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Talking with Alejandro Adams

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Talking with Alejandro Adams

When they write a history of Twitter, hopefully a footnote will be spared for Alejandro Adams, the first meaningful filmmaker to make himself known that way, at least in my book. Conventional wisdom says you should use Twitter to beg for followers, chronicle your production, spam your friends and hope they suck it up for the greater good of social networking’s future. Adams took a different tack: he got in touch with only the critics he admired and asked them to watch his work after making it very clear (through a barrage of polemics, hilariously self-aggrandizing declarations and gnostic aphorisms) he was playing on a whole other level.

The movies, fortunately, are good too. Around The Bay isn’t quite L’Enfance Nue, but it’s not that far off either: childhood has rarely been this abrasive. Canary’s a tougher watch; its sci-fi framework is deliberately difficult to follow, and its most impressive setpieces involve very realistic rooms of people all talking at the same time, making a mockery of the Altman ideal of floating in and out of one conversation to each other. Here, the cacophony is the goal in and of itself. Babnik is a whole other creature, a first leisurely and suddenly urgently twisty crime drama; the less you know, the better. And not knowing much won’t be a problem: it may be months or years before you get a chance to see this, or Adams’ other two films.

So why read this two-part e-mail exchange between me and Adams? I’ve never met him, but this is the kind of promotional collaboration/collusion I try to avoid; it’s vaguely sketchy. But he’s a fun guy to argue and correspond with, and I’m comfortable whoring for him a bit. What I’ve done here is chopped up our back-and-forth into something more or less structured; it’s out of order and distorts the actual chronology, but that seems appropriate. In part one, we mostly talk about acting; in part two, we mostly talk about visuals. Digressions abound, as do faux-aggressive taunts. Enjoy.

Thanks for sending along Babnik, your third and easily most accessible feature yet. Proof: I watched it with two of my roommates, one of whom fancies himself a tasteful cinephile (he isn’t) and one guy who couldn’t care less (he spent most of the running time ogling the women), and they were both sucked in. I liked it a lot, for various reasons: it’s twisty in a way that isn’t obvious until it’s almost over, avoiding David Mamet’s sometime gaffe of piling on so many twists I just want him to pick a moral side to come down on and get on with it. It’s got the same interest in the regulation and control of bodies by financial interests as in Canary, except it’s not too academically “body studies” about it.

I bristle at the notion that Canary is cerebral or academic, but that’s another conversation. Although it’s probably not a coincidence that Babnik seems accessible in comparison. Every film is at least in part a reaction to the previous film. I hope you’ll give me a pullquote that goes something like “breathtakingly accessible.”

I used the deadly word “accessible” because, compared to Canary (and as opposed to Around The Bay, where I mostly grooved on your Pialat-esque depiction of children as abrasive and frequently unlovable), I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble following the film (which I guess is what the word “accessible” often means now), and didn’t even realize you were going to twist back on me, which is so rare. I didn’t even realize it was that kind of movie.

It’s not that kind of movie. Around the Bay is not that kind of movie either. Canary is not that kind of movie either. Go watch “that kind of movie” again and get back to me. I’m pretty sure I’m right.

Also, it’s fun to watch on a basic level: I wasn’t really sure what a San Jose filmmaker making a movie largely about Russian émigré scumbags would look like, but it played just right to me. I don’t know if anyone’s pointed this out to you yet, but I’m going to guess you gave your actors free reign to translate your dialogue into correct-sounding vernacular, and they do sound very convincing. They also changed your dialogue in fairly significant ways: nothing that changes your intent, but a lot of the profanity’s been taken out and some of the euphemistic language revernacularized. So if you speak Russian, it’s sort of like simultaneously reading a screenplay and watching a translated film of the same. Did you account for that? You don’t speak Russian (right?), and neither will most of our audience, but how do you approach that?

