Scout Tafoya’s film I AM NO BIRD will be having its Chicago premiere this coming Saturday, August 20th at Chicago Filmmakers. This is also the first time any of Tafoya’s features have played in Chicago, and he will be attending the screening. Daily Grindhouse’s Jason Coffman talked to him via email in advance of the screening about I AM NO BIRD, his filmmaking process, and his dabbles in the horror genre.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE (DG): A word of introduction, if you wouldn’t mind, for any readers who are not familiar with your work.
SCOUT TAFOYA (ST): I live in Astoria. In 2010, I started directing features, my earliest essay feature/things and documentaries are available online for free. Since 2013, I’ve been a semi-pro freelance critic. I do a monthly series for RogerEbert.com called “The Unloved.” I contribute to Mubi, Fandor, No Film School, Brooklyn Magazine, and The Village Voice, and have written for No Budge, Film Comment, and Screen Rant in the past.
DG: How did you get started with feature filmmaking?
ST: I stole a camera from Emerson College, claiming I had an assignment to finish, and directed a kind of home invasion thriller called A KNOCK AT THE DOOR (as in: “The last man on earth sits in his room, suddenly…) that was also kind of a date movie in the BEFORE SUNSET mold. Shot 90% of it on Friday, the rest on Saturday, had it edited a week later. [You can watch that here.]
DG: Your films often feel like strange hybrids of genres and styles.
ST: I love stuff like that. Nothing I do is ever just one thing. My next film was a romantic crime drama called I NEED YOU, which was super-influenced by Bruno Dumont, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Solveig Anspach. I was obsessed by the current trends in arthouse cinema — I read criticism religiously and watched something like 12 movies a week in college and it all went into the woodchipper of my brain and like sawdust spat out all over my work. My next film TRON WAYNE GACY is what I imagine it would look like if Chantal Akerman directed one of Godard’s mid-’60s movies. Next was THE LAST FLESH & BLOOD SHOW, which is kind of a 90s indie ensemble thing that turns into a zombie film. See what I mean? I’ve made 11 films since, 7 of which are completed, three of them available to watch in some form or other online. I AM NO BIRD is the first film of mine to play in theatres in about 3 years (viewers can’t get enough. hehe.).
DG: How did I AM NO BIRD come about?
ST: I AM NO BIRD came about when Nick Smerkanich, one of my oldest friends and collaborators, called me one night while I was housesitting. We both sort of lamented roads not taken, like we do: things we didn’t do, relationships we let die, etc. Nick and I have known each other since I was in 7th grade. And we were talking about the perspectives we have on things once they’re over and done with, how at the time something seemed like a good idea, you felt good doing it, but in the rearview you wonder how you look now. And we started talking about Cary Fukunaga’s lovely but totally vacant JANE EYRE adaptation and how it doesn’t really deal with the fall out from Rochester’s lies and the harm he causes himself and everyone close to him. What the film needed was a more clear understanding of why these two people would continually be drawn to each other. In the 2011 film he’s an asshole until suddenly he’s not and the film doesn’t comment on it. And then when Jane returns to him, it’s sort of implicitly romantic, but in practice it’s infuriating. “Err…life wasn’t working out for me so I’ll go back to this awful man because what else is there to do?” Life can be like that, but it makes for terrible, terrible drama. So we started brainstorming how you would make a film that corrected that mistake and got into the actual psychological underpinning of terrible romantic choices. Of doing the wrong thing because it feels right-ish. That little grey area where people do awful things and are still able to say “I’m not hurting anyone.”
Then it was a matter of finding the language to say what I wanted to say. My stars (Nick, who played my conflicted romantic anti-hero, and Michelle Siracusa, who plays my Jane Eyre) helped me with the dialogue to make sure I wasn’t letting any character off too easy, that the dialogue wasn’t too arch (a problem I’m still in the process of working through just in life), etc. Julian Lazare and Tucker Johnson helped me shoot it and I’ve worked with both of them repeatedly over the years. The three of us worked out a kind of scheme for the three acts of the movie – a kind of romantic, high-contrast Orange for the first act, which relies heavily on montage, deep greens for the introspective second act, and then a mix of the two for the final part, when the two collide. We shot it in four days and change, which is about average for me.
