Part one of the interview.
How invaluable has Aaron Hollander, your frequent DP/ writing collaborator, been on the filmmaking journey you're on?
Indispensable. More Orson for you, in this case talking about DP Willy Kurant: "He's my Rembrandt."As I think you'd gather by now, we're kind of a unit. Some people even call us "Darren" collectively. We have a short-hand together, an ease of working with each other. We tell the same running gags (our cast members know those to well by now), and we are a brain trust. I can't tell you how much easier everything is in independent filmmaking if you have an Aaron Hollander figure in your life. I'm reminded of the Alan Price lyrics from O LUCKY MAN! (1973): "If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely, you are a lucky man."
What are the benefits of starting shooting a feature without a script, like you did with this one? What would you say to those filmmakers or critics who would say it isn't the way to go?
I work from a very detailed outline, and every scene has a clear purpose and an arc. Give a good actor the character's objective in a scene, and they'll work that over. It's not as scattershot as it might sound. On this picture, we had the freedom to mess around more than on others I have made, so that's what we did. We basically filmed what would have otherwise been workshop sessions. I just let the actors have more leeway and more of a piece of the action in creating the characters. If that load is going to wind up on their shoulders anyway, they have to decide how to carry it, how much they carry, and even what they are carrying (that's what you might call backstory). Most of all, they are the ones who have to make it real for themselves. Directors and screenwriters get so proprietary about how all of this goes down, and I've gotten frustrated witnessing that from all the sets I've been on. Didn't Robert Altman say, "I just hire great actors," when asked how he manages to do what he does? And we know his process was loose, mellow, even zen.
For those who say my process is futile or "unprofessional" or what have you, look at my films (especially this one) and you will see that the proof is in the pudding. Our reviews are unanimously positive and we have not received a single bad notice yet. In fact, in this particular case, our critics wanted to see even more of the film beyond the three-hour runtime. Hard to accomplish indeed! These are critics at places like NPR, Filmmaker Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and others. That doesn't happen every day, and I do think it demonstrates what is possible with cinema when it is made in this ostensibly shambling but infinitely more liberating manner. But those hardened in the 'system' can't leave certain preconceptions at the door, and I think that's very sad.
At what point did you realise you had an epic three hour film?
Early on, it was a prediction. Almost a joke. You never know how something plays until you watch it with an audience, and I had a number of rough-cut screenings on this that pointed me in the right direction. We wound up with a 169-minute movie. I prepared a 124-minute version that every single person with whom I have spoken honestly agrees is vastly inferior. Some stories just need more time to unfold. But I have to say, knowing that we made an 'epic,' especially on this scale, gives me a lot of pride and joy.
Sid Furie put up a little fuss about the length for awhile, before ever seeing it. But he quipped, "You know how I feel about the length. But I guess if you're going to do it, 'Alexander Hero in OVERWHELM THE SKY makes damn good marquee for an epic!"
You wrote a biography of Sidney Furie. How has your time studying his films and talking with him changed the way you approach your craft?
Majorly. So many shots stem from a Furie influence that I absorbed through a kind of osmosis when I was a kid. He's still, as always, a very important presence in my life. Of course you don't want the influence to be so on-the-nose, but it's there. Most of the time, you can't help these things. They emerge even when you're not consciously arranging little homages and scaping the type of covert pastiche that movie-crazy filmmakers like myself love.
Which films or filmmakers inspired you on this film? Which films do you think would make great background viewing for the film?
Some filmmakers don't like discussing specific influences, but I'll be upfront about it, happily. I think discussing where we glean inspiration is always important. Frank Perry's MAN ON A SWING (1974) was quite formative in terms of mood and slow-burn dread. Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), in terms of structure and, again, mood. One person told me that the film suggests a cross-breeding of Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985) with Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1966), which is an analysis I always found somewhat on-point. On the Antonioni note, I first laid eyes on ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) at age twelve and that instilled in me a dream to one day shoot in the American desert. The last act of OVERWHELM realized that dream for me. BLOW-UP is generally a film that folks often mention when they see the film. It's apropos. The critic at KQED mentioned Erich Von Stroheim's GREED (1925), which is the first feature-length silent film that I saw all the way through at a very young age; the influence and incorporation of that film wasn't conscious to me until that critic so aptly mentioned it. The radio stuff came from Aaron's and my own intense love of Alexis Kanner's KINGS AND DESPERATE MEN (1981) and Bob Rafelson's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972). And of course there's the whole spirit and specter of Alan J. Pakula. I could go on and on...the film is really a compendium of influences. Then you put all of them in your own voice.
Were David Lynch or PT Anderson influences at all?
