Dustin Guy Defa makes his Sundance Film Festival feature debut with “Person to Person,” and he doesn’t know what to expect. He’s had a lot of disappointments in his life, ranging from being the kind of penniless artist whose survival demands long-term couch surfing to overcoming a nightmare family of origin. (It yielded his 2011 Sundance short, “Family Nightmare.”)
However, “Person To Person” also gives real weight to the time-worn trope that values the journey over the destination. With a cast that includes names like Michael Cera and”Broad City” star Abbi Jacobson as well as indie filmmaking stalwarts like David Zellner and Benny Safdie, it reflects the success he’s had building his place in independent filmmaking and the joy he brings with it. “It comes through loud and clear in his work,” said filmmaker David Lowery, a longtime Defa fan. “It’s the reason why his movies are so riddled with positivity and compassion, even when his characters are in desperate straights.”
“Person to Person” is an ensemble piece that draws from one of Defa’s acclaimed 2014 short of the same name, stretching it across 42 characters. Set in a single day, its hodgepodge of vignettes follows frustrated New Yorkers through hurdles large and small. Defa frames his characters with the precision of Ingmar Bergman, even as their wily behavior suggests something closer to John Cassavetes.
Cera and Jacobson surface in a recurring segment about a pair of gossip reporters chasing a reclusive celebrity, while the iconic character actor Philip Baker Hall has a bit part as a solemn watch salesman. Fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson stands out as an eloquent teenager uncertain about her sexuality.There are also significant roles for people riffing on their own lives, like Defa’s former roommate and obsessive record collector Bene Coopersmith, whose character winds up pursuing someone who sells him a phony LP in a bike chase that plays like silent comedy.
“Person to Person” represents the naturalistic filmmaking style specific to the American film scene and how it can reflect profound ideas about the struggles of everyday life. “I think he’s more interested in people than stories,” said actor Kentucker Audley, who played a lonely, aspiring stand-up comedian in Defa’s 2011 feature-length debut “Bad Fever.” “Or maybe he sees the inherent stories in people’s lives, and doesn’t care as much about plot.”
Sitting down for a conversation on the Lower East Side a week before his Sundance premiere, Defa reflected on his uneven trajectory, as he geared up to drive across the desert to Sundance with his girlfriend. Although he’s yet to land an agent, he was getting used to the idea that he could contemplate a fully realized career. “I understand the odds are tough,” he said, “but I ignore them, in a way. It’s been very hard for me.”
A Decade-Long Journey
Defa has been making films since 2008, often about sad, alienated and bumbling people who find themselves held back by unseen forces beyond their comprehensions. Which sounds a lot like the essence of Defa himself.
A tall, slender figure with a permanent bug-eyed expression, Defa has the physicality of Buster Keaton, and speaks in the halting phrases of someone not entirely comfortable with the restrictions of language. Sitting down to reflect on the last few years, he looked back on what it took to escape his troubled upbringing in Salt Lake City and reinvent himself as an artist. “I always believed that I could do it,” he said. “But also, I was sort of …” He trailed off. “Oh, man,” he said finally. “I just don’t know how to describe it … how to take a trip down memory lane. It sounds so weird that I just don’t want people to know about it. I feel like I just had to change my life.”
A more coherent assessment of Defa’s earlier troubles can be found in “Family Nightmare,” the film that brought Defa to Sundance as a filmmaker for the first time. Using grainy home video footage, Defa reveals several generations of relatives, most of whom were drug addicts who died of various ailments years later. Defa dubs over their slovenly dialogue with his own demonic interpretations, transforming the 10-minute collage into a haunting meditation on his traumatic past. Defa spent a year on the circuit with “Family Nightmare” before withdrawing it from circulation.
“It took my a long time to break away from the influence of my family,” Defa said, and while he didn’t identify as an addict, he felt trapped by the ones who raised him. (He did, however, find an outlet for his filmmaking interests by hanging around the Salt Lake shoot for “Dumb and Dumber;” and landing a role as an extra; he’s visible in the movie’s first scene.)
