Director Goran Dukic‘s comedy “Wristcutters” revolves around Zia (Patrick Fugit) who is distraught over breaking up with his girlfriend and decides to end it all. Unfortunately, he discovers there is no real ending, only a run-down afterlife that is strikingly similar to his old one, just a bit worse. Discovering that his ex-girlfriend has also “offed” herself, he sets out on a road trip, with his Russian rocker friend, to find her. Their journey takes them through an absurd purgatory where they discover that being dead doesn’t mean you have to stop living. The Sundance ’06 film has received several festival nods including tthe audience award at the Wisconsin Film Festival and the best director prize at the Seattle International Film Festival as well as best first time director from the Philadelphia Film Festival. The film also took best feature from the Gen Art Film Festival.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Since I was a kid, I was always inclined to express myself visually and I always liked to tell stories. Although I loved many forms of visual expression like painting, writing and theater, I didn’t find them dynamic enough for my taste. So filmmaking, which united all of these means of expression, came naturally to me. In my teenage years I started to make short films. It took lots of shorts and many years to make a first feature film, but the fact that I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker made it possible not to give up.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I worked as an editor and even a director of photography, but I always knew writing and directing was what I wanted to do. Writing and directing are so immense, at this point, that is truly my only focus.
How did “Wristcutters” come about?
It definitely came from Etgar Keret‘s short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” that the film is based on. I loved the warm humor of the story, I loved the characters, I loved the jukstaposition of a grim setting with the uplifting optimism, and I found the story extremely visual and adaptable into a movie. The sensibility of the original story was very close to my own sensibility and the humor was very much my type of humor so I felt I just had to do it.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making “Wristcutters.”
Since I loved the short story so much, my goal was to preserve its essence but yet to add as much of my own sensibility and vision to make it a personal movie. One of the most important tasks of a film director, in my opinion, is to choose collaborators and to make everyone share the same vision and work towards the same goal. My aim was to get the key crew and the cast as close to my personal vision as possible so that once we start shooting everyone comes up with great ideas. I think I was successful in this goal, and I regard this movie as an example of a great collaboration.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
One of the first challenges was the story adaptation itself. Etgar’s story was very rich in inner monologues plus very vague in describing its setting. For example descriptions like — “This world is just like our own, but a little bit worse…” or “…the town is similar to Tel Aviv, but my German roommate says it reminds him of Frankfurt. I guess Frankfurt is a dump too.” — could be very confusing when adapting them into a movie. Creating an alternate universe on a low budget can be very tricky, but I am very happy with the final result.
Another challenge was to raise funds for a movie that deals with suicide in an unusual manner. As you can imagine, potential investors were very confused with the tone, genre, target audience and the commercial potential of this movie, and the story originally only helped to deter them form investing in this project. One of the very helpful things was that the screenplay was a part of the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, a fact that gave this project more credibility in the eyes of potential investors. The originality of the story and its subject matter made it also very difficult for us to find a distributor. Most distributors are scared of anything they can’t place into a familiar prefabricated drawer and this movie certainly didn’t fit in there.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
Financing took almost two years to complete and in the end it came from private investors. As you can imagine, the fundrasing process was very frustrating and me and my producers Tatiana Kelly and Mikal P. Lazarev were on the brink of giving up a few times. Interestingly enough we managed to secure financing before the cast, so we weren’t pushed into any forced casting decisions. The first actor attached to the project was Tom Waits whose name facilitated the rest of the casting process. There is one advantage in film projects where actors are only paid the scale wage, and that is that no one is in it for the money. Every single actor was in this movie because they liked the screenplay and the roles they were offered and that made it extremely pleasant to work with them. We were very fortunate with our cast and it might be generic to say but we were truly one big family.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
As I mentioned before, I consider my style pretty eclectic and this fact explains that my influences are very eclectic too. I love directors as different as Bunuel, Altman, Truffaut, Godard, Scorsese, Polanski, Makavejev, Jarmush, Fasbinder, Kurosawa Aldrich, Tarkovsky, Fuller, Wenders, Lynch and many others. If I had to mention on esingle most important influence on my work it would definitely be surrealism starting with Louis Bunuel and all the way to Monty Python.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
As long as the story is interesting to me I don’t care about the genre or even the subject matter. In my opinion all subject matters have already been touched/discussed in the movies and the only relevant thing I find is HOW the subject matter is treated. I do lean towards stories that transcend the genre borders, but it may be as challenging to fit the story within the conventions of a certain genre. Some of my favorite movies are genre movies, like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “39 Steps.”
What is your next project?
My new project is a surreal murder mystery dealing with an identity crises in the modern world. It’s based on my original screenplay titled “I Could Be You” and it could be described as “Singing Detective” meets “Memento” meets “Lost Highway.” At the moment I’m trying to raise financing and I hope it doesn’t take as long as it took for “Wristcutters.”
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent film should be independent of any commercial, political, or for that matter, any outside influence. Of course, this doesn’t happen very often, especially today. In 1993, when I moved to the US, independent film was much more independent than today. It’s kind of a paradox that all this new and affordable digital technology hasn’t made filmmaking more independent, but it simply hasn’t. I think that it was never harder to be independent filmmaker than today. Also, studio movies are more dependent on the commercial values than ever and I think that affects independent films as well.
What are your interests outside of film?
Music and Photography.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Be persistent and never give up! Be faithful to your vision and don’t sell out.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
Definitely my biggest achievement of my career is “Wristcutters.” I still can’t believe we actually made it, and it will play in movie theaters soon.