Aaron Schimberg on dominance, avoiding naturalism and psychoanalyzing a character.
I was exposed to Aaron Schimberg’s cinema before we actually met. Aaron submitted work for the first-ever screening my work, a spread of short films curated with Showpaper in 2009. Among the usual thumb-sucking Coney Island mope-core and corporate-ready thesis films, Aaron’s trio of miniDV shorts (made with his wife and producer Vanessa McDonnell) immediately stood out, made with both a knowing physical lightness and utter precision of tone. Unpredictably hitting new note after new note whenever I thought my eyeballs had settled back down, the films were playful, dark, conversant with death, never enamored of their own beauty, but not self-flagellating either. (The whole trio is available as a standalone short, Late Spring/Regrets For Our Youth, here.)
Later on, I heard murmurs that Aaron was making his first feature, holed up in a former paint factory in Greenpoint. That film became Go Down Death and has been in production for more years than I can count on one hand, filmed entirely indoors (no ceilings) on Super-16 with a cast of dozens-if-not-hundreds. Death would have an uphill battle on its hands even if it weren’t excellent: under the reference points cosmetically affixed to Schimberg’s mise-en-scene (David Lynch, Tom Waits, Guy Maddin) lies an almost terrifyingly bleak worldview, served up in a final scene that knifes straight through the preceding 80 minutes and makes you reconsider everything you just watched.
Aaron Schimberg So you’re gonna fix this to make me sound like a genius, right?
Steve MacFarlane (laughter) Uh, let’s start with all the comparisons to name directors. The homage is more in the look of your film than in the actual substance of it.
AS I consciously was trying—and telling everybody when we were making it—that we were trying to avoid any specific references. It’s not supposed to evoke the 1920s, or expressionism, or any kind of specific period, real world or cinematic. You’re not really supposed to know when it’s from. It’s not too realistic either. Striking that balance was one of the hardest things. People at the first screening thought that we really shot in it in a forest; to me, it’s completely phony, it looks fake. But it’s sort of hard while you’re watching the film to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
SM Even the timbre of one character’s voice, or the choice of a spoken phrase, can come off as totally contemporary.
SM So instead of talking about what you wanted to avoid, can you tell me a little bit about what you wanted to make happen? This wasn’t written as a “period” film, right?
AS Well, the script called for a kind of rural setting. We visited a few villages initially. But they were mostly unfeasible. For one thing, I’m lazy and I didn’t want to leave my cat. The main reason is, I’m from the city; I’ve always lived in the city and I didn’t want to go to some rural place and pretend I was Walker Evans, or be exploitative like Shelby Lee Adams, or whatever that guy’s name is.
This film is—maybe not on the surface like Sweet Smell of Success or Driller Killer or anything—but it is in fact a very New York film. It was shot in industrial Brooklyn; everybody in the film is from New York, everybody’s got a sort of a New York dialect or accent. It’s kind of a running joke, you know, that a guy playing a farmer is really a bookie. He hates the woods. He’s afraid of lyme disease. He wouldn’t know the first thing about farming. That incongruity is part of the film’s character, and the skeletal garden in the film is a nod to that.
The dialogue in the script is stylized, it’s not colloquial. It’s kind of austere. And so initially I wanted everybody to be speaking in a uniformly stylized way. When we were casting, and building, it dawned on me that I couldn’t rehearse to that degree, we’re putting out open calls and casting a lot of non-actors, so what I started to look for was people who could take this dialogue, and interpret it in some personal way. So even though all the dialogue was very homogenous, everybody is performing it in wildly different ways. And it lends the film a kind of vaudevillian aspect.
SM Well, making a movie is vaudevillian in and of itself sometimes—no matter how rigidly you have what the scene’s going to be like set up in your mind, shooting changes everything. New flavors get brought in, often forcibly, and you have to improvise—“Oh, this character has an accent now!” In my experience, you never figure out if you prefer the original dream-version or the tangible, final one. Deep down, do you wish you had had more time to rehearse?
