Though moviegoers are becoming increasingly comfortable with viewing the latest flicks on their laptop, there are some films that simply demand to be seen on the big screen. Take Eugene Kotlyarenko’s “0s & 1s,” for example. It views the world of its technology-obsessed anti-hero, James Pongo (Morgan Krantz) as if it were one giant laptop. The level of visual detail and multilayered wit contained on the screen is thrillingly audacious, and could potentially cause some unsuspecting viewers to have a coronary if they view it on their computers (since the picture not only buffers and freezes, but also falls victim to nasty viruses). It’s a one-of-a-kind moviegoing experience and an immensely provocative one at that.
Cinephiles in California and Louisiana will have the opportunity to see the film in theaters in the near future, courtesy of the Local Screen program, which Kotlyarenko dubs “a Kickstarter for screenings.” If enough people sign up to see the film, it will screen at 9:40pm Thursday, September 20th at The Los Feliz 3 in Los Angeles, and at 8:45pm Thursday, September 27th at The Alamo Underground in New Orleans.
In this in-depth interview, Kotlyarenko chats with Indie Outlook about his film’s epic journey to the screen, his own thoughts regarding modern technology and his collaboration with “Magnolia” star Jeremy Blackman (who also spoke with Indie Outlook in an interview to be posted later this week). He also discusses his hypnotic feature-length satire, “SkyDiver,” in which he stars as an alienated man who gradually becomes involved in a right-wing terrorist group (nearly the entire film is in the form of webcam chats). His next projects include an erotic 3D thriller as well as the web series, “Feast of Burden,” which is set for an October release.
Q: What first got you interested in film?
A: When I was a kid–like 10, 11–I thought it was really important to be “cultured.” I would read “Moby Dick,” “1984”…things that were obviously very difficult for a kid to understand. I realized at a certain point that literature was not the end all be all, and that you could be cultured in other ways too. Around this time, the AFI released their “100 Years…100 Movies” list. I printed this list off the Internet and I called it “movies to see before I die.” The summer had just started and I decided to check out one of the movies. I went to my library and picked a random movie off the list called “A Clockwork Orange,” because I thought it had a cool box. I watched it and went, “This is incredible, this is affecting me like nothing else has before.” It was very transgressive and very wrong, yet watching it felt so right. It was so cool that it took music and literature and photography and turned it into this ineffable chemistry that none of the other things that I was trying to get into could ever achieve on their own. I immediately understood the power of movies and was hooked. I watched all the movies on that list during that one summer.
I was making movies since I was 14. I wrote stuff in journals about why I thought “this scene is cool in ‘Out of Sight’” or why “I love the ending of ‘The 400 Blows.’” Then one day, I was like, “I have ideas too.” So I got a different journal out and started putting my own ideas into it. I borrowed a camera that this guy was using to film backyard wrestling in my town [laughs] and made some movies. In college, I made a short film called “0s & 1s” in the middle of freshman year. It had a similar concept about interconnected computer-dependent lives with multiple windows and text and music onscreen all the time. It was radically different in terms of the story and the look of it, but it’s the same conceit. By the time the feature-length “0s & 1s” was finished, I had been working through the ideas for at least six years.
Q: The visual detail is overwhelming, and yet I was surprised at how many details I could take in simultaneously. It shows you how technology has allowed our eyes to multitask.
A: It’s true. I had an ambition to overwhelm people. Initially, I was like, “I’m going to make this really aggressive and completely overwhelm people. And then when I got into it, I realized that I didn’t want to confuse people. I wanted to make sure they absorbed certain information that allowed them to get the joke. Even though we set up certain visual strategies to guide people’s eyes, ultimately I was like, “People are developing cognitive functions so fast and rewiring their brains so fast that no one will be confused.” In any of the Q&As or screenings that I’ve observed, no one has expressed any level of visual confusion to me. There are some narrative things that people obviously question, but on a visual level, no one is like “I didn’t get to read that text.” [laughs]
Q:There’s a great moment when Becky (Alexi Wasser) is texting her friend about her crush on James, and as soon as he proves to be unfriendly, she promptly discards the text. There’s a lot of wit in how the filmed footage and the visual effects relate to one another. It reminded me of what Edgar Wright had attempted in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.”
