The director on his first feature film, his idiosyncratic narrative style, and the transmission of violence in father/son relationships.
Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Andrew T. Betzer’s first feature after a storied career as a short film-maker, is about as personal as a narrative fiction can get: Betzer wrote, directed, produced, edited and even color-graded the film. But in this case, “personal” doesn’t mean a regurgitation of the filmmaker’s latest breakup or childhood ups and downs. It means a highly idiosyncratic take on storytelling, in which the viewer is thrown in the deep end from the enigmatic first shot and carried along by the hurtling young bodies of two brothers who do a bad thing and have to get out of town fast. Set in godforsaken parts of Maryland and structured as a picaresque road film in five main episodes, Young Bodies Heal Quickly is as unpredictable as the boys’ off-the-grid father yet crystal clear in its intent to present an unflinching exploration of masculinity and the transmission of violence. If there is anything else out there like it, I haven’t seen it.
I met with Betzer on April 8 at the offices of Cineric, which produced Young Bodies and is the leading film restoration house and post-production facility where Betzer works as one of the last few New York-based film timers, doing the photo-chemical process of altering the color of celluloid film, generally the last step in finishing a motion picture, and now primarily done digitally.
Nicholas Elliot What was the starting point for Young Bodies Heal Quickly?
Andrew Betzer I’ve always explored father/son dynamics, so it just sort of naturally unfurled in that manner. I started writing it and then I had some calamitous events in my life that made me wonder whether I was going to make any more movies or be able to. I had left it alone for a while and then came back to it and finished writing it. It came from a very unconscious place, it had a little bit to do with what was going on in my life at the time and a little bit to do with my preoccupation with movies about father-son relationships. That and just the ability to make a film that could take advantage of some of the locations that I had available to me in Maryland, where I grew up, because a good part of it sprung from the idea of filming in a resort town off season, that sort of desolate, broken-down feeling that you get if you go to a big beach town like Ocean City, the town in the film. The rest of the movie sprung from that. I always had the image of these two brothers who were on the run for some reason or another, and who go stay with their estranged father in an even more desolate spot than they were coming from.
NE An important strand of the father and son theme is the passing down of violence. In Young Bodies Heal Quickly, there appears to be a hope that the youngest brother might get beyond that history of violence. Are these terms in which you think about the movie?
AB Definitely. I think that’s an important thing, violence can be carried on through generation after generation of a family but there is a hope that the chain can be broken. To me the younger brother definitely represents that possibility. I didn’t want to end the film at a point at which you knew for sure what was going to happen to him, but I did want there to be a possibility that perhaps he could transcend what had been ingrained in his older brother and father. It’s definitely important to me to ask how much redemption or change a child can attain after a childhood filled with abuse, whether verbal, emotional, or physical. Is it possible to break that chain?
NE As a filmmaker, you trust the audience to make connections about what is going on. For instance, the brothers go to their father’s but it’s not clear for a long time that he is their father. In fact, maybe it’s more important that he is a father figure than their biological father. Are these conscious choices or are these things that happened during editing?
AB To a certain degree that’s how it took shape in editing. I had a scene that explained that they were going to their father’s but it just didn’t work and in the end I didn’t feel that it was necessary. I like it better that every time the boys approach a new scenario in the film, the audience approaches it right along with them. I wanted to throw people a little off kilter and maybe make them work a little bit to figure out what was going on. It’s like that in almost every situation they’re in, it’s not totally apparent right off the bat who they’re going to see at the farm house or at the beach or when they get to their father’s—I want there to be surprises along the way rather than throwing in some piece of expository information like: “Okay, we’re almost at Dad’s house.” That’s cheap. I like ambiguity.
NE I saw the film both as a work in progress and in its finished state and what I’ve constantly found exciting is that from the first frame, you have no idea where you’re headed. You trust the audience to deal with it by making images that are enticing enough that we’re willing to follow along. I mean the first shot of your film is—I don’t know what the hell that thing is and I’ve seen it three times! That image has nothing to do with anything, but to me, it announces: Here’s a language that we’re going to establish for this film in which you will see things that are compelling but you don’t necessarily or immediately know what they are. Can you describe the image that opens the film?
