Hellaware is a cheeky satire of the New York art scene. Nate (Keith Poulson) is an uninspired photographer who becomes depressed after his girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) dumps him for Jordan (Chuck McCarthy), a more successful artist. However, when Nate sees a rap group, Young Torture Killers, perform their song, “I Cut Your Dick Off,” on the web, he becomes enamored with their “outsider art” and sets out to find and photograph MC Rusty (Brent Butler) and his posse. Nate soon heads to Delaware with his friend Bernadette (Sophia Takai) to check out the band and one of the film’s best jokes is the venue and the turnout at the gig they attend. His photographs soon catch the attention of Olivier LaFleur (Gilles Decamps), a trendy gallery owner, who wants him to do a show.
Hellaware is a very knowing, very funny comedy that skewers white rappers and New York artistes. Writer/director Michael M. Bilandic uses the precise language of the art scene and the rap-rock music world to poke fun at Nate and Rusty and their friends. Bilandic, who attended grad school for film at NYU, and worked at Kim’s Video as well as on several features with Abel Ferrara (including Mulberry Street), spoke about making Hellaware.
Gary M. Kramer Nate finds creativity in depression. Do you feel artists do their best work under the worst circumstances? If so, what was going wrong in your life that prompted you to create Hellaware?
Michael M. Bilandic Nate’s complaining and the jealousy is definitely a reflection of real life and people I know just living in New York. I don’t view it as a negative thing. It gives you inspiration to do your thing. It can be good or bad. Depression and the need for attention is the genesis for the Young Torture Killers as well. Nate and Rusty parallel each other in their co-dependent need for attention. In my life, I’m constantly jealous of people I know, but not quite as hateful as Nate. There was nothing traumatic or personally humiliating that was the genesis of this movie.
GMK Your film has a real scrappy feel to it that is endearing. How did you create this energy?
MMB The script was already very written, so that gave us the luxury to have a shorter shoot—15 days—and that’s where some of the scrappiness comes from. I like the energy that comes from that. In terms of casting, I was friendly with most of the cast members so I could envision them in those roles. We had a shorthand with each other that made it easy and enjoyable. We had to look a little further for the rappers, and it was important that they weren’t friends in real life. That added to their characters’ distance.
GMK How did you work with Brent Butler? This was his first film, and he’s quite magnetic. His freestyle rapping, with the line “still in” is hilarious.
MMB He was referred to us by a friend of a friend. He is a rapper, and he had a natural connection to the character, I think. But I think it was difficult for him to try to rap poorly. The movie was about 90% scripted, but the freestyles were improvised and that line, “still in,” was one that he came up with off the top of his head. He also improvised the freestyle scene in the woods.
GMK How familiar were you with the art world that you were able to make the gallery characters sound so authentic?
MMB I go to a lot of art openings and I have a lot of friends in the art world. I’ve always been interested in the art world and wanted to make a movie set there.
GMK So what prompted you to make a satire of hipster artists, outsider art, gallery owners, and white rappers? These seem like easy targets.
MMB It’s funny you say that. The one negative review said they were easy targets. If it is such an easy target, why are so many satires about the art world so bad? The reason for the rap satire was that I always liked weird, obscure rap music and horror rap, and I wanted to make a movie set in that world. I cross-pollinated the ideas.
GMK How did you work on creating the different works of art within the film—the rap video, the photographs, etc.
MMB Sean Price Williams shot the whole movie. He’s an accomplished cinematographer. For the music video, I had a high school student shoot and edit it. He had done a PSA about cough syrup abuse. So this student, who was a real cinephile, shot and edited the Young Torture Killers video so it had a different look and style. It was great to have Eleonore Hendricks shoot the photos and get their look. They both read the script and had a general understanding of the story and the idea. I gave them freedom to take the photos or shoot the video in the style they did.
GMK What can you say about your visual style in the film?
