Filmmaking 'is Not a F*cking Joke': 'How to Tell You're a Douchebag' Director on Why Movies Eat Your Psyche
Tahir Jetter discusses the "endangered species" of indie film, the importance of black cinema, and embracing our culture's vulgarity.
[Editor's Note: No Film School sent Scout Tafoya to cover the 5th annual BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia.]
For a festival, BlackStar's programming this year was unusually heavy on comedy and crowd-pleasers. No film got a bigger round of laughs and rowdy audience comments thrown at it than Tahir Jetter's unbelievably funny How To Tell You're A Douchebag, about a Brooklyn blogger taken to task by a ruthlessly cunning author who sees through his bluster. The author only continues to let the blogger waste her time when she realizes how much she can learn from a guy who lives out loud—a guy who thinks he has the world, and especially women, figured out. He feels like a king until he meets a real queen, and then spends all his waking hours trying to get back on top.
"If up-and-coming filmmakers are wise—I hate to say this—but I think they'll need to consider doing their first features for $50k or less."
Jetter's film has an uncommon honesty. The language, the relationship dynamics, and the social customs have a refreshingly candid quality. No Film School sat down with Jetter to learn how he made a film this "real," that still felt populist enough that it has a shot at winning a major audience—a fine balance to strike by any measure.
No Film School: Where did this idea come from?
Jetter: I started writing How to Tell You're A Douchebag after an incident of unrequited love left me feeling like a failure and also a bit of an asshole. To top it off, I was generally depressed—I'd just gotten rejected by this agent type out in LA for a script I'd submitted, I hated my day job, and I felt like I needed to make a movie [to] extricate myself from my less-than-ideal circumstances.
I'd been on Twitter for years (particularly on Black Twitter) absorbing the disdain conveyed by a lot of Black women with regard to the problems that they encountered when dating in the modern age. Taking a hard look at myself, I felt like my worldview then, with respect to dating, was actually emblematic of a lot of issues in dealing with modern men (entitlement, self-absorption, a general lack of compassion, etc.). Looking at all of this, I decided to try to make what would, at least for me, be the smartest, funniest, most relatable film I could write/direct/produce under the circumstances.
NFS: How did you decide how you were going to tell this story visually? Your use of the camera is pretty classical.
Jetter: I engineered the script to be fairly talky, drawing on the influences of a lot of romcoms I loved (think Spike, Woody, early Nora Ephron). I just tried to think about designing blocking as simply as I could. The quick speed of the dialogue definitely helps to drive the scenes along in a manner that didn't necessarily require elaborate camera moves, and I think we ended up cutting a lot of shots that I wanted for the sake of expediency.
"I wrote the script to be malleable so if we had to cut three shots out of a scene that was supposed to have six, our shooting style could handle it."
I wrote the script to be malleable so if we had to cut three shots out of a scene that was supposed to have six, our shooting style could ideally conform to handle it. In many of the exterior scenes, I talked with Cory (our DP) a lot about how I wanted the film to have this classic New York feel—not really high-key, per se, but with some degree of warmth, some texture, and with some reverence for various landmarks, spaces, and architecture. We talked a lot about Woody's Manhattan in terms of shaping light and contrast for some of the interior stuff, as well as some other recent European movies (Roy Andersson and Ruben Ostlund) in terms of framing—specifically thinking about how to favor wide-shots instead of close-ups for some of the more comedic scenes, which I think works fairly well.
Jetter: Cory was insightful enough to insist on our using the Arri D-21 (which, fortunately, he owned) for the better part of principal photography. The camera's like the size of a large machine gun, which I'm sure proved annoying for the camera team, but its sensor, which I think is a few generations before the Alexa, was noisy in a way which we felt would appropriately give the film some cinematic texture and somewhat of a dated look, something that we weren't necessarily confident we'd get from trying to work with other, more modern cameras.
NFS: Tell me about your timeline, from inception to fundraising to premiere.
Jetter: I believe I started writing drafts of the film in August of 2014. I started fundraising for the film in January of 2015 (thanks, Greenberg family), put together a pitch packet, approached our fantastic producers (Marttise Hill and Julius Pryor, who I'd met at Sundance in 2015), and worked with them to start trying to cobble together as much money as possible in the hopes of shooting in the summer with the intent of premiering at Sundance in 2016.
"We knew that with our network, and with the relatively small budget that the film had, we'd probably be best suited to try to raise the money ourselves."
NFS: How do you pitch a film like this?
