Conversations: The Tone of Things

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, In Cinemas, Interviews
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Talking Jake the movie, scriptwriting as a means to an end, collaboration vs. authorship, and finding the right tone.

Doug Dillaman is an ardent cinephile and recent addition to The Lumière Reader roster. In between working as a freelance television editor and writing his debut novel under the auspices of Victoria University’s IIML Creative Writing programme, he has found time to write, direct, and release his first feature film, Jake. Produced by the Hybrid Motion Pictures collective, Jake defies obvious categorisation, eschewing the reverential tendencies so often associated with films by film fanatics. Removed from the comforts of genre and with a creative imperative to experiment with tone and expectation, it’s a film made with a greater degree of difficulty, and is all the better for it. On the eve of Jake’s Auckland premiere, Lumière’s editor, Tim Wong, wrangles Doug Dillaman for a conversation about the film’s making and their respective cinephilias.

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TIM WONG: I thought we’d start with the origin of the film itself. How was the idea conceived and what led to realising it?

DOUG DILLAMAN: Jake was the sixth feature script that I had written over the course of ten years, but the first to be produced. I started working on it in 2007, subsequently had my laptop stolen, and then had to rewrite it from scratch. In the process, some friends and I had started a filmmaking collective, Hybrid. We had been getting together every weekend for months, and there was eventually this burst of energy to go make a feature film. I went down to Dunedin for work for four months, spent three of them trying to rewrite the first 23 pages that I had written before the theft, and then wrote the rest of it in a weekend. That was start of 2009, and we were shooting in July of that year. So from a process perspective, that’s where the film comes from.

TW: Were there any key cinematic or literary references you were drawing from at the writing stage?

DD: I’ve tried to track it back. There have been a lot of narratives that get into replacement or changing identity. Obviously, it’s core to cinema, this idea that you’re watching someone pretend to be someone else. For some reason at the time I was thinking of Jake Gyllenhaal and wondering if he would be as popular if he was still the same guy, but named Jacob. That was a key element for no other reason other than he struck me as an unlikely heartthrob. I think he had just been cast in Jarhead as a tough marine, and I thought, “He doesn’t look like that to me.” But clearly somebody’s seeing it. And I’ve always been curious about Dave/David, Tim/Timothy, Doug/Douglas. Why we choose our names, what those are.

There wasn’t a specific film I was referencing, though a few that come to mind I would’ve watched or re-watched during Jake’s gestation are Hiroshi Teshigihara’s The Face of Another, Lars von Trier’s The Boss of it All, and Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis. I’m a big Hong Sang-soo fan, and Turning Gate I revisited while preparing Jake. It relates in that it depicts a man trying to get a girl by acting a certain way, and failing, so he changes the part that he’s playing when he meets another woman, though he should have kept playing the same part, because then he would have got the girl if he had acted like he had originally. The common thing with all of these is identity and who we are. Identity can be a curse word, there’s often a very circumscribed view of ‘identity’ as race or whatever, but if you start getting really analytic about it, almost all films are about identity, and what it means to be you. Charlie Kaufman is also worth mentioning, with Adaptation and Being John Malkovich.

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‘Seconds’ (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

TW: Telling a story about identity, performance, personas, and the chance to reinvent oneself, how did you approach the necessity for shifts within the narrative? Hong’s films are a great example of precise narrative shifts and repetition taking place. Kira Muratova is a master of fracturing film form. Seconds, meanwhile—which came to mind immediately as I watched Jake—deals with transformation through striking visual design.

DD: I remember watching Seconds in the run up to Jake, and being really taken by it. Of course, the cinematography is such a stunning part of that. As to Jake, I had an early idea where every single scene would have been shot in a different style. There would have been a split screen scene, an ostentatious shaky handheld scene, a long master shot, with shifting form acting as a comment on identity. In part, I think that came from having watched a lot of films, and being very conscious that a lot of devices that are considered naturalistic are really just as much a stylistic decision. I stepped away from that because I thought it would be really distracting in the end, and take away from the story. But there’s still this intentional tonal shift. Watching it with an audience, the first third is very comic, and in the last third you’ll hear barely a laugh. Which isn’t an accident. Some of the ideas that are talked about in a surface way, particularly in regards to violence, go from a very comic treatment to a more serious treatment. I quite like the gradual drift of tone as a thing, as well as sudden tone shifts. A lot of Korean cinema was probably on my mind, films like The Host, where one minute you’re laughing, and then all of sudden, it’s really disturbing. I like not knowing exactly how you’re supposed to react when you’re watching a film, which I think some people find quite uncomfortable, but I get quite excited by it.

