Matt Zoller Seitz's debut feature "Home" will have its theatrical premiere and a one week long run at the cultural capital of the western world, The City That Invented Independent Film (where John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee made their breakthrough & genre defining work), New York City. "Home" starts playing tomorrow, Thursday March 2, and runs until Wednesday March 8 at the Pioneer theater.
To celebrate the occasion I did a 5 question e-mail interview with Seitz. See my review of "Home" here. Here's the fan-tabulous interview:
Sujewa: Hi Matt, thanks for taking time out to answer some questions about your movie "Home". What was your filmmaking experience prior to making this, your first feature, and what made you decide to tackle a feature length project?
Matt: At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, my hometown, I was going for a double major in film and video production and in creative writing. But I fell into journalism and ended up having success with that, and I got sidetracked from filmmaking for 10 years after graduation. In spring of 2002 a low-budget producer-director named Kenneth del Vecchio invited me to be a "creative producer" on his third movie, "Tinsel Town," a microbudget thriller that's sort of like a cross between "Blue Velvet" and "The Dukes of Hazzard," if you can imagine that. It was an amazing learning experience. I did everything on that set, from loading and unloading lights to going over shooting schedules, to managing crew members and actors to making sure equipment got where it needed to go. I learned the proper way to wrap an extension cord and how to handle hot barn doors on movie lights. And on top of that, I got to storyboard shots with the cinematographer and direct a few scenes myself. At one point I storyboarded a chase sequence involving a borrowed police car, an Impala and an 18-wheeler driven by a guy who let us rent his truck for $100 that night. I think Kenny might have just met the guy that afternoon, just saw him in a parking lot behind the wheel of the truck and asked him if he was doing anything that night, and if not, would he like to be in a movie chase scene. About half the interiors were shot in mocked-up offices at an abandoned textile mill in Paterson owned by the movie's principal investor. At one point our two lead actors were driving around an office park somewhere in Paterson on a rainy night, improvising dialogue with a camera guy and a boom guy in the backseat while being chased by a police car at 50 miles per hour. It was great. I really enjoyed filmmaking and felt I was ready to do it again immediately, and direct and write this time. So that summer in 2002, I got together with some friends and we started shooting "Home." It started out as a 30-minute movie, basically a long short film, and ended up expanding into a 91 minute feature, a short feature. It just sort of grew like a garden. Total production time was 24 days spread out over 18 months. The days were difficult to schedule because there were often a lot of actors in the same scene. In the middle of the movie there are like 50 or 60 speaking parts and there are times when you need to see those people in the background behind two main characters, otherwise your shot-to-shot continuity is ruined. The whole movie was like a Rubiks' cube that had to be assembled in a particular pattern.
Sujewa: Having your house serves as a set for a film can be a nightmare, I have experienced it first hand. How did that go on the "Home" shoot? I read that the film was shot at your house over the course of several months. How did your family and neighbors react to the "never ending" production period?
Matt: They were about as understanding as you could possibly hope for. The landlord, Stan Murray, who lives on the fourth floor, threw extension cords out of his window to give us extra power, and had new outlets installed in our apartment to handle the juice from the lights. He was incredibly supportive. My family was complicit in the whole thing. I co-produced the movie with my two brothers, Jeremy and Richard, my wife Jennifer and my friend Sean. Most of the people on both sides of the camera are friends of mine or friends of friends of mine. There were a few times when I could tell they were wishing they'd never gotten involved with me professionally, because I got into this demented Captain Ahab mode where I was determined to get the movie done, even though we only had about 50 minutes worth of the narrative in the can and there was this whole other half that wasn't shot yet. Jeremy went out and raised some money from private investors to complete principal photography, and then to do sound work. We had to re-record some dialogue, we recorded multiple offscreen conversations to lay over the onscreen conversations to make the party sound more real. Then my brother Richard mixed the soundtrack, which is quite dense for a movie this cheap. I was a little worried that I was traumatizing my daughter Hannah, who was four and then five years old during principal photography in 2002 and 2003. But she's a movie buff and a cartoonist and a person very interested in the artistic process, so she ate it up. She didn't complain when we basically kicked her out of her own room so we could use it for craft services and a dressing room for the actors. In fact she really seemed to look forward to shooting days, and she has a PA credit on the movie because she actually was PA. She'd go bring the actors food, she helped make meals and sometimes she helped set up and break down by bringing extension cords and light stands to and from the storage area.
Sujewa: I felt that "Home" was a blend of documentary like story telling, mini romantic drama moments, with a little bit of absurd & surreal/colorful characters thrown in (here I am thinking about the dream interpreter & the guy who offers his romantic philosophy). Was this what you first envisioned when you wrote the script? Does the finished film tell the story in the way that you wanted it told?
Matt: The finished film doesn't tell the story exactly as I wanted it to be told because we had no money and that level of fanaticism isn't possible when you're not paying people. There were days when we stuck very close to the script and shot according to meticulous storyboarded shot lists that I'd made with my brother Jeremy. And there were days when we just kind of had to wing it because there were 40 people jammed into my kitchen in 110 degree heat and they were starting to get cranky. People often ask how much improvisation there is in the movie. It's about 60 or 70 percent scripted in some fashion, but the rest involves a degree of improvisation, anything from rewriting the scene on the spot to improvising in real time from a list of plot points and a scene outline. As a general rule, the more people are onscreen at any one time, and the more characters are onscreen at once, talking over each other, the more likely you're seeing a scene where both the dialogue and camerawork were improvised.
