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South By Southwest 2011 Interview – “Apart” director Aaron Rottinghaus

Apart - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Apart” is the journey of the tragically star-cross’d Noah and Emily who, linked by a rare psychological disorder known as ICD-10 F24, delve into the dark and twisted catastrophic events of their past in order to make sense of their lives. It's a romantic thriller that draws from actual case history.” Director Aaron Rottinghaus on “Apart” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend the festival screenings?

This is my first film at SXSW. I was at Sundance a few years ago with Joey Lauren Adams' debut film "Come Early Morning," so to come full circle and be here at a festival with Joey in my film is extremely exciting. And yes, I plan on attending as many films as I possibly can, just to support other filmmakers and see something that other people haven't had a chance to see yet.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I grew up in a really small town in Indiana named Brookville. It's an exceedingly normal town that I love dearly, but it doesn't have much access to film or music or literature that is even remotely off the beaten path. So, basically, I had no idea what a filmmaker did until I went off to college at Purdue. Once I was there, I found myself working for the head of the film department cataloguing the laserdisc library. At that point I immersed myself in movies as much as I could, and I came out the other side wanting to write and direct.

Growing up you were likely asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be…”

Probably radio DJ. I went to college to become one, for some reason, though I would be terrible at it. I can't imagine a much worse radio voice. But I've always had a passion for music, so if you had asked me that question at some point in my childhood, it would have been a music-based answer.

So how did “Apart” all come together?

The lead actor Josh Danziger and I have known each other for years. At one point, we wanted to get a project together. He gave me a script to re-write, but I thought the script was unsalvageable and suggested we start from scratch. After weeks and weeks of bad ideas, a doctor friend told us about Induced Delusional Disorder, or Folie a Deux. We thought it would make an interesting backbone for the movie. Around that point we brought on producer Ryan Rettig and we beat the pavement looking for funding, which would be promised to us and then fall through. There were a lot of false starts but we finally got our funding and got our script in order and away we went.

What was the biggest challenge or obstacle during the entire production of the film?

Time. That ostensibly stems from being a very low budget film, but we always seemed to be short on time. And this is a complicated film: there are a lot of effects, a fair number of cast and location changes, and the film spans three time periods. Doing that on a low budget is tough, and you are always scrambling to make your days, which we rarely did. You end up jettisoning unnecessary plot points. In a way it becomes beneficial for the film because you have to take a hard look at what you need versus what you want, but at the time when you are running around like a chicken with your head cut off because you are either losing the sun or the sun is coming up, you can't see it that way.

I would love to know about the technical aspects of “Apart”; what it was shot on and your relation to the cinematographer.

We shot Apart on the Red One camera. This was for multiple reasons. For one, it was cheaper. Second, it looks great. We did a test with it, shooting live footage of a football game to get b-roll and it turned out really well and kind of sold us. Third, the image coming out of the camera is so open to manipulation and I knew that we would have to have that option. Again, with time being so short, we often couldn't get the camera in for a tight close up. With the Red, we were shooting at 4k and finishing at 2k so we had a lot of latitude as far as blowing up a shot. That saved us a lot of time. And in the film, we are constantly shifting time periods. I knew we'd have to use the color manipulation to specify when we were in the story, chronologically. And our colorist Leandro Marini at Local Hero Post really made that happen. As far our Director of Photography, JP Lipa did an amazing job. I knew from our first phone conversation that we were on the same wavelength and we had a good dialogue as far as setting up the look for the film and accomplishing that look. He has an amazing eye and our tastes are very similar. So we were able to have a good shorthand as far as how the film should look.

Who would you say are your biggest inspirations, and did you have any particular inspiration for this film?

I would have to say that my biggest inspirations overall, as far as modern filmmakers go, are Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. I've watched and re-watched their films so many times that it's hard to point out how they've influenced my work. However, I can tell when it's there. And we watched tons of films to prepare for the movie. Aside from the aforementioned filmmakers, we watched films like Don't Look Now, The Dead Zone, Klute, Let the Right One In, Friday Night Lights & Manhattan and a million others, not just as a reference for the look of the film but also for little bits of actor's performances. There were so many movies that I can't even keep track of what we watched. I am also a huge fan of "Lost," and that certainly played a role in how we structured the plot of the film.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I have no qualms about working on larger budget features or independent features. It doesn't really matter to me. I just enjoy the work. Honestly, whatever hits me on a gut emotional level, that's something I want to work on. If I can be emotionally honest with subject matter, whether I provide it or it just strikes me as something I can relate to, it's something I want to work on. I don't care if it costs one dollar or a hundred million.

