Interview: Writer/director/star Matt D'Elia talks about his 'American Animal'
Here's what I wrote when I saw the film "American Animal" at SXSW about a year ago:
Take "American Animal," for example, a film by Matt D'Elia. I am shocked that the film is not the culmination of a long-running stage production that someone decided to adapt for film, because that's what it feels like. It is a relatively intimate affair, with only four actors and one main set, and it has that sort of ebb and flow rhythm that is common to stage productions. Jimmy (D'Elia) and James (Brendan Fletcher) live together, and their primary activity seems to be avoiding any and all productive actions. They invite over a couple of girls, Blonde Angela (Mircea Monroe) and Not Blonde Angela (Angela Sarafyan), and at first, it's like we're watching this weird hybrid of a drugged-up party and a performance art piece. But there are secrets simmering just below the surface for both of the guys, and over the course of a very, very long evening, we get a glimpse at the harsh realities that they're both hiding from.
D'Elia is an intense screen presence, and serving triple-duty as writer, director, and lead actor is one of those things that can easily overwhelm a young filmmaker. Not a problem here. Jimmy is always on, larger than life, slipping from one persona to another, and it's all an act designed to hide a fear of impending mortality, and there is a point to the outrageous behavior. There is a sadness beneath the mania, and D'Elia never crosses the line into making the character impossible to like. He just skates on that line really carefully. Fletcher makes a perfect fencing partner for D'Elia, as does the strikingly lovely Sarafyan, who seems unimpressed by Jimmy's aggressive eccentricity. What I love is how the film doesn't excuse Jimmy's actions, but it does explain them, and we're allowed to have our own reactions, good or bad. D'Elia goes through a radical physical transformation in the film, and it's just one expression of how committed the entire thing feels. This is what I want from indie filmmakers… personal visions that are uncompromising, films where you can feel the passion, movies that had to be made. "American Animal" deserves to be seen, but more than that, it deserves to launch D'Elia as a filmmaker of note, and I'm curious to see where he goes from here.
A year has passed since I wrote that, and the film is about to finally get a release to theaters. You'll get a chance to see it. And I'm curious to see what people make of it. To help give the film some attention as it attempts to compete in a marketplace where "The Avengers" is apparently grossing $100 million every six hours or some such madness, I thought it would be nice to have D'Elia out to the house to talk about the film he made, the films he draws inspiration from, and the films he hopes to make in the future.
First, take a look at our exclusive clip from the film, embedded above. That will give you an idea of what we're talking about here. You can also see the film's trailer at Apple.com.
When Matt arrived at my house and took a seat in the office, looking around, he commented on the stacks of DVDs and Blu-rays and books that accumulate, and we talked about how it's important to have movies around, but it's also important that the boys watch what's appropriate. We compared the quest to see more mature films when we were younger, and while the experiences are the same, the touchstones are different because of how old I am and how young he is. For me, "Conan" and "Porky's" and "The Thing" are movies where I was determined to see them, even if I was "too young" at that point. For Matt, it was a little later.
"I remember crying because my parents wouldn't let me see 'Se7en.' I was so upset. I was, like, 12, and I was like, 'Why can't I see it?' And they had seen it, so they were like, 'You cannot see this movie.' Didn't matter what argument I made, they just would not let me see it." There's something about those movies that are out when you're twelve and the way they mark you, and we talked about how we would struggle to see those things we weren't supposed to and how much they meant to us.
His film is intimate, all taking place in one location, and I asked him if it began life as a stage piece or if that's what his background is. Surprisingly, he said no. "I love great theater, but as far as… we've gotten the question a lot. 'Was this theater first?' and it wasn't. I wanted some control. I wanted to be practical about it, and I wanted to write something I could make. I was sick of just writing and I wanted to make something. A lot of times, you don't have enough money and you're running and gunning. So I thought I could control everything if I wrote it to all take place in one place. I'm a big fan of chamber dramas and chamber comedies. Hitchcock did that when he was on top, and Polanski did that so well. 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' was a big influence."
When you have this small a cast - four speaking roles - and you limit things to one very tight setting, it all really comes down to dynamics and how you manage that, and that's what D'Elia does so well in the film. "You may limit the scope of your movie, but you sharpen your tools at the same time. With 'Woolf,' that's an incredibly cinematic way of taking something from the stage to the screen, and that was definitely an influence for me."
I asked him where Jimmy Pistol came from as a character. "I was really sick in my early 20s, and when you're waiting around to get better, it's easy to get a little crazy. Especially because you don't know when or if you're getting better. The idea of getting through each day by choosing to be delusional and having that take over was intriguing, and Jimmy is the ultimate version of that, where he doesn't know what's real anymore."