I wrote script segments in English which were translated into Russian for the performers and then when it came time to subtitle the film I worked with producer and star Michael Umansky to translate the spoken Russian back to English. In some cases they changed the dialogue for the better, in some cases they strayed too far and got silly, in some cases it was pretty close to what I’d written. But we agreed from the beginning that I’d subtitle it however I wanted—the whole thing is fiction, why should I have any fidelity in translating dialogue? If they’re talking about fried chicken, and I subtitle it with sex trafficking jargon, that’s a brilliant directorial feat as far as I’m concerned. If that seems reckless, think about how reckless it is to take an immigrant subculture and depict them as cannibals.

Two things always come up in the Q&A—a mention of how “real” everything seems is followed by someone with a heavy Russian accent asking, “Do you really think you’ve represented Russians accurately in this film?” That seeming realness, which is completely a product of my imagination, has a price.

For that matter, how’d you approach this milieu? It seems seedy and dangerous and accurate, but maybe you made it all up. I really can’t tell.

Funny how I created something seedy and dangerous and accurate by casting a software engineer, an insurance salesman and a wedding planner as sex traffickers.

But to answer your question on another level, I was often the only non-Russian speaker present and I was intimidated, to put it lightly. We were shooting in Russian restaurants and businesses. I heard stories about some of these places. We were creating situations in which these menacing guys were asking minors to spread their legs or show their tits. If I’d been delighted rather than disgusted and intimidated by what I was creating, the film would have failed. The audience can’t be made to feel what I don’t feel myself.

Forgive me for saying so, but you seem to mostly trust the actors to take care of themselves.

That remark is hard to forgive, as a matter of fact. On Around the Bay there was a shooter who clearly didn’t respect my on-set methods. Finally I asked him about it and he said, “You’re just getting lucky—they’re giving you what you want and you’re not even telling them anything.” He didn’t realize that the directing was taking place in individual meetings, group meetings, email exchanges and phone calls. For one actor in Babnik I devised a system of directing through outtakes uploaded to the web. I’d number the clips and send along notes on his performance in each clip. I would talk about how he knit his eyebrows, a twitch at the corner of his mouth. That kind of micromanaging is rare in my process, but I’m not shy about it if I feel it’s called for.

Another actor in Babnik was coming across a room in an early scene—he was just a background element but if the walk was wrong it would kill the tone of the scene. We shot take after take and I was telling him he was too campy and wrecking the verisimilitude in all the other details we’d orchestrated. Everyone else was perfect in the scene, and there was this background element out of place. I could have said, “Oh it’s just the background, who cares,” but I kept trying to fix it. Finally I said, “Think of a song. Any song. Don’t stop thinking about it. You no longer have a responsibility to be this character—just be a guy with a song in his head and move to the song.” And it worked—it totally relaxed him. He walked across the room exactly as I wanted him to. So I don’t let the actors direct themselves. In some cases tinkering would do more harm than good—in fact I have overdirected at times and it shows. Some actors might say I hardly directed them at all but in most of those cases I’m directing every other element in the scene to work around them and they’re unaware of it.

Another thing I should mention is that I love talking to actors but I don’t want to talk to them when we’re shooting. When we’re shooting, we’re shooting. I care a great deal about the image, and I’m involved in all the technical decisions, so at that point I’m having a relationship with the camera rather than the actor and it had better be evident on screen. Too often in films you can see the director having a relationship with his actors at the expense of the camera or a relationship with the camera at the expense of the actors. My films are not made of compromises. I want a certain thing from the actors and I want a certain thing from the cameras and I’m going to have both or I’m not going to bother making the film.

You bristled at my acting comment, which honestly probably has more to do with a kind of juvenile distaste for and mistrust of “acting.” It’s probably pretty clear what I mean: Naomi Watts in 21 Grams is a prime offender, and I don’t mean to sweep away stylized acting (the kind that really doesn’t exist anymore) or, say, Robert Downey Jr’s variations on a smartass theme in the process. I’m just not big on mechanically expressive performances. The reason I thought about it specifically in Babnik has to do with the scenes of your two main guys and girl just sitting in the living room; when they pause to think, I can’t tell if they’re “thinking” or just being vacant, and I like that. They’re certainly not sweating to convey either. A lot of people get excited when they can tell what an actor’s conveying without overselling (e.g. Bill Murray in Rushmore, which if memory serves you despise), and that’s grand; I get a little more excited when I get a glimpse of interior life that’s in no way being expressed and may not even exist. Sometimes, anyway.

