Micro-Budget Horror Master Calvin Reeder Returns to his Short Film Roots
Calvin Reeder is the master of weird and unnerving short films. With timeless entries like Piledriver, Little Farm and The Rambler (made into a feature film released last year) he's back at it again to bring two new mutant children to life.
Calvin Reeder was one of the first filmmakers I ever contacted on a local level and started to become friends with. Five years ago, I interviewed Calvin while he was embarking on making his (in a sense) first feature film The Oregonian. Five years, two feature films and 1,000 cans of Tecate later, I follow up with Calvin to talk about his return to low budget short filmmaking in the Pacific Northwest.
Take whatever your idea is and just go for it, regardless of whatever has been said before, because you're always going to be contradicted by something Godard said.
NFS: I was revisiting the interview we did from five years ago now and just thinking how fast time goes and how everything changes without you really noticing it. Or if things change at all.
Calvin: Especially when you're making films, there's a time and date you can assign to things. Because if we just had that conversation and it wasn't about a film we would just remember it as something that happened and we would never bother to pick what time or what year that occurred. But when you make a film it kinda forces you to put a time and a date on it.
NFS: I remember the first time we hung out it was a process for me, as a young person not knowing anything, of cutting away the veneer. Realizing that filmmakers are just people, not gods.
Calvin: The unfortunate truth.
NFS: Yeah, I always think about the beginning in everything, and you were a big part of my beginning.
Calvin: When you get lost it helps to re-inspire yourself to think about what got you going in the first place.
NFS: That's a big part of what I want to ask you about. How was the experience of making the two features and especially The Rambler, which was the largest production you've ever done, and then coming back to doing these new short films?
Calvin: They were very different experiences. The Oregonian was very difficult, as you know. No A.D., no one to whip anybody into shape, nobody to keep a schedule but myself. But it also gave me a lot of leeway. If I wanted to squeeze two days into one I could go away with it because there was no schedule. With The Rambler feature, it was like a machine, people driving me places, we had bathrooms, wild animal wranglers, houses to burn down, we shot in prisons, had actual catering, we had movie stars. That had its challenges but overall it was much easier to make The Rambler than The Oregonian.
NFS: Is that just because of the budget or the machine is more oiled?
Calvin: The Oregonian was an abstract project; it was like "How do I find people to do this?" I had to find people who were okay with not really knowing what's going on outside of this shotlist I have. With The Rambler it's literally a machine -- there's a job for every single person and they know what they're doing. There's a schedule and you keep the schedule -- and if you don't keep the schedule then somebody gets fired.
So it's like "Cool. All I have to do is show up an direct." And that blew my mind, cause I've never just shown up and directed. Before it was like: show up really early, do the set design, do whatever producing duties necessary and then direct while juggling a thousand things. And when you're all done make sure you don't leave anything wherever you were fucking filming, like a tripod or a lens or whatever. Because you have to take responsibility for all that stuff on something the size of The Oregonian.
Anything can happen in a short and you don't have to justify it.
NFS: What were the benefits or downsides of the ease?
Calvin: I had no problem with the amount of money we had or the people we had in place. It would've been really cool to have another day or two. I mean, we made that whole movie in 20 days with zero overtime. If you don't make film you might not know how crazy that is. Because this is a movie with usually at least 1 company move if not 2 a day, fights, head explosions, children, wild animals, fires, prisons -- you name it. Shit that is just very difficult to pull off.
We actually lost an actor early on because he didn't think it was possible. So people in the industry look at The Rambler and they don't believe we made it for under a million dollars or that we did it in 20 days. When you look at it it's more miraculous than The Oregonian, which we made in 9 -- or 10, depending on how you wanna do the math, we were up pretty late.
I think people should be as anti-cinema as possible.
NFS: What's it like to go from that back down to the 5 grand a pop short film?
Calvin: I'm jacked. I can't wait. For me, at the root of it it's all about ideas. I have a couple feature films in play, it just takes so long. So since nothing was happening this summer we said let's make these shorts. And it was exciting so we stepped on the gas. I have all these ideas that just don't fit in a feature and I just think shorts are great because anything can happen in a short and you don't have to justify it.
NFS: None of my movies come to me in form of short films, maybe it's some weird blockage I have. I was reading some Godard talking about how short films are "anti-cinema" or whatever.
Calvin: That's great, I think people should be as anti-cinema as possible right now. I think it's gotten so fucking precious; we're just looking to those heroes of ours a little too much. It's like, great, we're gonna watch their movies, we're gonna learn from Bergman, we're gonna learn from Andy Warhol but also fuck those guys, y'know? Do your own thing and don't even worry at all.
NFS: Yeah, idolatry can be dangerous. If we want movies to keep evolving we have to contribute, we have to actively influence them.
Calvin: Otherwise you're just looking back too much, instead of looking forward. And the way to do that is to take whatever your idea is and just go for it, regardless of whatever has been said before, because you're always going to be contradicted by something Godard said.
I don't start writing something I can't make.
NFS: For you what's the major difference to you between short and feature filmmaking?
Calvin: There's no rule, but short films that focus on event instead of character development usually succeed. If you figure out what is going to happen and then make that the main thing. You have to build it up a little bit, but when people try to make little features as a little short, it's like how could you possible care about these people? I think you have to care about them just enough to feel the event that you're trying to pull off. But that's not always true.
NFS: Your films still go for some difficult production elements on these small budgets. What's exciting to you about those limitations?
