By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Arguably one of the most interesting indie filmmakers of the last 20 years, Dan Sallitt has been involved with different aspects of cinema with equal success. After the premiere of his latest “Fourteen” at the Berlin Film Festival, we spoke with the director, film critic and dedicated cinephile, to talk about his work, his experience with this latest film and the philosophy behind the work of his many remarkable films.
Desistfilm: So, I guess my first question would be… I believe this time you took seven years between The Unspeakable Act and this film. Is this a conscious decision of yours, to take your time between projects? What was the process and preparation for this project like?
Dan Sallitt: Well, in this particular case I actually started very quickly after I was finished with the other one; I didn’t give myself a long break. Certainly in the past I would say “Okay, I finished this horrible process, let’s relax for a second,” and a couple of years later I’d start working. But this time, I worked with Tallie (Medel, lead character) in The Unspeakable Act, and I wanted to make another film with her, so I felt like I couldn’t just kick back and start a band, which is what I did last time. This time, I started right away. I had a full time job, I had to save money and vacation time, so that was a factor.
But it also just takes time… I remember telling Tallie the story of this project in the summer of 2012, and I think I started gathering notes and writing then. I started bringing people on: I know Caitlin (Mae Burke), the producer, was associated with the project as early as 2014. I finished the script in 2015 and I started pre-production, but then there were all these delays. And this particular project took a year and a half to shoot, with a lot of delays and obstacles. So this should have been my fastest turnover, but it’s just kind of hard with a full time job and everything takes a long time…
Desistfilm: But I think it’s great that you pace yourself between films, because it really gives you the time to retreat, and come back to it with fresh eyes… find out what you like or not…
Dan Sallitt: It’s like emotional protection, because making films it’s so hard, it’s very hard for me, because I’m kind of an anxious filmmaker. I worry about what could go wrong instead of looking forward to a good result, and in indie films, where you’re paying with your own money, where you don’t have a big budget, there are lots of things that can go wrong, so you’re worrying all the time. I find pre-production very stressful and difficult. Production, better, but stressful still, because you’re worrying things are going to happen the wrong way. Until you’re editing you don’t get to relax at all! So I really… I kind of hate the process. I just have to do it.
Desistfilm: And with the budget you have, you’re handling micro-budgets all the time. Do you see this as liberating, or more like a curse of sorts?
Dan Sallitt: It’s a liberating thing. I never have anyone tell me anything about what I should do with my movie, so that’s fun. There are a couple big projects that I have in mind, one especially that I can’t really do because it’s a little too big for me. But really it’s not as restrictive as all that: if I really needed to do things that required spectacle, that would’ve been a problem. I’d love to do an action film, I’d love to do something like that, but that’s not going to happen on this kind of budget. So I have to do small films about relationships, but that’s fine, I like them anyway. After a while you run out of ideas for a particular kind of chamber-drama but I would say, on the whole, that hasn’t made me feel worse about the movies themselves. It does perhaps limit the range of subject matter you can address.
Desistfilm: What you just said about your films being “chamber dramas” really resonates, because your films seem to be precisely that: small chamber dramas about different family units with a dysfunctional element. What makes you come back to these ideas in different iterations?
Dan Sallitt: Yeah, the first two were kind of relationship movies. The second two were about family, and I guess the last one was about family and relationships at the same time. And this one’s about friendship. But that’s partly because of what we were talking about: that’s the sort of subject that I can treat fully, without any restriction on a low budget.
In this regard, Fourteen is actually a change for me, because all the other movies took place over a small period of time with not too many locations, which is of course the way you’re advised to do a low budget movie, it makes it much easier to do it that way. This time I couldn’t, for various reasons: my work schedule didn’t permit a single shoot, so I had to create a movie that would take place over a long period of time and that I could shoot in small pieces. It changes the subject matter, it changes my approach. For once I was able to cover a lot of ground, jump through time…
I think the drama became de-emphasized as a result. When you do a film where the unities of time and place are respected, you wind up with a strong dramatic central idea to organize/justify the containment. But here, because the story covers a decade or so, I just kind of jumped ahead, and the drama is a little tiny thread through a lot of random activities, kind of in the style of Pialat. So this film is different in a way, but it still centers directly on the friendship, as the other films centered directly on the family or love relationships.
With these small films, there’s no opportunity to be as indirect as you can be with genre films, but that’s okay.
Desistfilm: But would you say that budget usually dictates the kind of genre you work in? Or is your choice out of genuine interest in the genre?
