The Powerful Rings of Rob Schmidt's "Saturn"
by Stephen Garrett
One of the standout features at this year’s Los Angeles Independent Film
Festival is Rob Schmidt’s dark, elegiac drama “Saturn,” about Drew, a
24-year-old man burdened with taking care of an invalid father severely
afflicted with advanced Alzheimer’s. The film measures the emotional
tension between responsibility and recklessness, as Drew resents having
to nurse his own parent and seeks pressure valves like joyrides on
borrowed motorcycles and all-night heroin benders with his friends,
always coming home in time to bathe his dad and give him the medicine he
needs to stay alive.
The taut, restrained direction of the actors and rendering of their
tortuous circumstances reveal the depths of Schmidt’s ability to tap
into the truth of his subject matter in a way that’s fresh without
resorting to emotional shorthand or clichéd dialogue. What emerges by
the end of the movie is evidence of an undeniable filmmaking talent who,
in his feature debut as both writer and director, is already showing
signs of maturity.
Now in pre-production on his second feature, “Crime and Punishment in
High School,” written by veteran screenwriter Larry Gross and produced
by Gross and Christine Vachon for G2 (a division of MGM where Vachon has
a production deal), Schmidt made time to talk to indieWIRE about his
experiences as a filmmaker.
indieWIRE: Considering its bleak subject matter, how did you get
Rob Schmidt: I made a short film of “Saturn” about six years ago.
Christine Vachon saw that at the Kobe International Film Festival in
Japan. She was the first person who tried to set up the feature, but at
that point dark films were not in fashion. [laughs]
iW: I can’t imagine that as a short. How long was it?
Schmidt: It was about 25 minutes. It’s really just about the father
and the son; it doesn’t have their whole world in it.
iW: So Mia Kirshner’s character, Sarah, wasn’t in it?
Schmidt: She’s in it for about thirty seconds. “Saturn” is a pretty
fast feature, about 90 minutes; but as a short, it was a very compressed
thing. It was something that, at festivals, worked well as the last
film in a group, because it was such an intense thing.
iW: Were you always planning it as a feature?
Schmidt: I didn’t know how long that movie was going to be. I was
improvising with actors and things, and there was a point when that
short film was 50 minutes long, and people were saying that I should
make it into a feature. I ended up making it into a short instead.
iW: How different is it from the feature?
Schmidt: It’s pretty different from the feature. The relationship
between the father and son is a concentrated version of what it is in
the feature. It’s still a movie about love in that kind of “guy” tough
way, but besides that, it’s very different.
iW: How did that tough-guy love become your focus?
Schmidt: I think there’s this tacky way that father-son stories are
told. I mean, it’s kind of awful and I just felt that it’s hard to make
an honest story about people who love each other. It wasn’t a designed
thing that I wanted husky tough guys. But those are who those
characters are –they’re guys who work with their hands and drink too
much and they’re also people who love each other and, when someone’s
having a hard time they try to cover for the other person.
iW: Can you talk about the improvisation on the film that you mentioned
Schmidt: Actually, there was always a script. As we went along on the
short, we did add some scenes and change some scenes; and part of that
was foolishness on my part. I used my own money to make it, and I would
work as a grip and make money until I had enough money to shoot a
scene. Then I would shoot it and spend three months editing it on a
flatbed. And then I would save up money and shoot another scene — and
that is not a good way to make a movie (laughs).
iW: Did new ideas gestate at that time?
Schmidt: I did some shorts and some music videos, but if you’re a
filmmaker and you’re not making films, it’s a little painful. Actually,
“Crime and Punishment’ and “Saturn” both got set up at the same time, by
some freak of coincidence; and I really wanted to do “Saturn,” so we did
it first. And I really think film is a craft, and the more experience I get the stronger
the films are going to be. So waiting six years to do “Saturn” made it a stronger film.
iW: What made you think the LAIFF was a good place to debut your film?
Schmidt: A buddy of mine, Larry O’Neil, had his movie “Throwing Down“
at the LAIFF about three years ago and he was really psyched about it.
And [producer’s rep] Bob Hawk felt that, in light of when we were
finishing the film that this would be the very best festival at which to
iW: When did Bob get involved?
Schmidt: I met him at almost the same time that I met Christine. And
they together were trying to set up “Saturn.” Both of them were trying
to get money for it.
iW: Why is it called “Saturn”?
Schmidt: I wanted it to be Brooklyn, but I wanted Brooklyn to be a
wasteland, sort of like outer space. And also that’s one of the oldest
myths, of how Saturn consumes his children. And the way Matty Libatique
shot it, he did a pretty damn good job of making that world.
iW: Was the story that relentlessly nocturnal in the short?
Schmidt: We couldn’t shoot that much night in the short because the
film stocks weren’t fast enough (laughs). It’s a movie that follows in
that noir tradition, where a lot of times the best way to shoot is at
night. We were shooting a lot of that 320 stock and we were pushing it
a stop, so we could shoot on the city streets without lighting. And
because of the way that we were flashing the film, it could make this
weird spaceland look out of it. And that was one of the things that
Matty did that was so great in “Pi.” Matty’s amazing at that stuff.
iW: And you grew up in that area?
Schmidt: Yeah, my family’s from that area, but I was raised in Slippery
Rock, Pennsylvania. But they weren’t really country people, and they
ended up moving back. All my extended family is in Brooklyn.
iW: What is your dad like?
Schmidt: My dad died of a brain tumor. He was a small-time inventor:
built wind generators and stuff like that. He was part of that
Seventies alternative movement, so those locations [in the movie] and
that loft space felt familiar to me.
iW: How old were you when your father died?
Schmidt: I was twenty-six, but it took him a long time to die. Four
years, I guess.
iW: So this movie was inspired in part by your experience?
Schmidt: My experience was considerably less dramatic, but the emotions
were similar, yeah. That’s what I was saying about trying to make
stories that are truthful. I think that the emotions are pretty honest
in the movie, and I’m proud of the work that the actors did in it; and
in this particular movie that was important. It’s a funny thing,
because in pop music there are these incredibly dark themes that are
rendered in a beautiful and moving way, but rarely do movies get that
dark. Even independent films are a conservative medium, and it’s getting
progressively more conservative. Dark themes seem to be so taboo.
iW: If you were asked by a major studio to make a film, would it be
hard to turn down?
Schmidt: Studio films should be studio films, and independent films
should be independent films and not junior studio films. It depends on
the subject matter. There are studio films that are great. “The
Matrix” is a really fucking cool movie. And “Out of Sight” — studios
are for making these kind of films. And “Crime and Punishment,” which
MGM is releasing, is in that gray area. And I will make a film that
audiences will go to see. The deal with making films is that you try to
serve your audience. But when you’re making independent films and
festival films, the point of that is supposed to be from the heart and a
real experience. It just feels that a lot of them now are people are
trying to train for a studio movie. And that’s not the right thing to
do with them.
iW: So do you see yourself working in both worlds?
Schmidt: I think if you want to make movies you care about, then you
have to go back and forth.
[Stephen Garrett is a film editor and contributing writer to indieWIRE.]