Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Probing Pablo

Time for another Q&A with a filmmaker. So far I’m managing to snag one every two years or so—although I may actually have another one really soon. Anyway, this time the target of my inane curiosity is the loquacious Pablo D’Stair, whose feature film debut is the rather intriguing A Public Ransom.

ScottsMovies: Nice job on your film, A Public Ransom. You adapted it from your own story. Did you write the story with the idea that you would turn it into a film? Or did that idea occur to you later?
Pablo D’Stair: Writing the story was not connected to the film. It was actually part of a whole different project a few years ago. The story, in fact, is very, very short (1,000 words) and was written along with thirteen other very short pieces for a particular collection. Really, “adaptation” is a loose term in this case. More, I took the germ of the story, the central proposition of someone coming across the “missing poster” (in the story it was graffiti) and looking into it. The story was much more of a blunt, gut punch sort of thing. The length allowed for it to be just a glimpse of a nightmare, a little jaunt into a really grotesque situation, and it was not really character-centered at all but all idea-based. It was a tease, in a lot of ways. When I first started actively planning to do a film, I considered a straight adaptation, just expanding the story, delving into it—elongating it with cinema—but that didn’t exactly… work. It would have been fine, I suppose, and in fact we spent one day filming a script that was written on that basis, but that single day of filming just drove home to me that the “story” was not where my head was at. As a story, the short has its effect precisely because of its slim length, I guess you could say. But the germ of it, the basic setup I kind of feel in love with. I’d thought about doing it as a novel, too. I flailed a bit when settling on what I was going to do (this being my first film), wrote some original things, thought of adapting this or that of mine. And the central premise of A Public Ransom, the story, just kept returning as a really great point to wrap a much more interesting investigation around. I’m not used to “revisiting” older ideas at all, so I guess I needed to make it new and personal. The film is incredibly personal and the “story” part of it was just kind of there, in the end, to allow me to do things I found much more interesting without feeling I was drifting off in to utter fatuousness.

SM: The movie has a striking visual style and a nicely dark atmosphere. My guess, mainly from possible clues on your sets, was that you might be consciously evoking the French New Wave and/or the 1980s American indie film scene. Were you actually trying to emulate any favorite filmmakers? Or did you arrive at your look more organically and I’m just trying to read too much into it?
PD: It’s both things. Certainly, yes, my aesthetic influences are there from other cinema. I put in a lot of posters and background things and little nods to them—the Jarmusch and Truffaut and Polanski posters, etc., as well as the Lars von Trier book and some other things—but there wasn’t a thought of “direct emulation.” I’d say Jarmusch and von Trier—especially Stranger Than Paradise and Epidemic—kind of had some direct influence, and the French New Wave aided a bit in settling on the shift between static, long-form scenography, then suddenly sequences all done to music with more cutting to match the song flow. But everything else was “I wanted to do something like a Film, not like a Movie” if that makes sense. Mostly, the film, being my first, was all about me putting to the test all of these ideas for “how one can do a film” and “with what equipment” I’ve built up over my years as a viewer and essayist. I needed to prove myself right or wrong and needed to let the obstructions become my style, so to speak. We very purposefully worked with basically no budget. The cigarette budget was the costliest line item, by far. And with the most rudimentary and available equipment possible. Because we wanted to do this, we turned down a lot of kind offers for different cameras and sound and editing stuff. The choice of equipment and of doing everything on location and in natural light and with natural sound, as we moved along this became the style and everything started referencing and building what were initially trial runs. When something worked, it influenced how we’d have to frame something else, compose something else, edit—or not edit—something else. I think it was most important to me that I absolutely not, in no moment, be trying to put something on screen “like what I’d seen on a screen.” There’s nothing wrong in trying to imitate or execute something like what one has seen, but I often note in my essays how so many indie filmmakers do themselves a disservice by trying to make their films “look like” what’s currently “acceptable” in a populist way or to count technical imitation, even with innovation, as of particular merit. I suppose there is a bit of cheat in that I’d rather my film look decidedly not state-of-the-art but look rather dated, but the whole joy and really the whole way the film worked was because we were making it all up as we went along—everything. No one had done any of it before.

