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"We Weren’t Just Screwing Around for a Decade": An Interview with Chris Fuller About Loren Cass

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“We Weren’t Just Screwing Around for a Decade”: An Interview with Chris Fuller About Loren Cass

“Glory be,” I thought to myself as I sat in the Cinema Village a few weeks ago. “Finally, a next-to-nothing budget American movie that actually looks like something. And is about something, too!” (There isn’t exactly a boatload of super-cheap indies these days getting theatrical distribution, let alone ones made by guys who own a tripod.) My wonderment was achieved despite the fact that I’d gone into the film, Loren Cass, with extremely high expectations: Nathan Lee referred to it as “overtly, ingeniously experimental in form,” a “tour de force of mood and milieu.”

Yet seeing the film was still shocking. In the wake of mumblecore—the most widely discussed young, independent filmmakers’ movement since that of the early ’90s (Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Allison Anders, etc.)—watching Loren Cass is a little bit like getting punched in the face. In the pre-Recession aughts, there was something pleasant (and perhaps downright sedating) about the twee characters populating mumblecore films and the trivial problems that filled their lives. As young, privileged white Americans have been jolted back into something like a serious world, those films have lost their significance, appearing more like embalmed relics of a time when a whole lot less was at stake.

Loren Cass stands in marked contrast.

It was written in 1997 and shot in 2004, but is timeless in scope. It is about three people living in St. Petersburg, Florida a year after that city’s 1997 race riots. The characters—a punk (Travis Maynard), a waitress (Kayla Tabish), and an auto mechanic (writer/director Chris Fuller, credited as “Lewis Brogan”)—mill around town with no place to go and nothing to do, aimlessly drifting in and out of their meaningless existences. One cannot imagine the characters of this film solving their problems with group hugs, or by playfully throwing toys at one another at work, or by having adorable romantic adventures after chance meetings in subway stations. They have had to live too long with the grim realities of American life to have a countenance that could support such things, realities that only a privileged few are able to avoid encountering.

Fuller has made a film about people who actually deserve your time and respect, and that, as I mentioned, actually looks like something. Combining a rock-steady tripod stillness with an eye for frontal geometric framing, Fuller and DP William Garcia’s work brings to mind the photography of Harry Callahan, the compositions of Chantal Akerman, and, in their depiction of desolate nowheres, the work of Gregory Crewdson. Not just settling for a serious aesthetic thrust, Loren Cass is deeply, profoundly about something. But rather than expound upon that any further, I’ll let Fuller do the talking himself.

A lot of people have compared your film to Gummo in its depiction of aimless young people with not a whole lot to do in a small town. But the comparison seems to narrow Loren Cass’s scope a bit. Where did the lives of the characters originate from?

From a variety of sources. There are a lot of things that are personal, culled from people around me. I would be leaning toward your take on things—it’s definitely got some broader subtext, in my opinion, than a film like Gummo does. I’ve got plenty of respect for those kinds of filmmakers and films, but I can definitely do without all the comparisons we’re getting to Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant. I know they mean it as a compliment, but when the film keeps getting compared to Gummo, it’s something that people just sort of see and latch on to. The characters are a product of their environment, and vice-versa. The environment kind of manifests the internal lives of the characters.

When you went about constructing the storyline, was there something specific that you had in mind—a slice of life? Or how did your storyline come to be?

Y’know, it’s sort of a slice of life kind of thing. It’s very subtext heavy. In a film like this, you’re not really portraying something that hasn’t been done before, but the way it’s portrayed is something that hasn’t been done before, and the way that it’s portrayed is something in tune with the heart of the film. As far as the superficial narrative goes, it’s sort of fragmented, but I also think there’s a more definitive narrative structure just under the surface. All of the events and all of the people are intertwined. Every object, event, person is connected in some way.

Indeed, it is really formally progressive. The audio soundscapes, in particular, were interesting, as was the way you used silence. One thing that struck me was that there’s such a high level of realism in the film, at first, but then it becomes more stylized when you realize how little dialogue there is, which is the most stylized element of the script. Was it a concerted decision to make a film with such a small amount of dialogue? How did you come to make that decision?

Yeah, the script was always very short, light on dialogue. I wanted to do that for a variety of reasons. I wanted something that was grounded in reality, rough and real on the surface, but at the same time there’s a hand, a voice behind it, there are things going on beneath the surface, and it goes back and forth between those places. The lack of dialogue—to be honest, when I was working on the script, it felt more realistic. Around here, people don’t really talk to people that much, you know? A lot of dialogue in films is expositional, it definitely seems forced, the way people chatter and talk more than they really do. In this kind of environment, at least in my experience, people don’t really talk to each other. And when they do, they don’t have a whole hell of a lot to say. It’s more factual exchanges to get points across, get things moving in one direction. From a directing point of view, I really wanted to just tell the story in pictures.

It’s interesting how the film’s base realism is supplanted by all these more stylized moments—the Budd Dwyer thing, the bursting into flames shot, the soundscapes. Did that stylistic conception originate from any influences, films? Where did it come from?