Lynch, not so much. I respect Lynch and I do think he's an inviolable genius, but I don't think he's ever spoken to my sensibility in deeper ways like others have. I might be wrong, as I'm in no place to truly judge, and many people have brought up the Lynch-ian gambits in OVERWHELM THE SKY. They might be there, but they were never on my radar.
P.T. Anderson, much more so. I think that in terms of 'mainstream' or major league, A-list, big budget auteurs working today, he's the best of them, numero uno, no question. Two critics have paralleled my film with the Anderson sensibility and I think there's much more of a case to be had there than with Lynch. I also think we share proclivities in terms of adapting literary sources.
What is the deepest personal connection you have to this film?
I don't really have enough distance from it yet to say. It takes years for me for the films to incite me and invite me to put together the personal puzzle pieces. I do think Eddie Huntly is that kind of woebegone, displaced dude that I understood very much when moving from Philly to New York City and then to San Francisco within the span of twelve years. I've only really found a sense of 'soul home' and peace of mind in San Francisco. Eddie's still squirreling on all of that. He really learns what displacement means in the final act. I can also say that the film's theme of 'sacred space' is a very conscious element, and is the most important aspect to me at the moment.
Alexander Hero's performance is great. So multi-faceted. What was the most memorable aspect of your discussions with him regarding his approach to the role?
Day by day, scene by scene, we worked it intensively. He was very included in the structural building of the film as we were constructing things. And I do believe that this was his most personal film as an actor. I think he mourned the end of the process and probably wouldn't have minded staying in that character indefinitely. Keep in mind, we shot over a two-year period. Sometimes, giving Alex a random piece of business or a specific movement would unlock the most unexpected stuff. He was full of surprises, and an exceptional collaborator. He loves the work and it shows.
Do you see Edgar (Hero's charcter) as the Everyman? Doomed to try to and understand what has traumatised him? The man boxed in by the huge expanses and noise of the city and further isolated? In order to rid himself of pain, he only subjects himself to more pain.
That's an interesting read on the character and the film, yes. To me, Eddie is a little more specific than the Everyman figure, but I wouldn't fight such a read on him. If people see themselves in him, that makes the experience more immersive, after all. Landscapes are always important in epics, and the landscapes often wind up trapping the hero. I debated about whether folks would think Eddie was mildly autistic in the first hour of the film, but that first hour is its own mindfuck anyway. Some people think Eddie is the murderer during the first 60 minutes. I kind of like that uncertainty.
Was part of the goal of the film to convey visually a human mind trying to put a puzzle together?
That's the whole goal. Awhile back, Aaron and I defined the genre or sub-genre of a 'puzzle film. ' For some reason, Greenaway's THE DRAUGHTMAN'S CONTRACT (1983) immediately leaps to mine, but there's a whole school of these pictures for us. You could count BLOW-UP among them. I think we infused the film with that sensibility. We didn't make the film, or any of our films, with an answer key. I know what certain things mean to me, but my own secret design doesn't have to be the definitive gateway to understand it. I try not to be selfish like that. I want people to have their own experience with it, not necessarily mine.
Do you hope audiences will want to return again to the film to trace each part of the puzzle again?
That's always the goal on my films. Even if people initially hate whatever film I make, if it gets them to return to it, I feel vindicated. Leaving a residue, if you will, is crucial to the type of pictures I want to make. And I can't tell you how often folks have changed their minds or surprised themselves upon additional viewings of my work. That's the greatest gift I could get as the maker. If a film doesn't reveal itself more on repeat viewings, or invite people in for more, I won't be terribly impressed.
Why did you decide to release the film in a Roadshow format?
Contrary to the suspicions of many who've approached me, the idea in no way generated from Tarantino's release of THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) a few years ago. He just got to do it before I did, and with a lot more money behind him. I just want to get that out-of-the-way immediately. I grew up in Pittsburgh collecting thousands of VHS tapes. My favorite package designs were the MGM/UA two-volume "Screen Epic" VHS's, gorgeously gold foil-stamped with the MGM logo, released between 1988 and 1992. Many of these video releases proved the first time the original roadshow cuts of these epic films were made available following their initial reserved-seat runs. For instance, George Roy Hill's HAWAII (1966) was released for the first time in its 190-minute roadshow length in this gold-foil-stamped MGM edition in 1990, after it had been cut down to 161 minutes. The roadshow format and the lore of roadshows captured my imagination almost immediately, from age ten onward. That interest started then with both IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). I loved two-cassette editions of long movies and, when watching them, I kind of made my own ceremony around the switching of the tapes. I swore that if I ever made a long movie one day, I would exhibit it at least once in roadshows style. And I fulfilled that promise with OVERWHELM THE SKY.
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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