AB Yeah, that piece of imagery found us to a certain degree. I mean I still don’t know what it is. (laughter) I defy anyone to try and tell me what that is! It’s basically this Plexiglas chamber with a heavy door handle, locking mechanisms and on top of it is a lone toilet. It looks like it has a flushing device that empties down into the chamber, which is probably about 6 feet tall, enough to fit a human being standing up—so it basically looks like a chamber that you would walk into and someone would just shit on your head. (laughter) We found this at a water treatment facility where we were going to steal a shot of the character jumping over a barbed wire fence. It was just sitting there at the back of a trailer and of course I didn’t have to push the director of photography Sean Price Williams very hard to get out to shoot it because he has a similar sense of fate to mine, when it comes to film. I think it works quite well as far as fathers passing all their violence and bile on to their children. Beyond that it’s a good visual puzzle to which there is no answer—except that the water treatment people probably know what it is.
NE When did you realize that that would be the first shot of the film?
AB (laughter) Somewhere very early in the editing process. I try to find what I like to call “pregnant images,” an image or maybe a connection of one or two edits that can tell you as much as pages of script and dialogue if you have the patience to figure out what they mean or why these shots are juxtaposed. I look at that as trying to create a language of cinema. It’s nothing new; it’s editing, but no two people would put the same two images together. I like to be able to tell as much of the story as possible in those scenes, instead of actually spelling it out for people and leaving breadcrumbs. There were so many times when I was working on the script where I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what the characters were supposed to be doing that gets them in such hot water: I’d think and think and write these versions that were long passages of dialogue explaining things and eventually I just threw all that out and decided its not important to figure out why the older brother is breaking out of the institution, for example. I decided the shot of him jumping over the fence was enough, and it’s enough to leave people asking.
NE Another thing that keeps me with the movie—even if I don’t always understand the nitty-gritty narrative stuff—is how tremendously physical it is. They’re on the run, literally, often shirtless. It’s highly kinetic.
AB The actors brought a lot of that. Gabriel Cross, who plays the older brother, comes from a wrestling background, and I don’t mean wrestling as Olympic Roman-Greco style. I mean High School Auditorium stuff. He’s very used to doing these dramatic performances in front of audiences where he’ll be a good guy then turn into the bad guy and sell out his tag team partner, so he just brings that physical kind of nature to the part. The little boy, Hale Lytle, is sort of the same, he’s into the outdoors and is physical in general. He’s not someone who needs a lot of dialogue. He can tell the story just through his face and expressions. Danny Jones, who plays the father, is just this character from Australia who has sort of seen it all and done it all. He’s very physical.
NE That guy is incredible. What exactly has he seen and done that you can tell me on the record?
AB Well, I think he came to acting through a prison program. He’s definitely lived many lives in his one. Not to mention he’s great to have on set—on the first day of shooting we got the car stuck in a swamp and had to call a tow truck driver out to the middle of nowhere and it completely bent all this machinery from under the car. So when Danny wasn’t shooting he put the car up on railroad ties and banged out all the machinery and completely fixed it! He was worth his weight as an actor and worth the weight of twenty crew members as well. The kind of people I look for are not afraid to get their hands dirty and if you ask them to skip over the backs of crocodiles across a swamp, they would do it without question. I think all that strong physicality comes across in the finished film.
NE How did you find these actors?
