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Friday, June 22, 2012

An Interview with Dan Sallitt, director of The Unspeakable Act

Dan Sallitt filming The Unspeakable Act.
Photo by Jaime Christley 
The Unspeakable Act screens at BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 24 at 9:30pm. A Q&A with Dan Sallitt, Sky Hirschkron, Tallie Medel, and others follows the screening.

You’re a Brooklyn-based filmmaker as well as a dedicated cinephile. Can you tell me a little bit about what the Brooklyn filmmaking scene is like and how that impacted the making of your film? Do you feel like you’re a part of the Brooklyn film community? Do you think there is a Brooklyn film renaissance? 

I’m feeling the local film-going community a little more now at this stage because people are interested in the fact that the film is shot in Brooklyn and has almost a small town look—the look of Ditmas Park and Midwood, and that community especially seems to be very interested in it. Now about the Brooklyn filmmaking scene—you’re asking a hard one because traditionally filmmakers in the old days before the internet would be a little more solitary than they had to be, and these days it’s not that way at all. Now [the filmmaking scene] is cross-country and even international because people meet at festivals where they don’t all come from the same place. I do feel as if now I’m part of a filmmaking group and I really like it—there are some really nice, interested, and talented people. I don’t know how many of them are Brooklyn people—I know a few, for instance Sophia Takal and Larry Levine who did Green and Gabi on the Roof in July, respectively. I could probably think of some others, but the localness doesn’t seem as important in this day and age when the internet and the festival circuit are connecting people.

Your film is full of recognizable Brooklyn locations—Prospect Park especially, and even the pizza was from Di Fara’s. Do you feel like the locations are important to your film? Did you go through the process of obtaining permits and if so, what was that like?

There are two levels to that question—the first question is where you wind up shooting and the second level is what you do once you get there. I actually think I conceived my film for a small town in Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up. When I found a location in Brooklyn, it was important for me (and a lot of fun) to localize it in the way that you’re talking about, to root it as much as I could in stuff that goes on here, and to put in as many things that I could that were real—so the walk she takes to the school at the end is really the walk from her house. I wanted the geography of Ditmas Park and Midwood to be respected as much as I could. There’s one place that I couldn’t do it perfectly because of construction and it really kills me, still! But I used the real Decemberists concert in Prospect Park in the movie, and when she names the schools in the neighborhood, I made sure they were the correct schools.

If you shoot somewhere like Prospect Park, it’s out of the question not to have a permit. You can’t get in, and you will get rousted immediately if you try. Once you have a city permit you might as well use it. When I shot in Pennsylvania for my last film, I didn’t get permits nor did I feel like I particularly needed them or that anyone cared very much. But in all the scenes where I did location shooting in New York, I had a permit. Maybe some people are chaos-loving and don’t mind going out not knowing if there’re going to be busted or not, but I’m not that way. I did actually wind up shooting unpermitted in Fort Greene Park—we kind of took a chance because no one answered my request for permission, and it turned out that was ok. But on the whole we were law-abiding.

How was your film funded?

It was funded by me, period.

Do you mind revealing the budget?

The expenses were around $50,000

How did you go about casting your film?

The casting was word of mouth and catch-as-catch can. I didn’t use a casting director, and it’s really hard casting your own film, at least it is for me, because I’ve got my own taste in actors and I’ve always felt like I’ve wanted more time, and this time I kind of took it. I started just by asking people I knew, and it’s the first I’ve ever had teenage characters. Some came through friends, some were on casting sites, some were in plays, and some were in friends' films. I took my good-natured time, and I just met with people, from September through December. Starting in January, I started asking them to come to my apartment to read, and I asked them to bring someone of the opposite sex to read through the brother/sister scenes. Sometimes I cast people who were brought along like that. It was a really long process and frankly I don’t think I could shorten it any. Casting is really important and really hard for an indie don’t have the money to commit people far in advance.

I read an interview with your lead actess Tallie Medel—who is astounding by the way—who actually comes from an improv background. Can you tell me how you think that affected the character, especially in such a serious film?

I tried to make it serious on the core and light on the surface. And she’s a comedienne, she’s part of a comedy dance troupe called Cocoon Central and three of the actresses in the film are part of this troupe. She as an actress is really different from anyone I’ve worked with, and I really liked working with her. I’m used to more Method-y and traditional actors—the people I’ve really loved working with in the past tend to really inhabit roles. It wasn’t that way with Tallie. She prefers not to go all the way down, to take elements and integrate them in a horizontal way. She takes stage directions and all the clues and adjusts plausibly within those parameters. She doesn’t worry about the spine of the character, and it really works for me. Reality is more inchoate and unconnected than we want psychology to be, and it was really nice to have an actress who was willing to let different modes collide.

I also read that you told her to resist psychologizing the characters, so that the main character could remain mysterious—perhaps to herself and perhaps also to the viewer. This is interesting because a lot of the movie takes place in a psychiatrist’s office. Were you aware of that tension when you were scripting the scenes and did you try to draw it out in filming?

