Since the breakout success of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp has become one of the most original online filmmakers working today. His latest project, “David,” released this month on Super Deluxe, is a dark comedy about a man who learns he only has five weeks to live.
“David” stars Nathan Fielder (“Nathan For You”) as the title character, and Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”) as his ex-wife. On the surface, this star power is wasted behind the robotic inflections and blank stares that create the eerie tone in “David,” but creating such an idiosyncratic world is no easy task. It takes precision and clarity of vision to fully realize and sustain a unique aesthetic.
The experience of watching “David” is not unlike that of watching an experimental film; except “David” is funny, and intentionally so. The way the characters in “David” speak is not quite monotonous, but it gives the impression that their days are. The viewer is left guessing what their placid expressions are hiding, and what Fleischer-Camp is trying to say. IndieWire corresponded with Fleischer-Camp by email to find out more about his enigmatic series.
Can you tell me how the idea for the project came about? Did you write it with Nathan Fielder in mind, or was he cast later?
I wrote it two years ago after reading a book of short stories by Robert Walser, whose work is often a great reminder that you don’t have to walk very far to find something worth admiring in the world (usually in nature). I was trying to write myself out of a depression and I think it kind of worked? I didn’t write it with Nathan in mind, but he was obviously perfect for it and did such a beautiful job.
In your interview with Filmmaker Magazine, you described the aesthetic of “Catherine” as “The New Banality.” What interests you about this hyper-naturalism, and what influences, if any, inspired it?
Honestly, at first I just thought that it was funny. But at some point I realized that I was laughing because I was afraid of it, afraid of interacting plainly and sincerely with the world. Being vulnerable and allowing earnestness into my life was scary, so I was laughing in self-defense. That’s what irony is, a self-defense mechanism. It’s extremely cynical, and how can you live your life and move forward if you aren’t willing to be vulnerable in it? So it started as a kind of joke but has become much more to me.
The openness that I find inherent in that style is a philosophy I consult every day, and I find myself to be a more compassionate and warm person when I can be in touch with it.
“David” is markedly darker than “Catherine,” though in many ways it feels like a second season of the same show with different characters. Do you think about them as related in some way?
They share a certain visual language, sense of humor, sweetness, and worldview. They aren’t related and they don’t take place in the same “universe,” but I think they would really click if they met at a party.
Would it be correct to say that David Lynch is an influence?
Not as much as it seems, somehow. Obviously, I love him like everybody. He’s made so many great indelible movies over the years that I think anything with a brightly lit, kind of stilted “Film Blanc” aesthetic will draw comparisons. Though I see the nightmare-in-broad-daylight thing going back a ways, at least as far as Douglas Sirk, Fellini, Bunuel. Also many others, Magritte and the Surrealists. I’m sure it has its origins before that. (If you or any of your readers can find the thread, please hit me up).
You connect with a David Lynch movie the way you connect with a nightmare: You sort of gawk at it and it discombobulates you and stays in your head because you ache to understand it. That makes his movies very bracing and strange, but I am more interested in warmth and connection and a kind of inclusive Naive Art approach to movies right now. Not dislocation. I’m not trying to scare anyone.
Would you ever consider directing for other writers, or for television? Or are you sticking to the auteur route at this point?
Sure, I’m open to anything! I don’t think the “auteur route” should be about limiting yourself. I think the notion that there’s some sort of virtue or “purity” to be had in being impossibly precious is silly and its persistence, especially in film schools, has wilted many a promising career. Think of how many great movies and tv shows we’ve lost!