SM: I know this was your first feature-length film, but had you done much film work before, like making shorts or working on someone else’s film? How did you acquire the skills to be a filmmaker?
PD: I’d goofed around with a camcorder as a teenager. Other than that, this was a cold-start first feature. I love short films, but I couldn’t be bothered with “starting with one to work up to a feature.” I was the same way with novel writing. I wrote a dozen novels before I ever wrote a piece of short fiction. Knowing there was going to be an expansive thing—and knowing I wanted to keep a very strict look and feel to all elements—relaxed me into filmmaking. And due to my inexperience combined with the style of the film, I kind of got to feel like I was making a bunch of little short films—self-contained little sequences, all quite different though built around the same basic blocks. I got to play without having to worry that there would be an unwanted disjointedness. There were basically three things: one-guy-talking-on-a-phone sequences, two-characters-interacting sequences, and sequences of shorter shots put to music. Then I had to find a way to make them each different enough—a different challenge in each. I’d never filmed a scripted thing, never edited, never done sound, never done post production. I had zero skills. I had a head full of ideas, though and, as I said before, the principia of the project was not to “see if I could do what other people had done”—which would likely require a skill base and I would have failed—but to see if my ideas had any merit, if they could even work. A pure experiment. I say we used the “rudimentary equipment” on purpose, and my lack of skill was part of why. I was offered better cameras and sound and editing stuff, as I said before, but I would have had to learn how to use them—how to even turn them on—first and that would have been a drag for my temperament. That or I would have had to actively collaborate, and I didn’t feel like it, not on my first time out. I would have felt like an apprentice instead of an explorer. Then, of course, there was the fact that since I wanted a gritty, underground sort of film… I kind of had to film it as one, ground up, not take cleaner, more pristine footage captured by finer equipment and then play-acted it to seem dingier and made from ramshackle stuff. That would be a bore and nothing would be proved. But… I’ve gotten well away from the question. Sorry.

SM: You have written a heck of a lot of books, as well as doing a lot of other writing. One gets the impression that you must be writing nearly every waking moment. Is all that output the result of discipline, or are you just driven by some compulsion to be writing as much as you can?
PD: I have absolutely no discipline. And I have absolutely no idea how I manage to write as much as I do. I have a family—wife and two kids—a job and all of that, so sometimes, yeah, I look at my output and feel entirely alien to it. It helps that I am l’art pour l’art, that when I write or do any project there is no end in mind except to “have done it.” And it helps that I have so many thoughts and ideas I am never lacking for something new. There’s certainly a compulsion aspect, though. I cannot avoid or deny that. I become an awful person to be around if I’m not writing or making something. I like to think I’m a nice guy, but unless I have my teeth in and hands around something abstract, some idea, I get moody and abominable [laughter]. The film helped a lot, really. I mean, I had to write it and shoot and edit it, but I got to go a good period of time totally focused on just one idea because each element was brand new and consuming. It was relaxing inside my head while it lasted.

