James Fotopoulos at Spectacle: Filmmaker Interview in Screen Slate

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Balanced precariously on the edge of fact and fiction, James Fotopoulos provokes viewers with his expansive, transgressive body of films and videos. A retrospective at Spectacle running April 9-16 features a variety of bizarre and socially formidable characters that emerge abruptly from dark, dream-like recesses. The delivery of these compacted tales contains such a surreal specificity; the viewer is fully submerged in the rich, and at times noxious, microcosms. This prolific film director has written and produced over fifteen feature-length titles and hundreds of short subjects dedicated to the inner worlds and feverish nightmares inhabiting human bodies.

Fotopoulos discusses this journey as an independent filmmaker with Screen Slate and the original 16mm’s that launched the fury of production.

Here you can also view a selection of custom trailers edited by Screen Slate’s Danielle Burgos (The Ant Hill), Patrick Dahl (The Sky Song), Jon Dieringer (Migrating Forms, Esophagus), and Vanessa McDonnell (Back Against the Wall).

Fallon Cecil: Zero, your first feature length, you made when you were just 20 years old?

James Fotopoulos: I was actually 18 when I started it. It took about two years to complete. 

FC: How did you begin as a filmmaker?

JF: My grandfather had a video camera that he used for shooting family events and my parents eventually got one because I was using his so much. It was always something I did in childhood. I had a pixel vision camera when they were on the market for kids.

FC: When did it transition into scripted material? 

JF: I was so young when I began, so the first things I did were mainly exploring the medium. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I started shaping the filming into stories but they still weren’t quiet “scripts”. When I was about 16, I learned how to operate a 16mm camera in a summer class I took in Chicago and then started making shorts with scripts and storyboards. After that, I did a lot of reading about film and got into Super 8. I always watched a lot of films.

FC: So your knowledge of film doesn’t develop from an academic setting?

JF: No, I was almost completely self-taught. I was in college briefly for film but dropped out. Then I immediately started making my first film Zero. School just didn’t gel with me. I couldn’t really be contained by that setting and structure.

Zero. 1997. 16mm.

Zero. 1997. 16mm.

FC: Can you speak about your decision to use 16mm? 

JF: At that time there was just something about home video equipment that didn’t look like a “movie” to me. But 16mm did. But the film equipment wasn’t really being used because of the switching over to video, so it was really inexpensive to shoot and edit. You could find reels in photography shops for less than $10. I eventually got a flatbed Moviola.

FC: Were you showing your work locally? How did you go about putting it out there? 

JF: Nobody in my hometown was interested in showing the films initially. Only the film critic Fred Camper who was living there looked at my work. They had to play in New York first. I had written Migrating Forms, Esophagus, Christabel and The Nest during the shooting of ZeroEsophagus was supposed to be the follow-up to Zero, but I ended up doing Migrating Forms. The third was going to be The Nest, but it never ended up getting to the production stage at that time. I had the equipment and film ready for it, so I came up with Back Against the Wall.

Zero was accepted in a festival in Wales and got a good review, so I sent it anywhere that was showing films. I eventually got a postcard response from the video label Provisional and they wanted to release Zero. This was in 1998. The writer (Rock and the Pop Narcotic) and record producer (SST) Joe Carducci, who was running the label at the time, suggested that I contact the magazine Shock Cinema, filmmaker Sarah Jacobson (I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore), and Ralph MacKay, who I think was at the distributor Six Pack Film then. Ralph liked Zero and requested my newer films, so I sent him the tapes. After about eight months or so, I think because of Ralph’s suggestion, I got a fax from the film critic Ed Halter who was at that time running the New York Underground Festival, and they were interested in showing Migrating Forms. After that it was easier to get screenings in my hometown.

Migrating Forms. 1999. 16mm.

Migrating Forms. 1999. 16mm.

FC: So you didn’t have an intended audience when you made the work? 

JF: No, I was just making films for the general public to see.

I wasn’t aspiring to be apart of a certain type of film making in New York or whatever. I wasn’t trying to identify myself with anything, that’s just where the stuff was being embraced. I didn’t come from a background that had contacts in film. I was learning almost everything on my own. 

FC: How were you acquiring actors for these initial films? 

JF: I have always had an ability to get people to participate. During Back Against the Wall there were some fifty or more people at one time. I realized during that film the capacity I had for getting people involved and keeping it organized and moving. During Zero they were mostly friends of friends that were interested in the arts in some way or they were aspiring artists themselves. One or two of them may have been students but mostly just people that had some interest in the work that I was making. Most of them I met the first time the day of the shoot and never saw them again. With Migrating Forms, I began to pursue getting people that wanted to act. I started to put out casting calls and all that. I was kind of clinical and cold in the way I shot then, but there was energy about the execution.

FC: You had mentioned that your first films were edited at or around the same time with identical equipment. Can you explain the varying audio qualities? 

JF: The 16mm mono-optical is terrible sound. We had a lav mic on the main character at all times in Zero, which minimized the distortions, but I started to get more conscious of the ways we were using on set sound in Migrating Forms. Because the optical track of the 16mm was so poor quality audio, I decided to embrace and even emphasize the murkiness of the sound in my second film. We started experimenting, and I created a cone with the mic in it and we hung it from the ceiling to create a different sounding atmosphere. There is almost no dialogue in Migrating Forms, so it was all about producing an atmosphere. I wanted it to mean something without being expressly articulated.

Christabel. 2001. 16mm/Video.

Christabel. 2001. 16mm/Video.

FC: Do you think there’s an honesty in that kind of gestural way of working with limited editing? 

JF: I really don’t know. When I first started it was an energy and an emotional response to filming. The environment I was in induced it. The shadows and sounds of my apartment. 

FC: Do these films reflect the concerns you were having with the body as a subject at that age? 

JF: I wasn’t personally concerned. Its just part of our world. I’m not the character in these movies and they’re actions don’t necessarily reflect my personal beliefs but they are investigations. Even at that age I understood that people are incredibly complex and all of us contain good and bad and its always changing.

FC: What can you say about the reoccurring symbols in your work, like the growths or abrasions on the skin of the characters? 

JF: Honestly, I forget that those are in there. You have to imagine those films were very intensely made. They were very ferocious in terms of my focus. I was very young and knew what I wanted. There was thinking but it was more impulsive. I would write the stuff very quickly and went right into it. A very intense time. ■

The Sky Song. 2007. Video.

The Sky Song. 2007. Video.

Fantasma: A James Fotopoulos Retrospective runs April 9-15 at Spectacle (124 S. 3rd Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn).

Original Screen Slate Post