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SxSW 2017 Interview: A CRITICALLY ENDANGERED SPECIES' Magdalena Zyzak & Zachary Cotler

by Jason Whyte

"I'm far too immodest to pitch my own film. I can tell you what it's about, though! It's about Maya Dardel, an internationally respected poet/novelist, who, having announced on national public radio that she intends to kill herself, invites young male writers to compete, erotically and intellectually, to become her heir and the executor of her estate." Director Magdalena Zyzak on A CRITICALLY ENDAGERED SPECIES which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference. Magdalena is also joined by co-director Zachary Cotler.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past!

Magdalena: Back when I was in film school at USC, I produced and co-wrote an independent feature, REDLAND, with another student Asiel Norton who directed it. It was a depression era wilderness survival drama. I recently produced Asiel's second feature ORION, also a survival drama, this time set in post-apocalyptic urban surroundings. We shot in Detroit. Having survived all that and then having had a novel published, I decided I would like to transition to directing and make a film about writers.

Zachary, how did this project come together for you?

We had a piece of land in a remote location. We used to go there to work on our fiction and poetry books. Then in 2014 we left California. We were living in Venice in winter, in rubber boots; everyone in Venice in winter wears rubber boots, except climate change deniers, who walk on water. We thought, what if we invented a reclusive writer who lives on that piece of land in California way up above the ocean? So we wrote a script and sent it to Mike Ryan, who liked it and offered to produce it. We asked him to get it to Lena Olin, he did, she liked it, and we returned to California to shoot.

What keeps you going while making a movie?

Magdalena: Filmmaking is an adrenaline sport. Anxiety and espresso.

For you Zachary, what was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

It was my first feature film. The major challenge was to transcribe the patterns of thought I had developed over the years as a writer into the similar but radically reoriented patterns required to direct. One learns as a writer not to willfully construct, but to inhabit the tensions of a narrative and the motivations and contradictions in a character. Writing is the adult continuation of the games one played as a child, when no one was watching, unselfconscious immersion in imaginary spaces and personae. As a director, it turns out you must play these games with people you have never met. People are watching. The tensions, motivations, contradictions are the same, but you're there with an actor, this sudden new intimate in your life, whom you must trust, who must trust you. Two adults must play together like children, but this game is devoid of innocence, devoid even of the idea that childhood ever was innocent. Children are selfish, amoral, cunning; so are directors.

As a tech fan, I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how the visual design of A CRITICALLY ENDANGERED SPECIES came about.

Magdalena: We worked closely with our director of photography, Pat Scola. The film is very much about the power games people play with each other, with Maya being the author and ruthless arbiter of these games. We carefully chose our angles and framings to show her dominance over the young men. We created a very controlled cool color palette and used stately camera motion to visually order the potentially explosive emotions hidden under Maya's behaviors.

The film also mourns the demise of literary arts. Nowadays images are expected to be sharp, captured in HD. In a way the clearer we see things, the further we remove ourselves from more sophisticated modes of visual representation. Maya belongs to the generation for whom it was still fine not to see as much, a time when ambiguity was not only allowed, but welcome. We used diffusion like haze and filters and shot at dawn and dusk.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

Zachary: Meeting unusual people. We need a steady supply of those.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Zachary: We would like to premiere in Europe next. We live in London, maybe in the UK somewhere. Our Polish producers are looking into a Polish premiere.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive at a movie screening?

Zachary: Evidently, that person has already been punished enough.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Magdalena: As a filmmaker, you should decide upfront if you want to do business or make art. It's a sometimes subtle, but nevertheless heavy distinction, and poor films are often made when filmmakers try to satisfy too many audiences at once. Make that decision, be certain of it, and you won't need to define the difference. Your choices will define the difference.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Magdalena: A contemporary film I recently enjoyed was CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER by Brady Corbet.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/08/17 09:45:53
last updated: 03/15/17 03:37:47
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