SXSW 2008 - interview with OTIS writer Erik Jendresen

The day after seeing Raw Feed’s latest offering Otis at SXSW, I had the opportunity to sit down with director Tony Krantz and writer Erik Jendresen at the Four Seasons in Austin. I spoke first with Erik.

Collin: First, congratulations. The film’s just fantastic.

Erik: Thank you!

Collin: Since I have you here first, I’d like to talk a little about your relationship with Tony – I know it’s unique, that you’re a collaborator end-to-end on the film unlike many writers, whose involvement in the process usually ends after they turn in a white draft.

Erik: From the word “go,” the whole idea of Raw Feed was to break the mold and do things differently. First – it’s old-fashioned filmmaking. Our schedule here was 18 days, on Sublime 15 days, there was very little money. It’s all about crafting a script that’s going to elevate the genre, to do something different with the genre, and changing the preconceived notion that “direct to DVD” is shit – it’s not. It’s a medium that’s very viable now. But it all starts on the page.

Tony and I have a friendship that goes back many years, and the model we follow – it’s essentially a theater model where the playwright and the director have a unique relationship. For some reason, 50 years ago it was determined arbitrarily – I think it was Hitchcock’s fault – that film is a director’s medium, and everyone bought into that. It’s not – it’s a collaborative medium, and if you approach the relationship between the writer and director along that theater model, you end up with a much better product at the end, because the people who’ve spent the most time with the story have been there from beginning to end. It has to be ego-less – so it depends on personalities, certainly – but that’s the type of relationship we’ve maintained from the very beginning. On Sublime we took an enormous risk and made a very ugly, very bloody film – on purpose – and did something that the fans of the genre were a little outraged by. There was a certain pretension to that film, a lack of pure gore, pure genre, that angered a lot of fans. But there we intentionally wanted to do something different. In this case, we were trying for more of a softball, straight down the middle. We wanted to satirize the genre and make a little bit of a socio-political statement as well. We were together from the beginning of the project right through to the end in the editing room.

Collin: You mentioned subverting peoples’ expectations. I think it’s interesting – it seems like there used to a greater sense of creative freedom in low-budget filmmaking – I’m thinking back to some of the more far-out Roger Corman productions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the films Larry Cohen was making in the ‘70s--

Erik: Right, right.

Collin: I think Otis and Sublime harken back to that, but that need to transgress seems more rare now. What drove you, with these two projects, to strive for that sense of cultural transgression?

Erik: Well, you know, we wanted to step out of that fear. Hollywood is so driven by fear – it fuels, perhaps the entire industry – and it seems like in the last eight or so years people have become so conservative in their tastes. They don’t want to lose their jobs, they don’t want to take chances, they don’t want to take risks. American cinema has a very noble history of taking risks. And as you rightly said, independent cinema, low-budget independent cinema is about that but it’s interesting as independent cinema becomes its own genre of film it becomes sort of conservative. There’s always that angle – “How’s it going to play at Sundance, are we going to get a distributor?” It happens inevitably, and you have to come along and try to shake it up. What’s so great about this particular dynamic from the word “go” was that Warner Brothers said, “Here’s your budget, go do what you want.”

Collin: That’s amazing, it just seems counter to everything that you hear.

Erik: Unbelievably supportive. Kudos really have to go to one person, Jeff Baker at Warner Home Video – he saw the people involved and said, “Let’s go.” The other interesting thing is the kind of talent we have involved with this piece. If you start with something that’s really different and worthwhile, and people see it as honest work, everybody wants to be a part of that, cecause there’s so much crap that doesn’t take chances out there. I teach at Sundance every winter, and there’s a community of writers who, given the opportunity to run off and write a genre movie and shoot it in 15 days, would jump at the chance. It’s the old-fashioned notion – we’ve got a barn, we’ve got some instruments, let’s put on a show. Filmmakers, writers, directors, actors, love to do this sort of work. There should be more of that in this industry.

Collin: There are a number of clear moments throughout the film – two come to mind immediately, the Illena Douglas character referring to herself as “the decider” and the FBI providing false intelligence to the family that pushes them to act – that point to this country’s political flailing over the last eight years. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly dangerous to be political in your work – everyone, everywhere is so polarized in their views now you risk alienating so much of your audience. Where does the drive come from to be political – to not care what the effect might be on the bottom line?