SM: A Public Ransom is what I would call dialog heavy. At times it kind of reminded me of a teleplay from the 1950s so-called Golden Age of Television. I imagine that reflects all of your writing experience. Could you see yourself making a European-style film with little or no dialog? What I’m getting to, I guess, is: how hard is it to transition from telling a story entirely through words to using a visual medium?
PD: Funny thing about this is: my novels—all of my fiction—has hardly any dialogue in it. Lately I put more in, but mostly there is none. I “describe” conversations but put very few quotes from the characters in. When I started working on an earlier iteration of A Public Ransom, it was going to have almost no dialogue, in fact. This is when it kept much closer to the short story. But something happened, and it became what it became, and talk was needed—and a lot of it. You’re right on about the “dialogue style,” and it is in such a particular style because of what the film is about—abstractly and symbolically as much as it is just because I kind of dig theater dialog and the dialog from films of the era you mention. For example, Strangers on a Train was highly influential to me as a writer—both the Highsmith and the Hitchcock, those exchanges between Guy and Bruno. And Rope, as another Hitchcock example—which was a play first, I believe, and kept to it in style exactly—and the way old film noir cinema is written. Modern noir cinema is closer to noir literature, I think, but that’s a talk for another time. At the same time, Mamet and Albee hugely influence me—anything on film or stage where naturalism is not eschewed but is transcended, that the total content of what is said, how it’s said, takes many forms and leaves one with a larger impression than “I’m watching just what is actually happening here.” Of course, this transcendence can be achieved wholly visually, but not in the case of A Public Ransom. If it was “just about the story,” I would have done it hotly naturalistically, even quasi-documentary. But the characters had to immediately serve so many simultaneous functions—who they were plot-wise as well as what they were, individually and coupled, symbol and representation-wise—that the dialogue style was needed. Steven, for example, is written and performed in a highly “stage acting” way, while Rene and Bryant are written far more naturally but have to always have their naturalism be in response to the more concocted, “written” deliveries that Steven makes. But this is because Steven does not represent, at his base, a full person but a person who is fundamentally always a performance, who is entirely distanced from empathetic connection or interest. Steven is amorality, artistic remove, while Rene is morality and audience perception, and Bryant is immorality and artistic interaction. The ways they talk—and to whom and about what—need a lot of words, and this all needs to be stuck tight in to the cinematographic compositions, the always part stage set/part surveillance camera/part unnoticed onlooker aesthetic that inform the images.

SM: Like any story, this story invites us to wonder what we would do in the protagonist’s place. Steve’s situation is complicated because he (and we) do not know exactly for sure what is going on. I suppose confusion and doubt lead to inaction. Is this a theme you were particularly interested in exploring, or is there something under the surface I’m missing (which is entirely possible).
PD: Inaction—particularly the horror of inaction, the ghoulishness of inaction—is something I explore again and again in my work. Steven is one of the most refined examples because he gets to so enthusiastically do nothing. Before going on about that, though, I should explain that in my view of the work, while Steven is the central character, he is no way meant to be either the hero or the audience proxy. The situation stands alone, apart from Steven, so to speak. Steven is kind of, in one sense, an object to be held up for judgment as he squirms through every possible rotation of inaction. Rene, for example, is in there as more the straight audience proxy. She is responding only and only to two forms of reality and art being presented her by Steven and by Bryant, and she assesses things only through sensible, real-life terms. Steven, while some might say he does not change and would be right in a sense, has to me a very clear arc of going from very, very disagreeable to absolutely reprehensible. This progress is made not only by doing nothing but by continually doing nothing anew. He has the double horror to him of not just being inert, not just passive, but of controlling via omission and lack of advancement, by insisting on being the force that defines, using a remove and knowledge to further a position of—while only self-assumed—authority over a situation. It could be argued that at times he acts, but in those instances—though he could be said plot-wise to have superficially understandable motives for such, which is also necessary—he only acts for himself and, in that, to maintain the homeostasis he prefers there to be. Bryant, that is, horrifies Steven, makes him antsy, not because Bryant claims to have kidnapped—and perhaps murdered—a child with his own hands but because Bryant seems fine with proclaiming these things and seems to have in mind that change should come of them, has “altering” as the reason for everything he does. Now this is all sub-textual, of course, which is why I say the characters—what they say and do—have to make sense just observationally to a viewer of the film plot as well. The same things could have been explored without the thriller impetus, but having such a grave threat hanging and the—as you mentioned—ever-present subjectivity, the uncertainty as to motivation, indicts the audience a bit more. Even as Steven goes through his litany of excuses in one scene, the spiel of “ways he could be looked at,” it is the unalterable, mortal circumstance of the kidnap/murder that makes things less academic to a viewer—or I hope so anyway.