A: Yeah, cool, I’m glad you liked that. I ended up seeing “Scott Pilgrim” after “0s & 1s” was finished, and I was like, “This is the only movie I’ve seen that’s attempting to do what we did in ‘0s & 1s.’” On a certain level, it has different mission statements and I think it accomplishes them to varying degrees, but I think it’s a great film. It’s one of the few movies that actually speaks to the experience of living today. There are a lot of moments [in “0s & 1s”] like the one you mentioned that are orchestrated. Scenes like that were conceptualized in post and we were lucky that there are a lot of amazingly talented people in Los Angeles–both in terms of their technical skills and their wit.
I was really fortunate to meet a bunch of people that were into the idea of movie and what I was trying to do with it. They said, “Yes, I know you have no money, but I’m willing to give you my time, my skills, my machine, my studio space to make this a reality.” That particular idea you mentioned was probably mine or my producer’s. The animation was done by my producer, who had to teach himself After Effects. For “Becky’s Flower Page,” I said, “Make her a GeoCities page. She’s obsessed with flowers, and that’s how we production designed her room.” A lot of the detail does come from the script, but I’d say that a good chunk of it also comes from people being creative in the post process. We certainly didn’t lack for time–it took us three years, so we hopefully came up with enough witty things for people to enjoy watching.
Q: I would imagine you would need years of planning for a project like this. Were storyboards utilized?
A: Yes, there were definitely some scenes where we used storyboards. The opening car scene was exactly what I had wanted it to look like. For the AOL party, there was going to be a “chat room” sequence, as well as a tracking shot which would look like your mouse scrolling over people’s “away messages.” A lot of that stuff was planned. But a lot of it sprung independently from the mind of Andrew Schwartz, who is the executive producer and visual effects supervisor who we collaborated with heavily. We brought in a rough cut of the film and he said, “I can do a lot with this.” He had a whole bunch of ideas like the old webcams in the office scene. He’s like an old school hacker. He’s about seven or eight years older than me, and he was hacking when he was 12–building computers and going into main frames and redirecting phone calls and stealing bank accounts. [laughs] He was a walking, living, breathing, graphic designing encyclopedia of stuff we could use in the film. His presence and influence hangs heavily over the aesthetics and ideas of the movie.
It’s interesting that you mention the planning. I have many stories to tell, but I felt like I couldn’t make anything until I made “0s & 1s.” Not only did I feel like I had to do it first, I had to do it immediately. This was when I first moved to LA in 2007, so in terms of writing and preproduction, I rushed it out as soon as possible. I was convinced that if I didn’t make it, someone else would. It just seemed so obvious to use the language that rules over everybody’s lives to tell a story on film. So I rushed into that and it ended up presenting us with a whole world of post-production problems. It was the post process that took years. We spent all our money on production and preproduction, and we didn’t budget properly for post, which is another reason why it took a long time. This was the first film that our producer Michael Shifflett had produced, as well as the first film I had ever directed, so we had a lot to learn.
Q: James’s pursuit for his lost laptop evokes a junkie’s search for drugs. What was your collaboration like with Morgan Krantz?
A: I met him at a screening of “Pierrot le Fou” after a really bad date. I liked this guy–he was weird and attractive and kind of annoying and lots of things that I like about people. He’s a bona fide actor who’s an independent thinker. The fact that I met him at this most accessible of Godard films seemed to be a good sign from the movie gods that this is a person that I would want to work with. I brought him the script for “0s & 1s,” and we spent probably two to three months working on it. I’d go over to his apartment, which I liked much better than mine, and we went through scenes and figured out his character.