MMB It was consciously from Nate’s perspective and how he sees the world. He’s in almost every scene, and we cut some scenes of the Young Torture Killers because it broke up the flow of the film being from Nate’s perspective. I really love basic shot-reverse when filming stuff: someone giving a monologue and then someone’s reaction to it as a punchline. That is the joke. It’s funnier than the joke itself. That’s how I wanted to tell the story. I really love Paul Morrissey movies and I think the humor in those films comes from long monologues and someone not processing or caring about what the other person is saying.
GMK Speaking of punchlines, Delaware is a repeated punchline in the film. What has Delaware ever done to you?
MMB It’s funny because I don’t have a personal connection to Delaware. It was just the absurd idea of it being an exotic place—the romanticization of suburban middle class American drug use and sex. Our cinematographer Sean is from Delaware, and he was the resident expert on the state. He helped create the visuals and get the geography correct.
GMK Nate and Rusty exchange more than just taking photos for codeine cough syrup. How did you envision their relationship? You called it co-dependent earlier, but it is also exploitative.
MMB I think it’s both, honestly. A lot of that has to do with the casting. On the page, Nate could have been more of a sociopath and monster, but Keith Poulson is really endearing and funny. He added a layer of complexity to the character; Nate is not a pure monster. He’s definitely exploiting the kids, but they are thirsty to get their work out there as well.
GMK Nate talks (pretentiously, of course) about “immersing himself in the culture.” What are your thoughts on his ethnography?
MMB My thought is that the style of thought and art is case by case. Sometime it can be excellent and other times it can be horrifying and embarrassing. Nate’s regurgitating what he’s heard from others, and doing what he’s seen from other people, and what’s expected to get notoriety. He’s not genuinely passionate about it, but he’s operating from a formula that works.
GMK There’s a very funny discussion about Boku Juice. If you had (or have) Boku, would you drink it or leave it in the original packaging?
MMB It’s funny you say that, a friend of mine was just in Japan, and he found Zima! He sent me two bottles. I’m usually the kind of person who doesn’t’ keep stuff in the packaging, but I haven’t been able to open the Zima. It’s on top of my refrigerator. Crystal clear sparkling Zima …
GMK Do you believe artists are thieves as the Olivier LaFleur character claims?
MMB I don’t not believe that. I get annoyed every time I hear it. Don’t go to film school, work in a strip club, or a toll booth in Alaska. Everyone has some life experience. You don’t have to behave outrageously to be true to your own life experience.
GMK Nate has an ethical dilemma in the film. Do you feel it was important to make his character unsympathetic at this moment?
MMB I wanted there to be some moral dilemma. That thought: “I shouldn’t do this” needs to cross his mind for a second. Otherwise, he would be a pure monster making a dubious decision.
GMK What are your thoughts on pigtails and goatees and other ironic hipster hair?
MMB I’m totally interested in bizarre facial hair and style. That character, Jordan, was originally supposed to have a half-beard, which I think is the most radical, most off-putting, look anyone could have. It was actually too much, so we settled on the pigtails.
GMK Given you wrote the lyrics to “I Cut Your Dick Off,” Can you freestyle?
MMB I can probably freestyle, and I love rap music. Especially Tadoe (Of Chief Keef’s Glo Gang) and Yung Lean, a Swedish teenage rapper who drinks Arizona Ice tea. I recorded the song “I Cut Your Dick Off” with my friends and I gave the original version of the rap song to the actors.
GMK There are interesting elements to the drug consumption of Nate, who does “bad coke” and Rusty and his friends, who do whip-its. What can you say about the drug use in the film?
MMB Drugs are absolutely part of both of those worlds, art and rap. I like seeing drug use in movies—I feel there should be more of it because there is so much of it in the world. I think it’s a cinematic thing to see how characters behave when they are high. It’s also fun to shoot visuals of the characters when they are high.
GMK The film is about Nate’s enthusiasm for Rusty, and Rusty’s general enthusiasm. What do you get enthusiastic about?
MMB Art in general. I love listening to music, and watching weird stuff on Youtube. I relate in that regard. Fassbinder is my favorite film director, and I love Cheech and Chong. They both have a reckless entertaining commentary on society. I watch their movies and I try to imagine what the production and sets were like. That energy is very exciting to me.
Hellaware is currently in limited release.