JAMES FOTOPOULOS ON “THE GIVEN,” “THERE” AND MORE
by Matt Fagerholm
Four summers ago, I met filmmaker James Fotopoulos at a screening in Chicago. I was so taken with his thoughts regarding cinema that I agreed to visit the set of his next feature, “There,” that September. The several hours that I spent watching Fotopoulos work with his cast and crew in a spooky warehouse proved to be an unforgettable experience. The entrancing tone that the director set for each take was so immersive that I completely lost track of time. There was such an eerie otherworldliness to the scenes that when I stepped back into the blinding sunlight outside, it felt as if I were exiting a fever dream. Audiences may likely feel the same after viewing the work of Fotopoulos, a filmmaker whose visions are as audacious as they are uncompromising. Chicagoans will get the chance to sample key works from his career spanning nearly 25 years at two upcoming retrospectives, each offering Q&As with the filmmaker in person.
Fotopoulos recently spoke with Indie Outlook about his intuitive approach to cinema, his dislike of the “experimental” label and his approach to working with actors like Sophie Traub, the enthralling star of his most recent feature, “The Given.”
How did you initially get started making films?
Filmmaking had always been my main focus since I was a child. By the time I was 15 or 16, I knew that was all I wanted to do. I didn’t think about anything else, really. I started shooting on film because at the time, that was the next step towards making it real. The first camera I used was my grandfather’s home movie video camera. At the age of 16, I started shooting on a 16mm Bolex. I did some super 8 stuff too on cameras that we had, and I ended up shooting my first feature, “Zero,” on 16mm. I recently used the Alexa and before that, I was using the RED. These digital cameras that utilize 35mm lenses are preferable to me in a lot of ways. I shot my last 16mm feature in 2001 and it was finished in 2003. That’s when filmmakers were transitioning into video, and the imagery that those cameras produced were not very good quality. In my new film, there are some sequences that I shot in 16mm, but working with film is a different process now than it was back when I started out twenty years ago.
Did your upbringing at a Catholic grammar school help form your interest in the complexity of human beings?
I’m assuming it had to have had some effect on me. I don’t really think about the past that much. If you’re raised in a certain environment, it must have some sort of an effect on you, but I don’t think about those things when I’m working on a project. Those ideas come out in the process of making the work. I wasn’t raised in a strict environment, and I went to the school more for the education than for any religious aspect.
Your first features that you made in your late teens—“Zero,” “Migrating Forms,” “Back Against the Wall”—demonstrate a remarkable understanding of alienation and sexual frustration.
When I shot those films, the choices that I made were completely impulsive and they were made very quickly to the point where they overlapped each other. When I was done with one film, I was moving to the next one. The energy to make these films was so intense that I was just operating on impulse. A lot of what preoccupies your mind are practical concerns about how to get the film finished. You start out with initial ideas, and then you let loose on trying to get them realized. There wasn’t much time for reflection. The way that the work will be perceived is out of your hands. But on set, you want to make sure that people are on the same page as you.
How do you approach directing actors?
When I began making films, my relationships with the people on set were a lot different than now, in part because the actors I work with now have more experience. I’ll meet with actors but I won’t audition them. I usually have an feeling about somebody or a sense that they’re right for a particular film. Then we’ll have a bunch of conversations, and in some cases, we’ll rehearse, but you don’t want to overdo it. You want to sort of let things happen naturally when you get in front of the camera. I storyboard all of my films, but I don’t cover things. There aren’t that many takes. It’s about picking the right people and getting them in the zone with you. Again, a lot of it comes down to intuition. When you’re on the set shooting, the actors don’t need to be told too much, especially if they’re really good. A lot of the direction boils down to: “you move here and there,” or “do it more” or “do it less.” The early films were made in a vacuum, and a lot of the people I was working with had no acting experience. Back then, blocking was the most crucial aspect of the direction. We were shooting on film and the takes were ten minutes long, so there was a lot of pressure to get it right.
What has it been like working within your budgetary limitations and using them to your advantage?