TW: What impressed me most about Jake was the absence of a prescribed style, because to make a film about identity, the natural impulse is to turn it into a genre film, or, as with Seconds and The Face of Another, to stylise it overtly.

DD: It would have been easier to sell if we had done that [laughs]. I didn’t realise that at the time.

TW: Films that refuse to take the easy route, that don’t follow the manual, they are often stranger for it, and it’s that quality that encourages me to look closer as a film viewer.

DD: Dogtooth is another film I saw around the time I was making Jake. Certainly that’s a more extreme film, but again it’s another where there’s this question of, where on earth do you put this in a video store? There’s a certain safety to genre films, even transgressive genre films, because if you know it’s a horror film, or you know it’s a film noir, there are those conventions, and even if the film is commenting on those conventions and it goes meta, it’s still within the context of that. Which is I think why people reacted so strongly to Audition, which is another film that comes to mind as an influence. There are stories of people going into that film, having no idea what they’re getting into. It starts out like a zany wry comedy about a dad recasting for this part to fill, then goes very dark. I don’t think my tone shift is as confrontational, but there is a similar kind of idea there. I think it’s exciting to see a film and not know what it is, and go with it as it moves and shifts, but I suspect a lot of people have a very different feeling about what they want from movies.

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‘Audition’ (Takashi Miike, 1999)

TW: I think it’s one of the reasons why we see many genre films made in New Zealand. That to me is frustrating. Going back to tone, there really isn’t a handbook for cultivating it in a film, is there? How important is performance and the direction of the actors in finding this tone?

DD: When you’re making a film, everybody wants to have a reference to what it is. That’s in the making of it, and the selling of it. It’s been very difficult to sell Jake because of that. And that’s something that extends to performance as well. That was something that was really found along the way. I come from a writing background and an editing background, and I hadn’t worked a lot with actors before that. When I wrote Jake I had imagined a plastic Truman Show kind of quality to it, and then after going through the audition process, and in particular getting Jason Fitch and Leighton Cardno in the leads, and finding this naturalistic energy to the performances, there’s two choices you have as a director at this point: to try to tenaciously hold on to the idea you have in your head, or be attentive to what’s happening and go with that. I’m really glad I did the latter, because it’s the more naturalistic low-key approach that hopefully gets people more immersed in the reality of an unreal thing, and hopefully has more emotional freight when it comes through.

Of course, it does make some of the more comic elements of the film a bit challenging in terms of how they fit against that, and it is asking a lot sometimes of a viewer to move between those tones. We had a long postproduction because we rushed out a quick edit and after getting kicked back from some film festivals, went back and reedited it. There was a lot of refining tone and a lot of jettisoning moments, even whole subplots, that were really orthogonal to the themes and where the movie had gone. I guess that’s a thing I’ve learned more since I’ve begun writing this book: to focus your themes and world-building around the themes that you’re discussing.

TW: Has making the transition from scriptwriting to novel writing been a challenge, or conversely, a relief?

DD: Scriptwriting of course is a contingent art, and you’re writing it as a set of instructions for you or someone else to make a film from. That was something I was stuck on for a long time, where I was like, “I’ve spent a lot of money on this film, I don’t know if I can afford to make another one, do I need to make something that’s more conventional that will get funding, and if so how much funding will that be?” So you have this narrow set of constraints of what world you can build, even at the more expensive side of that, whereas in novel form, if you decide that you want to have six thousand war ships come over the sea, it takes you about six words and fifteen seconds, and you’re there. So there’s that side of it.

From a craft perspective, one thing I do like about screenwriting is because there is so much contingent, you’re kind of forced and encouraged—especially if you’re writing for commercial consideration for other directors—to really hone these short, precise descriptions that give just enough character and flavour. Something I’m learning as I’m getting into prose writing more is that I do have to make more decisions and put them on the page. I saw Maike Wetzel speak recently, a German writer who’s been over in New Zealand for the last few months. She writes for both screen and page, and she just views screenwriting as paid work. “I just write a banal sentence because that’s what I’m getting paid for.” And so you can have a detachment from your screenwriting in that sort of way. It helps, because fundamentally screenwriting is a means to an end, and the novel is an end.

TW: In terms of your authorship, are there any central themes that you’re carrying over from Jake, or this novel completely independent of that?

DD: I’m not consciously carrying over anything, but I do think that every writer brings a set of concerns and interests, and that no matter how consciously you try to escape them, they’re there.

