On February 25th, Giles Edwards chatted with via Zoom about his feature film debut, Man Under Table, which just debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival. Here is the transcript (lightly edited for clarity); the raw video is at the end of the post.and
366: We’re here to interview Noel David Taylor about his debut film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, called Man Under Table. It’s a surreal satire about a sarcastic young filmmaker trying to making his first script in the indie world where all his peers’ careers seem to be advancing a little bit faster than his. Mr. Taylor, as an introduction, would you care to give us some information on your own background and how this project came to be?
Noel David Taylor: I have been making short films pretty much as long as I can remember. I just moved to LA about six years ago, and just bounced around trying to find a place. I got kind of frustrated and embroiled in this “indie film” scene that I’m satirizing in this film, and I started writing about my little experiences and frustrations in that arena.
366: “No” is a perfectly reasonable answer to both parts of this two part question: can you explain why you named the movie Man Under Table, and the follow-up is, did you ever consider naming it “Guy Under Table”?
NDT: It’s funny, “Man Under Table” is the first part of this film. Me and a friend of mine were just joking around one day, sending fake movie titles back and forth, and we landed on that one, and for some reason, it just stuck with me. I think I was starting the script at the time, and I just thought it was funny. And yeah, there is that part of the movie where the character Gerald keeps saying “guy under table”, which is almost the titular line, but not quite.
366: You are writer, director, producer, and star of this feature, so obviously a very personal film for you, and as you just mentioned, talking about a number of personal experiences hashed out in a semi-fictionalized way. Of these four, which was your favorite? Did you like to be acting more? Did you enjoy the direction? Or is this just one ball of output?
NDT: I think it’s a combination. Because I started messing around making short films when I was a kid, I always used each part of it to aid the other part. So for certain projects—my own projects—I feel like it’s really hard for me to separate those things. They kind of lend to each other. But more and more, especially starting with this project, I kind of just enjoy the writing. It’s the part where there’s slightly less stress. You can do it in your own time, no one’s around.
366: Except in the experience of the main character there, yeah.
366: He always introduces himself as, “I’m writing a movie”, and that reflects your thoughts there. A brief follow-up question in that vein: did you ever think to cast someone else as you?
NDT: Oh yeah. When I started building this project, I intended on doing a lot more outsourcing. I certainly didn’t want to shoot it. The people I had around me, I couldn’t really get on board. I had one [director of photography] in mind, and when he said “no,” I thought, I’ll just do it myself. As far as the actors go, I definitely thought about putting someone else as the lead so I could concentrate on other stuff. But I think by design the project had to be done when it could be done, and I was obvious choice to. I was available.
366: And cheap.
NDT: [laughs] Yes, very cheap.
366: That leads nicely to my next question. You seem a rather easy-going, affable fellow. How many parallels would you say there are between you and the not-so-charismatic individual who dominates the screen in Man Under Table?
NDT: Unfortunately, we do have a lot in common. The main joke for me in this film is that you never see him actually physically write anything: he just talks about writing. Which I think is something that is true of any writer, really. You want to write more, you want to be doing stuff, but… I kind of tried to put the worst qualities of myself in this character. I really wanted him to be impatient, and petulant, and shiftless, and kind of useless. He’s mostly concerned with what other people are doing, and very irritable, and I thought, “I hate those qualities in myself,” so I thought it would be funny to have this anti-hero version or me. I was surprised—I hope this comes across—I was surprised at how much I started to relate to him and like him. Even though that was never the point.
366: Of the character options in the movie, he was definitely the most relatable, and quite possibly the most likeable because everyone surrounding him is… well, “one-dimensional” sounds a bit too flattering for them. Not to have that be a criticism of the characters as they’re written, because they’re quite obviously—as we mentioned in our review—“caricatures of caricatures,” pushed to their logical extreme. But [the main character] comes across as—you wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him, but of the people there, this person actually seems to have something going on inside and thoughts that may be conveyed badly, but at least are worth conveying.
NDT: Yeah. I think with indie films, a lot of people are going to go into them apprehensively, and sort of have this running commentary: “What is this scene? What is this person doing? I don’t care.” So I tried to let him say those lines for you. He’s just as miserable being in this movie as maybe someone who doesn’t like this sort of thing is watching it.
366: It’s a good pre-empt, to say, “Oh no, the movie hates itself as well, it’s okay.”
366: To get some more background, you say you’ve done shorts a long while, I know you have an interview Slamdance website where you explore some of these, maybe if you could quickly talk about some influences you have, styles you’ve enjoyed cinematically, to give a foundation for the look that you achieve.