SM: It is probably no coincidence that the story is about a test of wills between two writers. It’s almost as if there is a competition between them to see which one will be the author of the story and which one will be the character in the story. Does this tell us what kind of person becomes a writer? Or maybe what writing does to a person?
PD: Now, here is where I will touch on Steven a bit more. Because you’re right on. In a very direct sense, that’s exactly what it’s about. Steven and Bryant are the inverses of each other. They are, in fact, the same story told from the opposite start point. And they certainly struggle as writers for control, but it is also two very different kinds of control, two representatively different concepts. Bryant (Immorality) has, as objectionable as it may be, a humanity to his motives. He can be understood as an artist and in the control he wants. He wants to interact with a situation he started—this is Art—in the same way one might write a piece of fiction based on a real crime. Yes, he goes so far as to commit the crime and bring in the players for his story, but he has a genuine fascination—and then an equally real and human disappointment in the results, due to Steven—in what those human players do. He induces, then observes, then renders. He is dependent on the actions of the people involved in his ugliness and so therefore just off kilter from Rene, the Moral, only-observational audience—the one who, so to speak, interprets art and decides its applicable value, its relevance, its purpose beyond the selfish expression of the artist. Steven, though, is an altogether different animal. The control he wants is absolute. He is Amorality, so the purpose, the humanity, the result, these are entirely irrelevant to him. He does not want to know Bryant’s plan. He doesn’t care if Bryant is guilty or not. Steven wants to indulge from a place of removed, total control—not interaction, just control. He reduces Rene, Bryant, the kidnapped girl, everyone he knows, in fact, into whatever his chosen purpose for them is. Someone doesn’t fit that, he either convinces himself they do or somehow interacts with them as though to manipulate their reactions to fit his slant. Hence his empty threats—which both Rene and Bryant rightly dress him down over—of going to the police or looking in to things—that would wrest something from him, make the world more than his decision of the world. And to get to your question, more directly, yes, these are two types of writers, but more they are the—to me—necessary violence, internally, of a single person’s artistic thought. An artist wants both control and interaction with audience. There is a transgressive nature to writing—or any interpretable art—and the film, which as I said is very personal for me, has to do with that—with Art and how, also, one is in life as an excuse to find/create art. It is frighteningly true how close I was at a point in my life to Steven. Minus the kidnap angle, the film is basically a self-portrait of a person I once was.

SM: There are three actors in the cast, although it actually feels like more—mainly because of numerous telephone conversations and references to other unseen characters. Was the limited cast more of an artistic choice or a logistical/financial one? In other words, would you have preferred to use more actors or was this the way you envisioned the movie from when you first got the idea?
PD: Well, as we had no budget in a traditional sense, nothing we did was due to restrictions on that front. In fact, at the inception all of the scenes that in the final film happen only over the phone were meant to happen between multiple actors. Actors were cast and memorizing lines, were basically ready to go—Lisa, Deb, Warner, all of the phone presences. At a certain point, though, once the film was up and running, I was confronted that to keep with the aesthetic and the ultimate purpose, they all needed to be removed. This was because of several few points. One (and most important): having different faces and personalities spaced out as they would be in the sequences did not do anything to emphasize Steven’s isolation—his absolute, desired isolation. While his interactions with other actors would have showcased “Hey, no one likes Steven,” having him put in “in person” appearances made him seem almost manipulative—more like Bryant—and less callous, less totally and unconcernedly removed. He is a constant performance and, having him in isolation, the audience left with only his voice and stalking posture, drives home his absolute indifference to things. I mean, doing everything only over the phone is just so much more blunt. It lets Steven evolve or devolve only personally to each audience member. The audience is the personality on the other side of the phone. They don’t need to see themselves reflected in this or that proxy on screen. That would only soften the negative reaction to Steven, kind of make it communal, not viscerally front and center, each individual viewer having it as their own. Two (of much less importance): the idea of having the other actors had to do with a bit of first-time nerves about my ideas. I figured, “well, if there are more actors, the movie will seem more real” because there is no way getting around it that a film that has fifty minutes of just one guy talking into a phone is going to be a harsher pill to swallow for the general viewer than a film of at least two people on scene most of the time. So, I had to get over that, to cut it to what it was for the truthful aesthetic. All that has to do with my ideas as a film essayist. I know there are little reactions in audiences that sway opinion, so I had to force myself to get past the fearfulness and just do what I wanted to do to make the film what I wanted it to be—full stop. I balmed myself by reminding myself of a lot of my influences, especially theater, sat around saying, “Well Oleanna is only Carol and John, and American Buffalo is just three people,” and so on. There you go, even me trying to sound less like a blowhard just makes me sound like more of one!