AS I think I grew to appreciate it, and having those limitations gives the film a chaotic feeling. Frankly, I’m amazed that we pulled it off, and we had forty speaking roles, and we were still casting as we were shooting. It was all done on the fly. I like this combination of complete chaos and fastidiousness.
SM There was a conscious decision to avoid naturalism at all costs? I assume the sets were constructed way ahead of time.
AS As much as we could in a week, before shooting started. Literally between takes we would be taking down or reorganizing or rebuilding the sets to become other rooms or spaces.
SM Really? The amount of texture in the film is nuts. The card table has a shag carpet, for instance, that probably appears in like two shots. Is this level of art direction going to be a signature of yours in future films, do you think?
SM I don’t actually think of the film as trying to hide the fact that it was made in New York.
AS Well, I can’t hide it, because I need my New York State film tax credit. The film is constantly referring to “the city.” We were playing with that. There are a lot of films about, you know, nature breaking through the thin veneer of civilization, but in some ways this film was about the opposite; civilization keeps breaking through the veneer of nature. Which we built. Until the last scene, when that veneer falls away completely.
SM This slogan that appears in the film, “NO PITY FOR THE PAST.” Is that something you wrote originally, or did you hear it somewhere?
AS That’s an original slogan. I think.
SM It’s great.
AS In this city, we show no pity for the past. Did you interpret that as a positive thing?
SM No. I wouldn’t recommend that attitude personally or historically or whatever. But it's prevalent. We pride ourselves on being “forward-thinking,” but it can be actually closer to spite.
AS Yeah. To me it’s like a Bloombergian mantra. Bloombergesque? I hope this doesn’t interfere with my tax credit.
SM In the opening of Go Down Death, a woman is screaming while something awful happens to her, and you see it through the rear-view of a car—I think it’s a taxi cab. It’s not a horror film, really at all, but it you seem to be playing with that vernacular. I felt like something terrible was happening at all times, but information was always withheld.
AS The looming presence is unspecified. It was inspired by something more specific, which is alluded to obliquely, but to me, it’s about the people in this village who are living under the threat of crisis. And, you know, we also live under the constant threat of crisis.
SM I guess I’d call it the threat of the feeling of constant crisis.
AS Right. Somebody asked me why the characters are so apathetic when explosions are going off all around them. I guess to me, that’s not unusual. It might seem unusual to us, because for us the explosions are occurring “over there.”
SM Would you say that’s apathy, or denial? Not that they’re mutually exclusive.
AS It’s denial. I think that people in any kind of crisis or catastrophe—existential, political, environmental, something a little more immediate—can learn to adapt to those situations with denial. Well, I can’t speak for others, but I’ve got a highly refined denial mechanism. Of course, denied emotions resurface as ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome. Maybe that’s why everyone in the village seems to have medical problems.
SM The first time I saw the movie I thought it was more—pardon this term—miserablist than I do now. These scenes and setups suggest that tone, but the individual scenes are actually really spontaneous. Somebody will say or do something eerie and ominous and then it’s almost deflated by comedy, so you have these weird tonal shifts.
AS The tonal shifts are very built-in. It’s unclear to what extent the film is comic or tragic, even to me. I’ve watched it and found some part of it hilarious, and the next time I see it, I find that same part depressing or disturbing. And screenings are that way too—there’s resounding laughter at one, and dead quiet at another. I find a way to be devastated either way. Even when people are laughing, it’s always the other half of the room; they’re laughing at different things. I think that's the difficulty with marketing this film—it’s none of those things.
People looking for a horror film have approached me and inevitably been disappointed, but people have also picked up on the tragic side and talked about how miserablist it is; other people are surprised by the sheer amount of comedy. But it can play differently and I was encouraging that as we were shooting it. Again, this is reinforced by the different acting styles: you’ll have somebody completely melodramatic, or self-aware and comedic, and then somebody who’s practically Shakespearian. The first scene we shot was written to be more comedic, but the two actors played it in the most serious possible manner, and I found it affecting—but then I might watch it again and think that the scene is even funnier because it’s so inappropriately melodramatic.