Look up any neurology study that’s been done in the last few years or ask any thoughtful person about their technology, and it’s not much of a stretch to correlate computer and smart phone usage with drug addiction or addiction of any sort. At the time we were writing it, it wasn’t on people’s minds as much. But during the post process, there as a whole deluge of articles in “The New York Times” basically talking about the exact same things we were dealing with in the movie. In early 2010, there were a ton of articles about things that were very obvious to me years earlier but were being covered as Breaking News trend pieces. “People Using Computers A Lot.” “Teenager Sends Thousands of Texts a Month.” “Person Crashes Car While Texting.”
It was a sea change in people’s behavior, but it wasn’t something that we had to explicitly tease out in the film. In the script, I had written the line, “You’re acting like a junkie.” Morgan is an edgy guy and the simultaneous desperation and awkwardness of the character appealed to him. The fact that the character was so desperate but at the same time unable to overcome his terrible personality traits to deal with the desperate situation, was interesting to him. I’m really proud of his performance. He took that character to another place because he understood it.
Q: How difficult was it to choreograph these scenes with so many cameras covering the same action?
A: It was definitely a challenge. Our cinematographer, Marcus Gillis, handled it really well and was up to the technical problems it caused. Conceptually, I wanted to be as static as possible in terms of the camerawork. I wanted it to be as static as a computer monitor because the monitor never moves, it’s just the things within it that move. I wanted that main frame to be still and stable. That was a conceptual gamble that I think may or may not have paid off, but I’m glad that the movie more or less held to it. I’ve been obsessed for a long time with the correlation between the visual culture of modern and medieval times. It’s a flat visual representational universe that was based on a dependency on faith in a unifying principle which is God. It’s very, very similar to the way that we operate toward our screens these days. We have an undying dependency and faith in this one thing, which is the computer, the interface, the communication technology. People don’t ever question it. They completely depend on it in their lives and they believe that it’s a totally normal way of functioning, much like people did in medieval times.
I wanted the cameras to be very static and the imagery to be very flat. That meant there wasn’t going to be a lot of camera movement. Cameras were basically locked off and we kept the angels that we had decided upon ahead of time. We usually had a few close ups, a master shot, maybe one roving camera to pick up details. So there were usually three cameras. For the “chat room” scene at the party, there were five cameras: a master camera that was the main chat room and four cameras covering James and each of the girls. That was particularly tough because it was really easy to get the other cameras in each others’ crosshairs. It took a good deal of ingenuity from Marcus and the rest of the cameramen to figure that out. Obviously they had to hide the lights because it was lit like a conventional film.
Sometimes we wouldn’t have the camera on sticks because there were certain transgressive moments that needed to be filmed. Both of the assistant camera operators had a background in Reality TV, so I knew that I could trust them to capture what would be happening in the moment. But for the most part, it was rigid. It’s definitely the most rigid thing I’ve ever done. It’s pretty different from how a lot of independent and even Hollywood movies are made these days, which completely emulates a handheld, go-with-the-flow, easy breezy thing. In this case, a lot more attention is paid to the rigors of mise-en-scène because if people didn’t hit their marks, they weren’t in frame. If a camera moved, it would get into the frame of the other cameras. So it definitely put a lot of limitations on us, but it ultimately gave the movie a pretty specific feel.
Q: You would know instantly if the actors were trying to match a previous take since all of the angles are simultaneously visible in the frame.
A: We had an editor and assistant editors who would sync up the footage. On Final Cut, you can use a multi-cam setting. It was actually pretty new when we started editing the film in mid-2008. That was a new feature in Final Cut and it totally saved our asses because we were able to sync all of the footage. When we were monitoring onset, our producer Michael was smart enough to bring a surveillance camera splitter. We ran all of our cameras into that thing, and it allowed me to watch all of the cameras at the same time on the monitor. That was cool. It was definitely all in the moment.