The novel I’m writing is set during WWII and is a true story about weapons testing that happened in New Caledonia and New Zealand. It’s told mostly from the perspective of some scientists who were working on the project. Without going into detail, the story has some very silly aspects to it. But there’s also something deadly serious about the fact that what they’re trying to do would mean the loss of lives.

I think it’s important to do justice to both tones. If there’s something amusing about your subject, you need to acknowledge the humour, and if there’s something sad about it, you have to acknowledge the sadness. I often find when I watch a ‘comedy’ that often there’s a deep sadness that nobody is talking about, and I’ll walk away from an ostentatiously funny movie feeling quite sad because there’s this elephant in the room. We’ve talked about this before with screwball comedies, for instance, where there’s often a great emotional weight glossed over for the smile. That’s the common denominator between those two projects.

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‘Trust’ (Hal Hartley, 1990)

TW: We’ve talked about your earliest cinematic awakening before, the film that made you realise the medium had more to offer than a three-act structure, explosions, and a clear resolution. Film as art, essentially. What took place between then and the creative impulse to start making your own movies with the dichotomy between art and entertainment in mind?

DD: I went to university in Houston, got a philosophy and political science degree, and spent four years at a school with a film school without taking a single film course. At the end of it, I spent some time hanging out with this young woman who was really into film. She showed me Trust and Gas Food Lodging one night. Up until that point, I’d probably been more or less as much into film as anybody. I remember Sex, Lies and Videotape and Brazil and a couple of other films I had seen. Even then they were interesting, so I don’t think I thought that the arthouse was a mythical thing that I didn’t understand. But there was something that was very approachable about the films she showed me, and she was a film student. This was around the time that El Mariachi and Clerks had come out. Suddenly I’m being exposed to a whole world of cinema that’s set in quotidian locations, that’s accessible in terms of being made, but doesn’t require the stars of Sex, Lies and Videotape, or the production design of Brazil. She left me a list of like 60 films that I started to work my way through. I would say Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Krzysztof Kieslowski were the four filmmakers who I immediately took to, probably Richard Linklater somewhere in there as well.

That became a jumping point off for exploring more world cinema and working my way through the classics. There was something great about the fact that I saved that up and had that experience of just inhaling all of it. I’ve talked to a lot of cinephiles who trace their cinephilia to being 9 or 10 and watching Sunday night horrors or Star Wars. I feel a bit different from certain filmmakers right now who draw from that well, the indies who get big, like Gareth Edwards and Edgar Wright, whose goal in life is to make bigger, louder movies. I never really wanted to do that. Those aren’t the stories I’m interested in. I wanted to find a scale of story that worked to my means and I could see myself making. I started writing my first (unfinished) script in 1995. I hope nobody ever finds it. About five years later when Final Cut 1 came out, I bought a Mac and a Canon GL1, and just started shooting a bit and made a short film, and that brought me to apply to film school and come to New Zealand (in 2004).

TW: Beyond your earliest discoveries, I’m curious to know which films have stuck with you through your cinephilia? Taste and perspective can change over time, of course. Not necessarily the films that could be described as “objectively great,” but those that have remained special or indispensible, for whatever reason. I admit I grappled with this question when asked to come up with a list of ten films for the Sight and Sound poll a few years ago. The films I settled on were all ‘special’ to me, yet also had grounding in critical theory, an artistic reputation. A friend of mine who knows me well later expressed disappointment that I hadn’t included Times Square on the list, a film that would never qualify as important in a historical or canonical sense, and yet one I’ve probably seen more times than any other film, and love it unconditionally to this day.

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‘Outskirts’ (Pyotr Lutsik, 1998)

DD: 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that I’ve driven three hours to Seattle to see on Cinerama, and have flown to Melbourne to see in 70mm as well. I think most people, unless they’re contrarian, recognise it as one of the great works of cinema. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone, even Wes Anderson buffs, would give Bottle Rocket the same standing, but I’ve seen it more times, and it’s a film that’s dear to my heart in that way. With Gordon Willis’s passing, Manhattan comes to mind. Certainly through the lens of the present day, it has uncomfortable elements, but the first several minutes amount to one of the most beautiful openings to any film ever.

It’s interesting as I get older, because there are films that once meant a lot to me, not unlike albums. Three Colors: Blue was everything to me, and was probably my go to for ten years, but I don’t feel drawn to revisit it anymore. Punch-Drunk Love is a recent film I’m deeply besotted with, just irrationally in love with that film. I saw it three times in a theatre; the colour, sound, and design, and the miracle of Adam Sandler’s performance is astonishing. There’s Roy Andersson, especially You, the Living. As you get into cinephilia, you get more and more attracted to filmmakers who found their own voice, and he’s somebody who completely owns his own style. And that’s really compelling. On the flip side, I should also mention my love of “best worst movies” such as Troll 2, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, and Lady Terminator, which are as key to my cinephilia as any “respectable” films.