In 2004, both of his grandparents died, and he finally felt comfortable moving away. He moved to New York City and spent three years working at coffee shops, making few friends, but spending a lot of time watching movies. “There was nothing going on there for me at all,” he said. “I was just writing a lot and trying to understand my own thing.”
In 2007, he returned briefly to Salt Lake, bounced around Vancouver and San Francisco, then spent several months in Los Angeles, working odd jobs throughout. He kept writing screenplays, but felt they all resembled someone else’s ideas. “I was trying to follow the same patterns that you’re told to follow and just completely failing constantly, writing scripts that you’d think would be big,” he said. “I didn’t understand the puzzle of the whole thing.”
Around that time, he saw Andrew Bujalski’s observational Brooklyn character study “Mutual Appreciation,” and decided he was ready to start making movies of his own. His first short, “Jitterbug,” was a French New Wave-inspired tale of pickpockets. Defa doesn’t think much of it anymore, but it did give him access to the festival scene that changed his life.
In 2008, “Jitterbug” played at the Maryland Film Festival, where Bujalski cohort Joe Swanberg screened his improvised relationship drama “Nights and Weekends.” They bonded, and soon after, Defa was entrenched in the nomadic life of the festival filmmaker. Many of the faces that crop up in “Person to Person” reflect the community that Defa has now called home for nearly a decade.
Defa became a fixture at various filmmaker happenings, and at a 2010 New York event hosted by Rooftop Films he met David Lowery, the Dallas-based director and editor who would later direct “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Pete’s Dragon.” (Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” joins “Person to Person” in the 2017 Sundance NEXT section.) Defa recruited Lowery to edit “Bad Fever,” which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2011.
The movie, which received a small theatrical release later that year, was a melancholic dose of minimalism that reflected Defa’s mindset. “In real life, you can literally see Dustin looking at the world and trying to figure out how it aligns with his own perspective on how things work,” Lowery told me. “Talking to him, working with him, watching movies with him, I get the sense that he always just a little bit taken aback by any given circumstance. Things never quite go the way he expects they will, but that hasn’t been a bad thing, because he finds a strange, intense joy in all things.”
Defa found “Bad Fever” helped him assess his tone. “I didn’t know it was dark,” he said, reflecting on the film’s mixed reception. “It’s sad, but I didn’t realize how sad it was.” That itself speaks to the organic nature of his storytelling, an open-ended quality that makes it hard to tell if he’s leading you to a punchline or a tender moment.
There’s a self-aware quality to Defa’s work that suggests simple categorization misses the point. In 2015, he made a short about just that: “Review” (above), a five-minute black-and-white piece in which a young woman describes “Taxi Driver” to her friends with a deadpan quality that renders the movie flat. (Admitting she left before the ending, the woman admits, “I do know there was a lot of exceptional camerawork.”)
But it was Defa’s “Person to Person” short in 2014 (below) that made it clear he was ready for bigger opportunities. The 18-minute story finds the bearded, bespectacled Coopersmith coping with a mysterious woman who shows up on his Brooklyn doorstep. Shot on 16mm film with a grimy, old-school New York feel, “Person to Person” became an instant calling card as it traveled the international festival scene.
“I don’t even want to categorize it as a short film, because I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years,” said Swanberg, whose Forager Films co-financed the “Person To Person” feature. “When he sent me the script and said he had a feature involving one of those characters and expanding some of those ideas, I was like, ‘Dustin, man, I don’t even need to read the script. I will definitely be attempting to finance your movie if you want to work with me.'”
When “Person to Person” played at the Berlin Film Festival, it won DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program, which afforded him the opportunity to live in the city for three months while developing the script for his next feature. Shortly before leaving town, the Film Society of Lincoln Center programmed an hourlong retrospective of his shorts that garnered local press across town, allowing his complete body of work to finally gain major recognition.