AB Very different ways, all of them. I saw a still photo of Hale from a short film he was in and was transfixed. Once I met him I realized he was right. Gabriel was in a documentary my friend Robert Greene made called Fake It So Real about these wrestlers from North Carolina. He was one of many people in the documentary, but the whole end of the movie highlighted this match he was in. It was incredible how much heart he had and how into what he was doing he was. I talked with him a little bit and we decided he’d be right for the part. I met Danny some years ago at Cannes. He was in a short film that was in the same selection as my short John Wayne Hated Horses and we’d see each other out, and I told him that some day I’d like him to be in a film I would make. I called him a couple of years later with the part in mind. A lot of people thought it didn’t make sense to cast an Australian as the father but that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me because where I grew up in this world of suburban Maryland halfway between Washington D.C and Baltimore, there are so many strange, displaced Europeans, Brits, and Australians, just there. Naturally there would be a lot of people from all over the place and that was never strange to me. I think it’s brilliant because it actually throws people off balance even more. Danny is very gung-ho, never complains and actually helps keep everyone in line. He was mysterious enough that people thought he was a sweet guy, but they were always just a tad afraid of him. Having that type of presence on a set, a guy who understands hierarchy and wants to help you, as a director, keep things in order, is a big bonus.
NE You also cast the French actress Julie Sokolowski, who prior to your film had only been the title character in Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch. Her presence in the film makes sense to me in terms of physicality, because Dumont’s films, though very different from yours, have that raw, physical presence of the human beings on screen. Is that something that inspires you?
AB Most definitely. There are many times in those films where I don’t know whether the characters are going to speak or whether they’re going to moo. I like that animal instinct feeling in people and perhaps that’s why I would rather watch people move and grunt rather than speak. I also know Dumont is very interested in the particular region where he grew up, which interests me as well. It wasn’t easy for me to shoot in Maryland, but it was nice to be able to go somewhere where I knew that if I wanted a particular backdrop I had a good idea of where I might find it, than if I plucked the whole cast up and took them to Indiana or wherever.
NE The film ends with a long sequence during a real Vietnam War re-enactment. How did you get wind of these re-enactments and how did you convince those people to let you film them?
AB I’d always known about it for some reason. I had this period in my life when I was eleven, twelve and thirteen where I was very obsessed with the military and watching a lot of films—the ’80s had a great renaissance of films about Vietnam. When I got the idea that I wanted to incorporate them into the movie I did some research and found a group of people who did it not that far away from where I grew up. I went to the events and participated. I was dressed up as a North Vietnamese soldier running around the woods letting them shoot blanks at me for three days. I eventually set it up so that I could go back to film. The people who do the re-enactments are into everything you could possibly re-enact. They do the Civil War, they do Roman conflicts. They’re into it. They’re collectors, they love the guns, the uniforms and all the other stuff that goes along with it. So we tried to be there without inhibiting the event. I included uniforms for me and the DP in the film’s prop budget. We had Department of Army Photographic Operations uniforms with the right vintage patches and we tried to use as old and dingy film equipment as we could so we wouldn’t ruin the illusion these people are after.
NE You’ve talked a lot about how you’re not that interested in dialogue, but there is one line in the film which seems very important. There’s a disturbing scene where we see that the father is selling Nazi memorabilia on eBay. He has his young son pose for a photo in a Hitler Youth shirt and he says, “History can’t hurt you, good or bad. It’s just history.” What he says seems like the very antithesis of what you’re showing.
AB Yeah. Perhaps that’s his character’s idea about history, but he’s incorrect to make that assumption. History, good or bad, can hurt you. Maybe it would be more accurate for him to say that we shouldn’t forget history whether it’s good or bad.
NE I’m thinking in terms not only of history like the Vietnam War or Nazi Germany, but also of genetic history, which is central to this film.
AB That was the undercurrent running through those lines. He speaks a lot about what he had done to nurture this tree, or how history couldn’t hurt you, but his children—or at least his oldest son—are walking, talking, hitting, punching illustrations that that’s absolutely not true. It can hurt you to the point of no return, and it’s interesting that he’s saying it to the son who maybe does still have a chance; he listens to what his father says but to a certain degree he’s perhaps sensitive enough to figure it out on his own. And he sort of does.
NE The father comes off as this outlandish brute, but he seems to favor the younger son, as if he’d given up on the older one. Do you think he sees that this young son has a chance of being something different than him?
