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Tuesday
Jun252013

DEEP IN THE HEART: THE DON SWAYNOS INTERVIEW

Far from the gaudy excesses of Hollywood is Austin, Texas, home to a small but passionate enclave of independent filmmakers producing some of the most idiosyncratic visions in American cinema. The latest is Pictures of Superheroes, a weird and wonderful slice of bizarro humour and eccentric characters from writer/diector Don Swaynos. Swaynos (pictured, below) spoke with great candor to SCREEN-SPACE about stepping into the director's chair, drawing fearless and funny performances from his cast and what life is like for an independent filmmaker deep in the heart of Texas.

Tell me about the Austin independent film scene and the film community that fosters such unique visions as Pictures of Superheroes. 

Well I definitely couldn't have made this film in this way in an industry city like New York or LA. Austin has great supply of really talented people who can find employment here in the field but aren't completely burned out and cynical about it. They're still willing to help out on a project and they're still passionate about it. I'm not sure anyone in town is making a living as an indie film auteur (is anyone anywhere?) but there are lots of production jobs around, and the cost of living is lower than LA or New York so you can actually afford to do things between jobs, spend money on making a movie, instead of just trying to find another job to pay your rent. I tend to gauge the cost of living in a city by how much a pint of beer costs, a good beer. Austin's probably around five bucks right now. I had trouble finding beer that cheap in New York.

The filmmaker community here is growing, but it's still relatively small so there's this shared energy. If a film is shot in Austin, we most likely we shared some crew members. So there's this communal spirit when something succeeds, it's good for all of us. Just last week I finally saw Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, which is one of my favorite films of the year. Chris Doubek (who plays Gil in Pictures of Superheroes) is in it, as is our colorist Brandon Thomas and some of the scenes were shot at the same house as a film I just edited called Pit Stop, which is produced by Pictures' producer Kelly Williams and co-stars John Merriman. It's all very incestuous but and it's a really great thing to be a part of.

(Above: Kerri Lindo as Marie in Pictures of Superheroes)

Though it is clearly impossible to pigeon-hole, Pictures… kind of plays like a mash-up of mumblecore comedy and Wes Anderson-type eccentricity with a dash of Monty Python. Who are the filmmakers and writers that have inspired your creativity?  

I've always like odd things. Weird music, weird movies, weird comic books, things that don't fit easily into one genre, so it makes me happy that I seem to have created something that's hard to categorize. It's probably not the most financially viable way to make a movie but I wasn't too concerned with that here. When we were making the movie I described it as " what if Luis Bunuel made mumblecore comedy" but "Monty Python mumblecore" seems like a much better way to say that.

I was initially drawn to filmmaking by really visual directors like Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers, but as I've gotten older I've explored more films and that's changed. I'd say my favorite filmmakers are Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, Errol Morris, John Waters, Gaspar Noe... probably some others I'm forgetting. Comedically I'd say the first few years of The Simpsons and the George Carlin HBO specials I saw as a kid really had a hand in getting me to actually think about comedy and its potential to do more than just get a laugh. Mitch Hedberg was definitely a big influence. Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics are in there somewhere. Currently I really like Louis CK, but who doesn't?

It struck me that career-obsessed ‘Eric’ and self-obsessed man-child ‘John’ only became a single, more fully-formed man when they embraced a little of each other’s personality. Delve into the psychology of your lead characters for us….

I think they're both parts of me, honestly.  Right now I've kind of over-extended myself work-wise, so I basically just work and sleep, and when I talk to people, the only thing I really have to talk about is work. But since I'm a freelance editor, that'll end, and when I'm not working I can fall into a funk like Joe. Sleep late, basically get nothing done... I've definitely gotten closer to the happy medium recently. I like to think making the movie helped me get there, but it might just be getting older. I don't have the energy to get too stressed about work stuff and I can't sleep late anymore.

But the characters are also the two extremes I've seen people become as they enter adulthood. Some dive right into "being a grown-up", like this  forced adulthood, where they graduate from college, get married, get a "real job", get a house, have kids and tell themselves "this is what I'm supposed to be doing now, I'm 23.". Then there's the other extreme, where people refuse to grow up. That's definitely more common in a city like Austin. But neither of those are good, healthy ways to live your life, there's a happy medium in there somewhere. That's the goal in life. Get a real job, but leave time for some other stuff too.

