Monday, March 3, 2008

Around The Bay: an interview with Alejandro Adams


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Last Friday I had my first experience attending Cinequest in San Jose. Once I'd survived the transportation logistics of getting down there from the second-most populous city on Frisco Bay, I had a great time. Srdjan Golubovic's the Trap wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be, but everything connected to the experience (the presentation, the helpful volunteers, etc.) was very smooth. In the evening I finally sampled the restored California Theatre (no current connection to the Berkeley Landmark) for a screening of the Ozu masterpiece I Was Born, But... with Jim Riggs behind the organ controls. What a great theatre to experience silent cinema in! What a shame it's so rarely utilized for such. Cinequest is bringing Eisenstein's October and organist Dennis James next Friday night, and if I weren't already so mentally committed to attend the Peter Bogdanovich/Cybil Shepherd in-person tribute at the Castro that weekend I'd surely head down the peninsula for seconds. Who knows how soon another opportunity will pop up again?

Another Cinequest film worth going out of one's way to see is the first feature by local cinephile Alejandro Adams, Around the Bay. Michael Guillén has eloquently summarized the reaction to this confident debut in advance of its world premiere screening this past Saturday. The film plays twice more at the festival: Tuesday, March 4th at the Camera 12 and Saturday, March 8th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. Adams showed me a version of Around the Bay last fall, and though skeptical going in I became quite taken with the film. When bumping into the director at the recent Terence Davies series at the Pacific Film Archive, I proposed interviewing him over e-mail. The resulting conversation follows:

Hell on Frisco Bay: Alejandro, I first became aware of you through your writing and editing the website, where you assembled an impressive collection of essays, interviews, and other documents, primarily concerning new motion picture technologies. What is the relationship for you between writing about filmmaking and doing it?

Alejandro Adams: I have an ongoing debate with a friend about the notion of the artist who writes about art and also perpetrates it. He feels that if you're a sworn visual artist, you have to give up talking about it. I feel that talking about it is part of doing it. However, if you're hyperverbal, as I am, you can describe an idea for a novel in conversation and deflate your urge to write it. Or you can upstage your own film by doing an interview in which you reveal all the motivations behind every technique. I think there's so much in this film that I can talk about what I did intentionally and still allow people to have their own experience. In an interview I did with two critics a few days ago, I explained the title of this film, and within minutes after I explained it, they both talked about what the title meant to them--very valid, personal interpretations which I would never refute. And I think Around the Bay has the capacity to allow people into it, allow people room to enter it and move around freely.

But, yes, it's potentially dangerous to write about film and simultaneously make films. I think Bresson's little book is a great example of how to do it right. Very internalized, very process-oriented, not critical of specific films he hates in the world, but with every breath he answers those films to which he so vehemently objects. On many levels Around the Bay refutes those films to which I vehemently object, and that's something I would never do as well in writing.

HoFB: Well, thank you for taking time out of your busy premiere week to risk upstaging your film! I don't think what we discuss here will get in the way of audiences' experiences with Around the Bay.

I. Working With Actors

HoFB: Many ultra-low budget films feel to me like a wasted opportunity to serve as a window onto a kind of realism that the mechanics of Hollywood just can't reach. Wasted, I say, because so often actors seem to want to provide elaborate performances that overshadow the material and the setting of the film they're in. The actors in Around the Bay almost completely avoid this.

AA: I know exactly what you mean, and I agree, but you have me chuckling because there is a really flamboyant, overshadowing performance at the center of this movie. Five-year-old Connor Maselli gives a totally over-the-top take-no-prisoners performance that probably constitutes the only sensationalism to be found in this film, since there's no sex, no music, maybe two instances of profanity, and no violence, except for this kid's unique brand of terrorism--and there, I've said it, for those who want to see the political metaphors, which are as valid and present as anything else.

HoFB: The Noah character isn't what I usually think of as "sensationalism." Though he certainly operates at a different energy level from the other characters, it's very much in tune with and in service to the film.

AA: I should mop up a bit and confess that I tally instances of sensationalism in this film because to me sensationalism is anathema to storytelling. Sensationalism is melodrama. Sensationalism is gimmickry. To me, sex scenes and music are the same thing, a way to remove responsibility from the director to carry a character or plot forward without smoke and mirrors. Now, there are whole films built around sex which are perfect, or books like James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, which simply IS sex, and that's one of my favorite books. So this isn't puritanism I'm talking about, but a different kind of purity, a relentless character-making storytelling purity where the director is allowed no recess, no smoke break. There are no ambient shots in the film, no shots of trees or sky or water that aren't organically connected to a person. Ambient mood shots are like stuffing, like music, also a way of taking a break from the people who populate a film. I'm not saying I dislike Terrence Malick--in fact, he may be my favorite director--but for this film, I put a lot of that stuff in and just saw pretentiousness and bloatedness and a lack of rigor and vision. A diffusion of purpose.