DG: That makes sense, but it’s also almost unbelievable! The film is largely made up of lengthy takes, with some fantastic and subtle modulations in the performances. I would think that would be exceptionally difficult, especially given that a large chunk of the film takes place in a moving car.
ST: Abbas Kiarostami’s films were instrumental for me in deciding how to stage the conversations. Michelle and I are both huge fans (she loves LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE more than anyone I know. My video eulogy for him is here). I learned from him that the car is sort of the closest thing to a black box theatre we have in filmmaking. It traps us, forces us to deal with either our own thoughts or the rumbling of the world passing us by, making us aware of every second we’re not speaking. And it gives us an easy out in the form of the radio, a way to kind of break the fourth wall if we want to. So I thought about those wonderful conversations that take up all of TEN and A TASTE OF CHERRY and good chunks of AND THE WIND WILL CARRY US, CERTIFIED COPY, and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES, and used that as my jumping off point, but in my emotionally claustrophobic way.
I love pressing cameras so close to people they turn almost abstract. I want people to feel like they can’t escape the faces of my characters and what they’re going through. In I AM NO BIRD, Nick’s character slowly has to realize and deal with the depth of what he’s done and the closer we push in on Michelle’s face, the less room it gives anyone to breathe and justify. We can hear the difference between desperate lies and truth when you’re that close, see the way a face contorts and jitters. The film doesn’t end up looking much like Kiarostami, but he gave me the scheme, the sort of stop-start, the intrusions of nature, etc. And the final ten minutes owe a lot to 2001, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, LA PRISONNIÈRE, etc. movies that kind of give way to a kind of freak-out when the truth of existence becomes too much to bear. Which all comes from avant-garde directors like Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, and Peter Kubelka. Turning fiction into experimental film for a few minutes to try to explain to an audience that we’ve reached the end of ordinary consciousness. Love that. That’s a pretty common theme in my work. People who go looking for some escape from just how huge the universe is and how small we are in it, how much we still manage to feel and put ourselves through in spite of our cosmic stature. Michelle did most of the music for the movie and it’s all tremendous. Just beautiful synth work.
DG: You’ve been incredibly prolific over the last few years. What is your writing and filming process like? It seems like your films rely a lot on improvisation.
ST: I’m about to shooting my first film in over a year in September, actually. I AM NO BIRD was shot in 2014 but I only just got around to editing it. I took time off to move to New York, work on my writing, release two EPs, work two day jobs and just try to be a person, which is tough when you’re constantly moving from one project to the next. I think because I kind of had to wear every hat from the very beginning I learned that I didn’t have patience for wasting time. I knew what I wanted these things to be, and I don’t have a producer breathing down my neck so I know that when the right take happens in front of the right lens I can pack it up and move on. I’m not precious about a lot of things because mistakes are part of being alive. When an actor messes up a line or someone slips during a take or something, they come through the character and we get to see humanity instead of a performance. Filmmaking is just the conducting of accidents anyway, why not embrace that?
That’s why I love improv and do it as frequently as I can, or when I can get away with it, handing people lines right before we start filming. EYAM and HOUSE OF LITTLE DEATHS are my favourite of my own films because they’re not just mine. EYAM was 98% improvised. I told my actors, the best sports in the world, the plot up until we started filming. Then I just said “Ok, now live.” and would only occasionally intervene when I knew I needed emotional beats or scares or what have you. It was a blast. I’ve never had more fun in my life. HOUSE was terrific because I got to work on everyone’s characters with them before hand and then these perfect strangers had not only to live with each other for a week, but also put on a performance every night for other perfect strangers.