From the beginning, I knew image and sound were separate worlds. Before I started editing digitally, I was editing on Moviscopes, Steenbecks and Moviolas, and I did everything. I worked with the labs and I cut my own negatives, and when you do that much of the technical work, you begin seeing the process in a way that is very intricate. I figured out what types of colors to use for makeup when shooting in black and white, and what types of filters could hide certain things. It was very hands on, and when I transitioned to video, my approach didn’t change. There are all these problems with cameras, and while using film on my latest project, I was reminded of the technical challenges I encountered earlier in my career. Things would get ruined in the lab, footage would be scratched and you had to be very thick-skinned. You had only so much time on the mag, and you could almost feel the film running through the camera. The chances of things being completely ruined aren’t nearly as high when making films now. The degree of focus and planning that you develop when you’re young carries through the rest of your career. When you get to postproduction, it’s like you have a whole other separate movie that you have to put together. With video, I love the endless possibilities that I have in color correcting and in replicating files. But I still treat the execution the same, whether I’m using film or video.
I was struck by the crisp imagery in your 2013 film, “Dignity,” which brings old-fashioned aesthetics into the digital realm.
I’m glad you picked up on that because that was sort of the idea. There are no digital backdrops in the film, they are all paintings. I wanted to use techniques from the silent era, as well as the early matte paintings, especially those that you see in B-movies. There are some that are so impressive, even when they aren’t meant to be realistic. Digital software changes so fast, and I thought it would be interesting to apply these techniques to the language of a B-science fiction film, while using a RED camera. We built an actual wall piece that the actors sat behind, so it wasn’t completely green screened. Each shot was technically executed in the way that it was storyboarded.
Both “Dignity” and your subsequent film, 2015’s “There,” explore the psychological impact of war and share the recurring character names of Lamb and Rainbow.
About ten years ago, I had written a bunch of scripts that were very similar in style and structure. There was a sequel to “Dignity” and a few other projects that haven’t been made, and they all included the same character names. It’s an example of the characters that you find recurring through the literature of authors like Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs or how Jules Verne would appear in Delvaux paintings. The idea was to create a world populated by characters who may be different but are linked the same names. Or maybe even how Bond is played by different actors over decades. You see that in a lot of movie serials from the ’30s and from earlier decades. There was a looseness to how the characters flowed through a particular body of work. I’m not sure why I chose the names Lamb and Rainbow for those specific characters, but I was definitely thinking about serials at the time.
Do you sense any similarities between the prolific nature of your career and that of Joe Swanberg, who was among the cast in “There”?
I do not know. To me, it makes complete sense to have a workmanlike approach. Making films is what I want to do, and that’s how I feel when I wake up every day. I like being around the crew, the actors and the energy of a film set. It’s something that I want to do all the time.
Several critics have compared your work to David Lynch, though the one scene of your’s that I’d deem Lynchian is the conversation between the war veterans at the club in “There.” The pace of the dialogue accompanied by the Angelo Badalamenti-esque score reminded me of certain sequences in “Twin Peaks” and “Wild at Heart.”
If you’re interested and involved in film, you’re going to come across Lynch’s work at some point, but I hadn’t internalized it. He’s a great filmmaker, but I’m not influenced by him in the way that people have assumed. The films that interested me at a young age were older Hollywood movies as well as some foreign stuff. David Zellner, the actor who played the one-armed veteran in the scene you mentioned, had worked with me twice before—in “Dignity” and “Untitled (Thanks, Get In…).” We had known each other for a long time so it was easy to work together. There was no music when we shot that scene, it was all added in afterwards. How we approached that scene was largely determined by the speech that David delivers, which is epic. The later scene where two veterans get into a fight at the club was originally meant to be much longer, and was edited down heavily. “There” differs from “Dignity” in that there was a great deal shot for the film and a lot of it was cut out. So many scenes were shaped and sculpted through the editing. It gave a certain feeling and flow to the scenes that may be tapping into what you’re talking about. When you’re laying out the sound and all of that music, you’re trying to create an atmosphere, and how it works with the images all comes down to intuition.
How do you go about crafting the hypnotic rhythm of a film like 2001’s “Christabel” in the editing room?
I shot “Christabel” around the time I shot “Back Against the Wall.” It was based the poem. I had this image that wouldn’t leave my mind—it didn’t even involve people—it was a castle or a landscape. I thought about shooting it on film and optically printing it, but what I was initially envisioning would never have survived. You never would’ve gotten an image and it probably would’ve destroyed the negative. So I considered using video instead. This was in the late ’90s, and I was moving into digital editing at that point. A lot of the footage for “Christabel” was shot very loosely, and it was less rigid than the other films I was doing. It was much more performance-like and fluid in how it was shot. In the editing room, I organized the footage in a way that allows it to cut back and forth, while reversing itself. It was very mathematical in terms of the editing, and the film was the opposite of what I had been doing in a lot of ways. It was extremely basic, focusing on one image I had extracted from the poem, the one thing that stuck out in my mind. Since the video camera I used was not that great, I used it more for just capturing the imagery. I created the film’s atmosphere by slowing things down and layering everything in post.
