CHICAGO – The issue of gender identity, especially for those who are born with a vagueness as to what to call themselves between/beyond boy and girl, has come front and center in the U.S., both with the legalization of gay marriage and the callous repudiation of identity by trying to pass laws dismissing it (the North Carolina “bathroom” laws). The performance companies of The Living Canvas and Nothing Without a Company is currently staging “[Trans]formation,” which presents gender identity art by six performers, who perform most of the play in the nude.
Interview: Director David Spaltro Explores Faith in ‘Things I Don’t Understand’
CHICAGO – Five years after earning praise for his directorial debut, “…Around,” indie filmmaker David Spaltro has returned behind the camera to deliver his second feature. The film, “Things I Don’t Understand” may be many things, but a sophomore slump it is not. Its assured craftsmanship, fine performances and provocative themes have made it one of the most buzzed-about pictures on the festival circuit.
Molly Ryman stars as Violet, a jaded grad student who develops a friendship with two outsiders—a mysterious bartender, Parker (Aaron Mathias), and a cancer-stricken teen, Sara (Grace Folsom). Meanwhile, Violet’s eccentric roommates, Gabby (Meissa Hampton) and Remy (Hugo Dillon), struggle to avoid getting evicted from their cozy loft. Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Gus Sacks, the film explores faith, doubt, friendship and the beauty that can be found in catharsis. Spaltro served as writer, producer, director and editor on the picture, which has already garnered various awards this year. Moviegoers in the Chicagoland area will be able to see the film when it screens July 28th at the Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival in Palatine. Hollywood Chicago spoke with Spaltro about his key collaborators, the challenges facing modern independent filmmakers and his plans to complete a “New York trilogy.”
HollywoodChicago.com: How did you get your start, and how were you introduced to your key collaborator, producer Lee Gillentine?
David Spaltro: I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York from 2001 to 2005. My focus was mainly in editing and it was a really cool boot camp. I fought really hard to go to film school and lived out of a train station for two years, which inspired my first film, “…Around.” I was working so hard to be at school that I never really had the time or money to put into making a film. So “…Around” really taught me everything that I know about filmmaking. The script wasn’t super-commercial, and I ended up funding the film on 40 credit cards. There were 190 locations in the script. It should’ve been a $3 million film. I needed somebody with a little more experience to help me break down the budget, and nobody would touch it. Lee was introduced to me by my DP, Dave Barkin. He’d been a gaffer on many low budget independent films in New York. He was 21 years old and just as crazy as I was. Without him, the film never would’ve happened. His lack of experience was overcome by his passion to do the job and his connections. We had 190 locations and we did the film in 21 days for $155,000, which is literally insane. We were building sets the night before shooting there. It was a bunch of twentysomethings having a very crazy summer camp/film school experience. [laughs]
Photo credit: Wandering/Cut Films
HollywoodChicago.com: How did your feature script for “Things I Don’t Understand” evolve out of a short film?
Spaltro: For our last year at school, we had to make a thesis film, and there was an advisory board that had to approve everything. I didn’t have the money or ability to make the sort of thesis film that could be my calling card. I wrote down an idea that came to me from my work in hospice. It was a short where two people in a hospital room talked about life and death, and it led to the scenes between Violet and Sara in “Things I Don’t Understand.” At school, I wasn’t ready to tell that story yet, so I put those pages away. After making “…Around,” there was a whole other fight with juggling credit card debt and getting the film out and getting it finished. I was just very burned out, and I found those pages of the [hospice] scene. I ended up writing the script as more of a cathartic exercise.
I had worked with Molly Ryman on “…Around” and she’s a Midwest native. She went to Loyola in Chicago. She had always been typecast as the blonde next door. She’s a very talented actress and a super-sweet person and had always been interested in doing something a little bit darker. I thought Violet would be a really great role for her, and I think I’d always intended on casting her. For a while, she didn’t know if she could do it. She had taken a break from acting, and we had auditioned other girls. Anybody can put on the makeup and the hair and the clothes, but what Molly has, and what initially got her typecast, is a very genuine good heart. There’s just something about her that’s likable, and you need that in order to prevent audiences from hating this character. Some people thought it was nepotism that I cast her, and I couldn’t really explain the vision that I had. But anyone who’s seen her work in the film gets it. She just won Best Actress at the Northwest Ohio Independent Film Festival. That was really nice.
HollywoodChicago.com: How were you able to condense the film’s production schedule to 20 days?
Spaltro: Preproduction is the key. I worked on this film for a good year before we shot it. Building a team is essential and I knew that everything had to be bigger and better for this one. It was the same budget as “…Around,” and we had less locations this time. We shot the hospice stuff upstate in a rehabilitation center in Garrison, New York. We rented out a loft and lived there for a week. Some of those days became very long—17 to 20 hours—and it can be brutal. I’m a big believer in collaboration, that’s why I love film. Otherwise I would just write. I like getting the best of everybody and keeping it consistent on a vision and letting them run wild with it. You make these people feel appreciated, and they’ll be working extra-hard for you. They’ll be putting in more hours and coming up with creative solutions.
