"I don’t want to continue making movies this way."
Ricky D’Ambrose isn’t just discerning, he’s exacting. It’s palpable from the first frames of either of his short films: Pilgrims, from 2014, or Six Cents in the Pocket, which premiered at last year’s New York Film Festival. It’s also palpable in the way he stresses the syllables of the new film’s name, as if the title has been proofed for maximum poetic lucidity. D’Ambrose initially made a name for himself in the New York zone of film criticism for his rigorous-yet-casual video interviews (Chantal Akerman, Dan Sallitt, Gina Telaroli, Bruno Dumont, etc.), any of which you can watch for free, right now, on his Vimeo page. Like these conversations, both Pilgrims and Six Cents in the Pocket are productions of humble means (D’Ambrose paradoxically calls them “private”). Nevertheless, they are startling in their aesthetic sensibility. The elegance of the filmmaker’s taste speaks for itself, but what’s ultimately most beguiling about these short-form works are their formal ambition. Pilgrims mines its drama from the refusal of filmic proximity, as its protagonist monitors a protest gone full riot somewhere outside his apartment. D’Ambrose juxtaposes exegetic audio with diegetic—we hear sounds as the protagonist might be imagining them in his mind, or as a tinny broadcast from an offscreen computer.
Six Cents in the Pocket, which made its European debut last month at the Berlinale—takes place in present-day Brooklyn, nonetheless betraying an ever-so-slight nudging of reality early and often. We see Clyde (Michael Weatherbee), protagonist of both films, walking into a Park Slope movie theater; the frame includes all contemporary titles on the marquee: Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Focus, American Sniper, Spongebob, etc. After he’s purchased his ticket and sauntered offscreen, the camera lingers on the box office’s rectangular hole, from which Clyde’s change was just passed, while audio ostensibly from a golden-era Hollywood western floods the soundtrack. Is this an unadvertised repertory screening in the theater basement? Or a childhood memory of Clyde’s that outpaced whatever Hollywood dreck he ended up watching? These are moments of painstaking filmic permeation: viewers will know they are being led, but never outright tricked. D’Ambrose orchestrates brilliantly distinct micro-sensations, the likes of which are typically naysayed by film professors liable to draw crass narrative recommendations between a short film’s length and its implied density of plot. These counteractions of noise and image can be both dislocating and sonorous at once—like the barest of strings plucked against each other.
Six Cents in the Pocket is framed around Clyde’s errand for a woman named Risa. The less you know about what happens in the next 14 minutes, the better. Suffice to say, this seemingly low-budget Brooklyn chamber drama, is actually more like a classic city symphony from the 1920s. What to call it: Arch-minimalism? Sensational Bressonianism? No matter what blanket term finds itself attached to D’Ambrose’s work in the coming months, I can’t wait to see what he does with his first feature.
Steve Macfarlane Tell me about the relationship between these two films—you describe them as companion pieces. Was that the plan all along?
Ricky D’Ambrose I suppose I became very impatient around the time I finished grad school, in early 2012, since I was trying—and failing, ultimately—to finance a feature. I couldn’t get the project going, so I decided to make a short. I knew I could make a short cheaply, because I had a camera of my own and knew a few people who were willing to act for the price of meals. That’s the genesis of Pilgrims. It was made out of frustration and impatience. It was also a chance for me to try out some of the visual ideas I had for a feature—which I should add, parenthetically, I’m shooting this year, finally.
When I’d finished Pilgrims I had sent it to film festivals, and it really didn’t catch anyone’s attention except for the people at Rooftop Films. I was under the impression that my feature was going to be made the following year, but that didn’t happen. By the end of 2014 I wrote Six Cents in the Pocket, shot it at the start of 2015, and finished editing in March. The two shorts are companionable, I think, since they share actors and locations, but this wasn’t intentional. Like Pilgrims, it was made to satisfy...
SM A craving?
