Cam Archer was just 20 when he made his first short, “Bobbycrush,” which screened at Sundance in 2004. Since then, he’s crafted a body of work that makes him one of America’s most promising young filmmakers. His first feature, the gay coming-of-age tale “Wild Tigers I Have Known,” was produced by Gus Van Sant, premiered at Sundance in 2006 and got some good reviews in its 2007 release via IFC First Take. However, his newest film, “Shit Year,” is a great, provocative departure.
Shot in black-and-white 16mm, “Shit Year” follows the fragmented narrative of Colleen West, a retiring movie star played by Ellen Barkin. Its visual and aural landscapes are overwhelming and Barkin’s central performance stands among her finest screen work. Its real star, however, is Archer, whose singular stamp lends the film a profound autobiographical essence. (See the trailer, below.)
“Shit Year” premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, in Directors’ Fortnight. Distributed by Cinemad Presents, the film was released yesterday in New York City at IFC Center.
What is the writing process like for a film like this?
I wrote the film quickly, inspired by real events and people in my life. Many of the lines that are said in the film were either said by me, or said by someone in my life. To make any kind of art, you have to be selfish. With this project, I allowed myself to not only be selfish but foolish, exposing myself and others. I don’t regret creating what I feel is a thinly veiled portrait of me. It was worthwhile and I learned something. Now more than ever, I find it all a bit humorous or too serious. At the time, I didn’t know what else to do with my feelings. I wrote to feel better about myself. Again, I was selfish.
I wanted to create a character who allowed themselves to feel as awful as possible. There aren’t enough films about feeling awful. I wasn’t interested in making a film about someone who feels awful and then learns to feel better.
Where did the inspiration for “Shit Year” and Colleen West come from?
“Stardust Memories” and “Another Woman,” both by Woody Allen, were influential. I never get sick of either one. I also love “Judy Berlin.” Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost had an impact on me, PJ Harvey’s “White Chalk” tore me apart and Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” made me want to be a better writer. With each new project, I pull from many different sources. We have access to so much these days, maybe too much, but if you focus on just a few things, your brain can actually focus. I take and learn until I have just enough to build my own world.
I really don’t know where Colleen came from. I wrote the character so long ago, I can barely remember what she was like before she was played by Ellen Barkin. Now, I just think of Colleen West as being like an extension of Ellen Barkin. Is that fair?
The film is really unusual structurally. What did the original script look like compared to the finished product?
In terms of the film’s structure, it’s the same as it is in the shooting script. Colleen and the film are both in pieces. They’re fragmented. It was not something that I consciously set out to do. Once Colleen’s character became real to me, I tried to remain true to what I felt was her fragile state of mind.
Compared to your first film, “Shit Year” is both unconventional and a bit more expensive. How difficult was it to find funding for this film?
“Wild Tigers I Have Known” was funded through a few close friends, or friends of friends. Everything about that film felt urgent and so it all came together very quickly. It had to happen. “Shit Year” came together quickly, too, but only because I had such great producers on the film, Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy. I talked to the investors maybe once or twice. They were incredibly supportive and made everything easy. They trusted me.
This is your first time working with a team of professional actors and your first time making a film with a lot of dialogue. Did you approach your direction differently?
I wanted to work with real actors, but I had no idea what it would be like. Despite its many challenges, I learned a lot. I was so used to telling some pretty boy to stand in front of some pretty wall with his eyes closed. It’s hardly what many would consider directing, but it suited me and I felt like I was getting better at it. At the same time, I knew I had to do something new, especially if i wanted to improve my craft. Working with a cast of professional actors wasn’t easy for me, but it came with so many new rewards. Each actor gave so much to film. I felt lucky. Maybe they knew I was nervous.
Honestly, I’m not the greatest director. Sure, I know when something’s working and when something’s not working, but that’s about it. Sometimes, when something’s not working, you’re powerless. It is what it is. If it fails, or if it’s failing and you can’t fix it, you have to move forward. You have to accept your failures. Months later, you just might start to understand what you did wrong. Or not.
The film’s sound design is pretty complex; it’s safe to say the film’s audio could be a separate work of art on its own. What is the sound design process like for you? Is it something you take into consideration when you’re writing a script? What is your relationship with synced sound like?
Sync sound brings me down, but I tried to keep as much of it in the film as I could, which, again, was new for me. My brother Nate and I worked on the sound design for several months. We refuse to use anything that we don’t record ourselves and we love to experiment with sounds that don’t belong. The process consumes us. Personally, I love thinking about the sound. It’s like I no longer have to share the project. Again, it’s mine. Writing the film, editing the film and creating sound design for the film are where I experience the most control and the most satisfaction, creatively. All three stages suit me. Perhaps I should write a novel and put out a CD of sounds to go with it. Sorry, just thinking about the future.
It’s great to see a character study that reveals itself through a fragmented, experimental narrative, and despite that, Colleen comes through clearly at the same velocity as your directorial vision. What was your collaboration with Ellen Barkin like? How did she end up in the role?
Ellen is smart, funny and a tremendous actress. Ellen brought so much to the role, to the film, it’s hard to imagine what the project would have been like without her. We became close during pre-production, which prepared us for a difficult shoot. Colleen’s world is dark, with tiny flashes of light. The darkness shadowed our lives, now that I think about it. It wasn’t easy, but we had each other to get through it.
I sent Ellen the script, certain she would turn down the role. To my surprise, she responded positively, and we met just a few weeks after she read it. Ellen and I live in such different worlds, different spheres, but we discovered several common truths about one another, which, again, prepared us for the film. I read an interview with her recently, where she said something I’m almost certain I once said to her. I could be wrong. I like to pretend I left a mark.
Where was the film shot?
We shot for three weeks in Los Angeles. It felt rushed, but I was used to feeling rushed. Many of the nature shots and scenes were shot a year later in my hometown of Santa Cruz. By that point, I had been editing the film for a year. I must have created 25 different beginnings for the film. It was a difficult time.
You’re teaching at UC Santa Cruz now. Is there anything you’ve learned on your projects that you try to instill in your students?
I taught for just over a year, but now I’m on a break. I told my students the same thing, over and over: Know your limitations. Too often, a student will try to make something that is bigger than themselves, or outside of their limited resources. I know what it’s like to want to make something big, but often, especially when you’re young or a student, making a personal film that’s shot entirely in your bedroom can produce the best work. I would always give my students rules for their projects, like no coffee shops, no park benches and no guns. I should have just said: Only bedrooms. I have no idea if I helped any of them. Teaching is hard. I saw inside so many of their heads. I started to feel like i was living in a student film. Too many close-ups.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a short film about my neighborhood. The project reminds me of other indulgent things I’ve made in the past. So be it. I wrote a sequel to “Shit Year,” but I highly doubt it will ever see the light of day. Maybe the dark of day? In the film, Ellen’s character gets hired to teach at a university. It’s a comedy. You’re probably wondering where I got the idea?