Q: Jeremy Blackman, who famously portrayed Stanley Spector in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” plays James’s exceedingly unhelpful friend, Sam. How did you get him involved in the project?
A: Jeremy is an amazing actor. He went to Columbia and was two years younger than me. I didn’t know him that well, though we were both on the college rock radio station, WBAR. I just knew him from seeing him at the concerts and stuff. Then during my last year at school, I wanted to make a movie about key duplication and breaking into dorms and falling in love. I was standing on a table and I saw Jeremy walking by. I said, “Hey you, you’re an actor, right?” and he said, “No, not really.” I’m like, “I know you are, I’m going to put you in a movie,” and he said, “Okay.” Then I went home and wrote the script. He was game and we made that movie, “Duplicates,” which nobody has ever seen and I think that’s fine because it’s its own thing.
About a year and a half later, when I was in LA and thinking of casting, I said, “I should really get Jeremy, but I want him to play against type.” One of the sad things for me is that the friend characters were way more developed and ingrained into the story on the script stage. For several storytelling reasons and reasons of making people angry and pushing buttons and all that, I minimized those story elements when we got into the filming and editing stages. I told Jeremy that I wanted him to play a supporting role that was the opposite of himself: an insensitive, small-town parochial loser. Then I was like, “Okay, what else? Are you gonna wear mesh shorts? Let’s shave your head!” So two days before shooting, we took him to the barber and shaved his head. Jeremy has terrific instincts and a real sensitivity. I think he took that character to the place where he needed to go. He’s now in a band [called Pink Drink]. I keep calling him and telling him that he should start acting again, but as of yet, I haven’t been able to convince him, and that’s okay too.
Q: Did Jeremy write a song for the film as well?
A: He and Joey Alvarado wrote the “Mildred” song. When James flips out at the party, I wanted a goth industrial dark energy. We shot a third of the movie at a house in north Hollywood. A chunk of the collaborators were friends of mine from New York and Philadelphia and Baltimore. They came out and worked for free and we all lived in this house together. Jeremy only had to perform in seven of the 26 shooting days. During that free time, Jeremy wrote the song, and also did a few other music projects while he was out there. There were also a bunch of days when Jeremy was there helping out onset when he wasn’t shooting and god bless his soul for that.
Q: Though IMDb.com lists “SkyDiver” as your first feature, you actually made it after completing “0s & 1s.”
A: “0s & 1s” was a grueling experience. It was really painful that it was taking so long and never did I expect that I would have to go through 75 versions of every single scene until I got it right. Of course it’s a blessing and a gift that people were willing to make 75 versions of a scene just because they believed in the movie. That process was really frustrating. There’s a whole world of people that I was collaborating with, and I suddenly acquired the opportunity to make something small for this website, jstchillin.org. I was going to do the exact opposite thing that I did on “0s & 1s,” which was make a movie by myself, with no real equipment and no real crew. I’d use my friends as the actors and do it as simply as possible. “SkyDiver” was made in three-and-a-half weeks. It was very clear to me that I was reacting against “0s & 1s.” I just wanted to do something that was more intimate and direct. I realized that if I was going to take a more straightforward approach, the story needed to be more personal. I wanted to use the possibilities of the webcam chat to make something that feels like a documentary.
Q: The webcam chat has recently been used in horror films like “V/H/S” and “Paranormal Activity 4.” “SkyDiver” has many funny moments, but the webcam ups the tension and unease in many ways.
A: There’s all sort of interesting things to explore in webcam dynamics, just in terms of performance and authenticity and what communication between people really is and how people perceive themselves in terms of their own vanity. Historically, genre films like horror tend to explore day-to-day reality in a much more direct and immediate way than other sorts of films because it confronts you with the unknown, and the unknown is usually represented by new things–places you haven’t been before or technology that hasn’t really been established in terms of its meaning. So it makes sense that webcams would be used in that context. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself, but I really love satire. I love Paul Verhoeven and Stanley Kubrick and Bertrand Blier–filmmakers who take the things around us in society and expose the follies and foibles of our contemporary world, or whatever milieu it is, whether it’s futuristic or fabricated. I like taking the reality of interaction and twisting it on itself.
