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Portrait of an Artist as Rambo: A Conversation with Flooding with Love for the Kid‘s Zackary Oberzan

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Portrait of an Artist as Rambo: A Conversation with Flooding with Love for the Kid’s Zackary Oberzan

When Jean-Luc Godard referred to his criticism and filmmaking as one and the same he couldn’t have envisioned the “one-man cinematic war” called Flooding with Love for the Kid, Zachary Oberzan’s no-budget ($96 to be exact) version of First Blood, shot entirely by himself in his Manhattan studio apartment, in which he plays all the characters. Yet this is no parody, no YouTube gimmick. Oberzan is as serious as Stallone’s knockout punch. Flooding is nothing less than an artist’s manifesto, a magnificent “fuck you” to Hollywood. Like he deftly did with his one-man theater show Rambo Solo, Oberzan has turned the tables on the powers-that-be, metaphorically shouting, “I don’t need your money, your talent, and I certainly don’t need your permission. Hell, I don’t even need to leave my apartment!” (Rambo Solo, which I called “critic-proof” in my review at Theater Online, turned Soho Rep into a cozy flat via pillows and blankets in lieu of seats.)

So how do you review what is, in essence, a piece of film criticism? By simply stating that Oberzan has beaten both Hollywood and the critics at their own game. That this filmmaker/actor/musician manages to wage such a thrilling and enlightening “war,” with sheer fearlessness and passion as his only weapons, says more about a certain soulless industry machine than it does about Flooding with Love for the Kid.

I spoke with Oberzan on the set of his upcoming film (aka, his apartment) about our mutual appreciation of action heroes, mind versus body control, Stallone versus Van Damme and so much more.

So you’re still touring Rambo Solo while simultaneously trying to get as much festival play as possible for Flooding while working on your latest film, which was inspired by your passion for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Can you talk a little bit about this fixation with action heroes?

Uh, I wouldn’t so much call it a fixation as a lifelong interest in action heroes. Many young American boys growing up, or really boys anywhere, had posters of Stallone, Jean-Claude or Bruce Lee up on the wall—men who epitomized power and strength and being in control. And I think that’s something that a lot of young boys admire and try to live up to. So in terms of doing projects that involve action heroes it’s just something that comes from my childhood. Also, I come from a very athletic family so I grew up in an environment that was very much about physicality and developing the body.

So these action heroes became part of your family in a sense?

Yeah, in many ways I don’t distinguish between personal family members and people I’ve never met. Men who have been influences in my life, as diverse as Jean-Claude Van Damme or Leonard Cohen—they’re people that I love as much, in a bizarre sort of way, as my own family members. They’ve been with me for just as long.

So what possessed you to make Flooding completely by yourself? I mean, as an actor who’s been collaborating with the same theater company for a decade and a half, don’t you like to play with others?

Well, actually the unnatural act for me is working with other people. I’ve just always been a very isolated person. It’s amazing I ever left my bedroom as a kid—that took several years. But of course, once I got over that I began to learn a lot from others, began to develop my art. But with Flooding that was based on a very simple premise—that Rambo had to wage this war by himself. He was a very solitary figure. And that is something I can really identify with, and I suppose many people can identify with. So at the outset of the project I considered using other people, maybe at least to do some camerawork, to help me put some scars on my back. But then I realized the whole form of the project isn’t so much about me telling the story of First Blood, which personally to me has a lot of meaning, but the purpose was much bigger than one guy who just happens to really like this particular book. The point of the piece is to find out, what can an artist do completely by himself if he has the passion for it?

So the form became part of the art?

Very much so. I used to be of the mind that 50% of any story is how it is told, but now I believe that 95% of the story is how it is told. Stories repeat themselves and characters repeat themselves. So I’m interested, when working on a narrative, in finding out how I can turn that narrative on its side. How do you turn it to an angle that is going to refresh the story?

