On Friday I had an interview with director Michael Reich and star Michael Pinkney, of She’s Allergic to Cats, the bizarre ode to the struggles of Los Angeles’ outsider creative class, scheduled for 2:00 PM. When I walked out of my late lunch I saw the gentlemen sitting in the hotel lobby with their publicist so I quickly introduced myself, and since they had nobody else scheduled at that time I was able to grab them early and ultimately spend an extra fifteen minutes with them. I’ll put the entire interview up next week, but here are the highlights.
Before I begin I should point out that, although Reich is listed as the writer and director, the pair have been used to working as a co-directing team on music videos before Cats. From their conversation it seems that Pinkney had, if not an equal, at least a very significant contribution to the movie’s overall conception. I start out by ingratiating myself, although I mean my opening sincerely: “I want to ask you guys a favor: please get this movie distribution, because I think people should see it.” They are both thankful, and Reich seems positive about their prospects.
I ask about the influences on the film, starting off with Doggiewogiez! Poochiewoochiez!, L.A. video collective “Everything is Terrible!“‘s remake of The Holy Mountain using heavily manipulated found footage of dogs. “We’re a fan of weird outsider tape culture and ‘Everything is Terrible!’ and stuff like that,” Reich admits. In fact, he came across the film because he unknowingly parked his van (marked “video van”) outside the Everything is Terrible! offices and someone left a courtesy copy on his windshield. Asked what their favorite weird movies were, Reich cites Kill the Moonlight, a 1994 underground film shot in “some Southern California oil town” that “captures the struggle and love of independent film.” Pinkney mentions Andrezj Zulawski (particularly Possession) and Ken Russell (particularly Altered States) as favorites. They also bring up the excised “Jupiter Ascending” climax to Phase IV, which the studio shelved for being too surreal, as an influence. An unexpected choice is American Werewolf in London, because of the love story angle. But mainly, the feature is an expansion of their work in the music video world.
In introducing the film at the world premiere the previous night, presenter Mitch Davis had said that “‘weird’ is hot right now, but most of the ‘weird’ movies are coming from vanilla personalities… These guys are the real deal.” I ask them if they think weird is hot. Reich talks about their experiences pitching music videos for local L.A. bands and how their ideas were always being rejected for being “too weird.” He says things started to change around the time Tim and Eric became popular, but they still had issues. Pitching a webseries, potential producers told them to make it more mainstream; then, they complained it wasn’t weird enough. “We were so outraged, we’d never been accused of not being weird before,” Pinkney laughs. They do demur when they make films and videos they’re not trying to be weird, they’re just trying to do stuff they like.
I mention that it’s hard to spoil the film because the title itself is a spoiler. “I think that creates some tension because you see these separate elements and you kind of know how their coming together…” Pinkney says. “It’s like telling the punchline before the joke,” Reich adds. We talk about each of the main actors, which leads to the tale of how they discovered of the movie’s real star power, Sonja Kinski. Pinkney himself had no real previous acting experience, so he and Reich took acting classes in L.A., where Reich found himself reading lines with a beautiful woman. He saw her name written on a sheet of paper and mentioned that Kinski was one of his favorite actors, she said “that’s my grandfather!”
But that’s Hollywood, at least the Hollywood of Michael Reich and Pinkney: celebrities and their relatives are everywhere, and you, as the dog groomer who hopes to be a filmmaker, are constantly reminded of their success. Reich, who actually worked as a dog groomer, mentions a list of celebrity dogs he groomed: the pooches of George Carlin, Jake Gyllenhal, and others. We end the conversation on an uncomfortable discussion of the “expression” of canine anal glands, a sight which is featured not prominently, but certainly unforgettably, in the movie. For the rest of that disgusting discussion, you can tune in to this site next week.
I had another interview that afternoon, one which was added at the last moment and which I thought I had to take advantage of even though I wouldn’t be seeing Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children—the feature length expansion of Pedro Rivera and Alberto Vazquez‘s award-winning short “Birdboy”—until its Canadian premiere the next morning. Ushered into the room where Rivera is hosting his series of interviews, I am warned that the director doesn’t speak English well, first by Kaila, the Festival’s every-helpful communications liaison, and then by Mr. Rivera himself. Nonetheless, Rivera’s knowledge of English was better than my knowledge of Psychonauts, so he had an advantage.
I asked whether this movie would be considered a sequel to Birdboy. “Not exactly. Birdboy and this film, Psychonauts, are based on the same graphic novel. The title of the original graphic novel is Psychonauts. The project from the beginning was to make the feature film. But when we got to get the funds and the money, we thought to make a short film before as a showcase.”
How many years did you work between the short film and the feature? “We finished the short in 2010, and we finished the feature film five years later.” So you went to work immediately after the short was finished? “No, in fact we had three years of waiting… We made another short film with a different ending. But really we were waiting to get the funds.” [Chuckles]. “Like ever.” And once you got the money, how long did the animation take? “The production of the animation was very fast, more or less one year. But we started with pre-production some months before, of course some months more of post-production. So finally the full production, beginning to the end, was maybe two years.”