Calvin: The limitations aren't exciting, I just know how to work inside them. I don't start writing something I can't make. I'm excited about the people who are helping me overcome the limitations. Guys like Buzz, my editor and post guy, and this group of people who are going to help us build the sets up in Seattle, and my producers Christian Palmer and Carlos [Lopez].
I remember one Christmas I watched Don't Look Now 5 times.
NFS: How do you handle marketing yourself or your 'style' or your approach? Do you feel pigeonholed as a "weirdo" filmmaker or do you embrace labels? It feels like you've built a name or brand or identity for yourself (all these terrible words) and you don't have to sell yourself too hard. What things have you done to build your community outside of just being your weird self?
Calvin: I don't know what I've done but I've made movies that are pretty distinct, I think people can tell if it's my movie or not. I don't feel pigeonholed because all of these come from a pure place. I didn't look at cinema and say "I Choose Experimental Weirdo Stuff." I was doing that stuff before I saw cinema, if that makes sense. And you can look at my early films if you care to, which I don't recommend -- Jerkbeast and Polterchrist -- and those are just amorphous ideas trying to fit onto the film format. But you can see that I was weird back then.
So it's just natural to me. I didn't feel like I had to brand anything, it's just what I do. There are plenty of examples of filmmakers who are just doing what they do and they've gotten notable for it. For my early films I didn't even watch movies, I didn't even care to. That was a mistake, by the way, movies are great -- I just didn't know that. It's really great to have an idea that you feel is original and then be able to lean on other films to see how they pulled things off or get inspired. But only to a certain degree...
NFS: What are some of your biggest influences, filmmaking or otherwise?
Calvin: I always go back to Nicholas Roeg, everything from Performance through Eureka, those were really potent to me. I remember one Christmas I watched Don't Look Now 5 times. Music is just as potent to me, but then I don't know where the ideas come from. Sometimes I do, but normally really specific things just come to me, and I think that's how ideas work.
NFS: What about contemporary filmmakers?
Calvin: I think the Zellner Brothers are pretty undeniable, they're in a whole new thing with Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but people shouldn't sleep on Kid Thing either, that's also a great film that was made for no dollars. I'm a huge Todd Rohal fan, big Craig Zobel fan, his new film Z for Zachariah is fantastic. I really liked Shaka King's film Newlyweeds, it's a type of stoner comedy/drama I've never seen before. There's a lot of cool stuff coming out.
NFS: How have you evolved as a screenwriter since your first batch of short films?
Calvin: I think I'm just getting to be a little bit better every day. I write a little every day. I'm all about the screenplay. I'm not an improv person -- not that I'm against it I just don't do it. I just don't think I can get people so say on their own the things I want them to say. I've worked with Lynn Shelton before and she'll put me in a room and ask me to say something. But I couldn't possibly ask you or Kentucker [Audley] or whoever to come in and just get me. I'd have to write it. I try to keep dialogue sparse, but I want each word to matter. I do set up a few boundaries, I try to write as minimal as possible. I usually try to get it down to two locations and as few characters as possible. The fewer the people you need to wrangle, the fewer locations you have to travel to will help your scheduling a lot.
The only difference is I don't yell cut, because when I yell cut everybody comes in to fix people's hair and stuff. I just say "back to one" and keep rolling.
NFS: The last time we spoke you were a hardcore film guy. Did you shoot The Rambler feature on film? And will you be shooting digitally for these films? How does it change your approach?
Calvin: It doesn't. I shot a music video this weekend on film, so I still do both. Last time we spoke Alexa didn't exist and video options weren't up to my standards. Now they are, so I pick my battles. If The Rambler could've been shot on 16mm I would've done it, but we had a bond guy that didn't think we could do it in 16 days. And they couldn't see dailies with the lab and shit. So it was like, what battle do I want to pick: either not make the film or switch to Alexa? That's the battle I'm up against and I wish people would realize that when they write about filmmakers "switching" to digital. Maybe it's a temporary situation.
The only difference is I don't yell cut, because when I yell cut everybody comes in to fix people's hair and stuff. I just say "back to one" and keep rolling. Just because we have infinite film it doesn't mean we have infinite days. If you look at The Oregonian, if we took more takes how the hell would we make our schedule? And that was true with The Rambler, even if we had 'infinite information' or whatever. It's just cool to not have to call cut, because when you do you're on break for at least five or ten minutes.
(Micah Van Hove interviews Calvin Reeder circa 2010)
NFS: Good luck with the fundraising, Kickstarter is tough. What annoy me are projects that are trying to raise $100,000 that don't need $100,000. As a filmmaker you know what it takes to make a movie, and sometimes the number attached to these projects are just exorbitant.
Calvin: Yeah some of these numbers are crazy. When I see people like that I think "Oh, that person doesn't want to work." They want to fund their life for the next 6 months and make their movie. Fuck that, I don't want to pay for your expenses, but I would help with the movie. Our Kickstarter does not include anything for me, I'll be putting myself up and flying myself out and it's not my time off the job or anything. That goes without saying, right?
NFS: That's why a project like this is so easy to get behind -- because you know that it's pure.
Calvin: Yeah, and I think we're gonna make a third fuckin' short in the same time, with the same budget. I just want help with the movie, not with feeding me or flying me or putting me up. Did you see Mark Duplass speech at SXSW this year?
Calvin: I know that was aimed at younger filmmakers that are just starting out, but there's something in there that was potent. He said, "The cavalry isn't coming, so you gotta get out there and do it." And I remember thinking that's exactly true. So no matter how many movies I have in the "pipeline" I have to do my own thing in small ways while the big score is hanging in the abstract.
Thanks to Calvin for speaking with me. Consider chucking a few bones his way via Kickstarter.