NDT: I really love classic films. I like the ones that don’t quite hit. I like the very obvious sets, the kind of cheap-looking films of the ’50s and ’60s. I’ll even watch the bad ones. I love the way that they look. So I wanted to get a sort of cheapness involved in this one.
As far as actual serious influences, I really love, who’s been one of my favorite filmmakers in recent years. His films are insanely beautiful. Obviously any sort of , and these indie people, , people you see sort of doing offbeat, very ambitious, but indie films. But for the most part, I don’t absorb too much newer stuff. I like to stick in the arena of the ’50s through ’90s.
366: To get to a couple of “visuals” questions, the opening credits unspool over this gyrating light pattern–and we eventually learn the source of that–I was wondering if there was any particular thought behind that weird, gelatinous mood-setting–that sort of shiny goo–that scales into the movie, and we find what’s going on there.
NDT: It’s such a good question, to which I’ll probably disappoint in my response. When I was trying to figure out what this movie was about before I wrote it, beginning the process of writing it, I was transfixed by a credit card that I was observing the reflection of, and I thought if I could put some sort of abstract idea of… I like the concept of having something you can’t tell what it is, and you zoom out later and you figure out what it is. And it’s not necessarily the crux of the film, not the “rosebud” moment, it’s just a throw-away entity, and I don’t know why it stuck with me, but I really wanted to start it in abstract color way.
366: That’s a reasonable-enough answer. Hydraulic fracturing: is that really that big a hang-up with the crowd you found yourself maneuvering through?
NDT: Not at all. Fracking was… and I still kind of go back on this. I had a little post-it note of five hot-button topics, and I think I chose that one because of that reason. Because I don’t think anyone’s really moved by that issue. So I think it illustrated better the preempting of an issue to move your own political [agenda].
366: There was a sudden twist at the end, after, I guess, the climax of sorts, where it moves very heavily into a film noir kind of setting. That’s one of the only moments of success in the film, and film noir has a long history of protagonists not achieving success. Was there a particular movie you were thinking which had that sort of “noble exit”?
NDT: Well… Double Indemnity is maybe not the best choice, but that was something floating around in my head a lot. I think I wanted to superimpose that this isn’t the happy ending… It’s kind of a death. I guess that was the concept. That section of the film is kind of about death…
366: Yes. At the funeral, yes it is a bit about that. Another quick style question, there’s a kind of obvious color scheme: you have the prevalence of green in the post-something wasteland of unfashionable LA. Was that something came into the script in regards to the current nonsense of this past year, vis-à-vis unbreathable air, or did you always imagine gas masks and fumes?
NDT: That’s a really strange thing to sit with, but we finished shooting this movie before the pandemic hit. The concept was supposed be this hit the nail on the head: LA is Toxic. [chuckles]. If you move around LA, you are breathing in poison.
366: That surprises me. I assumed, having seen the masks and everything, that it was topical.
NDT: It was really strange because I thought, if we really did live in a world where the air was unbreathable and everybody had to wear a mask, the first thing that would happen is that places would start making fashionable masks. So I wanted to design my own masks that had their own thing for each character, and sure enough..
366 I quite liked the one that allowed smoking, that was an excellent choice.
NDT: I knew that hipsters would still need to be able to smoke.
366: A question about the Slamdance parameters. From my understanding, there are certain limitations to them accepting–how did you end up in their sights?
NDT: I have no idea. I submitted to them, I’m not sure if anybody that is in my small circle… I know some people are friends, and maybe somebody said something about it. But it was a total shock to me. A blind submission.
366: Speaking of blind submissions, are there any current plans for post-festival distribution?
NDT: No plans. I’m just talking to some other fests right now and see who else wants it, and just sort of see where it goes and just hope it ends up somewhere.
366: I’m wondering if you are already thinking about your next project, or if you’re just going to be working on Man Under Table promotion for a while?
NDT: I just finished writing a feature that I would really love to get started on soon. It’s slightly more ambitious, so I’m going to see what rolls out with with that. In the meantime, just a couple of shorts on the docket.
366: Any hint–without divulging the plot–would it fit into a genre?
NDT: Yeah, it’s a drama. It’s a–maybe-esque dark drama, if I may be so bold.
366: To dive into our traditional closing question: what’s your hometown, and do you have a restaurant you can recommend?
NDT: I would consider Portland, Oregon, more my home town more than anywhere I ever lived. Up until recently I would have said Bonfire, but they went out of business. My favorite restaurant is probably “The Hilt.”
366: Well thank you very much for the lead, and thank you very much for taking time here… Good luck on your future projects, and hopefully we’ll be reviewing more of your movies in just a few years.
NDT: I would love that, thank you guys. Have a good one!