I’ll answer your Wes Anderson aside by saying that some friends and I who despise most of what qualifies as “independent film” these days were going to make T-shirts and bumper stickers featuring the slogan “Punching the quirk out of independent film since 2006.” There’s a lot of criminally expensive goofing off that qualifies as filmmaking these days. You critics will start talking about the New Earnestness soon if you haven’t already. I’m grossed out by stuffed foxes in brown suits and all that hipster bullshit. I try to keep my mouth shut and not tear down others’ work but you called me out.

The Babnik couch scene you mention has some character-enriching subtext which is out of left field. I think it’s memorable for more than its acting. Some people interpret that scene a certain way and as a result the climax means something really specific to them. I’m being vague, but you probably know what I mean.

You suggest that this scene contains the opposite of “mechanically expressive performances.” Possibly true in effect but certainly not in execution. I told Sasha to put his arm behind his head and slouch and mumble. I told Ilona to ball up on the chair and set her shoes aside—it seems that trying to convince an actress she doesn’t need to wear those great shoes is like trying to convince an actor he doesn’t need to flash that cold, heavy gun. This may seem to contradict my insistence that I don’t direct while we’re shooting, but physically arranging the mannequins in the window—blocking if you will—is not what I’m talking about. That is totally different from telling an actor what I need from his or her performance. By facing Ilona away from the guys in that couch scene I got a tension from the space that belied the casualness of their manner, a dialectic which mirrors the content in that they’re being casual in their plotting of various crimes. And then when Ilona laughs at the end of the scene, it’s offscreen. If you listen carefully it’s the same cackle looped twice. So there are a hell of a lot of orchestrated and even fabricated “effects” in those natural performances, even when what you might call content is totally improvised.

I take the images and ancillary sounds far more seriously than the words. Words don’t mean a goddamn thing. Which direction she’s facing, the pitch of her laugh, Sasha’s arm behind his head—those details suck you into the scene, not words, not drama. Babnik premiered at Cinequest in March and the alt weekly critic Richard von Busack said his favorite single shot in any of the 120-plus features was the shot of Yelena getting a “rub down” in the salon. Like that scene on the yacht in Mr. Arkadin—I want to give you shots and scenes that are so distinctive in their physicalness that they’re indelible.

Another weird thing is watching your actors, who are somewhere between completely convincing and totally affectless, living in a dramatic void that’s vaguely charged.

I like that charge. I will do anything to create that charge. Give me a rabbit and a broken laptop and some hand sanitizer and I will try to create that charge. It’s all I care about. It’s the only reason anyone would want to watch the next scene in any of my films. I know what dramaturgy is, but plot comes naturally to me—maybe you’d call this “concept” rather than “plot”—and I stop thinking about it altogether once I’m in production. Then it’s about the characters populating that story. It’s an organism. It’s a living thing. As long as I’m fighting to keep it alive, it will have that charge.

The visuals, as ever, are yours, and I would’ve recognized Babnik as your film without a credit. You’ve spoken online of your gleefully indifferent approach to space, which doesn’t seem quite true to me: it’s more like every room is its own setting with its own atmosphere. You’re connecting space through tone rather than geography. Thoughts?

Whatever I’ve said, it wasn’t false modesty. I corrupt space as much as I honor it. Most of my effects in all three films are achieved through disorientation. The unrecognizable is really important to me. Depicting the unrecognizable is difficult. I think the most unrecognizable elements in my films are the ones that people sense are most “real.”

I have to say I scoffed initially at the finale, one of those setpiece shootout things that’s impossible to execute convincingly on a small budget (a friend working with similar resources wasn’t nearly as fortunate), and then you turned it into a comment on why things that look implausible can be exactly what they seem, i.e. a sham. Anyone who enters your films knows you’re working with not that much, and I know whenever I see a very low-budget film I know certain things can’t happen: car crashes, explosions, et al., which adjusts my expectations accordingly. Do you ever think about this?