I’m often more interested in how the story is told than the story itself. Outskirts is probably one of the most important films of my life in terms of changing how I think about film even though I’ve only seen it once. Released in 1998, its synopsis describes it as a black and white film about peasants whose land has been taken from them and they want it back. I had just watched Dovzhenko’s Earth, I’m interested in Russian cinema, and thought it sounded interesting. I go to see it, and it is shot in beautiful black and white, but there’s something that’s just a little off. There’s this scene where they go to wake up this guy who’s drunk, and they hold his face under water for a really long time. There’s this uncomfortable humour. I don’t think it’s supposed to be funny—it’s in black and white, it’s serious—and yet the whole thing escalates. By about two thirds of the way through, it’s more like a Tarantino film set in the 1920s. It took a traditional story that’s been told so often in Soviet cinema, and used the formal technique while actually playing it out somewhere between how it would have happened, and some Hollywood fantasy of it. Its tone was completely fascinating and interesting and at odds with the plot description.

TW: Fast forward to Jake, which is surely coloured by the experience of that film?

DD: I think so. There’s that quote I use all the time from Orpheus, where they’re sitting around a cafe and Jean Cocteau exhorts filmmakers to “astonish us,” which is always a bit pretentious in the telling, but I just love being surprised. And that’s the thing, when you’re eight and you haven’t seen the story about the kid who thinks he’s normal but is actually special, initially resists the call, but then goes on to fight the fight and triumphs at the end and gets the girl, you think that’s really cool. But when you’ve seen it 300 times, it’s not going to work for you.

TW: I love to be blindsided by a film. The element of surprise is important to me as a film viewer, especially in the digital age, where it’s become even harder to discover a film on your own terms. But I also need to remind myself that there’s a whole sector of the film going population who don’t want to be surprised by a film, at least not in a way that is an affront to their expectations as paying consumers. We’ve seen that happen with Certified Copy, for instance. Kiarostami, of course, has long been fascinated with identity. Certified Copy is one of your favourite films, right?

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‘Certified Copy’ (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

DD: Yeah, I absolutely love Certified Copy. There is a similar act of faith that the viewer has to make, but they suddenly have to make it mid-film, which makes it even more impressive. My ideal viewer would sit down to Jake not knowing anything except that it’s 88 minutes long. But then some of those people would walk out. We did struggle a lot in how to market the film. How much do you share? Do we try to sell it as a fun comedy? Or sell the overall arc of the film at the risk of spoiling it. And so there’s always this tension about presentation. It’s not just in the marketing, either. As a writer, how do you talk about a film like Certified Copy and get people to see it, and properly set their expectations without giving the game away? It’s really hard. I don’t know that there is an easy solution. It’s a film by a big name auteur with Juliette Binoche in the lead role, so that helps, but not all films have that. There are films I’ve heard discussed at Cannes this year, like Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, which people are touting yet at the same time saying “’don’t read anything about it.” There’s a sense that you kind of have to agitate to create some noise around these films for people to want to programme them. But if it’s an unknown quantity, and the surprise is important, how do you create that noise?

TW: You’re the writer/director of Jake, but this is also very much a film by the Hybrid collective?

DD: Absolutely. One of the problems of speaking on behalf of a film is when the writer/director is put forward in a way that springs into this old myth of genius, that gives the impression that the film came fully formed from somebody’s mind. As I mentioned before with the performances, I feel like a lot of the job of the director is gathering people around you that are hopefully smarter than you and paying attention to the things that you would never pay attention to, or that you don’t have time to pay attention to. I remember saying to everybody in Hybrid when we started that there won’t be “a film by Doug Dillaman” credit on this. I consciously didn’t put one on. At some point, maybe, I’ll make my little Stan Brakhage film where I etch onto a piece of celluloid, and then I’ll put “a film by Doug Dillaman,” but until then…

I wrote the film, I directed the film, I was one of the producers of the film, those are the credits I’m happy to have because I did those jobs. But there are so many others. For example, Peter Evans edited Jake. With a lot of the sequences, especially the montage driven ones, I gave him very loose direction, heaps of footage, and said “have fun.” And he came back with amazing work. That’s not me, I just checked the box on it, or gave him some notes. Across the board, from the mammoth work that Alastair Tye Samson and Anoushka Klaus did as producers to the sound mix and colour grade by Jason Fox and Alana Cotton and all points in between. Another example: our credited associate producer, Heath King, who along with Alastair and I founded Hybrid. He’s one of those guys that can do everything on a set. Everyone made a difference. I feel very strongly about it not being “a film by Doug Dillaman.”