My choice to serve as the editor on these films was originally to save money, but it also taught me that even if you have more time to do coverage when you’re shooting, you have to know the best way to cover a scene. Sometimes you’re pre-editing where you’re not doing a full take because you know that you’ve got what you needed. Just thinking in those terms helps you save money. It’s also good to know what can be accomplished in post. We shot one scene where the roommates kiss at Thanksgiving. We shot the master so many times early in the morning. By the time we got to their close ups, the sun was creeping it. So we went in and did color correction instead of doing a full day of reshoots. The 4K resolution on the Red camera gives you a lot of freedom.
HollywoodChicago.com: What has your collaboration been like with cinematographer Gus Sacks?
Spaltro: Gus is a really hungry, talented kid. He’s so knowledgeable. Our first DP had a good eye, but he hadn’t prepared himself for the film. Gus has been working nonstop. He likes to push himself, but he also does his homework. He likes a challenge, but he isn’t just going to go into it blind and say, “I hope I know how to do this.” He will find a way to do it. He also brought to the table a very talented production designer, Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise, and a really talented gaffer, Andrew Hubbard, whom he had worked with twice before. By this time, these three people had become a good team. It was a well-oiled machine, and they brought a distinctive touch to the film. It’s a very dark film, and Gus isn’t afraid of shadows. I’m a fan of naturalistic lighting, but I also don’t want to over-light a scene like Michael Bay. You need to find that balance while creating each of the film’s worlds. Even when it’s dark and ambient, the roommate world is colorful and off-kilter, while the hospital stuff is very desaturated. The bar is warm and dark like a home. We’d use those as the templates for each location, but keep them under one veneer.
Molly Ryman and Aaron Mathias star in David Spaltro’s Things I Don’t Understand.
Photo credit: Wandering/Cut Films
HollywoodChicago.com: Are Violet’s struggles with faith reflective of your own?
Spaltro: Absolutely. To me, it’s not just about faith in terms of religion. Everybody goes through these struggles and has these questions at some point. That’s part of being a human being. Our first film did really well on the festival circuit, got some nice reviews and was distributed on Netflix and Amazon, but I always felt like I had done this giant kamikaze thing and I wasn’t a filmmaker yet. I knew that I could do more and I knew that I could apply everything I learned on “…Around” to another project and do so much more with it. I did the first film to get it out of my system. Having the faith in myself that I could do “Things I Don’t Understand” on the same budget as “Around” and avoid all the mistakes that I made the first time—that was my struggle. There were times when I wondered if “Around” was all a fluke, and I wondered if I could pull off this miracle again, and do it better.
HollywoodChicago.com: Grace Folsom broke my heart in this film. What was your first impression of her?
Spaltro: I was casting in the summer of 2010. Grace had only graduated from NYU a year ago. I had everybody send in videos, and she had literally recorded her video on her Macbook. I told them that I didn’t care about production values. To see her go from who she is as a person, which is this bubbly, human Muppet of a girl, and deliver the monologue where she talks about not wanting to die of cancer—she crushed it. We brought her in and she was so nervous and so goofy. I wondered if it was the same person. We let her do the scene and she does the same thing again. We were all really quiet. She later told me onset that she didn’t think she had gotten the part because everyone was so quiet, and I told her, “We were trying not to cry.” She’s scarily good, and she’s only going to get better. She’s very good at serving the script and the voice of the person that is creating the work. She is very much a team player and she brings what she brings, but she brings it within the lines. If someone is able to do that, they’re going to be better because they’re not fighting the material. They’re just embracing it and then taking it up three notches.
HollywoodChicago.com: How is your next film related to the last two?
Spaltro: I’m working my way toward making a New York trilogy. The first film [“..Around”] was a crash course in New York—it was Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. It was about a guy coming to the city and making it his own. So you had a little bit of everything, but I wanted to avoid the snow globe [version] of New York. When you live there, your viewpoint is from the subway or the corner streets. In this film, the characters are ten years older and settled in New York. It’s mainly shot in Greenpoint, so it’s much more of a Brooklyn film, but there’s no postcard moments. It’s about people who live in these little lofts and have their neighborhood dive bar. The film is about what happens when that home is threatened. My next film, “Wake Up in New York” will be the third film in the trilogy. The story is about how people change and follows a relationship over ten years in New York and LA.
I love storytelling. How many more times I will be able to make a film is debatable, but there are always ways to tell stories. This trilogy is a chance for me to express how I’ve been chasing my dream of making films for the last ten years. When you work day in and day out, you get a tunnel vision. You don’t notice that your dreams change too. As the dust settles from this film, I will be carefully choosing what the next direction of my life will be. This next film will be about what the last ten years have meant to me. At the end of it, you’ll be able to watch these three films and find the connective tissue. You’ll be able to watch a voice grow and change and touch on same themes from different points. It’s almost like a scrapbook.