HoFB: How does a first-time filmmaker find actors so willing and able to reign in the instinct to be larger-than-life in their characterizations?

AA: Think of how the contrast between Connor and the adult cast makes the courage of their quietness, their understatedness that much more palpable. If I were an actor, my insecurities would probably have driven me to over-act in order to compete. But here I think we see the opposite: restraint. I cast the movie very instinctively, having seen very few actors, knowing more or less before auditioning someone if I was going to cast them. Everything that happened between me and the cast happened at the casting stage. I couldn't have made the wrong actors into the right ones. That sounds hokey, but it's true. About actors wanting to be larger than life--well, the key roles were filled with actors who had no such inclinations. But even though I wanted that mutedness and pursued it and nourished it, the movie needed some contrast, and that's there too, I think. Some "bigger" acting in a few places, which serves to emphasize the general understatedness of the acting overall. You know, the exception proves the rule.

HoFB: I don't mean to imply that these performances are inert, or that the characters resemble inscrutable Bressonian figures. Daisy and Wyatt are selective about verbalizing their true thoughts and feelings but they're expressive nonetheless.

AA: I'm not sure everyone would agree that Steve Voldseth, who plays Wyatt, is expressive. I had a little flurry of debate with Phillip Lopate on this point. He had a very strong reaction to the Wyatt character, more or less took a flame-thrower to him, and Mort Marcus, when he talked to me on Cinema Scene, said he was yelling at the screen and called Wyatt one of "the most emotionless men ever to come to the screen." As far as I'm concerned, Wyatt expresses anxiety in the scenes in his car, which is his sanctuary, and I think if you look carefully you can almost see him making decisions there--right before the third act begins, for example. My wife says, "I only trust Wyatt when he's in his car," referring to the fact that he's too composed, smug, distant, dissimulating, manipulative when there are people around. The car scenes are vital to me because whether the viewer is aware of it or not, that's where this character graduates to a full-fledged human being. There have to be moments in which the viewer is allowed NOT to hate this guy, and it has to be done incrementally and subtly, with pinches of development rather than heaping tablespoons. Showing him in the car, though it's exclusively from behind--another distancing device--is a way of permitting the viewer to see him in his most intimate moments, as if he's in confession.

HoFB: What astonished me most about Conor Maselli's performance as Noah was just how un-"actorly", how unprecocious he came off. That is to say, he felt like a real kid. Can you talk a little bit about working with this actor? What's the difference for a five-year-old between acting in a film and "playing pretend"?

AA: We did a scene at the audition--totally improvised--in which he played scrabble with a Daisy and a Wyatt. He couldn't even read, didn't understand the game. The point was for the Wyatt and Daisy auditioners to use him as a pawn in some little competition they were having, to test the kid's loyalty, to see which of them he trusted. So they were saying "Put those letters together in the middle of the board" or whatever, and finally he just snapped and said, "Where!? What are you talking about!?" He wasn't aware of the harsh lights, the cameras, or me hovering over the whole thing. He didn't look at his mother in the audience. He was really in that moment, trying to play that game, and annoyed with these two people badgering him. He was already Noah. And the funny thing is that the two actors in that scene who were doing the Wyatt and Daisy roles were the ones who got the parts, too.

During production Connor would find his mother and say, "Please call me Connor. I want to hear my name." That will tell you how much acting was going on. Near the end of the production he called me into the back seat of his mom's van and said, "Can you give me more direction next time?" I think he wanted less responsibility for creating this character. He wanted someone he could blame it on. It's not that easy, just ask Steve Voldseth.

Another thing to point out is something else Mort Marcus said to me. We were talking about the distinction between a "child actor" and a kid just being a kid. He made the point that acting is creating something. If we'd had an unimaginative kid playing Noah, there would have been no material. If acting is creating a role, and improvisation is creating material, then there is no way to make this distinction. It's a semantic convenience. It robs something from Connor, something from me as director, and something from the gestalt chemistry of the cast if we say, "No, he was just running wild, he wasn't conscious of playing a role, and I hardly ever told him what to do." The same goes for him as for the adult actors--is it any different when Steve is driving or Connor is kicking in the pool? A camera is on and they have no lines and they're doing something they would do in reality, without the cocoon of a fictional character. Can we really make distinctions between what is so-called acting and what isn't, if the camera captures it?

II. Writing For the Screen

HoFB: Around the Bay is about a family. So are many highly successful films; I think it's because the family is the most interesting, and probably the most psychologically and politically important social grouping humans have. How did you come to make a film about this particular family?