Sujewa: I liked the photography in this film. At points it reminded me of the black and white cinematography in certain 60's art/indie/foreign movies (Cassavetes?, French New Wave?). Which is kind of weird since this movie was shot in color digital video, less then 2 years ago. Can you speak a little about the visual design of the film?
Matt: Jonathan Wolff, my director of photography, asked me right off the bat if he could light it high contrast, as if it were an early Technicolor movie or a black-and-white 16mm movie from the late 50s or early 60s. I had envisioned the movie with a flatter, more evenly lit look, since that's what all the books and web sites told me you had to do with digital video to get a usable 35mm blowup. But when Jonathan said he wanted to go high contrast I didn't hesitate, because that's my favorite kind of lighting. Steve Hopkins, who came in the following summer and finished photography on the movie, mimicked Jonathan's lighting design and added some touches of his own. Their work matches pretty seamlessly, which was a relief when I finally sat down to edit it all together. We did a lot of things you weren't supposed to do when shooting in DV, but the three biggest were shooting high contrast, moving the camera rather dramatically, and using a lot of fairly wide master shots. All these things are a big no-no in DV because you get light trails and flicker. But my feeling was, we're shooting in video, let's get over that and do whatever we think looks interesting. I like high contrast, I like fairly flamboyant camera moves if the moment warrants it, and I like wide shots. The whole time I reminded myself that this could be the only movie I ever make, it might as well look like the sort of movie I'd enjoy looking at if I were a viewer. It's just an approximation of what I saw in my mind because of the limitations of our technology, which is low res, and the limitations of my own experience as a director. But there's a personality to it. The most influential piece of advice I got before going into this was from a director who's been working in the film and TV industry for a while now and has been very successful. He told me if you're making your first movie, you should do whatever the hell you want, and make the kind of movie you want to make, even if it annoys or confuses or angers people, because you might not get to make another movie, and you don't want to be kicking yourself later for not having scratched certain itches. The rest of the world may forget about this movie in a month, or in an hour, if in fact they ever notice it in the first place, but you're going to be living with it for the rest of your life, so it might as well reflect your personality and tastes. Plus, if by some freak chance your first film is a success, and you get to make another movie with a bigger budget, there will be more limitations on what you can do, more people to answer to, more people who can tell you no. He basically told me to make whatever I wanted to make and don't waste a minute worrying about what the world wants or expects. That was good advice.
Sujewa: Can you speak a bit about the film festival and distribution experiences related to "Home"? What was the reaction of the first film festival audience that saw the movie? What were the best & worst film festival experiences? How has the process of attempting to secure distribution gone? How did the upcoming week long screening at the Pioneer come about?
Matt: Distribution has been rough, and anyone who sees the movie knows why. It's an elliptical movie that's sort of real and sort of not real, and there are some very peculiar things in it, including a guy who interprets people's dreams in the backyard and a montage of people kissing scored to the sound of a guy on the front stoop reciting a poetic monologue in Spanish. And to top it off, there's no stars, no sex, no violence, and some would say no plot. It's kind of a vibe of a movie, and most of the action is internal. It's not the sort of movie one can easily sell to a huge audience. You have to get it in front of people who like this very specific kind of movie, and not being telepathic, you really have no way of knowing who those people are, or where they are, or how to find them. Incredibly, we did have a few inquiries from distributors, but most of them changed their minds after they saw the movie. One of them told me it was "the opposite of commercial," and another one said I might as well dub the entire thing into French because it's a foreign film anyway. I don't think he meant that as a compliment, but I took it as one. Another distributor told me that if I had just one actor in the movie who was on a TV show, I could get a pretty good deal. But there are basically two kinds of actors in "Home," hungry young professionals from the New York stage and indie film scene and amateurs who I kind of hauled off the streets of Brooklyn and stuck into the movie. Finally things worked out with a New York theatrical run at the Pioneer, which is run by Ray Privett, who had a strong, personal response to the movie and was very aggressive about convincing me to show it there. Audiences have generally gotten it, often to a degree that I find kind of bewildering considering how odd and personal the movie is. My least favorite showing was at the Long Island Film Festival, where the crowd just wasn't into it at all. The best showings were at the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, which was sort of a gimme, and the Trenton Film Festival, where we won a couple of awards, and at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, where people were very vocal and caught every joke, even the ones in the margins that you're not supposed to notice until the second or third time you watch it. We've also accumulated fans who see the movie at a festival and then track me down through my blog, The House Next Door , or through the movie's production company, Brooklyn Schoolyard, and want to know when they can see it again. The ones who live in New York are coming to the Pioneer. The ones who live outside New York will have to wait for the DVD, which is probably coming out later this year, on a reputable label that I can't name right now because we're still closing the deal. I'm finishing a second screenplay, an adaptation of a crime novel set on the Jersey shore, and I'm in production on two short films, both science fiction. The shorts will be done and posted on the Internet some time this year. The feature will roll when I get the money to do it.
Thanks a lot Matt! Hope you have an awesome time at the Pioneer this week.