AB Perhaps. This particular father gives his children a lot of mixed messages, which I think could be confusing for a kid and I think it’s a lot of what’s turned the older brother bad. He can be compassionate and show camaraderie toward his sons in one moment and in another he turns on them like a feral wolf. It’s very confusing for a kid when one minute your father is your best buddy and the next you do something he disapproves of, like drinking beer in front of him, and he’s smacking things out of your hand and hitting you in the face. Favoring the younger son is part of the complexity of his character. He’s not all good and he’s not all bad but he certainly compartmentalizes.
NE How did you decide to have one of the father’s occupations be selling Nazi memorabilia online? It’s a really unsettling scene.
AB Yeah it’s interesting because there are a lot of people out there that are obsessed with militaria in any variety—
NE –It doesn’t matter what it means ideologically.
AB Yeah. They collect everything and to them there’s not as much eeriness. It’s like he says in the movie: There are true believers, collectors, and then people who just do it because they’re obsessed with anything to do with the military—like a car person can be obsessed with anything car related. I still get mail from this one place where I bought the Nazi stuff, every Christmas they send me pictures of themselves with their German shepherds Ulrich and Friedrich—it’s bizarre, but it’s there and you can’t ignore it. And it is quite powerful to look at a shirt that was worn by someone who was in that moment in time, like looking at a piece of machinery from the war that was actually there. Or when I look at a film negative at my job that I know was six inches away from John Ford. I just look at it and it exudes some sort of power. There are items that do that to people but it just so happens that with the Nazi paraphernalia there are very negative connotations. It’s no wonder that the character in the movie who does this would live in total isolation and be the sort of guy who doesn’t like to go out in public.
NE Speaking of your job here at Cineric, I wonder whether any writer/director has ever color-graded his own feature film before?
AB There has to be someone out there now with all these cheap programs which do it digitally, but I had a lot of equipment that’s used to do color grading on really high-end film restoration jobs. I wasn’t going for anything too specific: I wanted the film to look very literal, just nice exposures, crisp but not too over the top, just a very unassuming, naturalistic version of what took place in front of the camera. I felt like a film as earnest and sort of straightforward as this didn’t need heavy stylization.
NE Would you take on as many responsibilities for your next film? What do you think you gain and lose by doing so much?
AB It takes longer. But it also gives me a lot more control. Sure, it’d be luxurious to sit back in an arm chair with a colorist and have him do it but I think it helps me keep movies on a smaller scale and to keep it a little more insulated. I have access to a lot of things that other filmmakers don’t have, here at Cineric. One of the whole reasons I got into post-production in the first place was because I knew I wanted to make films. For me the editing is important—I would love to work with another editor and get feedback but the editing is the part of it that’s the most Zen and the most like being an artist because you take your material and go off by yourself and shape it and tune out the rest of the world and come out of it feeling like you had the time of your life putting it together.
NE How do you keep your distance and sensitivity to the material when you’re editing yourself?
AB Essentially, I’ve written a film, I’ve gone out and rolled what I think is enough footage to tell the story I’ve written in the script and it almost feels like it’s my duty to go in there and work on it and make sure it makes sense and that I’m communicating the point that I want to communicate. Maybe it’s not ideal—I’ve heard a lot of people be dissuaded from editing their own stuff—but to me it’s just been something that blossomed out of necessity. I couldn’t afford an editor so I just put it together and used feedback from other filmmakers and artists. It’d be great in the future to have en editor whose work I respect, who would take the time to come along and—I don’t want to say clean up my mess—but give me a little time and to collaborate and co-edit. But for me putting it together is the most fun. After a while it all becomes one big home movie. I guess that’s one aspect of being involved in so many aspects of it from the start to the finish: a director has to watch his own movie a lot in the production and post-production, but I probably have to watch mine fifty times more than they do, so by the time I’m through with it I do become a bit numb to it. That’s the beauty of it though, because then it’s time to move on to another project.
Young Bodies Heal Quickly opens in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19th and plays through the 25th.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB. His translation (with Alison Dundy) of The Falling Sky by David Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, published by Harvard University Press, was recently shortlisted for a French-American Foundation Annual Translation Prize.