SM It does seem some of the actors interpreted a “period flavor” that you may not have slathered on top of them.
AS Some actors wanted to know what their method needed to be. I was evasive, or I would tell them conflicting things. I wanted everybody in the film looking a little bit confused and lost. I was encouraging that.
SM The looming, kind of mounting dread you’re talking about is, in my opinion, achieved more through the acting, images and edits than maybe through the screenplay itself.
Is it fair to say the character of the kid, Butler (Rayvin Disla, above), becomes aware of something that the rest of the town is oblivious to?
AS Perhaps he’s more aware, but on the other hand, maybe he’s less aware, and therefore less apathetic—he’s trying to do something constructive amid all this destruction. Although maybe that’s just another form of denial.
Butler’s curious, he’s active. He does all these jobs—he’s a gardener, a tailor, he writes poetry—and his doctor is maybe trying to discourage that, for whatever reason. He’s trying to get Butler to do clerical work.
SM He’s discouraged by a lot of the men in the village.
AS In the script, Butler was one of many characters, but when you see a cute child onscreen, you’re immediately drawn to him. He becomes a protagonist. I actively set out to not have any protagonists, but it’s a difficult task. The characters were not supposed to stand out from one another, and they may represent different things, but you don’t shouldn’t necessarily favor one over the other.
This should have been obvious to me, but once you put it onscreen people are drawn to one person for some reason or another, because one actor is taller or something. It became an editing challenge, to try to guide the audience into not caring about one person over another. Not wanting one person to live over another, specifically.
SM In the movie theater scene, he’s the only one who’s not enjoying the violence. The other kids are laughing. That gets into what you’re talking about. It’s literally a scene about people—children—preferring to watch one type of man over another.
AS That scene is the most distilled example of this power struggle between two characters. You have a guy who’s a strongman and you have another guy who’s smaller and weaker; the film-within-a-film is manipulating the audience within the film to side with one, and I think almost every scene in the film contains a variation on this dynamic. Almost every scene is a dialogue between two people and there’s always some kind of power struggle.
It’s not always clear who’s winning out. I think the film questions whether the need to dominate comes from insecurity or weakness and also whether suffering silently—as other people do in the film—comes from some kind of inner strength or if that’s weakness unto itself.
SM Entering into a scene, your edits are all over the place spatially. For example, when the kid is in the doctor’s office, you pingpong from the signs on the wall to the guy who’s speaking to the kid in the chair to the tools on the table, then kind of settle down on a perspective. This is especially sweet in the epilogue. Why do you like that activity so much?
AS We sort of figured it out as a way for us to establish the rhythm of the film, that we’re not sticking with anybody for too long, that what follows might be confusing. If we started it with a scene that was five minutes long, as I did initially, you might get too comfortable; we tried to make the first ten minutes as hectic as possible so you wouldn’t become too emotionally engaged in any one person, so it was clear that we would be jumping around.
SM Other people who’ve seen the film questioned the validity of “blocking” the viewer from getting into any one specific character. Is it a specific style of narrative you wanted, or…?
AS Again, if you become too attached to one person, you might not care about the others. If somebody died, I didn’t want you to prioritize one death over another. Care about everybody equally, even if that means you can’t care about anything.
SM A question of proportionality.
AS Well, yeah. On the subway, when you’re observing people around you, you don’t know them, you can’t. They might be talking to each other, but you don’t know what the nature of their relationship is.
SM It’s probably better to assume you don’t know.
AS This film asks you to relate to the characters in a similar manner. I think between every character—almost—you can’t quite tell what their relationships are. Some people may have known each other for 20 years, or they could be strangers. I don’t know if that makes it hard to relate to what’s onscreen, but it helps to view them as you might view strangers you’ll see in real life. You’ll catch yourself assuming things and building stories for them, but they’re still strangers.