I first saw Sophie Traub in Spencer Parsons’ morbidly amusing short, “Bite Radius,” and was amazed by her performance in your 2015 film, “The Given.” What was it like collaborating with her over the nine months of preparation for the film?
My idea for the film changed a lot from its original conception. It was one of my more extreme scripts that I had put on the side in case I ever felt like going into it. It was a really long script but I don’t think there was any action in it. It had some drawings and a very fragmentary structure, so it wasn’t normal in any way. When I explained the nature of the project to Sophie, she was into it and enthusiastic about it. We ended up shaping the scenes together and discussed them for months prior to the shoot, which was very quick. No matter what film you’re making, the person that you cast is bringing a great deal to what you’ve written on the page. The characters in my script for “The Given” didn’t even have full names, just letters. It wasn’t a character that I presented to her so much as a bunch of images, scenarios and dialogue.
In light of how you don’t rely on the standard audition process, you make the pointed decision of opening “The Given” with an audition scene.
The opening scene was originally written as a speech, not an audition, and that idea was shaped during the rehearsal process. Being on the same page with actors is more important to me than relying on auditions. Having actors deliver a monologue while sitting back and judging them in a very cold way is of no interest to me. I have to understand actors—what they feel, what they think—in order to direct them.
Do you feel the term “experimental cinema” is reductive when it’s applied to your work or the work of other artists?
Yeah, completely. I understand why people use it, but to me, it seems very limiting. I’m not reacting against any particular type of film in my work. I like all sorts of movies. Your own work is formed by how you personally see things. What was perceived to be “experimental” 15 or 20 years ago may be seen now in a completely different way. The medium in general is so advanced and your perceptions of film change so much with time. There are so many factors that go into the distribution, into the technology, into the production of a film that those types of labels hold very little meaning. I don’t know where you draw the line of what is deemed “experimentation.” There was a movement that has been documented and probably peaked in the ’60s that was very much reacting against what they thought was the norm, and I think that term grew out of it. But there’s always endless experimentation in filmmaking as well as on television, where you’re seeing a constant changing of form, such as the current miniseries evocative of serials from the ’30s. Anytime a new camera comes out, you’re going to have to experiment with how that camera is made, so to me, experimentation is all a part of the whole. The number of elements that are changing all the time cause every production to become an experiment.
Is it unusual for you to see your past films screened in retrospectives?
I don’t like to look back on my earlier work, and I still don’t watch them even when they’re screened at events like these. I leave and then come back to talk with the audience. I’ll re-watch my films immediately after I’ve finished them and then I’ll move on. It’s a great thing to have work that people want to show like that, especially when it’s 20 years old. A lot of that stuff was made when I was so young that it feels like a different person had made them. It’s interesting to think about the work once you’ve had distance from it. You can think about it more clearly and in relation to what you are currently making. But my mind’s usually thinking about the next film and what I’m working on now.
Tell me about your next film, “Two Girls.”
It takes place at the end of the Civil War. I wrote it with the writer Thea Goodman, who is an author from New York that currently lives in Chicago. The story is about two children whose father is off at war, and explores their life on a farm with their mother. There are elements of fantasy strewn throughout the piece, and I actually tried to shoot something similar to it in 2001, but it didn’t come together. Fragments of those earlier ideas remained in my mind for years and then for whatever reason, they started to come together again. Thea has children of her own, she wrote a short story from my fragments and then we shaped it into a script that is sort of a hybrid between a script format and her short story. It was designed so it wouldn’t be rigid or fixed. Ideas and images or performances could spring and flow from the writing and allow for experimentation when shooting, but not like improvisation. We shot it in Chicago this past April and May, and we’re now in post on it. Isolda Dychauk (“Borgia,” “Faust”) played the mother, and the two girls are from Chicago. They are sisters in real life. The film won’t be done until the end of the year, and likely won’t show until next year.
For more information on James Fotopoulos, visit his official site. Two retrospectives of his work will soon be screened in Chicago: “Mapping the Obscure: James Fotopoulos” (featuring “Zero,” “Migrating Forms” and “Back Against the Wall”), which runs from Friday, July 28th through Sunday, July 30th at Facets Cinematheque, and James Fotopoulos: A Retrospective (featuring “Christabel,” “Families,” “The Nest,” “Dignity,” “There” and “The Given”), which runs from Friday, August 4th through Sunday, August 6th at The Nightingale.