Why He’s On Our Radar: NYU Tisch graduate Matt D’Elia caused a stir at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival with his debut feature “American Animal,” a dark and completely nutty comedy he wrote, directed, produced, edited and stars in. The film didn’t go on to win any awards as the festival, but it was met with some of the most passionate reviews to come out of the event. Slant Magazine called D’Elia’s vision “original, gutsy, and uncompromising”; The Wall Street Journal said “American Animal” is “personal filmmaking with ambition to burn”; while HitFix said the film “deserves to launch D’Elia as a filmmaker of note.” See what all the fuss is about when it hits select theaters this Friday.
“American Animal” centers on Jimmy (D’Elia), a terminally ill and extremely eccentric young man, who wakes up one morning and decides that he is ‘happy’ and no longer sick. To celebrate he invites two female friends over to his Los Angeles loft for a night of debauchery. The night takes a turn for dire however, when Jimmy’s roommate and best friend, James (Brendan Fletcher), drops a bombshell on the group.
What’s Next: D’Elia told Indiewire that he’s set to start shooting his next movie, “Powder Keg,” later this summer (no surprise really, given “American Animal” was made two years ago). “I’m so excited to make a movie that I can easily explain,” he said. “I still can’t explain ‘American Animal.’ My next movie’s a post-heist movie. I’m actually going to be in it again, so I must hate myself [laughs]. The fact that I’m in a movie that I can’t watch and that I’m preparing to do it again is crazy. I’m a masochist. It’s another one location movie heavily inspired by ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and David Mamet, a huge inspiration of mine.”
The film is pretty close to you, subject wise. Can you talk a bit about your connection to the material?
It was kind of weird. When I graduated from NYU, I moved to LA and was ready to make movies. I got really sick right away. One thing led to another, complication after complication — in six months I had three surgeries. From this I lost 35 pounds. I was in the hospital and I couldn’t heal. It was a nightmare. The healing process is what took so long, and that’s what was so miserable. I was like, what the fuck can I do with my time? I’m a young person, I want to work, I want to create!
I started to come up with these little games to get through each day — I can communicate with my dog, I can be John Wayne or Chevalier form “Barry Lyndon.” Then I thought, what if someone really did believe this stuff, and what if he was terminally ill? That’s how I came up with Jimmy.
So are you at all like Jimmy? The guy’s nuts. Is he your alter ego?
No. Jimmy is a creation. I’m not Jimmy. At the same time, I wrote it, so there’s part of me in Jimmy. But there’s also a part of me in James.
I really think the reason I wrote it, the reason I had to make it (because this was something I had to make) was because I felt both characters in equal measure. The movie was what made me see it through. I’m right there in the middle. I’m at war with myself, so I created these two people to go at war with each other.
Jimmy refuses to hold down a job and constantly, throughout the film, belittles those that work to make a living. Are you making an attack on a spoiled generation?
For me, I don’t have that judgment, but I have those questions. Jimmy has those answers. As much as I can get in there and think through what Jimmy’s saying and try to answer those questions through channeling that character, it’s a very dangerous thing because I don’t want to appear that I’m on a soapbox saying, “This is what I think.” I hate when movies are preachy.
I think generationally we’re at a weird place where we can not leave our homes if we so choose, and that’s odd, historically speaking. I think that was of interest to me; this person who’s convinced it’s better to never have to leave his home.
Did you set it in one location for budgetary reasons alone?
Well, I’ve always been a fan of chamber dramas, and chamber comedies for that matter. Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” was a huge influence on this movie. Putting those kind of restraints on yourself, you’re forcing yourself to stay sharp and really flex whatever you can do to keep it engaging.
So this marks your first acting gig?
Yeah, pretty much.
You’re amazing in it.
Aw thanks. Well I didn’t write it for me. I really didn’t. We were trying to get other actors who I knew would be great, because it’s such a challenging role. This movie’s my baby, I didn’t want to mess it up.
But trying to get a reliable, proven actor to come and do this movie for a first-time director and get naked is really a tough sell. At a certain point everyone was cast, and it was like, who’s going to do this thing? Once I was doing it and made the decision it seemed very clear and made a lot of sense. It’s such a specific movie, and as much me as a movie can be.
But how did you come to the realization that you could actually pull it off?
It was as simple as this: if I was going to give someone that responsibility to make or break my movie, I just wanted it to be me because then I can only blame myself.
Did you screen test yourself?
[Laughs] No, maybe I should of. I honestly cannot watch the movie. If I’m not picking myself apart as a writer, I’m picking myself apart as a director or as an actor. I can’t win.
Or your body. You’re naked, or in your underwear for most of the movie.
It’s the most cringe-inducing experience, but I did it to myself.
So what do you say to folks who deem this a vanity project?
Before SXSW, I was really anxious about what that initial reaction would be. That can dictate a lot about what the public ends up thinking. We didn’t win anything out there, but the initial critical reaction was positive and I was relieved after that. I was so prepared to get crushed, and anything that was the opposite felt fucking amazing. I was so, so anxious about that initial response though, as you can probably imagine.
How did the shoot go?
The actual being in it, during production, was freeing in a very unexpected way. The movie’s so Jimmy-centric and everyone’s so reactive to Jimmy, so anything I was doing as Jimmy was a form of directing. If I wanted certain reactions out of people, Jimmy’s going to give them those reactions. It was an expedited way of getting things out of the actors without telling them.
So it helped me as a director once I got into the groove, but in the beginning I was just so self conscious. I’m in my pink underwear! It was really crazy.