involuntarily I am forced to look at movies all the time. At least, I see them—I don’t necessarily experience them, if you know what I mean. While editing Frownland, I was stuck in terms of where I should jump into the movie. [Around this time,] I was projecting Vertigo, where the opening credits are these spiraling graphics, and the movie is about watching, where for so much of the movie you’re watching somebody else watching something. The opening of that film trains you how to watch the rest of the movie. It’s sort of like the legend at the bottom of a map.

That got you to think about your own intentions of the film, and how you wanted to orient or disorient the viewer.

In life you rely on your intuitive faculties all the time to grasp what is going on around you. If you sit down on the subway and suddenly you’re eavesdropping on a domestic dispute between a man and a woman, they’ve been arguing maybe for 45 minutes before you arrived. They’re not going to back up and give you the information that you need. You end up extrapolating, and hooking in to nuances and inflections to pick up on what they’re talking about. “Oh, okay…they’re talking about this woman… They’re arguing about his mother, who’s maybe staying at their house…” In life, it’s very natural to engage in that process. Movies don’t seem to do that very often. The dialogue is organized to give the viewer information to make sense of it all. Since for so much of Frownland I’m putting the audience in a position where they’re extrapolating what’s happening onscreen, I decided to start with a moment at its most difficult. You have a very intense dramatic situation [between Keith and Laura]. Keith is a character that everybody wants to push away. He communicates so poorly that he’s unable to say what it is that would be necessary for the audience to understand the root of the conflict, and the people he’s with don’t want to give him the time or show him the sensitivity to allow him to get those words out.

You are filming these people very close, almost claustrophobically, with a wide angle lens that is slightly distorting. It makes things uncomfortable for the viewer, putting them right near people they’d generally want to run away from. In much the same way, if you really felt like you couldn’t stand being near those people on the subway, you’d flee. Your film is asking us to give time, energy and interest to someone we might not want to get to know, which is perhaps why several people have said they are frustrated or conflicted about Frownland.

With the subway scenario, unless I felt I was physically in danger, I can’t imagine a situation that I would not want to stick my face into, no matter how ugly it was. I can understand, when you’re dealing with mainstream movies, people are buying a ticket to go on a two-hour vacation, and I don’t mean that in a snobby way. But when you’re dealing with art films, I would hope or think that people want to go to the theater to confront and be confronted. Frownland confronts people with someone they might instantly dismiss, and traps them with that person, and hopefully there would be value to that. (pause) “Trap” sounds so negative…

The audience isn’t trapped, but the movie relentlessly puts the viewer close to Keith and Laura.

Most movies that focus on outsiders, losers or misfits tend to romanticize the character in a way that coddles the sensibilities of the audience, and makes them feel more tolerant of the character than they would be in real life. They appeal to the loser in everyone, and can give little tricks to the character to make them seem sympathetic. I was actively trying to avoid that. You run across people in life who seem off. The reaction this instills in you is almost Darwinian. Anyone who has ever worked retail knows exactly what I’m talking about. The kind of person who would stop you on the street and ask for directions, before you know it, before you’ve even thought about it, you instinctively find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t live around here,” even though you know exactly where they need to go. You want to get that person out of your territorial bubble. In life you can dismiss someone like that so easily, go about your business, and not really address whether that rejection was justified. By making the viewer spend time with someone like Keith, I hoped they would find grounds for sympathy, but not coerce someone into a sympathetic point of view. I mean, this guy is totally unable to read social cues, which isn’t a saintly quality by any means. But he isn’t a bad guy. He’s more of a lost soul.

Keith is self-described as a “troll under the bridge”, which is a way to view him. I interpreted the whole movie as what might happen if Mike Leigh directed a horror movie. The very opening image is of a monster movie that Keith is watching on television.

Yes, it’s a monster with a Stradivarius in his hand. Again, it’s this trick—can you think of a cheaper way to make the monster sympathetic or human? By throwing this violin into his hands and making him frustrated because his fingers are too oafish to be able to play? Frownland is trying to not make it easy for you in this way, but hopefully I put enough humor into the film to lubricate the experience for the viewer. That’s what I found, in terms of what tiny little cult has coagulated around the film. On repeated viewing, they can ease into it and actually enjoy the humor.

What is that laughter, though? Are they laughing at, or laughing with, or both?

Frownland jerks you around. You mentioned Mike Leigh just now, and there’s a real distinction to be made between his early films and late films.

Let’s use an early film as a reference. In his first feature, Bleak Moments, a mismatched couple is out on a date, eating dinner, and finding it very difficult to have a conversation. There’s a third person eating soup at a nearby table that may be eavesdropping on them. It’s a painfully funny scene, since we’re thrown into a socially awkward situation. I don’t know if I’d venture to say if we are laughing at them or with them, but we laugh because it is so identifiable and human.