A character like Jimmy Pistol is freeing because he says anything and has no filter. "There are people who think the movie is about me, especially if I say that I was sick and that's where it started. But look at Jimmy and how he behaves. No. That's not me." I mentioned Jimmy's Twitter account and the way Matt uses that voice to say truly crazy things. "Sure. I'm exorcising the part of my mind that loves to play around with those ideas. That's why it was so much fun to write it. It's almost like giving that crazy part of my brain a chance to play and then going to battle with it. The craziness of the character… the other actors would let me be that while I was working with them. That fed into the film."
We talked about how younger generations today have several versions of themselves, and how online identities give a lot of people room to indulge their ids fully. I can see how someone might think Matt is "really" Jimmy Pistol and vice-versa. I don't think drama is about endorsement, but lots of people make that mistake in how they view things. "I couldn't agree more. I actually never ever look for someone likable in a film. I just need to be interested or to care, and that doesn't mean I need to like them." We were both able to name a good half-dozen examples immediately, and it's no surprise we both landed on Travis Bickle as a perfect example of that. "The conflict interests me. Likable gets in the way. It's like you're pandering for votes like a politician, and no filmmaker should do that."
"It feels like a very modern trend in general. People tune out if they don't like someone. That's a real problem, and if the audience does that, I don't relate to that audience at all. I hope it never just becomes a small subsection of people who can handle films where they don't like the characters."
When I was first falling in love with movies, the classics of the '70s were new or a decade old, but now, those are 40 year old films, and younger audiences aren't weaned on them. Instead, they're being raised on a defanged cinema, and I wonder if they're even given a chance to develop a taste for damaged characters. "When I think of how to write, I think it's about specificity. The more specific you are, the more you can whittle your voice down to whatever is essential. Even in the indie world, it feels like we're aiming more for getting our movies into Sundance than making something that is specific and true to who we are. I think 'American Animal' is, for better or worse, as specific as possible. This is as much who I am as a movie can be."
"The three actors that ended up in the movie, all three of them were my first choice to play those roles. I was always a huge fan of Brendan, and when I saw him in 'Tideland,' I realized he could do anything. I called his manager, and he read the script, and by the time we spoke on the phone, I just offered him the role there, before I even met him, and he was like 'How do you know I can do this?' And I said, 'I just know.' And he said, 'Well, no, you don't know.' He's not concerned with the money or the schedule, but just with whether or not he's really the guy to do this. He comes to LA, we get together one night, read a few scenes, and it was apparent, he was the guy. Angela was the first to get cast of the girls, and I'd seen her in a web series she did with Allison Brie, a friend of mine, called 'Hot Girls,' and I thought she looked exactly right and had this interesting presences. And once we started rehearsing, we just read it through like a play, and immediately, it was obvious that I'd gotten the right people. By the time we were shooting, it was smooth sailing."
That was important, though, because they only had 17 days to shoot the whole thing. They essentially lived at that place for the full schedule, and they were shooting as many as eight or nine pages a day. "I was really adamant that everyone had to look very different from everyone else. Milos Forman is one of my favorite directors, and I remember hearing him talk about how important it is that each character have a particular look so you know who they are the moment you cut to them. It was a big draw for me, having them all look so distinct."
There's a big moment late in the film where Jimmy Pistol makes a very big choice regarding his look, and it's one of those changes where you have to do it for real as an actor. "Oh, man, I read the script like eight times the night before we shot that, just to make sure we'd gotten everything, every shot, every angle. There's no going back after you do that, and I was terrified that we were going to realize we'd missed something, and that would have been too late. It was great because of what it does for that last act of the film. He looks more normal in that last stretch, but that's when he's talking the craziest. And before the film, I spent a year growing out that beard and the hair. So it was great. I went full Jesus for that."
D'Elia's been on the road with the film for a full year, and he laughed when looking back at the experience. "I can't wait until I make a movie that's easily explained, because there's no real way to sum this up in one sentence. I was prepared for people to hate the film sometimes. That's the nature of Jimmy Pistol. And I've gotten that a lot less than I expected. Audiences seem to like it and even when they don't, they seem to commend it. I like that people have such strong reactions to it."
I think audiences will continue to have strong reactions to the movie, and I really enjoyed sitting down with D'Elia. We ended up talking for a while more about favorite filmmakers and upcoming movies, and it's obvious this is a guy who lives and breathes this stuff. I hope we're just seeing his warm-up right now, and that he's able to follow his muse and continue to make personal, unusual films.
"American Animal" opens in limited release May 18.