First-time writer-director Adam Pinney took home the top award at SXSW 2016.
Adam Pinney's The Arbalest is a 76-minute sort-of period piece about a man who sort of took credit for inventing a toy that's sort of like a Rubik's Cube (except he puts his own last name on it instead, deeming it the Kalt Cube). He goes on to become sort of famous, and then sort of maintains a long-distance romance with the real Cube inventor's partner (who only sort of ever wanted him). The movie is sort of based on some real events but also generally just does what it wants when it comes to toying with reality, such as sort of changing human history so that guns were never invented.
Following the premiere, a few audience members and I struggled to define the film in definite terms. There were a lot of "sort ofs" in our descriptions. We all agreed that we enjoyed it and that we were glad we saw it at SXSW, which felt like an appropriate festival home for the formally experimental, heavily production-designed film. The Arbalest feels like it is exactly what it wants to be, that it is uncompromising in its vision, and that Pinney achieved what he wanted.
For first-time feature directors, that's about all we can ask for. (Not to mention the Grand Jury prize.) No Film School reached out to Pinney following the festival awards.
"I wanted everything to feel sort of otherworldly, at times at odds with what you normally experience when watching a film."
No Film School: The Arbalest is a period piece, an unrequited love story, and an alternate reality about inventions. Where did your interest in the material begin?
Adam Pinney: I suppose the origin of the idea [was] in college. I wrote and directed a one-act play about a man competing in a Rubik’s cube competition on the same day he had to attend a funeral for his nephew. His competitor is a foul-mouthed teenage girl who keeps telling obscene jokes. It was dark, absurd, and cold, and had a very designed aesthetic. I was always trying to figure out how to expand that idea into a feature, and while The Arbalest shares almost nothing in common with that play story-wise, it was the springboard idea. Mike Brune, Foster Kalt in The Arbalest, was the lead in that play.
NFS: How did you approach the visual design of the film?
Pinney: Hugh Braselton — the cinematographer — and I tried to capture the look and feel of other films of the era. We tried to use camera movements and framing that would feel at home in a film from the '60s or '70s. Big influences for me, visually, were early Mike Nichols films like The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Stanley Kubrick is a big influence as well and a lot of the design choices were inspired by his films.
We had an amazing artistic team in Aimee Holmberg, our set designer, Karen Freed, our costume designer, and Katie Ballard, our hair and makeup head. I gave them some visual direction, but they all brought their own vision and created an amazing world.
"Stanley Kubrick is a big influence and a lot of the design choices were inspired by his films."
NFS: How much of it was shot on sets versus on location?
Pinney: About 2/3 of the film is shot on sets. The 1968 hotel and the 1976 cabin are both sets. The interview footage from 1978 is all on location. There is a neighborhood in Atlanta that is all mid-century modern architecture houses, and we drove around knocking on doors trying to find the perfect house. Our dream home was this white A-frame house that looked like it was already decorated for that era. When our UPM knocked on the door, she was greeted by one of our casting directors who lived there. It was an amazing coincidence and her home looks amazing in the film.
NFS: What camera did you use and why?
Pinney: We used a Blackmagic Cinema camera. We had a small crew and didn’t want to be encumbered by a large camera package. It allowed us to move from setup to setup [more quickly] and was a great affordable option for such a small project.
"When our UPM knocked on the door, she was greeted by one of our casting directors who lived there. It was an amazing coincidence and her home looks amazing in the film."
NFS: There's a specific tone you're achieving not only through the look and pacing, but also through the performances. How did you get the actors on the same page tonally?
Pinney: The film takes place in a sort of alternate version of our own reality, and I wanted everything to feel sort of otherworldly, and at times at odds with what you normally experience when watching a film. The performances were kind of guided by that principle and the extreme set design and unorthodox storytelling influenced they way the performances played out.
Brune brought such a manic energy to the character that it made me uncomfortable on set, so I knew that it would work well in this universe. Tallie Medel, who plays Sylvia Frank, brought such defiant poise to her character and reacts to Foster the same way we, as an audience, react, and she allows us to have a confidant in witnessing how difficult a character Foster Kalt is.
NFS: What was your toughest day?
Pinney: The actual filming never had any great challenges. When you are working with so many creative and talented people who are there for the art and putting everything into it, [that] makes the process very smooth. Like any shoot, you have disagreements and small battles, but they are all in service of the film you are creating, so, in the end, they contribute to rather than hinder any sort of progress in making the film.
"You all are making a film together and all putting a great amount of effort into it, and at the end of the day, it’s everybody’s film, not just yours."
NFS: What advice would you have for other filmmakers?
Pinney: Filmmaking is collaborative art, no matter if you are the writer/director, or the production assistant. You all are making a film together and all putting a great amount of effort into it, and at the end of the day, it’s everybody’s film, not just yours. Find people you love and trust and enjoy being around and help each other make movies. Do that forever.
NFS: In being at SXSW, what do you think works for networking at a festival? Any do's and don'ts?
Pinney: Just talk to people. Be interested in their projects and films. If you have time, go to their screenings. Go to parties. Have a good time and be present. I met so many amazing artists at SXSW and everyone is very open to meeting each other and being inspired by each other. Even if a particular film isn’t to your tastes, you can learn so much and be inspired by the people who made it. That’s what’s great about SXSW — there are so many eclectic voices.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.