RD Yes. And to prove to myself that I could make a movie very inexpensively. Six Cents wasn’t made with any plan in mind for it to be seen by anyone. It was more of an opportunity for me to work through some things I’d been thinking about, like using sound offscreen, or using close-ups and medium shots as opposed to master shots, joining clusters of them together in a way I hadn’t before. The close-ups of the hands in Six Cents, that was something very new to me.
I needed to prove to myself that I could make and finish a movie for less than a thousand dollars. In any case, I did send a cut of the film to a few friends whose tastes I trust, but I never expected it to screen at the New York Film Festival, as it did last year.
SM Pilgrims was made more for the festival world, but didn’t get any play, and yet Six Cents—which you make sound like an exercise—went to Berlin. Irony aside, what has the experience of making these two shorts given you, aesthetically?
RD I don’t know if my first feature will resemble these two films. I had a few ideas, drawn mainly from the movies I was watching by Fassbinder, Akerman, Straub-Huillet’s Class Relations, and an American movie called Echoes of Silence by Peter Emanuel Goldman. And Bresson, obviously, specifically, for Six Cents, with his depiction of the exchange of money, the close-up, the cutting style... I don’t know if that’s going to carry over into my feature.
There’s no hesitation when Fassbinder arranges his characters in front of bare walls. So my shorts were a way to try out new things—one, for the films, and the other for myself. In Six Cents in the Pocket, I tried to do something similar, by flattening the shots, doing things where the image becomes flatter and flatter, and then it becomes reduced to a few spare elements of color and shape, almost abstracting it. I wanted to work through some influences, and see if I could get them to stick in some interesting way—in my own way.
SM I don’t see a lot of films that look like Six Cents shot in outdoor locations like these, if that makes sense. Intersections and quotidian scenes around Brooklyn—I laughed aloud at the shot of the LCD display outside Barclays Center. You mentioned the cutting style, but there’s also the way these shots—which I guess we can call master shots—are established: at once stationary and transient. There are also static close-ups of various stations on the MTA map, with subway noise overlaid. Is that a solution to the problem of shooting on the subway, or an overarching stylistic decision?
RD Initially, the idea was to follow Clyde on a long walk back to Risa’s apartment, where he’s been living. But then I thought of the intertitle, “The Long Walk,” and decided it wasn’t necessary to show him at all. That’s another way of implying a long walk, and I hope that is clear, that these are places he’s walking through, over however many hours. The stuff with the subway maps was, you’re right, a work-around: I had wanted to shoot subway signs, and the movie opens with the exit sign, and I had tried shooting different platforms and signs, but it’s actually much more difficult than you’d think, especially if you want to frame things precisely—so that the sides of the subway signs are parallel with the sides of the frame.
SM During the “long walk” sequence you see what the protagonist sees, but you’re also seeing it as static. If the implication is that he’s moving, his point of view is going to be continuously different. You’re revealing a tension in the viewer: expecting him to walk into the frame, like you said, also expecting that the frame will appropriate his field of vision—a certain neither-here-nor-there-ness. Is that something you discovered while shooting? Or is it mapped out ahead of time?
RD I planned to include Clyde in the final walking sequence, and I did shoot a few things of Michael Wetherbee for this, including a lengthy sunset walk across the big field in Prospect Park. But it didn’t work. In the end, dropping Clyde from the walk—pulling him from the sidewalk, so to speak—is another way to avoid being very explicit. It’s fine to have the character drop out of the movie for a while.
SM You figured out that it wasn’t working when you cut those two images together? Or even when you shot it, did you have one of those deep-down, gut feelings, that it might not fit?
RD The final film doesn’t resemble the script at all, but I didn’t suddenly decide to throw the script away during the shoot. In fact, I thought I was fulfilling the script closely.
RD And then it didn’t make sense as I was editing, so I went back out. There is something very nice, I should add, about not having a crew, and not having a budget, or a deadline to deliver something on time. In the middle of the editing process, I just went out with my own camera and continued shooting. It’s a decision that only comes once you see, in a way, two and two put together.