Dan Sallitt: You know, when I started watching movies I first become involved with genre cinema: Howard Hawks and the classic American cinema. So, the first scripts I wrote were not contained subjects; they had action or had big subjects. They weren’t things that I could do on my own, but that’s fine with me now, because my interests have also moved in a different direction. But it would be nice to have a world where I could think of a western, or something, and do that. I have a couple of ideas floating around, some action sequences (I’ve rehearsed these action sequences in my mind and I know exactly how they would be done). They will never be done, I don’t think – it would be fun, though I haven’t prepared myself for that kind of world. I’ve been living in this world, where I’ve known for the last thirty years or more that I would be making low budget films.
It’s hard for me to imagine what I would do if I were given money to do these genre movies. But it would be something that I would welcome, at least in concept.
Desistfilm: Can we talk a little bit about Tallie (Medel)? I discovered her through Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven and I’ve been following her through your last two films: she’s quite an impressive actress. Do you mind talking a bit about her and your process in general?
Dan Sallitt: It was Joe Swanberg who recommended Tallie to me originally. When I was shooting The Unspeakable Act, I was making the film with a younger age group that I was used to; I didn’t have any cast in mind at all. So Joe recommended four actresses he’d liked, and she was one of them… In fact, all four of those people wound up having small roles in the movie: Joe Swanberg is very smart about actors, or at least my feeling about actors corresponds very well with his.
Tallie had worked with Daniel Scheinert several times in school, and she had a few films with him in festivals and that’s where Joe saw her: he had actually never met her, but he’d seen her in a movie called I’m Nostalgic. Daniel Scheinert is now well known as the co-director of Swiss Army Man, and a lot of big music videos. I watched one of the things they did together, a web series called Everything a Monster is Not, and that was what hooked me.
I was really lucky, actually, to make a movie like that with a mostly non-professional cast, and to get someone like Tallie. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.
Working with her is very… it’s really interesting; it’s an important relationship to me. It’s hard to talk about it, even, because it’s not just a personal relationship, you know. The relationship between a director and an actor is both very personal and also kind of impersonal. It’s very hard to even talk about how important it is to me. But in some way, with Tallie, I feel like, even if we’re completely different people, there is this fusion that happens. When I direct her, what comes out is very much me and very much her at the same time, and I feel like the two go together. I’m sure a lot of directors have felt this way about a lot of actors.
Desistfilm: There’s an incredible sense of flow when your actors deliver their lines in your films, so I wonder how much room do you leave for improvisation? Do you have your actors read line by line or can they add something to the mix?
Dan Sallitt: I certainly write every single word ahead of time. Most of what you hear was written. There were a few cases in this movie… I mean, it always happens with written conversation that the actors make small changes to make themselves comfortable.
Here, the script allowed for improvisation because there were small children, and there are maybe two scenes in the movie where Tallie, playing the mother of this young child, had to go way off road: especially the scene where she’s telling the little girl the bedtime story. It was completely written, Tallie had completely absorbed the written part, she knew it, and she used little pieces of it. But she was trying to keep the little girl entertained, the little girl was bored and she was trying to keep her interested. So she elaborated fantastically, three times longer than it was written, using a backstory that was in Tallie’s mind that I didn’t give her… The little girl was helping out too: her lines were not written. That would be the most improvised scene in the movie. On the whole though, it was pretty much a written thing.
Desistfilm: Something I like about your films is that there are a lot of philosophical discussions about every day issues. You being a well-known cinephile and film critic, where do you take those ideas from?
Dan Sallitt: It’s an idea that comes a little bit from Rohmer, who’s very influential for me. Rohmer definitely thought that dialogue was realism. The fact that people talk a lot was as much a realistic aspect for him as filming a landscape or recording a soundtrack. So I approach with that point of view. The dialogue in my movies is not intended to give the audience a film experience in any kind of condensed way, it’s meant to be part of the texture of the characters’ lives.
And then there are also some aspects of your own life, your own preferences that get woven into your ambition to be realistic. Partly you’re trying to write things people actually say, and partially you’re also writing whatever interests you, you’re trying to make the film vivid by having the mundane reality continuously verge upon something extraordinary, you want something big under the surface, something interesting and something exciting. Maybe what you’re talking about, maybe that tendency towards the philosophical, is me putting a little bit of my own interests into the film, or trying to find the most interesting way for people to talk, rather than boring everyday conversation.
Desistfilm: There’s a scene in the funeral where Mara is going to see her deceased friend. Her child comes to her and tells her something that makes her have some sort of emotional revelation. I wonder how you composed that particular scene, because in the hands of another filmmaker that would’ve been quite a cheesy scene, but the way you handled it almost has a sort of transcendental meaning to it all.
