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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Apart from That' Directors Jennifer Shainin & Randy Walker

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Apart from That' Pitch: A Native American road striper, a student beautician, a Vietnamese banker, his adopted son and an elderly exhibitionist attempt to find their footing in a world of miscommunication and unmet expectations.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
Jennifer Shainin: No veterans here.
Randy Walker: Only virgins, I’m afraid.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
Randy: A digger.
Jennifer: An artist.
Randy: I thought you wanted to be an equestrian, or something.
Jennifer: Nope. Artist. What do you mean by “digger”?
Randy Someone who …you know…digs holes.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
Randy: My dad didn’t have a Handycam.
Jennifer: My mom did, but we weren’t allowed to touch it.
Randy: My start musta been the Swedish vaudeville burlesque act that was big in the Inland Empire during the mid-80s. My father played a one-legged Leif Erikson. I played the leg. My mother translated. When I quit, I started taking public access footage of it for a while. But my dad kept falling and after that it just wasn’t the same.
Jennifer: I was designing main titles in Hollywood for movies with Pauly Shore in them.
Randy: I thought the question was, ”how did we get our start making our own movies?”
Jennifer: Right. I was designing main titles in Hollywood for movies with Pauly Shore in them.
Randy: Oh. I see.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Randy: The film itself hasn’t changed for me. I just feel like a proud, smiling parent sewing sequins onto its dress for the county beauty contest at the fairgrounds.
Jennifer: And the sequins probably won’t make a difference, but you do it anyway.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Jennifer: Animal.
Randy: Yoda.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Randy: Yes, I was thinking a lot about paying customers to go see the film.
Jennifer: That’s not what they meant.
Randy: Oh.
Jennifer: Honestly, we didn’t have the time or energy to think about festivals or reviews during the actual production. The making of a film is very elusive. During the production, we had no idea how it all would turn out.
Randy: Or even if it would cut together.
Jennifer: You never feel like you have a handle on it. Even now, we don’t know how people are going to react.
Randy: But, somehow, it was more interesting for us not to have a handle on it. Not to have “control” -- it was more exciting to be surprised by everything -- the new directions that the story might take, the alternative reactions and behaviors of the characters… These were the things that consumed most of my attention during the production.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
Year 1: We watch people. We watch them fight, love, change their minds, be confused, say things that they don’t mean…we remember this stuff, look at it all at once, throw in some personal baggage and make a story out of it. Write it down, collect photos that feel like the emotional-or actual-landscapes that the characters might coexist in…and that’s the script.

Year 2: We spend months auditioning people-real people-who are capable of looking at our script, and throwing away what doesn’t work for them, and adding aspects of their own selves to the work. Then, we put them in an environment where they feel comfortable enough to experiment, but off-balance enough not to expect anything. We shoot as much of the initial improvisations as possible. Not much time to review dailies.