SM I feel as if you’re getting at a fundamental question. Film school orthodoxy would have us believe that this is a medium about establishing visual information in a certain way, leading people by a very particular beat, and so forth. On the other hand, the impulse to seek alternatives is strong. So, since your shorts (and your interviews) have a very sustained aesthetic sense, I’d like to ask: In the process of putting that two and two together, what’s proved most elusive so far?
RD I don’t include those MUBI video interviews in this, because those are made under different circumstances, much less intentionally. But with the two shorts, in which there is a very clear design in mind, the difficult thing is trying to retain whatever has been floating around in my head for however long I’ve been thinking about the movie, and therefore preparing it accordingly. Specifically—or I should say, especially—with the short films, this is the outcome of having written a script with specific places and faces in mind; in other words, I already knew the images. But trying to be faithful to whatever you’ve had in mind when you’re extremely limited is very difficult. And I don’t want to continue making movies this way, without a crew (although I’m grateful to Sean Dunn, who recorded dialogue on Six Cents in the Pocket). I don’t know how to make films extemporaneously.
SM Your visual forms appear in a relation to one another in a way that’s beguiling. They stoke the viewer’s curiosity, without feeling cheap or expository. If there’s a shot of a guy walking down the street, it’s not so we can figure out how he got from one block to the next. Does the bulk of your time go into pre-production?
RD Well, for this film, that’s very much so. When I was in preproduction, I found all of the street corner locations with Google Street View. I grabbed screenshots of them, and then tabulated the locations and, in effect, mapped them out in a sequence that made sense for the film. It was all planned.
SM Can you tell me anything about this upcoming feature? Does it also take place in New York, in the expanded Ricky D’Ambrose Universe?
RD It does. It will be a city movie, like Six Cents in the Pocket, but with a segment someplace in Westchester County.
SM While your short The Stranger appears more literary in its construction, I consider Six Cents and Pilgrims very experiential in a way, even if they have their own literary—modernist?—precedent. Where do you think the upcoming feature fits on that axis?
RD Well, the literary precedent is a kind of blank style. (laughter) There was—at least, in The Stranger—an attempt to translate my very limited view, my limited experience, even if it sounds far-fetched, of translating into film form some of the tenets of the postwar French New Novel. That’s a very declarative and blank way of making a movie.
The one thing I’m thinking about a great deal for the feature is this: It concerns a search for a character who disappears, and the character disappears in a city in which there’s a group of young people, the Verso Books crowd, enchanted by this ideologue who’s coming to give a lecture. I do not want to make a political, sociological movie movie with a “statement” about a “generation.” But these are elements I’m thinking about, and that are always there. Hopefully, these characters will become archetypes in the minds of the viewer. How do you handle that challenge without having some kind of agenda? Does that make sense?
Maybe I should add that when I was in high school, with my friends, I made features on VHS.
RD Yes. I remade The Shining when I was 13. It was an hour and a half long.
SM Could we… show the remake at Spectacle [a volunteer-run screening room in Brooklyn]?
RD It’s such an embarrassment that I think I’ll keep it under wraps.
SM Damn! In the most blanket terms possible: Is any of the aforementioned rigor related to why you didn’t want me to watch The Stranger before conducting this interview? Were you a more hit-and-run filmmaker back then?
RD The Stranger was made under similar conditions—and very carefully planned. But I’m annoyed by it now. It’s a 30-minute satire, about a couple of graduate students, who let a Teorema figure into their home, and they’re very impressed by him, because they think he represents something that’s interesting and valuable.
While I didn’t graduate from film school, I spent two years in a film production program. If there was anything valuable about those two years, it was the emphasis on process and planning. I have never gotten away from that. To me, it seems inevitable: I’m gonna make a movie, and there are things that need to be dealt with very thoughtfully and carefully. This is not to say that movies can’t be made other ways. Maybe it has something to do with the Cassavetes box set that Criterion released in 2003. Maybe that boxset produced an entire generation of young filmmakers who learned how to make movies a certain way. But that’s not the way I’m learning to make mine.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.