Well, I grew up writing short stories, and I attempted my first novel when I was ten and my second novel when I was fourteen, so I came at it from a story perspective at first. The novel was about a giant snail attacking a town, so it could have been a Troma film or maybe a Michael Bay film. (Laughs) At a certain point, I noticed I was seeing a lot more movies than reading books, and spending all my time alone in a room in front of a keyboard writing was not the life that I wanted. I took a summer crash course in filmmaking at NYU and shot some shorts, but it took a long time for me to move away from the writing to a point where I considered myself a director.
Well, some were films – everything from Monty Python movies to Taxi Driver. There seemed to be a common theme of comedy and tragedy and also a strong influence of music. When I was making Helicopter the bigger influence than film was Bjork, not that you could tell by watching the film, but in her charisma and the way that her music was shape-shifting made me feel that I could make Helicopter.
Helicopter came out of the frustration of trying to write a more conventional short for my film class and realizing it wasn’t coming out of me. I thought let me just sit down and write and try a different approach and see what happens. I wrote for two hours and that two hour burst of energy contained all the elements of the final film. I wrote animation sequences, references to doc footage, scale models and actors, but I had absolutely no idea how I was going to execute what was on the page. The best way to create is without worrying how you are going to do it. It’s funny. Those first two hours were all about the story and the next two years were figuring out how to execute it. (Laughs)
The film is about coping with death and particularly the shock of a sudden death. So, I wanted the film to capture what it felt like for me, since its an autobiographical film about my mother’s death in a helicopter crash. I wanted the film to capture what it felt like inside the brain of someone trying to cope with that. In that sense it’s very specific to my experience in that a helicopter crash is unusual, and my mother was dating a rock music promoter, so that also added a whole other element of strangeness to me. I know other people who have dealt with loss and the movie speaks to that experience of trying to reconcile the impossibility of somebody you love not existing and coping with the reality that they don’t exist anymore. The movie wraps all the specifics into it – a big rock music death, a big news death, and all the other specifics I had to deal with when I was trying to remember who my mother was.
Well, I didn’t premeditate that. I have always been interested in comedy and ridiculous things, but anyone who has dealt with death knows that humor becomes a big part of a way to cope. I don’t mean that as an insult to humor. I mean that it’s a wonderful thing that people can crack jokes at a funeral. The idea that when you are in mourning and you’re in a state of grief for twenty-four seven is bullshit. Humor was in the story from the moment I wrote it, but then I had to figure out the balance of seriousness and absurdity in the editing process.
I shot the scenes with the actors for two or three days. I had considered casting the movie with me, my brother, and sister all playing ourselves, but my brother was reluctant to do that. And then I had a weird idea of playing my brother myself, because we are identical twins (laughs), but that just seemed like it was going to be too complicated. I decided to use people we knew to play us which gave the film a kind of TV reenactment quality, which I think creates a little bit of a healthy distance between the viewer and the material.
One of the lessons I think was that I see the editorial process as a writing process. When I showed the first cut of the movie to most of my teachers, my friends, everyone who had been involved in the movie, and some filmmakers they said that it was a sweet thing that I had done for my family and should give up. I got a pat on the back from everyone, and that was it. It was this pit-bull intensity of trying everything in the editing room that lead me to make a movie that really connected to a lot of people and toured to 100 film festivals and won awards. This was inconceivable to see early on, because everyone was considering the movie a failure. That was the biggest lesson, if you know the intention of what you are doing there is often a solution to be found, but it may not be what you think.
Well, it was certainly a validation. It felt good to have the movie that I had worked on for so long and one that meant so much to me and which was basically rejected by everyone around me (laughs) start suddenly winning prizes all over the world, even an Oscar and all that. In terms of my career, I don’t know that it really did anything. Maybe I didn’t know how to capitalize on it correctly. The hype machine is fast and I got a few phone calls from agents who then didn’t return my phone calls once I said, “Yes, I would like to work with you.” It was very much a Hollywood type experience where you think all of a sudden all the doors are going to open, but it didn’t necessarily happen.
The only thing that I think matters is tenacity. Some people have luck where they get the phone call for a big movie or a big TV show. Unless you are an extremely lucky person the only thing that matters is to keep turning over every rock creatively. My policy has been to say yes to every idea that comes into my head and yes to every offer that comes in front of me and to at least investigate it and see what happens. It takes real stamina and it’s not a glamorous profession, at least in my experience. It’s been a lot of struggle. I have written twelve screenplays and have shot two features so far, so you can’t take it personally, and you have to keep moving forward.
The biggest change for short films is that the Internet has become such a showcase for people, and that wasn’t true when I made Helicopter. There were companies trying to figure out how to make money showing short films on the Internet, but that didn’t happen. It’s tough for me to know. The Sundance model went through years where people thought it would collapse, because no one was buying independent movies or companies were spending ridiculously low sums of money on them, and in the last couple of years companies have been spending more money on indie movies again. This is going to happen in an industry where companies are struggling for market share with people’s eyeballs. You don’t have that sense of excitement with indie films as you used to. Now an indie film comes out in a few theaters for a few weeks, and that’s about it. I think we are in a period of transition and confusion.
I think what’s changed is that filmmakers can make movies more cheaply now using the new video technologies, and that’s great from the point of view of someone having an idea and wanting to make it, but there are so many features getting made, and I am not sure they are getting any better. There are just a lot more of them.
The main thing is to say yes to every idea and every potential opportunity that comes your way. I think I had big ideas on what I should be doing early on, and maybe that stood in the way of me actually doing anything. It took me a while to realize that if you think you are the type of director that just does one thing you are really going to limit yourself. I shot a children’s TV show, music videos, my first feature was a ridiculous comedy, and my second feature is a drama. I feel that the world is going to try and limit you anyway and define what you are. Your job is to not let that happen. Stories are stories, so don’t define yourself with one thing, because at the time that genre might not be you, but it could be it’s just that it’s not you yet. (Laughs)
Well, it’s definitely not necessary, because plenty of great filmmakers have not gone to film school, and plenty of terrible filmmakers have gone to film school. I would be arrogant to say I didn’t learn anything at film school. Maybe some things I learned were partially based on my opposition to fight the school to make Helicopter and how the school, for the most part, was completely unsupportive. My directing teacher told me the film I was making was not a movie, and that it was bullshit. (Laughs) Those were his words. Learning to overcome those obstacles was part of the learning process. The school didn’t intend that to be the way to teach me, but that’s how I learned. (Laughs)
Editing my second feature film is my main focus now. I am almost finished with the editing process. Once the film is done, I have two or three different film projects I want to get made, and I feel I want to follow those opportunities. One of the movies is set in Germany, so if I can get German funding I can shoot for that. I have another action adventure script that is set in LA, so if I can get a studio interested in that I can see doing that next. I am just creating opportunities for myself and seeing which one is the least full of shit.
That’s a really hard question to answer. The best comedy for me feels soulful, and I can’t explain why comedy is soulful or what comedy goes deep into your heart. My favorite comedy brings the sublime and the ridiculous together, and so in the comedy that I have directed that is what I have tried to do. That works for some people and doesn’t work for other people. I am not a fan of raunch as comedy, because I feel like that’s often just shocking people as a way of making them laugh, which has a place and works but doesn’t really interest me that much. The ridiculousness of our existence to me is philosophically profound, and that for me is why absurdity can be so beautiful, because it points to the challenge of existence itself. That is the kind of comedy I like.
Babe, Nashville, Repo Man and Sleeper.
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi directed by Aditya Chopra.
San Francisco, CA
Writer / Director