For me, it’s ridiculous not to engage with the things that are occupying my mind, which is technology, computers, webcam conversations, looking on Facebook, googling shit, watching YouTube, texting someone, leaving a message–all this stuff that rules over the reality of my life and the lives of everybody I know. It’s just ridiculous not to talk about that stuff if you’re creating something today. In the context of satire, you’re saying that certain things made you laugh but it also made you uncomfortable. I think the job of satire is to make people uncomfortable with their reality and the most common way to react to that discomfort is laughter and then thinking about it later.
Q: What made you want to explore the mind of a budding right-wing terrorist?
A: I thought it would be funny to amalgamate certain things that I had seen on the news. On one hand, this terrorist wing has this vague notion of Islamic nominal [concepts] but its viewpoints are very right-wing American: taxes, taking down the government. There’s also this very New Age quality to the cult leader. The main character has to go to an extreme place. A reclusive lifestyle hinging on computers allows for the idea that intimacy cannot be maintained through physical interaction but virtual interaction. The lifestyle lends itself to being conducive to radical and extreme behavior. Drama is based on the idea of people making insane decisions and committing to them. Have you ever been rejected and hurt and completely destroyed by a romantic situation that has been burned and tossed and thrown in the dumpster? That often leads to extreme reactions and falling blindly towards endless depression or watching lots of movies or doing lots of drugs or joining a terrorist cell–whatever it is that gives you a sense of worth.
The Holmes guy who shot all those people at [“The Dark Knight Rises” screening in Colorado] is definitely not the first example in the last few years of a guy who spent a s–t-ton of time online and got caught up in a web of dark ideas and basically decided to dedicate his life to them. Whatever reality he was creating for himself in his mind was a fed by the places that you get to when you spend a lot of time online and feel awkward around people in reality. I think both of my movies acknowledge that idea.
I saw this movie on Netflix called “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” It was like a perfume commercial about terrorists in Germany. They were really sexy, so I thought it would be funny if I was by myself, shirtless in bed and casually talking to a naked couple in bed through web chat about hijacking planes and Facebooking and reading Gawker and robbing banks. It was all going to be very chill and nonchalant. But then certain things happened in my life that I wanted to work through and ended up benefitting the film by making it less detached and more personal.
Q: To what extent were the conversations in “SkyDiver” staged?
A: It’s the opposite of “0s & 1s,” in that there was no script and the actors weren’t people who I auditioned. Some of the people had no idea that we were even making a movie. I was always in character but they often did not know that. I probably shot eight hours of footage a day and whittled that down to something that was six to 10 minutes. So it all developed organically and very rarely did I stop and tell them that I was filming the screen. Obviously there are certain things that are staged. I think walking that line between nonfiction and fiction lends itself well to the webcam medium. I recently read “Herzog on Herzog” and it made me reevaluate my attitude toward some of his work because I often find it difficult/boring/impenetrable. He said that in his documentaries, he completely fabricates things and makes people say things that aren’t true. For him, it’s not about arriving at the nonfiction truth but arriving at the poetic truth of the situation. You can arrive at that by how you edit your eight hours of footage and how you perform and manipulate the other performers.
Whereas about one percent of “0s & 1s” was improvised, “SkyDiver” is 90 percent improvised. A lot of it is f–king real. There really was a fight outside my friend’s house while we were having a conversation about murder. Both films helped me understand what I want to do next. Neither one was completely gratifying to me as a director and I don’t think you ever are completely [satisfied]. Filmmaking is perpetually reconciling your idealized conceptual vision with the reality at hand. My new web series “Feast of Burden” is scripted but I also gave actors a lot more freedom. I ended up performing in it because I realized that I have more fun directing when I’m performing with the actors. It’s like the Hegelian dialectic–you have a clash of these two opposed elements and the result is the perfect [synthesis].