Really, I think that being in a psychiatrist’s office lends itself to mystery very well! Things aren’t always explained. What you’ve got is one person sitting there, maybe trying to hide, and maybe not even knowing what’s going on in their own head, so you’ve got a great situation for mystery and not learning things. Even when Jackie would learn something in the therapist’s office, it didn’t lead anywhere…there was one little revelation I put in, it wasn’t a red herring exactly but it wasn’t going to solve anything, it wasn’t going to be the key to anything. She learns some stuff, but she doesn’t really change...I tried to use those scenes as a way of enhancing her mystery.

Was her revelation when she realizes that her desire for her brother is narcissistic?

Yes, that’s the one—and it’s a little revelation that’s not going to fix anything. I’m very much a Freudian, and not in the sense that I feel Freudian therapy is necessarily effective; I’m not convinced of that. But it’s also a vision of people, a vision that was actually incredibly useful and influential to me—kind of devastating and destroying everything in its path, but making everything make so much more sense to me. I can’t possibly go along with the feeling that Freud is outdated. I think a lot of people just grabbed on to a few things that seemed offensive to them at certain times, and I don’t know if those things are necessarily my favorite aspects of Freud. But the idea of Freud just being an agent of conservatism just seems so wrong to me. He was a bomb-thrower. He was someone who really knew that he was getting in people’s faces, and kind of liked it.

By the way, even though I do consider myself a Freudian, I did not try to make a psychologically plausible person. In fact, I tried to make someone that resisted all attempts at psychology... I think it’s very possible that on some deep-down level, she’s not a real person. I wanted her to be bizarre and fantastic, but plausible on the surface. I wanted people to not be able to put that character together. I think that it’s reasonable to assume that her situation is one of her projecting herself outward onto her brother and she has resisted that jump that most people make to finding her other...It’s a reasonable assumption to make. But that realization doesn’t really help her; it doesn’t really change her.

The film is dedicated to Rohmer—which seems appropriate, given the coming of age theme and sexualized subject matter. Can you describe what about Rohmer you were trying to emulate? Have you read any of his writings on film and were you thinking about those when you were writing and filming?

He’s one of the great film writers... I wouldn’t say critic; I would really say theorist. He’s Bazin’s greatest ally and disciple. For me, Rohmer is the one filmmaker that I’ve ever felt like I’ve wanted to take his style and use it, the only person that I’ve ever felt is really an influence on me. From the first time I saw his films, I felt that that was very close to the way I wanted to make movies. Frankly I think that with this subject matter, he might not have chosen to do it the way that I’ve done it. He seems to prefer to explore that gap between people’s self-concept and the complexity of reality that seems too big for them to comprehend. That seems to be his abiding theme, and that’s not really what I was doing. I am more influenced by the way he looks at the world, the way he photographs the world, the balance he strikes between documentary elements and fiction, the suppleness of his editing style and the way it lets him go back and forth between dramatic values and the surrounding environment. He’s a huge influence on me, and I think he’s kind of like the next step after Murnau and Rossellini. It seems strange to say that, because people think of him as a dialogue director, some people don’t even think he’s a good visual director, but I think he pulled all that stuff together into his own vision. I think he’s a really important visual filmmaker. Visual is not the right word, because I think vision and sound make one thing for him, and I think he would have said that. This said, I dedicated the film to him because he died just a little bit before and because he means so much to me.

Besides Rohmer, who would say your biggest influences are?

He stands out in terms of style, but there are an awful lot of filmmakers that mean a lot to me. I think Sternberg is somebody—and obviously this is a film where you would not recognize Sternberg—but Sternberg’s attitude towards what you can see in people, and what you do see in people and his enhancement of the gap between the surfaces and what people possibly can be thinking is something that means a lot to me and something that I have in the back of my mind. I think that the really precise filmmakers, like Hitchcock and Ozu have appealed to me. I would not say that I’m anything like Hitchcock—no one’s like Hitchcock, he’s great but no one’s like him. I think the way these people film, with a very exact sense of where the cuts should go, where the frames should go is something that appeals to me.

Do you storyboard?

Yes, I do. I storyboard and do a cutting continuity, which means basically that the film is cut before it starts. Now obviously anyone who edits will tell you that that’s nonsense and it is in a way, because you have to do a lot of adjustments to make the scenes work. But if you look at my storyboard, you’ll find the film there.

Did you have any direct inspirations for the story?

I always start with an idea that is more metaphysical or romantic—I want to start with something big, and bold, and unbelievable, and then scale it down. In retrospect when it was all over, I feel like Jackie reminds me of some Sartre heroes who have their own kind of moral code and the universe is against them. Jackie never seriously questions this vision which is totally not the vision of society. That’s exciting, and heroic, and to have that under the surface gratifies me.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

Pre-production is horrible, and the biggest challenge. It’s not something that one person should be doing, and it’s really hard to delegate and get people to help you. It’s the time when you realize that you have to coordinate a million different things so that they all happen at the same time. The magnitude of the task overwhelms me. There are some creative things there, like the casting. Shooting, if you’ve done the pre-production work, is not too bad. You’ve got people whose job it is to support you, you’ve got a community that can be very loving—in this case a very supportive cast and crew. Post-production, in these days in the digital era, is just pure fun. Now you just go onto your computer and edit it in your underwear if you want to, and it comes out of the computer ready. It makes you feel like an artist when you’re done.

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