I’ve been Thai boxing for nearly as long as you’ve been with Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and it never ceases to amaze me how much my physical skills can be applied to my creative projects as well as just to daily life. Maybe it’s because I personally don’t separate life from art, but do you see the same connection between building the body and building the mind?

Well, there are certainly parallels. They’re very similar in a way. The dedication is the same. The guy who goes home and reads Kierkegaard for two hours or the guy who goes to the gym for two hours—really they’re both just trying to improve themselves. They’re both doing the same thing.

With Rambo this whole war he’s waging—it’s a body war, a very physical thing. It’s not some sort of cerebral exercise. You seem to approach your film with the same sort of physical, “I’m going to do all the heavy lifting by myself” drive. Your actual approach to filmmaking is physical.

Sure physicality is very important in my art. As an actor when your body is your main instrument, the better shape you’re in physically the better you are artistically.

Yet both Rambo Solo and Flooding seem to resonate with a lot of people who aren’t even necessarily fans of these physical Stallone films. Do you have any thoughts on why this is?

As I was saying, ultimately the form is more important than the content. So with Rambo Solo, the director, Pavol Liska, has never seen First Blood, has never read the book, doesn’t really give a damn about it. What he was interested in was storytelling, and in someone who was very fascinated by a story and could tell a good story. If my particular passion had been The Turn of The Screw or something, then it would have been Turn of The Screw Solo. But it happened to be Rambo so then that’s what the project became. And some people might come to Rambo Solo thinking it’s going to be something silly because, unfortunately, Rambo at least among the intelligentsia has come to represent something silly. But with both Rambo Solo and with Flooding with Love for the Kid the pieces aren’t so much about the story but about how you tell the story. That’s what really resonates with people. Even if you’re not a fan of Rambo it’s ultimately touching something deeper than what the content is. That said, First Blood means a lot to me so if I was going to do a one-man show about Turn of The Screw it probably wouldn’t be as good because it wouldn’t mean as much to me.

I’d argue that part of what’s resonating is that people like to get caught up in other peoples’ passion. Your enthusiasm is contagious so it draws in people who might not otherwise have an affinity for action heroes.

True, that’s a good point. I left out that detail, I guess. Our attempt in Rambo Solo, and my attempt in Flooding, is to make that passion contagious. The story, like all stories, is just interchangeable. I love to move people. If Flooding inspires people all over the world to make movies in their apartments I’m all for that.

Maybe you could start your own film festival of movies made in apartments. I don’t think that’s been done before.

No, you’re right. And I could hold it here in my apartment.

Let’s move on to the fact that David Morrell, the author of First Blood, gave Flooding a ringing endorsement. Have you tried to contact Stallone, and will you be seeking out JCVD, for their critiques?

Yeah, David Morrell is a very kind and generous man…

Someone actually asked me if that Morrell quote on the DVD cover was real.

Yes, a lot of people ask me that. Yes, it’s real, goddamn it! David Morrell loved the idea. I was kind of scared at first of introducing him to the project for copyright reasons, but he’s a very generous man who’s actually flattered that I would make a film of his book in my apartment. He’s been very helpful and supportive of the whole project. Stallone I don’t think has heard of it and I have no idea what his reaction would be. I would hope it would be positive. I’m a bit critical of Stallone in the theater piece, though. Jean-Claude, who’s in my new film, judging especially from what I’ve seen of him recently in the JCVD movie, I think he’d be very accepting of the piece, of my sending him a valentine.

Well, none of your projects are gimmicks or parodies.

Right, because all my projects are really done out of love. There’s no other reason for me to do it. Really it would be easier for me to have passions that were more seemingly highbrow, but the fact is that my passions are things that, culturally, people regard as lowbrow. But to me I don’t make those distinctions.

Well, Shakespeare was lowbrow in his day.

Exactly. Shakespeare was lowbrow in his day. And in a thousand years Kickboxer is going to be the new King Lear.

You never know.

And it deserves to be.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.