Q: As an admirer of the New York indie scene, I was delighted to see Lawrence Levine turn up as the cult leader, Wanar Ibn Ali, and Kate Lyn Sheil as the old flame. What made you want to cast them in these key roles?
A: The thing with Kate was more or less a real thing. She is a really interesting and fascinating person. I met her when “0s & 1s” played at the Maryland Film Festival, which is a terrific festival run by Eric Hatch and Scott Braid. I vaguely knew Sophia [Takal], who is Larry’s fiance and a filmmaker herself. I met them all there and I thought Kate was amazing. I had sort of a deep interaction with her and then realized that part of “SkyDiver” could be about that experience I had with her. It helped me work through what had happened. That conversation we have in the film is really real. That is the first conversation I had with her in four months. She randomly called me the day before I started shooting “SkyDiver,” and I said, “I can’t talk now, but you can talk to me in seven days on a webcam, and I can’t tell you why.” To a certain extent, she must’ve understood that things were going on. When we were hanging out, we would always improvise, which was fun because she’s a really good actress.
She has a certain quality that brings people up to their highest level and then she joins them there and tops them. I knew that she had the ability to go with it, so even though we were having this really emotional conversation, if I threw something fake and totally unrealistic at her, I knew she would get that it was real for me. I look back at that section and it’s really long–it’s like 15 or 16 minutes whereas the other segments are around eight or nine minutes long. I tried editing it down, but declined because it was the most interesting thing in the film. One documentary that Kate brought to my attention was [“Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974”] in which a Japanese filmmaker followed around his ex-wife who had divorced him. He filmed her as she slept with men and became a lesbian and gave birth to another dude’s son. He basically kept bugging her and she treated him like s–t the whole time, so it must’ve been excruciating for him. It’s such an unbelievable document of this real situation that somehow became a performance because it had been captured by the camera. So that definitely was on my mind when I made that scene.
It’s acting and it’s not acting. We were trying to tease out real feelings and real things that we hadn’t had a chance to discuss in four months and at the same time, we were acknowledging that we had to work through them through this fictionalized scenario. I gave her no direction, she just went with it. As for Larry, he’s s a really great actor and I think should be cast in the best Hollywood films. To me, he recalls the acting of John Cassavetes movies, just in terms of his style and demeanor and the way that he’s interested in doing things. He killed it in “Gabi on the Roof in July.” I thought it would be funny for him to play this weird concept of a right-wing extremist who’s vaguely Islamic and vaguely New Age. To have this mystical cult leader turn out to be a random stupid white guy is comical. Larry obviously knew that he was playing a character, unlike most people in the cast.
Q: What are your thoughts overall regarding the growing role that technology is playing in our lives?
A: I think it’s just basically a reality. Computers and cell phones and driving a car and eating food and buying clothes and living in a super capitalist country isn’t good or bad per se, it’s our reality. I think approaching everything with skepticism is my general disposition. To be perfectly honest, I feel unbelievably lucky, just in terms of being a creative person, to be living during this transitional period where the entirety of humanity and the way that people’s minds work is completely transforming. These sorts of major sea changes usually take 50, even 100 years to happen, but we’re now seeing a completely insane shifting of human behavior in less than 15 years. I’m old enough to remember what everything was like before the shift and also young enough to be part of the transition. It’d be a cardinal sin to find myself in such a historically interesting position and not explore that in my work.
To purchase tickets for the Los Angeles screening of “0s & 1s,” visit http://local-screen.com/0s-1s/los-angeles-ca/. To purchase tickets for the New Orleans screening, visit http://local-screen.com/0s-1s/new-orleans-la/.