Dan Sallitt: I knew I had to have some big surges of emotion. They had to be kept in a context that was not emotional, that was quotidian. Life presents you with many things, and no matter how much would you like to dedicate yourself to the memory of a dead person, which is what the film’s about, you can’t do it, because you have to give your little kid something to eat, you have to deal with all of these little problems, you change apartments, and have relationships and jobs. So I wasn’t really worried because that scene was always in my mind a flare of emotion that had to come out of the everyday and had to return to the everyday.
It was the scene that made me decide to do the movie: I didn’t have a script until that scene was in my mind. I wrote an email describing the movie to somebody the day after I thought of that scene. You can see from the email that that’s the only scene that was vivid at that point: everything else remained to be filled in by the general subject matter. But that scene was written in great detail in 2012.
I think you’re allowed to have… I think my films especially have this romanticism, with a capital R, romanticism underneath the surface of realism. There’s always some kind of big emotion, something really unusual about the people or about the situation. And the fun of it is to put so much reality into it that it brings the film into the realm of the mundane, but then in mysterious ways or slight ways under the surface, it has this very large… People have very large emotions that would almost be the subject of a romantic novel, except that I have concealed this within a realistic texture.
Desistfilm: And that brings me to this question: how do you work in composing your images? Because there’s such a delicate and precise work, I wonder if you compose the images beforehand or you improvise on set.
Dan Sallitt: There’s very little improvisation of the image on set. But I have a certain way of generating images where I follow more than I lead; it’s not that I think “How can I do this in a way that’s interesting?” I feel the creation of the image should be a response to everything else and this response doesn’t feel like a big… doesn’t feel creative so much as it feels like an obedience to an idea that you have.
I do a storyboard ahead of time. It’s little tiny stick figures, it’s really not something that would stand alone as a work of art, but it tells me the frames. And then the storyboard is also a cutting continuity, so I’ve done the editing in advance. The editing of the film doesn’t change as much as you would think from that point: if you read that storyboard and that cutting continuity (it’s all the same document), you would basically see the film there. You might see little variations, but on the whole, you would see the size of the images, the place where the cuts happen across the dialogue, it’s all planned.
That’s a slightly obsessive-compulsive way of making films, and I think that there are other people like that: Hitchcock would be the classic example. They’re making something from a place of anxiety and they’re trying to reduce their anxiety. Hitchcock loved to say in interviews that the film was all finished after he planned it and that all he had to do was execute it on the set: of course that’s never quite true, it wasn’t true for Hitchcock, but I recognize that feeling – it’s a feeling of wanting to reduce the anxiety, the chaos of reality, by having everything planned ahead of time.
I think there are probably limitations to that approach, and probably things that other people can do that I can’t do because of that, but on the other hand I think there are advantages also: I tend to have a lot of structure in my movies because of that planning. I don’t change the structure very much as I’m shooting, I don’t take out scenes if I don’t think they don’t work because I care about the structure, so as a result my films have advantages as well as disadvantages. If I lose some of the crazy spontaneity of life, such as Nathan Silver would get, for instance, I have structural ideas that are important to the movie because I follow my structure.
Desistfilm: So you’re well known as a film critic, and dedicated cinephile, and also a filmmaker. How do you bring these three things together in your work? What would be the main difference among these three things, or how do they relate when you’re at work?
Dan Sallitt: I like to think that they’re all the same. In my emotions they’re very much the same. My love for watching movies and my desire to make movies are very similar, and I don’t feel a huge difference, I don’t like to think of my movies as special because I made them, I like to think of them as additions to film history.
My appreciation of other movies doesn’t get in the way of my filmmaking: it always feels very harmonious to me. Of course there’s something different happening when you set out to make something, because there’s a certain amount of mystery, psychological mystery at the beginning of the work of art. I think that when you start to make a work of art, it does not have artistic qualities so much as it has… It’s like an emanation from the unconscious; it’s very emotional, very infantile. You need energy to see the work of art through its end, and this energy tends to come from very deep, pre-artistic aspects of your personality. So creating an idea doesn’t feel at all like cinephilia, it doesn’t feel at all like criticism, it feels like being a child, like being an infant, having weird fantasies and not caring too much about how weird they are, as long as they’re motivating you.
And to shape it into something that feels like art… It needs the proper amount of distance and balance to feel like art instead of a fantasy. And at that point, in that phase, you are very much like a critic; you’re analyzing your own bizarre emanations in the same way that you would analyze something else, and you try to give them the proper weight and the proper order and heft. Those critic skills are certainly some of the skills that come into play but somehow first the material has to be generated and that’s the part that is different.