You think of those situations in life where you feel so awkward and uncomfortable that you wind up laughing at exactly the wrong moment. It can be very memorable and funny in hindsight. Those are the experiences I turn into anecdotes and share with people I’m close with, and it turns them into almost enjoyable experiences. Leigh films from that early period are studies in that kind of discomfort. Do you remember the scene in Nuts In May when the two main characters coerce that guy [almost against his will] to sing that awful song about going to the zoo? It is completely uncomfortable. Even though I remember it as being funny, I probably didn’t feel mirth when I saw it.

The process of making this movie sounded, in some ways, horrifying. You had some seed money from a job you did in Sweden, came back to New York to start shooting, and quickly ran out of funds. From that point, every five weeks or so you would shoot a little bit more using whatever money you earned at your day job. That sounds like a blessing and a curse. You had the blessing of time, with a committed cast and crew, and the strong foundation of your workshops, but it also seems like an exhausting way of shooting something.

I work as a projectionist, and don’t make a huge wage. I realized if I worked six days a week, every five weeks I could afford to shoot a scene on film, and that meant we could rehearse for five weeks. The scenes would steep, and the characters would go to new and richer places. It was helpful in that way, but I felt like I was constantly feeding the monster. I don’t think I could work that way again. There’s something genuinely debilitating about being moored to the same limited set of ideas for a five-year period. By the end of the process I was drained, and could think of nothing less interesting than these ideas. But on the positive side, I was building a method that I can apply now to future projects. It’s a miracle that I ended up with something that people like, because the whole thing was an experiment and I was feeling my way through the dark.

You make a bold choice halfway through, veering off of Keith’s story and following his roommate Charles. Why did you go in that tangential direction?

Most movies set up their conflicts in the beginning and you’re always one step ahead. I liked the idea of this unwieldy departure, where the audience might wonder if the main character will come back. Also, while I was making the movie, I realized that I needed a break from Keith. But we still needed to move forward and, in some way, have Keith grow. I was able to explore the same themes by following Charles, only instead of being hyper-inarticulate we dealt with someone who was so good at words. By the time we reach the end of this section with Charles, we see the same dynamic we found with Keith. For the audience, maybe it feels good sometimes to see Keith get swatted like a fly, but why does it also feel good to watch the guy who swats him also get swatted?

Let’s talk about your choice to shoot on 16mm. One would assume it would be easier to shoot on video, but film has its own allure and a kind of grainy, raw, smoldering look.

Filmmakers at age 23, 24, 25 were born into a world where video is there as an option. They don’t have to rationalize the aesthetic choice of shooting on video. I’m in my thirties. When I went to school, and started thinking about making movies, there was a different [set of rules]. There was this Sundance model, which is the $30,000 dream—now a completely outmoded thing. You would go into massive credit card debt to make this one film and hope it [propels you forward] into the world of being a filmmaker. By the time I got around to making a film, I never rethought that model. I don’t know if I’m just stubborn and don’t adapt well to new ideas and changes, but I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. I have a relationship with 16mm, especially with the raw, craggy, homemade looking 16mm projects. After years of watching movies and knowing how the industry work, you know the more staunched and uncompromised your vision, the less money you have to make your project. That leads to certain kinds of technical flaws, like going down from 35mm to 16mm, or smaller crews with less time and care put into the lighting and sound. But when you form a relationship to these movies, where you really want to see bizarre labors of love over commercial fare, that technical shoddiness reads as raw, uncompromised vision. You can manipulate that simply by having a look that is raw and unpolished, it joins a tradition of films that stuck to their guns. It was a tradition I wanted to join in.

You worked with a very small cast and crew. What are your Frownland colleagues up to? Some of them are making movies.

[My director of photography] Sean Williams became the chief archivist for [documentary filmmaker] Albert Maysles and started shooting projects for and with Maysles. He’s continuing to do that, and when he returns from shooting a movie in France he’ll be directing his own, which we’ll all help out on. It will be his turn. [Our sound guy] Ignacio Carballo is halfway done with his feature, but he’s on my time schedule, shooting on 16mm and paying for it himself, so I’m not sure when he’ll be done with it. Meanwhile, my wife Mary learned about filmmaking by acting in Frownland and said, “Look, as an experiment, for literally no money, let’s make this script I wrote in five weeks as opposed to five years.” The same basic crew that worked on Frownland worked behind and in front of the camera. The movie is called Yeast, my wife directed it, and it is going to premiere at South by Southwest in competition. It was nice personally for me, you can think you’re a filmmaker because you’re working on one film, but unless you’re making movies, shooting something, or working on something all the time, you’re not really a filmmaker. I was only a filmmaker in name, and working so long on the same project fostered my lack of confidence. Yeast was a way for me as a collaborator with her on this project to hit reset. David Sandholm, who plays Keith’s “friend” has a band called The Roller Treadway, which is sort of taking off. Paul Grimstad (who plays Charles) is a literature professor at Yale right now. Dore has moved away from performing and into social work. He works for a needle exchange program at a suicide hotline. So everyone is off following their own bizarre-muse right now.