How many animators worked on the film? “Not too many. Only eight animators, only eight animators working ten months.” How long were the days, twelve hours? “No, no, no! We tried to get an atmosphere working… you need to get people working in the right way. You cannot exploit people. It’s better to have a day of work that’s more relaxing, no more than eight hours, and animation is better this way. Of course, we were very lucky because all the animators and artists were very good artists.” Were they all Spanish? “The main team was from Spain, and four girls from Italy. I don’t know why only Italian women are animators, but there is a very nice school of animation in Torino.”
When I told Rivera the film was often described as surreal and asked if he thought that was accurate, he furrowed his brow, probably because he was not familiar with the English term rather than because he disagreed. But he sensed the gist of the question and launched into a discussion of Psychonauts theme and style. “I think that this story is not about fantasy, but it’s a story with fantasy… The story is like a parable about a situation in Spain in the 80s, when industry totally collapsed and a lot of drugs were in the streets for the young people. A whole generation was lost in these years. The atmosphere of Birdboy and some of the characters was created by the situation in these years.” Asked if this meant that Spanish audiences would understand the film better, Rivera assured me “No, I think it’s universal. In every place there are stories about young people taking drugs, and there are teenagers running away from their parents and their schools. So I think that the basis of the story is the same… It’s a story about two teenagers, one of them trying to escape from reality taking drugs, and the other a runaway from the island. It’s also a love story, so love, drugs, and fantasy. I think it is interesting to tell this type of story through animation… I think this film works as a fairy tale, but a fairy tale in modern times.”
I asked why animation was superior to live action for telling this type of story. “We can use this type of story with kind animals, like babies or pets—if they are in danger, we suffer more. Because I think that we can identify better with a cute animal for this type of story, because it’s more universal, and you can be inside them. A lot of different people could be inside these characters. People that you know, people that you see, yourself… [Also] I think that there is a magic of dreams, that sometimes is not easy to tell with [live action]. When we want to enter inside the mind of character, animation is better to transport us into this universe… Animation is a code for representation, and sometimes we can code in a better way for bigger meaning.”
I left the interview very impressed with Mr. Rivera, language barriers notwithstanding, and very excited to see Psychonauts—to see if that excitement is warranted,check back in tomorrow when we will have a full review.
“Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the stage to whip the audience into a frenzy before the midnight screening of The Greasy Strangler began. “Greasy” in this film is a concept that plays a similar role to the idea of the “filthy” in Pink Flamingos; it’s a motto and an encapsulation of the aesthetic. The comparison to John Waters is not a coincidence; Jim Hosking‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through now-fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or Quentin Dupieux. Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number.
The plot involves Big Ronnie, a repulsive old fart who gives rip-off tours of disco landmarks with his pushover son Brayden and whose secret identity as the “greasy strangler” is barely hidden (the fact that he demands nauseating amounts of oils and fats drizzled onto everything he eats, along with his out-of-nowhere tendency to suddenly protest that he is not the Greasy Strangler, are two big tip-offs). When Brayden falls in love with chubby cutie Janet, Ronnie feels his psychologically abusive hold over his son threatened, and sets out to seduce her and take her for himself—or if that plan fails, maybe strangle her. Along the way we are treated to many, many, too many shots of the two men’s prosthetic penises (Ronnie’s appendage is giant and shaped like a knife, while Brayden’s is more, em, humble in dimensions). There’s also farting, awkward sex, urination, eyeball eating, and enough onscreen grease to put you off your popcorn for the night. The acting is faux-incompetent and the comedy is experimental, to say the least, often built along long stretches of repetition (these sometimes get tiresome, although the “potato” gag did have me in stitches). Whether the film is “good” or not is hard to say, and almost beside the point; it’s unforgettable, and just witty enough to get away with its juvenile scatology. Strangler is grotesque, off-putting, and totally amoral. It’s got a lot of balls (literally) but no heart. But what it does, it does with unapologetic greasy verve.
I saw about four walkouts, but it’s a big theater, and there could have been more.
I have a strong feeling that once the Grease leaks, we’re going to see it showing up in the weird movie suggestion box for sure. Strangler is the third serious contender for this year’s weirdest movie I’ve seen at Fantasia, joining The Lure and She’s Allergic to Cats.
The short before Strangler was “The Procedure,” coming from none other than Calvin Reeder. It’s a very simple, very gross extended joke that complements Strangler perfectly. There’s not much to the four minute gag, but it had the audience howling (and me along with them). It’s probably going to be Reeder’s biggest audience success—track it down if you get the chance (and you have a strong stomach).
On to tomorrow, where the only thing on our plate is the promised review of Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children.