Daniel Kremer is the independent filmmaker behind such acclaimed films as EZER KENEGDO (2017), RAISE YOUR KIDS ON SELTZER (2015) and THE IDIOTMAKER'S GRAVITY TOUR (2011). As well as being a resourceful, prolific, award-winning film writer-director, Kremer is also a professional film archivist and the author of the biography Sidney J. Furie: His Life and Films (2015). His biography on Joan Micklin Silver (HESTER STREET, CROSSING DELANCEY) will be published soon, and he is currently researching a biography on Henry Jaglom (TRACKS, SITTING DUCKS). Kremer's latest film is OVERWHELM THE SKY (2018), an ambitious, profound and stimulating epic drama that celebrated film critic Gerald Peary has described as ''Antonioni's BLOW-UP filtered through early David Lynch, with echoes of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. '' In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Kremer about how OVERWHELM THE SKY came together; adapting the novel the film is loosely based on, Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown; how the film evolved from the writing to the editing; why the film is dedicated to production designer Paul Sylbert, and why he choose to shoot the film in black-and-white.

When did you first start to formulate ideas for OVERWHELM THE SKY?
My best friend is my longtime cinematographer Aaron Hollander, and we hatched the film individually, yet we came together on it kind of cosmically. During the year or so before November 2016, I was workshopping another project called Precious Wheels Above, with the four principal actors who were to star. The money situation on that dried up and we reached a dead end. November 2016 was a rough time for many Americans, and I guess you might say we were among those who were traumatized by the turn of events. In addition to that, my mentor Paul Sylbert had passed away - I had just spoken with his wife on the phone, and she wept as she told me the news. I'd wanted to talk to him more than ever, and I quickly had to adjust to the fact that he wasn't going to be around anymore. A contract job I'd scored to edit a feature at Zoetrope for one of the Coppolas was pushed off indefinitely - again, money issues. And I had just come out publicly as gay for the first time in my life.

It was kind of a hazy, crazy time, a bit of a crossroads for us. Aaron just got the sense that we should just start working on something we could do inexpensively...or for nothing. "Let's do that weekend feature project you've been talking about for so long!" he told me. It would get us out of a funk, and we could use the time productively as opposed to lounging and lamenting. No cursing our fate! We had cameras, we had equipment, we had a unyieldingly loyal and talented base of local actors to pull from, thanks to the robust Bay Area community of cinematic creatives that our dear friend Rob Nilsson helped solidify over the course of decades.

I have a log of movie ideas that I will consult every now and again … scenes, moments, bits of dialogue, condensed prospecti of full projects, etc. On that log was the book Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, which my antebellum literature scholar brother had recommended to me years back as primo movie material. I got the sudden sense that we could effectively shoot that as a microbudget picture. When I told Aaron that I wanted to do Huntly for this "weekend feature project," he freaked out. He told me he had just been looking at that book on his own shelf, thinking he wanted to adapt it as a screenplay himself. We are also among the seemingly few who not just knew of the book, but owned respective copies of it -- it's pretty obscure. So, as on many other occasions, we were somehow clairvoyantly linked; I could tell you other stories that speak to that bond. We're like brothers, but we're also generally just somehow in-synch. But we also make good foils for each other, and we challenge each other. 

The film is is loosely based on the 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. What was your relationship with the book prior to the movie? How does it influence the film? 
I had read the book when my brother told me about it. It's a physically thin text, but the language is dense. There were scenes in it that struck me, but I found the book narrative unadaptable as-is. But those certain scenes struck me enough that I thought it be fun and exciting to stage them, particularly with nothing really at stake. We had freedom to try things, right? No one was counting any beans. The central sleepwalking sequence was one that really ignited my imagination. I could see the scene in my head, and knew how I would stage it. But it's almost like the book becomes entirely another story in the middle, and I knew that wouldn't read well in film form, at least for what I wanted. So I made a number of alterations to suit our needs and our ambitions. Aaron and lead actor Alexander Hero would either back up or improve upon these new ideas of mine.

I am happy to report that a leading scholar of the author Charles Brockden Brown gave the film his endorsement, stating, "As perhaps one of the two dozen academics who are most familiar with the book, I’d honestly say that you caught a truth in the text." And would you believe that there is a Charles Brockden Brown Society? 

Do you think there were benefits to beginning from a literary source? Has it made you want to adapt more books or plays? 
To me, you get the best results when you let the performers experiment with you and make it their own. By permitting them a little license and latitude, you're also inviting them to believe more deeply in what it is they're doing. It's really as simple as that. Our recent cast-and-crew Q&A was testament to the fact that my performers always felt safe and protected, but flew really high and far afield too -- and those "high altitudes" can be dangerous and frightening for those reared within more traditional methods, which I believe have become tired and passé. I expect my collaborators to kind of follow me down a rabbit hole. I think the book also gave us further framework, likely more than my usual. Everyone was on firmer ground knowing the picture had a literary antecedent. And, with every film - this being my seventh - you constantly refine your process and your methods, and you develop more confidence. So, the sum total of my experience brought me to OVERWHELM THE SKY.