Erik: I think it comes from the fundamental responsibility of storytellers in society. I mean, the storytelling tradition goes back a hundred thousand years. The greater tribe relied on a given number of individuals to go out, observe, and come back and relate what they’ve experienced around a fire. There’s no difference today. There’s an enormous responsibility as storytellers in this medium to tell stories that push the envelope and hold a mirror up to society. That responsibility is abdicated, more often than not, in favor of commercial success. It’s a matter of caring tremendously about what you’re doing instead of not caring or taking a cavalier attitude, and you face an incredible amount of criticism and derision if you do that. I mean, Sublime was excoriated for its pretension, for addressing the socio-political issues that we frankly loaded in there with a shovel on purpose, just going right into peoples’ faces. It was so on-the-nose about the sort of half-concealed racism that exists in most white people, which we don’t want to talk about, we don’t want to admit to possessing, that it really pissed a lot of people off. Because of that they were able to dismiss it, saying it was too pretentious, but it was made that way on purpose – that was really amusing to me. In this film, the idea – kind of a delight notion, too – of an American unit, a family, which is violated and decides to take action on their own regardless of everyone else in the community – they get false information from the establishment and they strike, only to discover that maybe they struck the wrong guy. And then they get themselves mired in this whole disastrous situation. The political resonance is pretty obvious. But it’s always really delightful to do things with a light touch, not so in-your-face and depressing – which we did do in Sublime.

Collin: You come from a very diverse writing background – you’ve worked with a number of very well known filmmakers. It’s interesting because you really seem to be having a blast with this. Like you said, a lot of people – if given the opportunity – would love to wake up one day and set to work on a project like this. What’s it like for you to go from a project like Band of Brothers, as an example, to Otis?

Erik: It’s an absolute joy – it’s a breath of fresh air. For me, it’s always about being very careful when choosing the projects I’m going to work on. I have to care about them absolutely 100% or else what’s the point? I won’t be able to serve the story I’ve been tasked to writer if I don’t really love it. You know, I’m fairly selective in the stuff I work on, I like to take things on that are challenging, that on their surface don’t seem like they can translate to the screen. It makes for a difficult time – always very challenging. Jumping to something like this is like a summer vacation – it’s just a complete joy. I have to say, too, that this model of working so closely with a director has a really unusual effect on the shooting. If the actors know the writer and director are there, and the cinematographer – the guy who wrote it, the guy who’s shooting the pictures, and the guy who’s tying it all together – they tend to feel safer with that full group. As soon as an actor feels safe, they take chances. When they take chances, you get great performances. And there’s a sense of camaraderie on the set that’s really great – both here and on Sublime we had cast and crew telling us it was one of the best sets they had ever been on. Everybody was into this to make the movie. They were completely committed and it made it possible to pull it off. The whole process here was very practical. It’s hard these days – to take something from the page, whether it’s a studio project or not – because you have people scrutinizing how much money something’s going to cost, how much it’s going to make. It’s a long, arduous process. We started shooting Otis six months ago yesterday (3/7/08). It’s sort of the old-fashion way, the way Hollywood used to make films. So many iconic films were created, shot in this country the exact same way.

Collin: I have to ask about the insertion of the Mandingo character (from Sublime, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) into the hospital in Otis.

Erik: Yeah, yeah.

Collin: He’s just a fantastic actor – it was great to see him again in character. Was that just done for a laugh on your and Tony’s part?

Erik: He’s a great actor, Tony’s known him for a long time. We were at the hospital, we knew we could just have him standing there in the background – whether people would notice him or not – so Tony called him up and he says, “Sure, I’ll put on the bowtie and come down.” Yeah, that was a delightful touch.

Collin: The music in the film was great – about halfway through you realize it’s really driving the picture as this sort of omnipresent back beat.

Erik: And it’s meant as a comment on what you’re seeing most times. I’m very very satisfied with the selection of music in the film. Under the budget, it was difficult to pull off.

Collin: Are you planning any further collaborations with Tony? Further work through Raw Feed?

Erik: Yeah. There are several things in the works. A very serious feature we’ve been developing we hope to be shooting this spring – it’s not a genre film – about what’s going on in this country right now, what we believe in, why we need to believe things. It’s called American Voodoo. We have a number of other projects, a bunch of other things we’re developing. We’re working on a TV series based on The Conversation, Coppola’s film, for AMC, with Francis.

Thanks to Erik Jendresen!

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