You’re displaying such specific blueprints of your viewing apparatus—you’re a sophisticated viewer but also predictable in your anticipation of predictableness. If I had a budget of $10,000, it’s conceivable that I could spend $9000 to blow something up in the opening scene and you’d watch the rest of the film in shock, waiting for the next thing to up-end your sense of the world. I’m not into that kind of gimmickry. The viewer who feels immune to surprise is no longer watching for pleasure and no longer knows how to derive pleasure from viewing. Why don’t we invert this interview and you explain to me why supercilious, grumpy, even burnt out critics tend to favor my films? I think there’s a kind of exhilaration which only supercilious, grumpy, burnt out critics are sensitive to.

Babnik is commenting on shams within shams, as you note—what you’re identifying as the budgetary limitations of the film could simply be the budgetary limitations of the characters in the film. Look at the disconcertingly charismatic personality at the center of the film. How he coerces, manipulates, cheats, keeps a lot of operations running with no money. He is all dynamic energy and conviction. The metaphor is transparent.

Why do grumpy, supercilious burnt out critics favor your movies? Let’s add here that’s it’s not only my breed that do: earnest Marxists and theory kids (neither of which I am) do as well, probably because both Canary and Babnik offer total worlds for systematic analysis and allegorical extrapolation, which isn’t really my bag.

I agree about allegorical extrapolation. I don’t want to reject positive reviews of my work, but these films aren’t intended to be as politically relevant as some seem to think they are. I work in a closed circuit. I have little awareness of current events or sitcoms. I just saw a film that referred to some viral video craze from a couple of years ago and I was lost. My work risks being horribly out of touch. But whatever its shortcomings, I can vouch for its sincerity. If you can find any gimmicks in my films, or any cleverness for its own sake, let me know and I’ll kill myself.

I enjoy your work (or at least admire it; Canary’s still rough on me) for your commitment to this weird kind of “reality” that’s both flawlessly convincing on its own terms, kinetic without the usual my-camera-has-no-tripod-feel-the-energy tricks. Although you don’t generally have one either, but your restlessness always makes me question what to focus on (and wonder how long I have to take something on) rather than act as a visual end in itself.

I’m using handheld in a seditious way—to make you insecure about your own ability to look for yourself, often by incidentalizing the so-called main action of a scene. So the vitality isn’t canned, it’s actual. It’s not a matter of camera shakiness but camera penetration. I am very particular about lens length. All these video cameras have variable lens lengths, and it’s nearly impossible to make shooters see the way I see. I get fastidious about where the top and bottom of the frame should be. Clearly when shooting handheld this kind of determination is self-defeating. Of course my vision is at war with common sense every step of the way—otherwise I wouldn’t be shooting an entire film in a language I don’t speak. Shooting 4:3 on Babnik was very important to me thematically, but I had to be really manipulative in order to get things framed right. No one wants to shoot 4:3. It’s like shooting on Hi8 video—the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I think Babnik is really gorgeous in 4:3. The aspect ratio is bound to the themes but also it’s just rudimentary in a way that corresponds to the duct-taped barely-organized crime depicted in the film. This isn’t something I can easily verbalize to others, but I think of almost every facet of the film in terms of “four-three-ness.”

I really don’t know, even after three films, when you’re going to cut, or where you might find (though I get a vague sense of your camera being closely hemmed in by borders that can’t be quite placed).

My scenes are like matches. They ignite, the flame flickers briefly, it approaches my fingers and then I shake it violently. I don’t mean that all my scenes are short—some are painfully long and I relish that caughtness. Every long scene is like some tangled nightmare from which I can’t extricate myself, I can’t cut away, and I feel the viewer’s scorn mount with every passing second and I feel exhilarated and ashamed. But, yeah, shorter scenes are like matches and I extinguish them violently. In either case, a great deal of anxiety and fear accompany the fascination with my own creation. A cut is a violent thing. I do it violently, as it should be done. If you could sense when the cut was coming it wouldn’t be a cut which resulted from my process. And I’m not totally immune to influence, so there are probably some cuts that have been handed down to me.

