A few years ago, “The Guatemalan Handshake,” Todd Rohal’s surreal, hilariously offbeat and oddly moving 2006 debut, literally went up in smoke: The director himself lit the match.
After its under-the-radar premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival, “Guatemalan” never found a distributor. So Rohal spent close to two years traveling around with the only existing 35mm print, booking theaters wherever he could. When the journey felt complete, Rohal buried the print in the desert after a screening in Taos, New Mexico, then placed the remaining promotional materials and DVDs in an adjacent pit and set them ablaze.
“It was cathartic,” Rohal said in a recent interview with indieWIRE, “to have an actual end to the life of the film.”
Some three years and one botched project later, Rohal’s second feature has found a more conventional route to theaters and presumably faces a kinder fate. This weekend, IFC Midnight releases “The Catechism Cataclysm,” a hit at Sundance 2011’s midnight section. The alternately irreverent, juvenile and unexpectedly profound farce revolves around naive priest William Smoorster (Steve Little of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down”) and his strange adventures on a camping trip with a crude high school acquaintance (Robert Longstreet) who may or may not actually consider Father William a friend.
Their quixotic journey grows increasingly random and nonsensical, eventually veering into outright absurdity. As the priest comes to grips with his faith and purpose, he faces the likes of deathly Japanese trance music and a headless corpse inexplicably saving him from doom. There are no tidy resolutions except for the main character’s mental state. Maybe. “This wasn’t written with a marketing plan in mind,” Rohal said. “I built and followed the logic I created for it. I like that it takes unexpected turns. Those are my favorite kinds of jokes.”
Just as “Guatemalan Handshake” revolved around a series of disparate events coming together in various offbeat ways, “Catechism” defies explanations and yet Rohal sees it as deeply personal. “Hearing people say it’s a bunch of nonsense is infuriating,” he said, “but somewhat understandable.”
Still, he mounts a valiant defense. “The film doesn’t condemn any religion or belief, but rather question the path someone chooses in life, what keeps you moving forward, and what happens when life makes a sudden left turn from comedy to horror show,” he said. For him, “it’s a direct response and a bit of an abstract reaction to attempting to live the life of a filmmaker.”
It’s also, he added, “more directly a response to being diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago.” Rohal declined to discuss the disease further, except to say that it was a “rare and strange form” that required two major operations. “It’s an ongoing thing I’ll be dealing with for awhile, but I’ve been able to knock out two films since all of this started,” he said. “It’s not slowing me down by any means.”
Meanwhile, Rohal struggled for some time to get another movie off the ground after burying his first one. He wrote a screenplay for a movie called “Sweet Cheeks” with his friend Craig Moorhead, which Rohal described as “a nearly impossible-to-produce modern take on ‘The Little Rascals,'” and another called “Scoutmasters” based on his childhood memories of being a boy scout. (Judging by descriptions of the project as a dark comedy, those memories aren’t necessarily fond.)
The project, originally set up at the Sundance Institute and Big Beach Films, finally came to fruition a few months ago. Rohal shot the movie over the summer with a cast of comedy all-stars, including Johnny Knoxville and Patton Oswalt. However, it no longer has that title or any other: “The titles I’ve suggested so far have been rejected for being too racist or unpronounceable,” Rohal said.
Now in post, he’s still coming to grips with the enhanced resources. “My expectations about working on a bigger scale were pretty spot-on,” he said. “Shooting with more equipment and people was not much fun for me at all. I wanted to rent a bus, put the crew in it and drive it into a rock quarry.” Nevertheless, he said, “it’s resulted in a much better-looking movie.”
Rohal’s sensibilities are such that he wants to find a balance between experimentation and commerciality. “I’m just as excited by ‘Step Brothers’ as I am by ‘Trash Humpers,'” he said. “Those worlds are interchangeable for me, so it’s not possible to pinpoint where I ultimately belong, if anywhere.”
But he’s certain of one thing: “I’m just happy to be alive,” he said, “and able to make these whatchamacallits.”