Thursday, May 16, 2013

A tardy Q&A with The Happy House filmmaker, D.W. Young

When THE HAPPY HOUSE opened a couple of weeks ago, it was greeted with mostly pleasant reviews, mine included. Then I found out that its director was also the filmmaker who made one of my favorite documentaries of the past decade, A Hole in a Fence. So I arranged to have a Q&A with the fellow, the result of which appears below, with TrustMovies' questions in boldface and the filmmaker's responses in standard type....

We’re talking with D.W. Young -- shown below -- a relatively young filmmaker (he's 40), who is married, with one child. 

Yes -- a 15-month old baby girl named Nora.

Wow—the baby changes everything. At least I found it that way, when my daughter was born. 

She sure does!

First: thank you for opening up my world to First Run Features. It was your documentary, A Hole in a Fence, that first got me aware of that terrific little distribution company. As it’s been a while between movies for you, I am wondering how you support yourself when not making films?

Right now I do freelance film work to pay the bills. Sometimes I direct, but mostly I edit. Sometimes advertising and more commercial type jobs, but preferably I work on stuff closer to home - film trailers, non-profit documentary, things like that. The last year or so I've been doing a lot of editing for the Criterion Collection, which is great.

So you do try to keep it mostly film-related? 

Whenever I can. I also helped produce a friend’s film last summer called All Roads Lead. And I was an assistant editor on the upcoming HBO documentary, Casting By – which is about the history of casting directors. It's the only time I've ever assisted. They had a massive amount of archival material and I learned quite a lot on many levels. The film is excellent. It gives you a new perspective on the business and really makes a strong case for the essential role of casting directors in the creative process.

Let’s talk about A Hole in a Fence. I still remember that little film as the one that kind of helped politicize me about “growth,” “gentrification,” and “development.” It really opened my eyes and made me look at things a little differently. 

With A Hole in a Fence I wanted to do something more poetic and quiet, more micro-scale than broadly political. In every way it's a very small film. I did everything myself on that movie. It’s even small in its length. But as a result I had the freedom to make in my own personal way.

It is small – but for me, only in its length. 

Its length was certainly a tricky one at 46 minutes -- too long for a short, too short for a theatrical feature.

But it is a good length for a documentary, I think, because it is just the right length for what it has to say. 

Thanks! I think that oddball middle length is totally under-utilized. In any case, I just wanted to make it the length that felt right.

And so be it. It opened me up to so many things: politics, life, the idea of a neighborhood: It was like opening me up in a way to things I didn’t know were even there. 

That was definitely one of my goals: to provide a slightly different kind of understanding of events and place than the more conventional journalistic approach. But we touched on certain specific issues too. For example, for me what was interesting was not so much the debate about the Ikea store coming to Brooklyn (which was a very complicated issue) but the more specific battle to save the shipyard. That was much more coherent to me, but also somehow representative of the other kinds of less visible but also irreplaceable elements that inevitably get swept up in the wave of massive development.

What happened with all that? Did Ikea finally arrive? 

Ikea did get built and the shipyard was razed. Ikea’s now become a permanent part of the neighborhood -- though other big box stores have not come in yet. The crash of 2008 happened, and of course that changed a lot. Eventually things will no doubt pick back up and there will be more large scale development - of what sort time will tell. In any case, my movie wasn’t trying to fight change in a general sense or take a knee-jerk anti-gentrification stance. But I do believe that as urban change is happening, we need to be aware of what the consequences will be on many levels and also take a little time to preserve a record of what is being lost. Which, with the tools at our disposal, is more possible now than ever before.

OK: Let’s move the conversation to your new film, THE HAPPY HOUSE, which opened a couple of weeks ago here in NYC and last week in Ohio. What was the impetus behind this new movie? It is so different from your other documentary. 

At face value I guess that's so, but the truth is I'm generally more focused on narrative filmmaking than documentary. I came to film-making as a writer of short fiction, so for me, writing my first narrative screenplay was the critical moment. It was an enormously liberating experience. Unexpectedly so, and I immediately felt far better about that process than writing prose. So, apart from always having been a cinephile, that's what really pushed me to start making films, a bit later than most.

After A Hole in a Fence, I wrote and directed a short called Not Interested, which is a dark comedy with some horror overtones. We first screened it at SXSW and then it had a very good festival run and audiences really responded to it. After that I had a feature script I thought was going to get funding but it fell through, and I really didn't want to wait around for years hoping to develop it all over again. The Happy House had originally been written as a low-budget short, but when I considered it as a possible feature, I liked the potential and I quickly hit on an idea to expand the story and ran with it. We then managed to pull together some primary investors and scraped together the rest, along with Kickstarter to help fund post. And it got made quite quickly -- we shot it in two weeks.

Wow—two weeks is really short. The movie doesn’t look it. Or sound it, either. I only read a few reviews, but they were generally pretty good, right? 

Well, The NY Times hated it! I think unfortunately that particular writer totally misinterpreted the film. Hey, you can't win them all. But otherwise, yes, they were mostly positive, many very much so. I do think it plays better in theaters, with an audience.

It has a bit of a slower, quieter pace, so it seemed to me that maybe home viewing might be the way to go.