AA: The short answer is that this is in no way autobiographical in the traditional sense. In autobiography we don't find stories, we find justification and condemnation posited as narrative, as a narrativity of experience, an often falsified description of how we became who we are--and, again, all that can result from that exercise is justification and condemnation, and I'm not sure that has value even therapeutically. I'm often irritated by openly autobiographical films and writing.

I've been a writer of novels and short stories--none published--for fifteen years. This particular story--of the young woman who comes to stay with her estranged father and helps care for her half-brother--was a story I tried to write intermittently for a year or so before giving up. I couldn't "see" the father character. He was much worse, much less sympathetic. I couldn't come to terms with this guy, but I had created him and in some way I needed to know him. I'm starting to sound like I have a Romantic view of the artist, which really isn't true at all. I've never felt particularly mystical about writing, but in this case it was just an unusual impediment, something I'd never faced. When I had a chance to make a feature it made sense to me to bring this vital, nagging story to the screen and see if I could meet this guy and get rid of him.

HoFB: There is a touch of melodrama in the set-up for Around the Bay once put into words: Wyatt loses his job and his girlfriend at the same time, and then he reunites with his long-lost daughter. However, the way you've presented all of this makes it feel less like plot than something intrinsic to his character; he's just the sort of guy who would have his life fall apart all at once.

AA: I think when you tell a real story, when you care about dramaturgy, you're going to be accused at some point of tending toward melodrama. I think there's a lot of vitality in Around the Bay. I think there's a lot of apparent randomness, a kind of restless energy that suggests there's no real narrative force behind it, that the chaos within the family at the center of the story is a reflection of chaos behind the camera. That feeling is erroneous. The dramaturgy is so sound, in fact, that the three-act structure is as transparent as in any Hollywood film. And I'm proud of that. I think low-budget indie films have been trying to avoid telling real stories, and I don't know why. Probably because if you have a kick-off like a guy losing his job and being dumped by his girlfriend, it feels melodramatic. But you've pointed out that the character is strong enough to withstand the plot I've burdened him with, so I think you're seeing the compromise I've struck between the bare necessities of an engaging plot and characters so dense that we can argue about their motivations and read emotions or sensations into their gaze. I wouldn't want to trade one of those things for the other.

HoFB: How much back-story did you write for each of these characters?

AA: Back-story was mostly left to the actors themselves. I would have been implicitly assigning motivation if I'd worked out too much back-story in advance, and that would have thwarted the complexity of what we were trying to do. I should mention that the short story I was trying to write was told in this same remote, non-psychologizing style, where none of the characters had a traditional point of view. I was reading a John Updike piece recently in which he talked about the New Novel of the sixties--Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet--and used the phrase "deadpan facticity." That's what the story had and that's the tone of this film, though the distancing devices in prose and cinema are totally different. It's almost impossible to prevent people from identification with characters represented cinematically, because of the syntax that's been created to facilitate identification--I'm headed toward Kracauer here, I think--whereas in prose you have to work to encourage identification. So you see things in Around the Bay that might not necessarily be revolutionary but that are used in ways we don't often see because very rarely is a film trying to modulate audience identification among three characters. Maybe there are three plotlines, and we care about someone in each plotline, but three characters constantly interacting with one another, where none is given the upper hand or the privilege of being the exclusive protagonist--that's much less common.

III. Technique and Distance

HoFB: Your film is filled with unexpectedly effective techniques such as blackouts and jump cuts. One would think these would be distracting but for me they helped to convey the characters' mental and emotional state and even tell the story. Were these techniques written into the script, or developed in the shooting or editing processes?

AA: Again, you're addressing something that's being modulated pretty carefully. I'm really glad to hear it works for you because it's risky to bring conspicuous technique--in this case, distancing devices--into something in which the characters are meant to be dense and real, not simulacra, not puppets of the plot. Not that I dislike Alain Resnais, but you can see where he's making the choice in Last Year in Marienbad to be totally impressionistic at the expense of presenting us with workable human beings. Around the Bay is elliptical and impressionistic by nature, and not all of those elements are distancing devices. A while back you told me that you recognized the practical function of the blackouts on a second viewing, but on a first viewing it had seemed like nothing more than empty technique--form over function. But you said you'd realized that they were used to convey specific information. I'm not sure everyone's going to get that, and I suspect there will be plenty of people who think it's just "experimental" for no apparent reason.

HoFB: Certain flourishes reminded me that great cinema can (must?) weave depictions of the actual with the imagined, hoped, feared, etc. Can you speak to your unusual approach to presenting dialogue?