Year 3: Each scene is edited in several different ways—and by both directors simultaneously, on different computers—in order to evoke new interactions, meanings and depths from the narrative. Some characters are lost, some gain prominence. Entire sequences and sub-plots are either shuffled around or dropped entirely. We end up with a 3 and a half hour feature. We kill our babies and push it down to 2 hours, 8 minutes. Post production, send it to festivals. Get rejected and accepted. Last night, we were in a cold warehouse filled to the rim with singing Russians who had to drink something strong to improve their English. It snows on the drive home and we talk about how the air smells like pencils.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Jennifer: It’s never one massive lesson, is it?
Randy: Not really. More like 6,000 massive lessons.
Jennifer: Which one should we choose?
Randy: How about: Film is never about what camera you use, or continuity, or the 180 degree rule, or stars, or cues, or master & coverage, or shotlists, storyboards, hitting marks, three-act structures, shooting ratios, editing software, or any of that. It’s about people. And emotions. And creating visuals that are truthful and poetic and maybe reveal something about what it is to be out there.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a good one.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Randy: I don’t think we ever sought to emulate any specific filmmakers or develop anything similar from another artists’ work, but we are certainly inspired by people like John Cassavetes, Andrei Tarkovsky, Emir Kusturica, Aki Kaurismaki, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Luis Bunuel, the Maysles Brothers, Hal Hartley, Guy Madden, Wim Wenders, Robert Altman, Maya Deren, Yasujiro Ozu, Claire Denis…the list goes on. And for every filmmaker, there’s at least a dozen photographers, poets and writers who have inspired us as well.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Jean-Pierre Geuens.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
Randy: I’d like to adapt a magazine. Lowrider, maybe ... or Foreign Affairs.
Jennifer: Yeah. Or Field and Stream.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Jennifer: I’m not exactly sure what “big time” is.
Randy: Many members of the cast have lost weight, actually.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
Jennifer: National Geographic photographer.
Randy: A digger.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Randy: None. I’d be too busy beating the life from filmmakers who were killing small dogs.
Jennifer: Randy likes dogs.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
Randy: That’s kinda personal, isn’t it?
Jennifer: I’ll never feel like I “made it.”
Randy: Me, neither. I’m more concerned with just being able to make the next film.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Jennifer: If you make an art-house indie for an audience who reads the reviews, the critic becomes an undeniably significant PR tool for that film upon its release. But it’s all subjective; as always, one person will hate the film, while another will think it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. This is the beauty of art, and after a while, the critics move on and forget about your art. And, in the end, the audience makes up its own mind. But I don’t think you should ever make a movie for a critic or an audience, insofar as you have to be true to what you have to say as an artist first, before anything else. That’s my top priority, at least.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
The book Fourteen Things Witches Hope Parents Never Find Out, by David Benoit

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Jennifer: You can’t control or know ahead of time what rating you’ll get for sure, so I’d be hesitant to sign a contract promising a film with a particular rating.
Randy: Ratings shouldn’t dictate content—I think it’s a strange ambition for a filmmaker-be it contractual or otherwise-to take on a project with the intent of “making an R-rated film.” For that to even be a factor in the inception of a film is backwards, somehow.
Jennifer: Not doing it for the right reasons.
Randy: Right. Exactly.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Randy: I always hate it when painters sign their work, and it’s this big, sloppy name hovering in the corner of the canvas.
Jennifer: I hate that, too. It takes me out of the world of the painting. And, if it’s a good painting, I want to stay in that world, and not be distracted.
Randy: But, in our case, we did use that credit…I think, mostly due to the fact that we spent 3 years on the film and wrote, cast, directed, produced and edited the thing. Plus, I think we were somewhat tasteful with the presentation of the credit itself. I hope so, at least.
Jennifer: If you’re the writer/director and you’ve done something that is either a personal work or something that showcases a signature style, I can understand why you would have that credit.
Randy: But, if a filmmaker puts that much of themselves into it, the accreditation is almost redundant and unnecessary, isn’t it?
Jennifer: Now we’re getting into the whole “auteur” argument...

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
Randy: I can’t. I think it’s almost impossible, coming from me. If I tell them, “MY MOVIE WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE, PERIOD, WOW!”, I would expect them to think I’m full of it, because as the filmmaker, I’m biased. OF COURSE I’m going to praise the film—I made it. But if I had to make some kind of statement, I guess I would just say that, very simply, it’s a film about people, being people. Which means that, as people, they don’t always know who they are, or what they are doing, or why they are doing it, or how to talk to other people…or how to express love…And maybe someone in the audience will see something in the film and be surprised when they recognize it from their own lives.

That’s all we really hope for, to be honest.


Apart from That, starring Kathleen McNearney, Kyle Conyers, Toan Le, Tony Cladoosby, and Alice Ellingson, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Apart from That website.

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originally posted: 02/28/06 17:15:04
last updated: 02/28/06 17:17:24
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