As the filmmaker, I’m just happy that anyone wants to watch the film in whatever way they come to it. That’s all you can really ask. But of course as a purist I prefer they see it in the theater. Which is the fundamental dilemma for us indie filmmakers right now: we’re making movies as if they will be seen theatrically - they're still aesthetically constructed with that traditional mindset. In our film this is very much the case. For instance, there are a lot of long, wide shots where part of the pleasure is hopefully to explore the frame and discover what’s going on simultaneously. A bigger screen provides a much better chance to do this. But of course this is not how most people will ever watch this or similar-level indie films.

The audience, too, is so often a valuable catalyst. You have fun laughing collectively – in joining in the laughter that is already there. Some films benefit a little more from this, particularly comedies with very particular tones, I think.

Yes, and the theater in which I’ve most experienced all of the above is the FSLC’s Walter Reade. 

My current favorite theater in New York is the Museum of the Moving Image. It shows a great range of 35 and 70 mm classic films, many of which are often hard to see projected, and it offers special screenings of new stuff too. The seats are ideal because they are semi-comfortable, just hard enough not to let you fall asleep but with excellent leg room and viewing angles. And the theater also serves no food or drink. So there’s no crunching sounds to distract you. And they have stellar programming.

Since The Happy House (stills from which are shown immediately above and below) will not becoming to that many theaters, how can my readers see it? 

It will be coming to VOD first, and then DVD, with everything via First Run Features, hopefully within a few months for VOD. We're still finalizing those dates however. Your readers can also add the film to their Netflix queue here: and/or they can sign up for First Run Features' newsletter here for more info about release dates.

Before I let you go, is there anything you’d like to talk about that most journalists don’t ask you. Here’s you chance to pontificate…. 

Well, one thing I could talk about in reference to your review is the pacing and tone of The Happy House. That slower pace really factors into the tone of the film. This, I think, is part of the disruption of the expectation of events that I wanted to achieve. In so many horror movies today, you are faced with a very standard and predictable set of events. And so being thus conditioned you presumably expect this film to conform to that progression fairly precisely too.

Like the hostess (below) of the B&B – and her son, and what you imagine they’re up to? 

Yes. Normally speaking they would be just what they seem, what Joe and Wendy interpret them as. But they're not. And suddenly the rules are being, if not broken, then bent. And then there is a long middle interlude, a slow one, in the film, where you, the audience, become sort of like the characters: stuck at this B&B. Which is really moving outside the standard structure. But hopefully you don't resist that shift but go with it. Hopefully you start to doubt everything, and that doubt is what makes you sort of want to re-engage with all the intentionally super conventional tropes in a fresh way. In other words, if you come to these things with your expectations disrupted, the formula itself breaks down in some critical ways. Maybe you came in expecting to want to see these people killed off but….

I wanted no one killed off! I discovered that I liked everybody, once the real killer showed up. 

These days in so many horror movies, it seems unimportant that characters die. It’s instead all about the ways in which they die. For me, how they die is not the point, rather than the fact they die.

Me, too.

This concentration on how seems juvenile to me on some level. The great horror movies don’t do this. Not to say you can't have fun with that - of course you can and that's part of the tradition too - but that when it becomes the central narrative focus I lose interest.

So you do subvert what’s going on in most horror movies today? 

Yes, but the movie is not meant to be primarily a parody of most horror movies today. Rather it's a kind of fun reconfiguration of how you engage with a stock scenario. For me the slow pace serves an essential purpose, it's a certain means to an end. It’s a chance to develop character, and then grow fond of the characters and therefore respond a little differently to the mayhem when it finally arrives.

As we do with the B&B owner's sister (below), once she arrives, and her relationship with the lepidopterist (shown above and at bottom)... 

I hope that horror fans will pick up on this in their own way, and will see some of the subtler points of it. But I don't see that aspect of it being paramount either and hopefully the movie will offer something to both sides: horror fans and non-horror fans.

I also wanted to subvert things a little regarding expectations of style, too. The challenge of making a low-budget movie is always the decision of which set of constraints you'll accept. It’s almost accepted today that you'll shoot handheld, and not use much stylized lighting - adopt a cinema veritesque mode. This is perfectly legitimate and lots of very good movies get made that way, but there's a lot of uninspired homogeneity too. I think a lot of opportunity is being lost, particularly to revive some classic or what some would call old fashioned, approaches as alternate options for low budget film-making.

There's a disconnect with the past, with the full range of cinematic language. It's like cinema pre-French New Wave is irrelevant. Of course the content needs to be suited to the particular approach. And our sometimes quite rigid composition and longer takes and wider framing in the The Happy House are all meant to be in the service of creating a slightly different kind of experience within the limitations of such a small budget. And tied into this is how our film embraces a kind of theatrical mode; at times it almost plays out like a drawing room comedy. There are many theatrical layers within the movie. But not in an anti-cinematic sense.

This is interesting. And I could see that in your film, though I didn’t explain it that well in my review. One more thing before we close: How did the Q&As go with your audience last weekend? 

Both Q&As went well, and both were after sold out shows with great audience response. So I’m happy on that level. But I don’t think I will watch the movie again for a long time now! When you edit your work you see it too many times. It’s a little unhealthy. You turn numb.

Final question (I know: I keep saying this...): What might be next for you? Any new project in the works? 

I have a couple of screenplays I'm going to start trying to get off the ground now. And I'm always interested in making another doc, but only if I come across another story that I feel strongly about and want to pursue.

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