If you weren’t making movies, what do you think you would be doing as a career?

I honestly don't know. Maybe something music related? The film industry provides a lot of opportunity to second guess your career choices and I've had a hard time thinking to myself "if I weren't doing this, what would I be doing?" I just know that when I'm directing, I get a feeling and an attitude I don't get doing anything else. So fingers-crossed, that my career can continue along that path.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It is certainly important for a smaller film or a festival title. There aren't a lot of opportunities to find critical mass when you are on certain budget level like we are. We count on those reviews to raise awareness for our films. And as a discerning filmgoer, I count on those reviews to point me in the direction of a film I might like but haven't heard of. I don't always agree with a review at the end of the day, but if they can put a film on my radar, that's really what the critical community is good for. Film is such a subjective medium that your response is never going to be the same. But if they make me aware of a previously unknown film, I'll certainly check it out and be thankful for it. To me, that's where their importance lies.

If you could show “Apart” in any movie theater in the world, which one would you choose?

As cheesy as it sounds, I'd love to have a film in Grauman's Chinese Theater. It's such a landmark, such a part of Hollywood's history that I'd be remiss to not mention it. It's a wonderful theater. Ditto the Cinerama Dome. Just to be able to sit back and say "oh man, my movie is playing THERE?" That would be an incredible, surreal feeling.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I'd just explain the film to them and say it's an opportunity to see something different, something off the beaten path. We aren't trying to hit a certain demographic. The film is trying to reach a universal audience. The luxury of being independent is that there are no rules; you aren't trying to get a certain NRG score. The best we can do at the end of the day is making a really good movie that makes an audience feel something. I love big movies: who doesn't? But this isn't that experience. The movies I hold dearest are the ones that I feel like I found something that is completely personal and completely unique to me. I think that, being independent, we are more apt to deliver that experience than a movie that is trying to cover its P&A budget.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie?

Stop it! It's incredibly rude and selfish and I don't understand it. Movie tickets are so damn expensive right now: why would you want to throw your money away like that? Wait and watch the movie at home and you can do what you want; don't ruin the movie for the people around you that have also thrown down their hard-earned dollars. They are at the movies for the experience and you are paying them a disservice. It's a big deterrent for me, personally, going to the movies these days. It's just unfathomable to me that the movie watching portion of the movie-going experience has taken a backseat to texting and twittering and idle chatter and nachos.

What do you love the most about making movies?

Working with actors. There is something so rewarding about getting to an emotional understanding with an actor and nothing else on set replicates that. Creating a pretty image is great and all, but really digging in with an actor and refusing to move on until we have gotten the pitch perfect performance is essential to how good a film actually is. If there are moments that are false, that will take an audience immediately out of the experience. It's what separates a decent film from a good or great one.

If you could offer any advice to anyone entering the film industry, what would you tell them?

Don't give up. That sounds ridiculous, but it's true. You set goals for yourself and sometimes you just can't reach those goals. Don't get deterred, especially in the current climate, where making a legitimate film is easier because of how cheap cameras have gotten. You are going to have a lot of disappointments on your way to a completed film; get really good at rolling with the punches. Also, be honest with your filmmaking. If the story is honest, then people will respond to that. It becomes really obvious when a filmmaker is not at one with their material. Make sure that it's a story you absolutely need to tell. If you can't immediately say "this is a story I have to see told," then you should probably move along and find another project.

And finally, what is your favorite movie, and why?

I'd have to say “Magnolia”. “Citizen Kane”, “Goodfellas” and “Chinatown” along with films like “La Dolce Vita”, “Vivre Sa Vie” “Singin' in the Rain”, “Umberto D” and “Persona” are certainly landmarks that mean a great deal to me and have led me to where I am as a filmmaker. But as far as a film that I respond to, warts and all, it's “Magnolia”. It's become this monolithic presence in my life, a kind of benchmark that I would personally like to surpass. It's such an ambitious and BIG film that is also intensely, almost cryptically personal. There's the idea of the director as smuggler and I think that's a perfect example. If I could spend my career making films like that, films that swing for the fences while full of weird digressions and odd characters and funny bits of business that seem unrelated but are ultimately tied together by a bow constructed of universal, relatable themes then, well, I would die a very happy man.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2011 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 11-19. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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originally posted: 03/11/11 05:45:49
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