Around that time, he went to a birthday for filmmaker Martha Stephens, whose comedy “Land Ho!” was a breakout hit at Sundance 2014. Stephens introduced Defa to producer Sara Murphy, who took an immediate interest in what would become the feature adaptation of “Person to Person.” For Murphy, the script’s daylong odyssey had a disarmingly optimistic tone. “There’s unabashed hopefulness for all his characters, no matter what they’ve gone through,” she said. “You feel that when you watch the movie. Everyone’s moving forward at the end of the day. There’s a maturity in terms of his perspective on each of his characters — young, old, male, female, black, white. He finds something universally true about human nature.”
Murphy helped cobble together more financing for the project, but Defa was picky about the cast. He was introduced to Jacobson, already a breakout star from Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” through perennial microbudget actress Tallie Medel (“The Unspeakable Act”). When Defa and Jacobson went out for drinks, she realized his project represented an opportunity to expand her range.
“It didn’t really compare with anything else out there,” Jacobson said. “I was getting a lot a comedy stuff offered to me, but this was a much smarter role, quieter and cohesive.”
Defa’s seemingly unorthodox style was now an asset to a name actor; she compares the tone to Paul Mazursky’s seminal 1978 New York drama “An Unmarried Woman.” “It feels like it’s from the ’70s,” Jacobson said. “We need stories made on this level, not made to meet formulas. It’s scary when it feels like you’re making the same movie over and over again.”
Defa found Cera through Rick Alverson, who worked with him on “Entertainment.” The “Arrested Development” star, who looks more than a little bit like Defa and possesses similarly muted comedic instincts, embraced Defa’s approach.
“I could tell right away that he had a strong sense of his own style,” Cera explained. “I also really liked his writing. It has a musicality to it.” Cera also appreciated how Defa’s movie’s is unlike anything else he’s offered. “It just doesn’t happen that much,” he explained. “I didn’t know the movie would have such depth to it. There are some tough moments. I didn’t know it would hit so hard.”
For Defa, going from being a one-man-band who produced and edited all of his work to collaborating with a much bigger cast and crew took some adjustment. “He’ll come up with something incredible, grab a gang of collaborators, and they’ll just go out and shoot,” Murphy said. “This provided more structure.”
Even as they recruited heavy-hitting casting director Avy Kaufman, Defa remained selective about who he chose for various parts. “We had tons of fruitless casting sessions because he’s looking for something so particular,” Murphy said. “He doesn’t want to feel a performance so much as he wants something more natural and subdued.”
Much of the dialogue in “Person to Person” points to Defa’s interest in contradictory impulses. “I detest the way you detest people,” one of his characters asserts, to which the friend replies, “I love you for that.”
Such paradoxical exchanges are at the root of Defa’s life. Even as “Person to Person” lands at Sundance, Defa remains in debt, uncertain of his future. “This coming year will be telling if I can really make this whole thing happen for me,” he said. He still wrestles with the very idea of more commercial projects, and the various hustling involved in becoming a part of that world.
“It’s a constant conflict that I’m only now accepting as a reality,” he said. “I don’t know. I guess I’m stuck between wanting to entertain and wanting to find meaning behind the entertainment. But that conflict is what I’m interested in. I’d like to embrace it more.”
Most recently, Defa has been writing a project with Alverson. “We need films in the marketplace that disturb clarity, and his films do that,” Alverson said. “Narrative clarity is disposable, and the audience’s sense of clarity is typically a cul-de-sac in their personal and social evolution. There’s nowhere left to explore. He upsets expectations.”
The paradoxes of human behavior give “Person to Person” its forward momentum. Despite the clumsy hardships that his ensemble encounters over the course of the day, he leaves viewers with a giddy dance party as the credits roll. “I really want to be closer to everybody that I’m working with in these kinds of situations,” he said. “I want to be intimate with everybody.”
He checked the time and grabbed his coat. He was eager to make it downtown to New York’s Metrograph theater, in the hopes of catching a late-period Eric Rohmer film. The New Wave director’s chatty, soulful movies suggest an antecedent to Defa’s developing oeuvre, which shows no sign of slowing its growth. Still, dashing out the door, he spoke with the same unwavering uncertainty that afflicts his characters. “I feel confident,” he said, “but you never know, I guess. The world can fall apart, right?”