SM Is this a problem you saw in other films and you wanted to do your bit to amend it? Or is it just how the script shook out?
AS It wasn’t meant as a hostile gesture, but I don’t like the Syd Field method or whatever, in which you need to know the character’s psychological history, that their father was an alcoholic or whatever.
SM Which makes their background replicable in some weird way.
AS You shouldn’t need to know backstory, or psychology, in order to empathize with or relate to people. If you meet somebody, in a split second you’ll have a connection to them—good or bad—fair or unfair—without specifically knowing anything about them.
Viewers have occasionally empathized with somebody, but you know, the difficulty is that there are other people that they don’t, or can’t, empathize with. They’re too remote. I’ve found that different people relate to different characters when they watch the movie. A lot of people are drawn to Butler, but other people are drawn to other characters entirely. I worry that it has less to do with the characters and more to do with external factors—how attractive they are, how kind or unkind the actor seems.
SM You found yourself choosing a scene more based on its depiction of the village as whole.
AS Well, it becomes more like a musical structure. It’s balancing the tonal shifts and trying to give enough plot information to allow the viewer to keep following it. There are so many characters, so many things are so brief that it’s hard to keep track of people sometimes.
SM It’s murky. I definitely understood more the second time I saw it.
AS it’s hard with a film like this to know what the audience will easily pick up on or what they will never pick up on. There are things in the film that to me were extremely clear, but went unnoticed and prevented people from understanding the film and things that I never noticed were what everybody wanted to talk about. It made us try to create a more experiential film.
Now, for people in some of these reviews to say I’m just fucking with people, or trying to be weird—I mean, you don’t spend seven years on a film that you’re making in bad faith. You just don’t. The film is personal and there’s nothing in it that intentionally doesn’t make sense. Now, that said: specific explanations about why this is happening, about individual characters . . . I was truly hoping that viewers would be willing to fill in the blanks.
SM Not just able but willing to try to do that. It reminds me of pre-screening for certain unnamed film festival festivals. Anything that seems to pose a threat to your movie-processing faculties, might not make it. It has to be, you know, legible.
AS Which is a scary thing, because it discourages filmmakers from experimenting, or if a filmmaker does experiment, he or she does so at his or her own peril. The thing that makes film different from other art forms: you write a novel, people read it, they don’t like it, you put it in a drawer, you rewrite it, you do another novel. If you’re a painter, you slash the canvas. But when you go into making a film, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but it has to get out there either way. There’s money on the line, there’s time, there’s a lot of people’s efforts. In most cases it’s already public knowledge before it’s done.
SM You have to trailerize the movie before you’ve shot it.
AS And it’s been announced, so it’s going to get out there. There’s nothing you can do if you can’t afford to reshoot the footage. Filmmaking is hard and risky because each film is an experiment and they’re all going to escape. It’s not something where you say “Oh, this isn’t working out so I’ll go make another film, then.” You can’t say, “Sorry everybody.”
SM It’s bloodsport, but the most you’re competing for is three hours of somebody’s time, tops. But probably more like 65 minutes.
AS Exactly. For some reason people want their films to be as short as possible, now. New films are not allowed to be over two hours unless it’s Batman.
SM Your film reminds me of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. You spend time with a ton of people but you probably have more empathy for the people you spent less time with. They’re just not as weak. There are moments in Go Down Death where you want to judge a character but you can’t—you just don’t know enough about them.
AS Yeah, we'd screen it to people and they'd say, “I hate that guy. Don’t show me that guy. That guy comes onscreen, my brain shuts down.” What do you do with something like that? Often, people would say “more Butler.”
There was a scene in the first cut that was everybody’s favorite—I immediately cut it out. It was not because I wanted to be aggressive, or as punishment; it was because I felt that that scene—which was sort of a comic relief bit—was hurting the film because it was influencing the way people were watching the film. It wasn’t right; people enjoyed it as they were watching it but that doesn’t mean it was good for the film. And nobody missed it when it was gone.
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. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.