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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “American Animal” Director Matt D’Elia

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "American Animal" Director Matt D'Elia

Jimmy, an eccentric and terminally ill young man, further loses touch with reality when he finds out that his best friend and roommate James is leaving for a new job tomorrow morning. Jimmy sees this as a betrayal of their perfect way of life, and over the course of a night full of drinks, drugs and women, the two men engage in a classic, humorous battle of wills as James prepares to enter the real world and Jimmy falls deeper and deeper into his world of illness, isolation, madness, and make-believe. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary Competitions and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“American Animal”
Narrative Competiton
Director: Matt D’Elia
Producer: Matt D’Elia, Julian King, Jennifer MacVittie
Cast: Matt D’Elia, Brendan Fletcher, Mircea Monroe, Angela Sarafyan
Screenwriter: Matt D’Elia
Cinematographer: Julian King
Editor: Matt D’Elia, Julian King
Sound: RH Factor
Music: Bryan Scary

Responses courtesy of “American Animal” director Matt D’Ella.

A cinephile’s childhood…

I was always interested in characters, conflict, storytelling – all that. My father was directing commercials and TV when I was little, so that’s what got me on sets, learning the filmmaking ropes at a very young age. I just fell in love with it, the whole process, every aspect. Also when I was very young, my father began making me sit through these movies that were the kind of movies you watch in a cinema studies class in college. It was totally ridiculous. I was watching stuff like “Citizen Kane” and “Husbans” at nine years old! I definitely don’t think I quite appreciated these films the way they were meant to be appreciated – the way I appreciate them now – but there was still an elemental part of filmmaking that I feel seeped into my brain, both consciously and subconsciously. While my friends were watching “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I was watching “Vertigo.” Inappropriate, sure, but also invaluable. Looking back, I feel as though I had this wonderful head start and it’s really all because of my cinephile dad.

Sickness leads to inspiration…

Like “American Animal”’s lead character Jimmy, I was also very ill in my early twenties. Without getting into detail, I was pretty much bedridden, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was terrible, easily the worst time of my life. Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like months. Forced to come up with something to do, some way to feel at least slightly better, I turned to simple escapism. I began to tell myself fun, little, harmless lies to help pass the time. It was just so easy. And since I was home alone and locked away in my bedroom for 24 hours a day, nobody was there to tell me ‘no, that’s not the way it is.’

So at my lowest of lows I’d tell myself, ‘yes, my dog can talk’ or ‘yes, today I’m John Wayne,’ or some other silly thing like that. I know it sounds crazy, and it probably is crazy to a certain degree, but it just made me feel good, made me smile, made me forget my grim situation, even if just for a few moments. Of course I didn’t actually believe these things, as Jimmy does in the film, but you know, whatever gets you through the night.

This kind of imaginative, unshackled, borderline-crazy thinking led to me coming up with the character of Jimmy. But the film’s story came from the subsequent question: What would happen when Jimmy’s world of make-believe collided with the ‘real world’ of those around him? That excited me, and all of this led directly to the “American Animal” screenplay, which I wrote in less than two months. It was an incredibly speedy process. I was deeply connected to the material and it just sort of came out of me. And once I was healthy enough, we started pre-production.

From the film’s look to the film’s young cast…

Form is and always has been just as important as content to me and my cinematographer/producing partner Julian King. For us, the movie needed to look great if it was going to be great, so we spent a lot of time developing the visual language of the film. We decided very early on that we wanted a lot of locked off wide frames which would utilize the big space in which we were shooting, and to let the actors be objectively observed in those frames. We also targeted certain spots in the script to go very theatrical and cinematic with camera movement, our bold color scheme, and some elaborate lighting setups. Then we looked backwards, to see how some of our favorite films did this sort of thing in the past. There were countless key references for us, but the big inspirations were Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” and “Carnal Knowledge,” as well as Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”

Then, once we nailed down some of our core visual motifs, we began the casting process. That was very simple for me. It was: ‘who do I want for this role? That actor!’ And then we just got the script to each person – first to Angela, then to Mircea, then to Brendan. Luckily, they all loved it and and wanted to do it, and the timing was right, too. For Angela, it was just before the “Twilight” films, which she is actually still shooting now, so she was free. We were also able to get Mircea just before she went to London to shoot Showtime’s “Episodes.” Brendan, meanwhile, had just wrapped “The Pacific” and I was of course available, so that rounded out the entire cast. It worked out perfectly. Once everyone was officially on board, we rehearsed for about a week, going through the whole movie as if it were a play a few times, and then we began shooting.

Losing the ‘crazy’ tag…

Nobody except the actors, my producer, and myself knew what to make of the script. Everyone would come to me after reading it and ask: ‘Huh?’ Well, I quickly realized I didn’t know the answer to that question! But I did know for certain that it was not a question that I had about the material. I couldn’t necessarily explain what the movie was just yet, but I could feel it and I definitely knew I could show it. So my thinking was: ‘this movie is doable enough that if I raise this small sum of money I need, I can make it on my own. People don’t need to get it yet. I can just show them the movie after I’ve made it. Then they’ll get it.’ It seems to have worked out, which is quite a thrill for me. There’s something extremely satisfying about people calling you crazy for wanting to do something, then going out and doing that something, and all of a sudden… Nobody is calling you crazy anymore! It’s quite validating.

Getting the poem right…

I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a scene in which Jimmy reads a poem to Not Blonde Angela (Angela Sarafyan), one that he wrote specifically for her. Well, the way the scene was originally written, there was no poem. But we were shooting it, and it was this big set up at the end of a long day – all set to play out in one long dolly shot – and it just wasn’t working. We took 30 takes – an incredible amount for a movie this size – all of which were not good at all. And at a certain point I’m thinking: ‘This is really bad! Do I need to do coverage? Do I even have time to do coverage?’ Obviously I didn’t, so I needed to think fast. I ended up writing that poem, unbeknownst to Angela and rearranging the scene on the spot so that Angela would just have to react to what I was doing. She really went with it, to her credit, and the result was this wonderful, spontaneous take. What you see in the movie is what we got on that take, which I believe was take 38.

And next…

Next, I’ve got a neo-Western/thriller that I’ve written and am set to direct. It’s a crime film set in Texas circa the Vietnam War, a particularly violent time in the state’s history. But it’s contained. It’s not some huge, sprawling action film. It’s basically “American Animal” with guns and cowboy hats and blood. A bit of blood, too.

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