In terms of other adaptations, there are a number of literary sources I'd love to adapt, one in particular being my dream project. But as I've heard so many seasoned, veteran filmmakers tell me, "You make the films you can make, when you can make them." I've always found that very wise. Many younger directors I know have their eyes only on the one film project they want to do at that time, at the expense of every other potential endeavor. My advice is to keep a Rolodex of ideas and do the ones that you can do when it's opportune. Focusing on one at the expense of others has merit in some respects, but it doesn't translate well to productivity or the ultimate sense of self-fulfillment that comes with a completed motion picture. I am constantly hopscotching between various pet projects, returning to them when I can feel fresh again with them. It's easy for the mind to get constipated when you're so mired in something, or married to it.

I'll give you an idea of the type of alterations we made from novel to screen. For instance, there was a scene in the novel that involved Edgar waking up in a cave all bruised and battered, having sleepwalked himself. He fights his way out of the cave by killing a number of Lenni Lenape Indians, and eventually drinks the blood of a panther. You can imagine how, in the context of the film we made, this would never have worked and it was incumbent upon us to change it. The political ramifications of the way the Native Americans are depicted in the novel are a bit messy in a modern context as well, so these are just some of the liberties we took, I think for the better. I was also able to fashion something else thematically intriguing by including the Navajo characters that Eddie encounters in the desert. 

How much of the final film was the product of an evolution during shooting and editing?
Everything. I'd come up with scene concepts and we would flesh them out in action. It was a dynamic process at all times. On both OVERWHELM THE SKY and my earlier RAISE YOUR KIDS ON SELTZER (2015), I never had a better time making a movie.

I don't believe in prefab scenes - I have complete anathema to that; I detest when scenes feel too "written." It's drama measured in teaspoons, or IKEA filmmaking as I call it. A sense of danger and moment-to-moment invention, specifically when a director is proactive in shaping and sculpting it on a commensurately moment-by-moment basis, is invaluable and priceless. To me, the best, freshest filmmaking today comes from this kind of process. Traditional, so-called 'off-Hollywood' indie films and perfunctory genre efforts so often stir only drowsiness in me, because they come off like stale filmed theater pieces, or the palest, most meager imitations. And there is always the pretense in 'off-off-off Hollywood' films of trying to look like they are extravagantly budgeted when they are so obviously (and often pathetically) squeezing the material dry to look 'Hollywood-ready.' I have always been of the mind that you should own your low-budget roots, and demonstrate that the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. I find audiences will respect that more. Aspire, be ambitious, and think big, but be real about yourself, otherwise you fall on your ass with egg on your face. 

You dedicated the film to Paul Sylbert, the celebrated art director. How much did your friendship with him inform the film? 
Paul is always with me. He was a very exacting and discerning man, and his voice is always in my ear, even after his death. He loved black-and-white, he loved Bergman, he loved the efficiency of Bergman's visual poetry, he loved when he could sense an artistic voice. As a result, he was always very cynical about Hollywood, even films he worked on. I remember him standing up in a class showing the students the Hollywood pictures he designed, ranking on many of them for whatever reason, usually in regard to lost integrity. To specify, integrity that was either lost on the way, or projects that never had integrity in the first place. He never ever minced words, and I admire that trait when it's done with reason and erudition, which he had in spades. He loved the film he designed for me, which was my thesis film: A TRIP TO SWADADES (2008). He dug the monochrome and the mood and the style of it. That remained his last credit for many years leading up to his passing, and he often expressed to me how proud he was to go out on it, which made the younger me feel like a million bucks. I can't help but think he would have loved similar touches in OVERWHELM THE SKY, which is also in black-and-white. It made sense to dedicate the film to him from the getgo, and I am honored that it is the most successful of my films so far. I want Paul's name to be associated with that, because he was the first individual of consequence in the film industry to really believe in me. When I met with him for the last time in person, a few months before his death, I gave him a copy of my first published biography (of Sid Furie), and he got misty-eyed and said, "I always knew you'd make good, Dan." I still choke up when I think about that. 

Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white? 
The Orson Welles quote, right? "Everything looks better in black-and-white." I think that was partly the specter of Mr. Sylbert, but it was also a bit of chance and a...dash of logic, I guess. I felt that (lead actor) Alexander Hero's face, his visage, would look its absolute best in black-and-white. Also, the night before the first day of shooting, my cinematographer Aaron and I attended a special post-Telluride Film Festival screening of Francois Ozon's FRANTZ (2016), hosted by the great Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger. We thought the film was okay, but I loved the use of black-and-white Scope (aspect ratio of 2.20/2.35/2.55/2.76:1, depending on lenses, process, et al.) and I turned to Aaron in the middle of it. I whispered, "Let's do black-and-white Scope tomorrow." He chuckled and replied, "Somehow I knew you were going to say that." That was how informal our 'pre-production' was! And of course, we had many a conference about style and camera voice as we were going week to week, and I was loaded with references for him. That whole look just made sense, and it seems that Scope films are shot in black-and-white more rarely than most recognize. Sometimes, things just feel right.

Part two of the interview. 

OVERWHELM THE SKY has been playing at film festivals in its roadshow version since July 28th. The theatrical cut will open in New York on November 15th, with a couple of roadshow screenings as well. 


Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.

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