AA: There are ways the sound is used in this film that might seem like aesthetic self-indulgence, but if you pay attention to the scenes in which those devices are employed, you may see a subtext of a sort of non-immediacy of experience, a shorthand for conveying a relationship in which the people seem to be communicating but aren't. On the other hand, sometimes certain words or phrases that are laid over the picture are made to coincide with specific gestures which reflect an immediacy of experience, of emotion--watch Daisy for instance. With Wyatt and Noreen, we hear hollow, repetitive dialogue, truisms about responsibility, and their scenes don't conclude. They are profoundly inconclusive, though not particularly vague. All the inconclusiveness was meticulously sewn in, as was the general, going-nowhere quality of the dialogue.

HoFB: Regarding distancing devices, as I suggested in my reaction piece (not for the spoiler-wary), I felt more distanced by the milieu- the fancy compound and the accoutrements of high-stakes Silicon Valley living. Technical devices were distancing insofar as they served to emphasize the barriers characters created out of the materials around them. Could I ever relate to Daisy's discomfort during the scene in which Noreen cooks her an omelette! But then, I related to different characters at different moments in the film (perhaps this is why I found Wyatt's gestures and physical cues expressive.) How does the film stylistically allow space for viewers to project and empathize at different points in the film?

AA: Distancing doesn't always have to be a matter of conspicuous technique. It can be a normal shot held too long or something done from a slightly different angle, which isn't particularly noticeable but is felt viscerally. I can talk about the omelette scene, since you brought it up. You certainly should feel for Daisy in that scene, but look at the last couple of shots and how they're constructed. A close-up of Noreen's hands washing dishes--when was the last time we saw Daisy helping with domestic labor?--and then Daisy eating this extravagant breakfast, as she calls it, and watch the shot of Daisy. Nothing unconventional, but think about how long it's held and compare that to the average shot length in the rest of the movie. After sympathizing with her, we see her stare disdainfully at the woman for whom domesticity is innate--staring, sizing up, chewing, staring, sizing up, chewing. I get a little creeped out by that shot because there's an unfamiliar quality in Daisy's eyes there, something like scorn rather than defensiveness, and maybe that's why it holds so much extra meaning and fascination for me. Noreen may be a textbook interloper in terms of plot, but things aren't that cut and dried. Which is the more idealistic response to the possible family combinations put before us--the Wyatt/Noreen/Noah model in which the kid has a functional mother figure who strives to hold father and son together, or the Wyatt/Daisy/Noah model in which a man tries to reconnect with his forgotten daughter but in execution it's essentially every man for himself? Isn't the best scenario the one in which Wyatt had never called Daisy in the first place? Don't we kind of wish for that on some level at the end?

IV. The Cinema Experience

HoFB: What was it like to finally see your film up there on the big screen?

AA: To be honest, I had very low expectations for our transfer from standard definition to HD, and I'd warned people involved in the production that the projection wasn't going to do it justice. But there it was stretched across that 40-foot screen, and it looked great in terms of resolution, way better than it had any right to look. And sound is at least as important as image in this case, so I have to point out that those inexorable or relentless sounds which are devised to toy with the senses literally felt like they were coming up through the floor, through the seats. I mean, those are the moments of "bigness" or grandiosity, when crickets are screaming at the top of their lungs, when CalTrain is at full speed, dozens of glasses and forks striking tables and plates to wash out the smallness of the human voices, the smallness of these lives. I was able to feel all of that for the first time, viscerally.

But most importantly, the whole movie played well for the audience on a screen that big, with massive sound, which surprised me. I considered this an intimate story, a film for an audience of one, but they proved that it could be consumed at the theatrical level. Even in the silent passages, which I expected to make people really uncomfortable and fidgety, they were rapt. With a sell-out crowd of 500, we had only seven walkouts. I told them afterward I was disappointed that we had only seven walkouts, that I was hoping about half the crowd would walk out--that way I could call myself a misunderstood genius. And I know it wasn't aloof politeness that kept them in their seats because they reacted very audibly to certain scenes. And the sensitivity and vehemence of the questions afterward--no one can fake that level of investment. Very perceptive, very in-tune. For a movie this oblique to register so deeply with a sell-out crowd, people coming and going, that is baffling to me. If you make something that you assume will alienate and frustrate everyone, and instead they're electrified--well, that just makes me want to stop talking about the movie in such proprietary terms because it's not mine anymore. It's theirs. It's kind of heartbreaking to say that because I made this movie for myself, in every possible sense. But now it's one against 500, and they've staked their claim. It's time for me to disappear.

HoFB: Once again, thanks for being willing to talk about your film here, Alejandro! I look forward to following how Around the Bay fares now that its journey onto festival screens has been launched.

Around the Bay plays at Cinequest in San Jose twice more: March 4th and March 8th.