Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Interview: David Spaltro brings Things I Don't Understand to the San Diego Film Festival
David Spaltro found me three years ago while Emulsion Compulsion was still alive and thriving. He had just finished work on his first feature, ...Around, and was looking for critics to review it.
At the time I criticized the picture for housing a few coincidences too many (a pet hate), while recognizing the New Jersey born filmmaker's ease at presenting "a handful of convincing, thoroughly believable characters while never once getting cloying or sentimental. ...Around is not content to be just another cynical romantic comedy. The film also tackles broader subjects like self worth, human dignity and the concept of home."
David and I have kept in touch -- mostly through hilarious Facebook exchanges -- and I will finally get to meet the man in the flesh when he brings his second film, Things I Don't Understand, to this years San Diego Film Festival. The film screens at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15 tomorrow night at 6pm.
"Out of all the films playing the festival," Spaltro says, "we're probably the smallest one there. They really liked us."
At a cost of $200,000, ...Around looked fifty times its budget. The cast and crew on Spaltro's followup spent one year prepping for a shoot that lasted only 20 days. "Believe it or not, we did Things for the same amount of money," Spaltro laughs. Technology makes it look better, but experience also helped to spurred Spaltro's decision making process.
It's a heavy-duty film that I am loathe to describe for fear that the subject matter may potentially turn away potential viewers. Those in search of multiplex wallpaper steer clear! Violet Kubelik (the dazzling Molly Ryman) is a suicidal, self-loathing grad student researching her thesis on what happens when we die. She and her roommates face eviction and the only man the promiscuous Violet can't bed is the one she desires the most, a bartender named Parker (Aaron Mathias). The icing on the cake is a series of bedside interviews Violet conducts with a cancer patient (Grace Folsom) set to check out at any minute.
Spaltro's greatest strength lies in his ability to draw natural, finely tuned performances out of his lead and background players. This marks his second collaboration with Molly Ryman, an actress we're sure to hear great things from. It's a harsh, at times plucky, and always grounded characterization that warrants your attention. I can't think of too many performances this year that can rival Ryman's candid bravura.
It's not as bleak as I'm making it sound. Spaltro's thoughts on the pitfalls of writing and directing a potential downer say it better than I ever could. I can't wait to finally meet you in person and shake your hand, David. Until then, here is a little enticement for those eager and curious to see something that soars above what passes for movies these days.
Scott Marks: This is a film that takes place from the point-of-view of an an angry, yet quick on her feet, suicidal grad student obsessed with death to the point she's interviewing a terminal cancer patient for her thesis on what happens when we croak. Don't you want to make money?
David Spaltro (Laughing): I do! I do! This film came out of the one you saw a few years ago. ...Around was a low-budget labor of love that started out as a kamikaze mission. Because of the people involved I decided that I just had to finish it. I really burned myself out.
I had these pages of a story I had started when I was still in film school, which is the stuff in the hospice. It was written during a dark, angry time. It was a cathartic exercise when I started writing it again a couple of years ago. I thought it was going to be a lot darker than it was. At the time it didn't have the ending or any of the lighter stuff. It helped me work a lot of stuff out. The film is really not as dark as it sounds. It's more about what life really is like in a relationship and how they change you and you ideas of faith.
If your are going to make your lead character a failure when it comes to taking her own life, you at least had the good sense to name her after one of cinema's truly great aborted suicides, Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder's The Apartment.
You get extra points for knowing that. The Apartment is probably my favorite film.
The Billy Wilder influence -- particularly in the first third of the film -- is obvious. Your dialog can be fast, acerbic, and very, very funny.
Billy Wilder is the ultimate. You could always tell it was his film, but at the same time he jumped genres. You always knew it was him; you could get his vibes through his characters and the way they spoke, but he was genre-less. That is kind of what I would like to do, too.
As the film progresses, you transition from Wilder to another classic source. Towards the end -- I won't reveal what happens -- the film takes a Capraesque turn. You obviously needed something to lighten the load. It's one of those films where I pretty much knew what was going to happen, but as with any good storyteller, your job is to make me want to see it through to the end.
I am a big fan of never really knowing what going to happen. Going back to Wilder and The Apartment, it's a very dark film but you never really know what's going to happen. It's very funny one minute and very cynical the next. People know what to expect, but maybe won't get it quite the way they were expecting.
That is what I hopefully was able to achieve in Thing I Don't Understand. The first film I did sort of ended in a more realistic, unexpected, downbeat manner. I always thought it was more optimistic, but this one has a feeling that everything worked out. Everybody is a little better off because they avoided the ultimate tragedy, but at the same time they have to see what happens next.
Both of your features star the remarkably talented Molly Ryman in the lead. Where did you meet up with her?
We found Molly when I was doing my first film. It was very non-union and very small-budget. We auditioned about 30 girls and she just came in. She was a little shy and she did a very good read. Molly is a very good actor, but at the time nothing stood out. We taped the auditions and a very good friend of mine commented on how good he thought Molly was.
One of the liabilities in seeing so many people is that you can miss stuff. We brought her in again and she crushed the callback. There is a really great energy about her and the more I got to know her and work with her over the past few years, she's really funny. She has a darker side and I think the problem is she's being typecast as the girl next door. And she is that in a lot of ways. She also has a lot of range and no one would give her that chance. When writing the film, I knew that I could play to her strengths while at the same time allowing her to flip it and let her do something she hasn't done before.
Making movies is a real labor of love for you. You bicycle your films across the country from festival to festival and what impressed me from the outset is your eagerness to get people to see your work.
We have been very fortunate to do well on the festival circuit and have great screenings in many beautiful places. The first festival we took it to in April was in Colorado. I wasn't expecting much. We had two very early screenings; one was at 9am the second at 11:30am. No film, especially this film, plays well at 9am. Only 6 people showed up for the first screening.
These people must have liked it so much that they must have told everybody else. Not only did they come back, they packed the place. We went from 6 people at a 9am screening, to a packed second screening, to winning and having a third audience screening. The film plays differently from festival to festival, but if that kind of word of mouth can happen in a place like Colorado Springs where nobody knows me...and we keep winning all these audience awards gives the film its momentum. There's a universal story here that people are responding to more so than any great filmmaking.
More like this:
- Interview with Bless Me, Ultima stars Luke Ganalon and Castulo Guerra — Feb. 22, 2013
- Interview with Starlet director and co-writer Sean Baker — Dec. 4, 2012
- Wim, Vigor, and Vitality: An Interview with Wim Wenders, Pt. 1 — Feb. 24, 2012
- 911 -- What's Your Emergency? — Aug. 1, 2009
- "It's nice that in a city like San Diego there are so many places I would send people to." — March 22, 2007