In creating ‘Marie’, I imagine it would’ve been hard for Kerri Lendo, or any actress for that matter, to play so droll and so caustic for an entire shoot. How would you define the relationship between director and star?

It's funny because I wrote Joe and Eric with John Merriman and Shannon McCormick in mind. I had worked with both of them before, I knew how incredibly funny they both were, and I was hearing their voices in my head as I was writing. But I never had anyone in mind for Marie. Even when we decided to make the movie, we had no idea who to cast. I tried auditioning a few people, but that didn't really go anywhere. I was sitting with producer Tate English trying to think of what we were going to do and he suggested Kerri (based on a short she had made with John Merriman). I had seen Kerri do stand-up a few times and I just thought she would be perfect. We didn't even audition her, which seems kind of crazy in retrospect, we just offered her the part. As a first time director, I probably wasn't much help to her. Kerri gets all the credit for Marie.

All the men in your film are really quite grotesque, even idiotic, in a hilarious, playful sort of way, while your women are very sure of themselves. Marie is quirky but very quick-witted and incisive; Danu Uribe’s ‘Susan’ is actually a real-world human being. Are you suggesting that, yes, it’s true - women are the stronger sex?

Yeah, I mean, they pretty much are. I think it's easier for me to apply negative traits to male characters than to female. Maybe because there are some autobiographical elements in all of the men in this film or maybe I've just had more bad experiences dealing with men than I have with women. I'd hate to analyze it (or myself) too much but it seems like if I think, in general, about humanity as a whole, a lot of dudes are assholes, but most women seem pretty cool.

My sound re-recording mixer Eric Friend pointed out that like Joe and Eric, Marie is also a loser. She's stuck in this job that she has no interest in, that she doesn't seem to be particularly good at, and she's allowing the direction of her life to be controlled by the people around her. The difference is that, even though I'm not totally sure she's aware of it, she's at least fed up with it, while the men around her are happy stuck in their ruts. Marie can actually do something and break the cycle that her life has fallen into. Not sure what that means in terms of gender roles though...

(Above: Lendo and co-star John Merriman)

You’ve been an editor most of your professional career. What sort of learning curve did you go through when you stepped behind the camera? What surprised you most about the role of feature-film director?

I'm comfortable as an editor and I'm comfortable as a writer, but directing was a new experience. I liked the script, and I has a list of shots that I knew I needed to be able to cut scenes together but everything else was totally alien to me. Editing is such a solitary task, you do it by yourself, you can apply as much or as little time as you feel you need, but when you're on set and there are a bunch of people looking at you for a plan and you've got a schedule and something isn't working- it's really nerve-wracking. Basically the whole "interacting with other humans to make a movie" thing is new to me. I lucked out with the cast and crew that I had and if you didn't know better, watching the film you might think I'm competent. 

Editing other people's films prepared me, in a sense, to direct my own. I'd seen the problems that had arisen on other productions that we needed to fix in post and kept a tally to make sure I didn't commit any of those. But also, when you're editing, it's so easy to say "why didn't they get that shot?" or "why didn't they do another take?" but being on set actually served as a harsh reminder of why. Because you've got time constraints, and the sun's going down, and getting that angle would take too long, etc. 

How does your vision for the world and wonderful but oddball sense of character translate to studio-size budgets and Hollywood fame? Will ‘A Film by Don Swaynos’ ever adorn a multiplex screen?

Hmmm....I don't know. I think I've just come to the realization that that probably won't ever happen, but I'm totally fine with it. So many of the things I've loved have always been on the fringes that it probably makes sense that the things I make are out there too.  The film industry is going through some pretty radical changes right now and I'm not sure what's going to happen but it's a great time to be making independent films, because you can actually get them out there. So as long as I can make films that are financially sustainable that people seem to be enjoying, I'll be happy.

Picture of Superheroes has it's New South Wales premiere on Saturday 7th of September as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival. Tickets available here.

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