DG: So the project dictates the process.
ST: Every film’s working method has to be different because the film has to be allowed to speak to you. Every film can’t be EYAM, and not every film is scripted, etc. The stuff I make comes from relatively simple ideas: two women in a car, not speaking. Why? What’s wrong? Where are they going? And then I kind of let the camera tell me where to go. It’s kind of like a self-imposed Roger Corman thing. I’ve got these two actresses for one day, I have two cameras, one microphone, and only me to shoot it. What do you do with that? Well I’ve got a car, so, make that work. Things like that. HOUSE, EYAM, and a few others were slightly more complicated. I had stories I wanted to tell, or at least ideas I thought I needed to express. I AM NO BIRD sprung first from an emotional idea: a guy realizing he’s the villain in his own story. So he’s not only got to grapple with his feelings about himself and the lies he’s been telling himself to stay positive, but also the people he’s abused emotionally. From there it was about shooting in a way that we could capture the transformations and realizations honestly and clearly. It was also very specifically written.
It’s funny I go from just about entirely made up to extreme precision. The film will tell you what it needs. We always shoot quickly because everyone has a dayjob and I hate losing steam, knowing something’s going to be overly complicated. I want the film to be complex, not the shoot. Not at least until someone’s paying me. If a producer offered me a hundred thousand dollars, I’d go insane. I’d shoot a period film in 65mm on a glacier with only Estonian actors and a live orchestra, ya know? I’ve got a dozen screenplays I’m dying to shoot but can’t do because I don’t have any money. So until then it’s cutting corners, shooting efficiently, playing to everyone’s strengths, hiring people I trust and love and crossing my fingers someone else likes it one of these days.
DG: Who are some filmmakers and/or specific films that you are particularly inspired by?
ST: Chantal Akerman is the big one. She showed me what movies could be, what the image was meant to do to the viewers’ brain, how you could converse with film. There’s always a little of her in everything I do. The way she held close-ups, the way she framed women, the way she used the camera as her diary. She was the best director in the world. JE TU IL ELLE changed my life. Absolutely. Tsai Ming-Liang and Jia Zhangke are big. I love slow cinema. Terrence Malick, but trying to emulate him gives me an asthma attack. You can’t just be Terrence Malick, even as he’s one of the only directors in the world who’s pushing film towards its perfect self. Terence Davies is big for me, too, that big emotional cinema of his. Love him to death. Got to interview him early this year and just fell in love all over again talking to him about his work. That voice. Like silky fog rolling over the English channel.
John Carpenter, Larisa Shepitko, Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt. Definitely Antonioni. The way he walked modernism right up to the avant-garde in L’ECLISSE, ZABRISKIE POINT and MYSTERY OF OBERWALD. Michael Snow, Ben Rivers, Kubelka. UNSERE AFRIKAREISEis one of the best films ever made, full stop. In ten minutes its the most concise colonialist j’accuse and a completely unique form of montage. It’s incredible. They should be showing that in every tenth grade class in the world. Then there are hundreds of people I love but could never really be like. Michael Mann, Marco Bellocchio, Andrew Bujalski. I love a lot. You’ve got to.
DG: You have flirted with horror tropes in EYAM and DIANA, in addition to more straightforward comedic and dramatic work. What is your take on what makes a “horror movie?”