SM: Where did you find your actors? They all did a nice job.
PD: Cheers. I think they were all swell, too. Thankfully, they are all just people I know. And none of them had been in a film or done any acting before. Well, Goodloe Byron (Bryant) was in a few short films, I think, but it was long ago, and he’s a musician and so used to performing. But Carlyle Edwards (Steven) and Helen Bonaparte (Rene) were first-timers. I think it had to be that way for this film. Everything came together in a kind of organic, even lucky, way. The way the performances were done—the film is tightly, tightly scripted—was so better than even what I wrote. Well, with Helen and Goodloe there was interplay that changed things. Steven kind of just did exactly what I told him [laughter]. Helen, though, she’s so much better than the part called for, and Goodloe actually got the co-writing credit due to his performance. The idea, at first, was that Bryant should be performed very much like Steven, maybe with more charisma and lightheartedness, an eerie kind of happiness, but just as full of motion, just as chattery as Steven. Goodloe, the first time we went to rehearse a scene, did the polar opposite of that. He kept all of the lines—or we trimmed a few to make the flow work but nothing was improvised or anything—but did this still, nonchalant, almost sheepish characterization that so, so, so colored and improved the impact of everything. The co-writing was for the performance and for some lines that came of having to do trims to help rhythms. I was furious with him all of the time because he’d come up with a line to condense something, and it would be such a keeper—and quotable to boot. All of my favorite lines in the film came from the editing/rehearsal of scenes with Goodloe. With Helen it was kind of a perfect cross between Steven doing what I said and Bryant making it his own. Rene’s scenes are so central to everything—they needed to be so many things at once—that a lot of it came down to delivery, stance, subtlety, and she just swung with it. The final sequence, for example—which was the most rewritten piece of the script, largely due to Helen always pointing out that I was, perhaps unconsciously, trying to make Steven come off as somewhat sympathetic and how this was not appropriate—was Helen’s scene, totally, for all of Carlyle getting to unravel so fun and dramatically. At first I wrote it to have her more angrily devastated and confrontational with him. But, yeah, that gave him kind of a leg to stand on, a position to argue from. It allowed him to seem he had emotion that just isn’t him for the simple fact he would be raising his voice to someone else raising their voice. Helen fixed that. And she got to play the most range in the script, always, I think, without seeming like she was performing at all.

SM: Any plans for more films?
PD: Oh yes. There will be more films. I have the bug. I am just about to start up another—and, humorously enough, now that I’ve done a feature-length one, I suddenly want to do a short film, as well [laughter]—and am wrestling between which of two ideas I want to do. Doing this first film has just energized me to all things cinematic. Making a film, I feel, has made me a better—though far more annoying to be around—viewer of film. That is, whereas I used to launch into theoretical “I’d do that scene this way” or what have you, now I sit around and vocally rewrite and reframe everything I watch with an unwarranted sense of authority! So, yeah, more films to come. Which probably sounds threatening, after all that blather, right?

-S.L., 3 April 2014

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