I suffer from a really peculiar kind of boredom I once saw described by Monte Hellman; he was introducing It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books, Richard Linklater’s first film, in which large portions of time involve a dude sitting and staring out an Amtrak window and so forth. “I get bored easily,” he said. “I rarely finish a movie. I finished this one.” I get what he means, sort of: many people might take that kind of description indicative of their personal hell, but I find that kind of challenge fun (done correctly, natch, with “correctly” meaning “pleases me”). Someone recently suggested to me that I have ADHD, which makes a lot of sense (all the speed-freak chatter and so on), insofar as it explains why a lot of twisty mainstream fare is mindnumbingly boring to me: it doesn’t make me focus. Your films do, and that kind of boring-in quality is hard to come by. I like even better that I can’t home in on why that is exactly.

Funny that the phrase “boring in” has the word “boring” in it. I’m very pleased to hear that my films make you focus. Rian Johnson said something to the effect that my films seem all loose and improvised but by the end you realize they’re mouse traps. I think that’s profoundly sensitive to what I’m doing. Of course it’s also the highest form of compliment that a critic as perceptive as yourself can admit that he doesn’t know why my films work like they do. I don’t know either—I think that’s a big part of the recipe. And maybe some would call that “getting lucky.”

As far as expectations born of budget: well, you’re right, I guess, but how could I not factor expectations in, no matter what they’re related to? In fact, you surprised me even with (or because of) them. Ditto the jelly in Canary; I spent a lot of time (probably too much) trying to get past seeing what you were using and wondering what it actually was in your film. That’s enough italics for one paragraph.

There’s an element in Babnik like the blue jello. The secret sauce. You have no idea how hard they fought me on the secret sauce. The phrase, the orange bottle, all of it. How could they be menacing while holding this child’s toy and calling it “secret sauce”? Most of what you see on screen was rejected by everyone at least a few times. Often I’m not even sure they’re going to do it my way on camera until they actually do it. I can work with a mutinous spirit on set—I prefer that energy to the kind of lethargy that comes from a project toward which people are indifferent. The lead in my fourth feature Amity would make the DP or AD shoot his version of a scene whenever I stepped away for a few minutes. It takes a lot of practice to be oblivious to personalities as machinating and devious as these. In any case, I’m not threatened because I’ve won this battle before it begins.

I work with Michael Umansky over and over again largely because his resistance is on his sleeve and our chemistry is so volatile. He hates almost everything I want to do, he challenges me in front of cast and crew, and then in the end he does exactly what I want. We stop cameras and he says, “I know that’s how you want it but it’s ridiculous.” He’s so overbearing that I forfeited the participation of some longtime friends as a result of tensions on the Babnik set. But I’m loyal to him above almost anyone else. Someone so ready to throw everything in your face is much less likely to be duplicitous or destroy the production behind your back. I should clarify that Mr. Umansky is personally warm and generous and I consider him a friend away from production. I rarely stay in touch with cast or crew after shooting—no wrap parties, cast and crew screenings, etc. I’m not in this to make friends. But Mr. Umansky is a friend.

In closing, let me ask: what percentage of Canary is supposed to be funny (or, alternately, how comfortable would you be with people laughing where you see nothing to laugh at)? I’m generally a big believer that you’re going to have to laugh not to cry; the Romanian New Wave is hilarious for the sheer amount of largely unprovoked, over-the-top rudeness, and Canary also made me laugh quite a bit. This seems morally wrong, but it’s the same kind of frisson provoked by an appalling drinking story, only with entirely different stakes. Maybe not?

When one of the jumpsuited Canary agents is picking up the organs at the clinic for redistribution, a receptionist gestures to one of the containers and says, “The sushi’s in that one.” You can barely hear it among all the overlapping dialogue. But you’re right: that’s not funny. Canary is profoundly unfunny. I’m glad it upsets you. I’m glad you have reservations about it. I’m a very sensitive person and my films are just elaborate seismographs. In my day job I fire people pretty regularly. I’m in the middle of a divorce which is crushing my kids. I was barely able to get out of bed for a few months last year as a result of this unexpected obliteration of my life. The films are where I allow myself to feel something. And what I feel isn’t funny. So thank you for not laughing.