ST: First last, eh? I think anything can be a horror film, but I’m kind of a purist when it comes to labels. A lot of people think MULHOLLAND DRIVE is a horror film. I don’t think it is, but I don’t think the people who do are wrong. It’s what scares you, right? COME AND SEE is frequently called a horror film. What else would you call GOODBYE UNCLE TOM? It’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen, but there’s nothing that jumps out from under the bed, you know? It’s exploitation, but that’s not *really* a genre in the traditional sense of the word, that’s a set of production circumstances and aims. Exploitation is an experience. Horror is what a film makes you feel. DIANA probably wouldn’t scare anyone, but I kind of tamper with a few horror images and ideas, stuff that I’ve been obsessing over since I was 7 or 8 years old. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and BLACK CHRISTMAS. The stuff in people that turns them into murderers and cannibals and whatever else. You walk into a perfectly ordinary looking room and gradually realize you’re not safe. That’s a very simple horror idea that I kind do exploratory surgery on in DIANA. A man and a woman are having a conversation and then you grow to see what the power dynamic is, who’s performing and why? Then you know what’s at stake the next time you see one of them involved in a social interaction. I love that creeping unease. I like that you’ll catch things on a second viewing you missed on the first.
DG: Do you have any further plans to explore the genre in the future?
ST: I’d love to keep making horror films. I have tons of screenplays and ideas ready to go should an eccentric millionaire ever decide he wants to go into producing and picks me as his pet project. I have scripts for several horror westerns, a kind of CRAZIES-type film, an insanely ambitious kind of modern Lovecraftian thing, a werewolf movie, an HG Wells adaptation, a medieval death cult movie, I’d love to be the guy who finally makes the CASTLEVANIA movie, I’d like to remake CUT-THROATS NINE, CLAWS, and ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, among others. I even wrote a Godzilla movie (is there a better movie character than King Ghidorah? Maybe Sailor Ripley? Cleopatra Jones? Okay, Mariette Colet might be a better character). Tucker, who shoots all my stuff, wrote a script for a remake of THE KEEP that is truly awesome and hews closely to a graphic novel someone made of the original novel, and I’ve only asked that he lets be the second unit photographer if he ever makes it. We’d both have to learn German in a hurry though.
I love being scared and the challenge I set myself when writing this stuff is to scare myself. If I can do that alone in my living room on a laptop, then it might work in practice too. I want to be able to have budgets enough for big practical effects monsters. That’s why CASTLEVANIA would be such a blast. Just a guy with a sword and a hundred thousand practical effect monsters. What would be cooler than that? My seven-year-old self would have lost his mind if a film like that existed. It’d be like one of those Yokai Monster movies but relentlessly terrifying. I grew up watching horror films and made my adolescence revolve around whatever wild ass cult film was being released on DVD that week. My Netflix queue was always at the limit. Even the bad ones, even like KILLER’S MOON, MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY, or ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN, made me hungry to direct horror films.
What I want is to bring what I’ve learned from both the trashiest gore movie and the most heartbreaking art movie together. Claire did it with TROUBLE EVERY DAY, Tomas Alfredson did it with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Jim Mickle does it all the time. Whatever I do, the camera’s gonna be real close to everyone’s face while they realize how there’s something that’s just out of sight, something in the darkness ahead that’s too scary to think about. And hopefully someday I’ll have the money to make sure that when it steps into the light it’s the most dreadful thing you’ve ever laid eyes on.
DG: Other than I AM NO BIRD, what else do you have in the works or coming out soon?
ST: I edited one other film, a kind of Jerzy ?u?awski/Brothers Strugatsky thing called ENJOY YOUR TRIP TO HELL that was Julian and I’s baby for a lot of years. Michelle’s composing music for it right now that’s really, really excellent.
HOUSE OF LITTLE DEATHS premieres on Fandependent Films online on the 31st of August. It’s a film about a brothel in Philadelphia that basically caters to the Eric Trumps of the world — rich frat boys and corporate shills who treat women like animals. So we see these leering eyes and sharky smiles and feel terrible for the women who have been reduced to objects and commodities. You cringe night after night watching them deal with the worst men in the world, then you have to live with them the next day as they make breakfast, do their hair and make-up, have crises, do laundry and deal with having seven roommates. I really hope it finds an audience because everyone did a wonderful job in that film and I’m super proud of it.
I AM NO BIRD plays Saturday, August 20th at 8:00p.m. at Chicago Filmmakers. Admission is $8. See the Facebook event page for full information.
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