Full Interview with Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin

1) What inspired APART FROM THAT, not only its characters, situation and setting, but its unique visual style?

We’ll overhear a conversation between a husband and wife in a Joanne Fabrics, or at a greasy spoon frequented by farmers with actual cow shit still on their boots…and they’ll be talking about someone’s ugly new wife or internet gambling…we smile to one another, knowing that those little everyday human interactions will become a character, or a scene. As we see it, the small interstitials say so much more than the bigger, life-altering moments. And these moments arrive with such a distinct sense of place, color and light, all of which informed the visual style of “Apart From That”. We’re also inspired by a number of photographers; Nan Goldin, Uta Barth, Jeff Mermelstein, Eugene Richards, Joel Sternfeld, Shawn Records…as a result, we created a visual script prior to shooting that consisted of images we had taken, mixed in with these extraordinary photographers. It was a three-ring binder loaded with visual inspiration that kept us
honest whilst shooting. There were no shot lists or storyboards—only that book.

2) In an era where shakey handheld cameras are symbolic of ‘reality’ you often work from a locked down camera with rather high angle shots and slow pans, what informed these aesthetic decisions?

The aesthetic was always driven by, very simply, our interest in the emotional exchanges between characters. We wanted to keep the perspective simple and focused on the narrative content. Sometimes, the camerawork in some films can be a tad too conspicuous and coercive for my taste, distracting from the meat and soul of the moment. I never want the audience to be aware of the “stylistic auteur” behind the camera. Fancy camera moves and tricky effects mean very little to me. These things only manage to jar the audience and take them out of the story. The still, open wide shot is something we gleaned from directors like Tarkovsky and Kieslowski -there is a subtle serenity that enables the viewer to pick up the details and textures without being guided to them.

3) As artists when can you tell if you’ve made a good decision vs. a bad decision and can you give an example of each?

We don’t really think in terms of “good” and “bad” when it comes to our artistic choices. Sometimes, we’ll go in a narrative direction that doesn’t ultimately manage to express what we’re after, but that attempt is a necessary step in the process. You have to see it play out before you know whether it hits the mark or not. And, sometimes, it’ll be right for me, but not for Jen. Another added benefit to having two directors. It’s really about experimentation and exploration. The only “bad” choice, for us anyway, was trying too hard to force an exact manifestation of our initial vision—it was far more interesting (and artistic) to throw out our ideas and see what other people might contribute. A firm and demanding vision can be incredibly stifling. And boring.

4) How did you go about casting?

We wanted people, not trained actors. Regular folks with regular 9-5 jobs, who might be able to take our script, throw out what isn’t useful to them, and add elements from their own lives that would further deepen and enliven these characters. People who could provide the tiny details that we couldn’t come up with in a million years. So, we posted flyers in grange halls, harbormaster offices, transmission shops…we personally approached the Norwegian Man’s Choir, the people of the Swinomish Reservation, the Daughters of the American Revolution…holding casting sessions anywhere from a coffee shop in Seattle to a senior center in Burlington…for 6 months we did this, auditioning people for roles that didn’t immediately appear to suit them…casting against type was a big part of it. Again, we were more interested in being surprised that following any pre-determined ideas about what a character should look (or act) like.

4.5) When directing your actors, many of them I believe are family members or friends, how do you explain what you are seeking from them in a scene?

We wanted each cast member to be willing to experiment, to try anything, to express a departure from easy emotions. If they can throw everything out there, and speak—really speak—to one another, and LISTEN to one another, rather than perform for the benefit of the camera (or the director), that’s the good stuff. Also, we really wanted the entire cast to have a good time. To play. So, initially, we wouldn’t tell them much. They would hand us their initial impressions, and we’d tweak from there.

5) Were your actors surprised with the outcome of the performance and in what ways.