TW: I just assumed that the film carried that credit line, as most usually do.

DD: Usually. I don’t know why people do it, especially on indie films. Film’s a collaborative medium, and not just between the three or four big positions that people usually discuss. For instance, I’m terrible with costume design and gave our designer, Jasmin Gibson, next to no input despite her asking. Anyone who watches how I dress for a week will know that I’m not attentive to clothes. She came back with a visually distinctive wardrobe that just hit the right tone of being naturalistic but also a little weird and funny, but not so weird and funny that you felt like you were watching a Michel Gondry movie. And all for next to no budget. I was rapt with her work. I could bore you and go through the entire cast and crew and talk about what everyone contributed, but I think it is one of the big perceptual failings that film critics and cinephiles have in the way that they discuss film. I’d love for more cinephiles to look at filmmaking holistically, because I think we’ve sort of defaulted to the model of celebrity.

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‘Unlawful Entry’ (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992)

TW: I couldn’t help but view Jake through the prism of “home intrusion” movies and the concept of the trickster. Specifically, a spate of domestic thrillers made in the early 1990s, which all had in common the premise of a visitor/intruder who ingratiates him or herself into the life of a normal, middle-class family, shakes things up, before turning obsessive and violent. Jake isn’t anything like Single White Female or Pacific Heights or Unlawful Entry or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but it did remind me how much I enjoyed those films on a visceral level: the stomach-churning nastiness of the villains, and the potency of imagining what I would do in the same crazy scenario. There are moments in your film where it’s quite absorbing to see how or if Jacob is going to get the upper hand over his alter-ego, Jake.

DD: Somebody said once that most stories can be reduced to “stranger comes to town.” That’s everything from westerns to Suspiria. I know why you’re making the home-intrusion comparison, because so much of Jake is set in domestic areas, but part of that’s because the domestic area is ‘backstage’. My thinking was the relationship between Jacob and ‘Jake’ changes depending on whether the actor is ‘on stage’ or ‘off stage’. Outside of the house, he’s almost always ‘on stage’, but inside the house, if the flatmate’s not there, he’s ‘off stage’, and can acknowledge the role. So the house wasn’t meant to be as central in that kind of way, but is perhaps more so now that some of the other parts of world building have been removed from the film.

TW: I was also thinking of Mulholland Drive, because it’s about someone who imagines their life as being better than what it is. It appears too good to be true in the David Lynch film, and we learn that it was all a dream, but dreams are fabricated too, albeit from the subconscious. Jacob’s experience is more akin to a lucid nightmare: his life is recast and rewritten against his will, and he’s aware of it the whole time.

DD: I love Lynch; another unconscious influence. To get slightly personal, when I came up with the film I was at a point where I wasn’t very happy with my life. I had this moment where I took stock: okay, you’re a healthy person of a still reasonable young age, who has talents that can be remunerated for pay. As I went through this list of things, I realised it was great raw material. What if somebody showed up right now playing me, what would happen? Where would I go? How would it work exactly? Combined with the aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal thing, that’s where the idea comes from.

TW: It’s an intriguing thought: what would someone else do with your ‘character’, how would they interpret it, what would they change if literally stepping into your shoes?

DD: I’ll share this. Making a film for me was often an anxious, stressful experience. And as a first time filmmaker who sometimes didn’t know what he was doing, leading a team of people, I had to answer questions quickly, confidently, authoritatively. Fellini, I think, makes a reference to this in 8 1/2 where there’s a scene with people screaming questions. At some point I made a conscious decision not to share those anxieties, not to be ‘me’ anymore—I was going to play the part of a confident director who knew what he was doing. Is Jacob performing? A really interesting question. Is he making a show of how difficult his life is? In the first scene with his parents, however difficult they are to deal with, he’s playing the role of put-upon son; he’s not playing the role of a grown up who has his own job and is a successful professional. And it’s a role he’s probably been playing his whole life and is quite comfortable in. It’s clearly more comfortable to him than standing up to his parents, to his job, to everyone in his life, and saying you guys need to treat me like a grown up.

TW: And if he did that, we wouldn’t have a film, would we?

Conversations” is an ongoing series introduced as a space for our writers to discuss their practice within a broader conversation about art and culture.
Jake’ premieres at Academy Cinemas in Auckland on June 27. It also opens at the Paramount Cinema in Wellington on July 11.

MAIN IMAGE: Stills (x8) from Jake.