The influence thing is kind of a slippery slope. There was a time, back in high school, and then when I was trying the college thing, that I just wanted to see as many films as I could. But I believe that you can’t see something that you like without it affecting you, and kind of shaping the way you look at things. So it got to a point where I stopped trying to really watch many films. In a perfect world I would never watch movies, ever again. I love films, which is the reason why I do still watch some from time to time, but I wanted to stay away from the influence thing. So there’s nobody in particular from a filmmaking standpoint. The one person who I would reference, philosophically, would be Schopenhauer. I was reading a lot of Schopenhauer when I was working on this movie, and there’s all sorts of stuff about representation in the subtext. We weren’t just screwing around for a decade in the making of this film, there’s a lot of stuff built into it.

So the audio sequences—there was so much going on there. Were they an attempt at an interior monologue of the characters, or an attempt at an evocation of the world they lived in?

I’d say both. It’s a bit of an internal monologue, but it’s never attributed to one character. I was trying to bring several characters, during a particular point in life, together in an accurate way. It seems abstract, but I think a lot of the things said can be ascribed to all the characters, or can be seen as referencing the plot. And sometimes they’re just about the feelings they evoke in the audience.

I could see certain people saying, “these characters are kept so distant from us, they never speak, I feel like I don’t know them at all,” but it seems like that is exactly the point, and the audio is what tries to fill us in on who they are.

Right. And we got a lot of praise, and I’m very thankful for that, but whenever there’s criticism, a lot comes from the standpoint that people feel like they need to be sympathetic towards the characters. Who gives a shit? Who says you need to be sympathetic toward someone that you’re watching? It’s the subject of a film—it’s not you and it doesn’t have to be you in order for you to understand what it’s getting at. Everything doesn’t need to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, there’s plenty about this world that’s neither warm nor fuzzy.

In film school, I was taught that you have to make the audience care about the characters. But I feel like the people onscreen should be people whose lives are important, in one way or another, people who merit two hours of your time. A lot in film today is about pleasing the audience. Providing pleasure as opposed to educating.

I’m in agreement. All of that shit, none of it ever really sat very well with me. Who gives a fuck how these people think films should be made? I always felt that it was better for me to spend that money on making my film than taking classes. That kind of mentality just leads to making boring movies, boring movies in the same way about the same shit that every motherfucker has for close to one hundred years. Who cares? It’s not interesting. I have a tremendous respect for filmmaking as an art, and it is, it’s high art. Movies can be whatever you want them to be. You take what you need for your material, and leave the rest. I dunno man, to hell with making films the way that people tell you they should be made. Approaching films from the standpoint that you have to care about characters—like, I dunno, like you’re dating them or something? I don’t understand that at all.

When was the film shot?

It was shot in 2004. The script was really finished in 2001, and that’s when we started getting the financing together, and we shot in ’04.

It must be an amazing story—the journey from script to screen, distribution with Kino. Can you give me the basics?

I was always into film, watching tons of them when I was younger. I was fifteen when I really buckled down and started working on the script. I thought, hey, in a year or two, we’ll be making the movie. I was actually working on it prior to that, but when I was fifteen, that’s when the bulk of it was written and it got finished. I kept tweaking it up until the last day of shooting though. When I was eighteen, we put the production company together, we started raising money. It took about three years to raise the money, and then we started filming in ’04. It was a fourteen day shoot, after all that prep and everything that’s happened since then. There was really no sleeping or eating. The sound mix was kind of a nightmare—that took a year and a half to finish the sound mix. We wanted it to be perfect. We started the festival submissions, and it took us a year, year and a half before we got into any festivals, just by submitting and re-submitting. How you position these things is important. We got to premiere in CineVegas, got a great review in Variety, and it’s played at twenty or so festivals since then. That went on for a couple years, and then we spent a solid year trying to get distributors to take a look at it. We came across Kino, they loved it and were willing to take the chance on it. They just released it in New York, and they’ve got a bunch of other release dates set up.

What’s next for you?

Yeah, I was going to mention that, I feel like I’ve been a bit slow with my answers because I’ve been heavily working on my next script. I just got back from Los Angeles, got signed up with an agency, and so I’m developing two projects. I’m going to do things on a little bit of a larger scale, but still the way I want to do them. Can’t really get into what they’re about, but they’re two projects, one script I’m almost finished with, and hopefully I can put out some more information on them soon. And then I have some more stuff lined up for after that, so I’m not going anywhere.

Which agency?

Creative Artists.

I’ve heard of them.

Ha. It’s funny, cause a lot of people around here, they call it CCA or whatever, they don’t know what it is or give a shit. I met with a lot of people out in Los Angeles, and to be honest, I was pretty impressed. I was not expecting to have a meaningful conversation with very many people out there, but they really got the film, they point out details that no one else has pointed out, had some really insightful things to say. Go figure. So I was pretty impressed with them, and I’m eager to see how it pans out. They know the kind of films I want to do, and they’re still interested, so I’m excited about it.

Zachary Wigon is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to writing and directing short films and contributing to The House Next Door, he also writes film criticism for The Auteurs’ Notebook.