Many of the cast members had no idea how movies were made, so a good majority were surprised by the authenticity of their own performances. Many of them told us that the first time they watched the film, they didn’t see the film. They only saw themselves. After subsequent viewings, most of them were able to detach themselves from their characters, and see the forest for the trees. A wife of one of the leads told us that her husband was more affectionate with his fictional, cinematic wife than the real thing. Oops.

6) So, when you aren’t making films what are you doing?

Listening to people talk. Taking photos of them when they aren’t looking. Character research, basically.

7) Did you make short films or other films or any other type of art before APART FROM THAT and if so what did those experiences teach you?
I made a feature in film school entitled “Agave,” and Jen did one called “Where I Am.” Both of these films taught us, in very different ways, to have fun when making a film. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to enjoy yourself.

8) Cassavetes once said he wished he could just smash a camera because it got in the way of the drama in front of the camera. Your film has a rather high level of attention to technical detail in regards to composition and framing. How important is the look of your film and how were you able to make sure the camera did not interfere with the action in front of it?

When you have a large crew with a grip truck and a lot of equipment, the whole thing can get damned unwieldy. I never sensed a conflict with the camera, necessarily; we have a great DP who we use for almost all of our films (Erik Forssell), and he knows how to be, well, discreet. In terms of the drama. We also had a system in place where I would give him a special nod that only he would see, and he’d roll on a rehearsal or a moment when the actors didn’t know they were being filmed. Several shots in the opening sequence were the result of this. Also, because the drama of the scene is essential, often the camerawork suffered, in an attempt to capture the random movement of truly improvised moments. We had no blocking and no focus puller, so Erik had his work cut out for him. His ability to maintain a strong sense of composition within those parameters is just a testament to his skill. Also, Jenny has an incredible eye. She found light and
composition in places no one bothered to look.

8.5) Can you give a brief rundown of the equipment you used and where you got it from (rent vs. own?)

Almost all of it was rented. Aaton XTR Prod S16mm camera, prime lenses, sticks, basic grip truck…we shot on a couple different Fuji stocks. We’re looking forward to shooting the next feature using exclusively our own equipment.

9) Many of today’s films rely on their soundtracks to convey the film’s emotions, most use popular music from the past or up-and-coming artists looking to break big, obviously your film uses a lot of music, but it doesn’t have the feel of a playlist or mix tape, can you speak to role of the musical soundtrack in APART FROM THAT and how it was conceived?

We wanted the music to be an extension of the diegetic soundscape that might serve as a characteristic of the environment within which the characters lived. It was specifically composed with this in mind; a wind chime or a car engine would slowly assemble into an atmospheric melody that would then progressively dissipate. We didn’t want the music to call attention to itself or offer instruction in terms of how the audience should think or feel. We tried to steer away from recurring melodies as well. Despite the fact that one was applied to the character of Leo more regularly, we didn’t want a distinct character “theme,” because we didn’t want to give any indication that these people were stagnant or stable in any way. They are as varied and unpredictable as the rest of us.

10) When it came time to distribute your film you chose to do-it-yourself in a wonderfully crafted package that includes a book, a CD of the soundtrack, and the DVD. In an age of online videos, video on demand and of course pirated or ripped DVDs you seem to have given people a reason to purchase a physical copy. Can you speak to how this decision came about and the results of going this route?

Having been inspired by photography books, and having used a largely photographic script on set, we felt that it seemed only natural that the ultimate release of the film take the same form. Also, while we were on the festival circuit, we noticed that those who responded to the film were often people who spend a lot of time in bookstores. Or people who would collect random snapshots from thrift stores. Rather than choose to have the film be lost in a sea of titles at Blockbuster Video, we hoped that it would be discovered by someone who had been drawn in by the images from the film.

11) What’s next for you and your company Foreign American Pictures?

Two new features and an episodic series entitled “Whiskeypriest,” the first episode of which recently premiered at CineVegas.

12) What advice do you have for filmmakers?

Don’t wait for permission. Just start making. Also, to quote Cassavetes, “If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, we’re doomed to face the consequences.”

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