Jetter: To be quite honest, we didn't really "pitch" the project to anyone except for our prospective investors—we knew that with our network, and with the relatively small budget that the film had, we'd probably be best suited to try to raise the money ourselves, explaining the relevance of the film vis-a-vis a larger social context, how we managed to gather a bunch of great performers to star in the movie, and how those and other factors would probably maximize the likelihood of the film's success.
NFS: Tell me about the process of crew selection and equipment prep.
Jetter: There were a lot of really talented people that I wanted to work with, many of whom I had already collaborated on my web series, Hard Times (Gabby Moses, production designer; Patrick Ng, A.D.; Jared Rosenthal pretty much did all of the picture/special effects/color editing on the film). Most of the other folks I had met by working in the film department at NYU at the time. Cory Fraiman-Lott, a recent NYU grad, I'd seen around and I knew had a great team of electricians, grips, and camerapeople that could get this sort of a job done.
Marttise, Julius and I knew that this was going to be a hard shoot—we had about 90 pages of script to shoot over a period of 18-19 days, and we were shooting in July in Brooklyn, with 66% of the shoot taking place inside of apartment interiors. Our crew was great; I think the average age of folks on our team might have been 24/25, excluding my Aunt, who did make-up.
Our cast was also great— and I owe a tremendous amount of credit to them and to DeWanda Wise (our lead and Executive Producer) for supporting us to make some hard choices in the nick of time that really brought things together.
NFS: How did How To Tell You're a Douchebag end up at Blackstar?
Jetter: We premiered at Sundance and it was there that we found a distributor—which was awesome because we got a TV deal. We're doing an iTunes/Google/Amazon release as well. We're now on iTunes. We're also still playing festivals and may do a limited theatrical release. All things considered, I think we have actually done quite well, given that we've never secured a typical theatrical release.
"I've always thought of Black Star as the little festival that could, when a lot of other festivals often seem to be bogged down by corporate influence."
Black Star is honestly one of my favorite fests in the entire continental United States. I think it's one of the few festivals around the country in which the organizers really care about the critical conversations around the work, and even though it's a small fest, there's a great deal of support from people in the industry, and perhaps even more important, a lot of really great filmmakers that get programmed. I've always thought of Black Star as the little festival that could, and when a lot of other festivals often seem to be bogged down by corporate influence and glitz and glam, it's really refreshing to go to a place where people just simply seem to care about the films. I was honored to be able to participate.
NFS: Were you worried about being more honest about the vulgarity of modern romance? A woman in the audience asked why the film didn't have a "happier" ending. Do you think we're still resistant to change, narratively speaking or in filmmaking itself?
Jetter: I have no reservations about respectability politics or vulgarity in any of the stuff that I've made or want to make, particularly given how profane a lot of American culture is already. Having spent a lot of time on Twitter, and having grown up watching a lot of bawdy shows on regular network television, I think that a lot of people are already absorbing content that refuses to censor itself. As an "artist," you've got to be real with people if you want to authentically represent the time in which we live. Otherwise, I don't know that a mainstream audience (and particularly the core audience for this movie) would even be remotely interested in seeing this film.
The thing that always gets me about modern American movies is— as Steve McQueen mentioned in an interview a few years ago— "sex remains the last American taboo." I couldn't agree more. We've got all kinds of movies and TV shows we watch annually where people are murdering, brutalizing, and shooting each other in the face, but often times the prospect of being candid onscreen about some of our more intimate relationships, even in conversation, seems distasteful. It's a kind of thinking that I don't agree with, particularly when you look at how we date today.
"The costs that distributors will pay for [indies] seem to be getting smaller with each passing year, particularly if you're doing your first feature without any 'name' talent."
NFS: How To Tell You're A Douchebag feels new in that it's got the feel of a studio comedy from a bygone era, but it looks like a new indie film. It's speaking a new kind of language. What's the future, as you see it, of independent production?
Jetter: I honestly think that independent films today are a sort of endangered species. It's no longer the '90s, and consumers have been completely inundated with things to watch on all kinds of platforms. With all of this content flying at us, I think today it's especially difficult to get people to A) be aware of independent films, and B) get them to consume them. The costs that distributors will pay for [indies] seem to be getting smaller with each passing year, particularly if you're doing your first feature without any "name" talent.
If up-and-coming filmmakers are wise—I hate to say this—but I think they'll need to consider doing their first features for $50k or less, because it's really hard to get someone to give you $500k or more for that first at-bat. You don't want to waste years and years waiting for money that may never come if you can come up with an idea that only requires a few locations, and that you can produce with a team of friends. You'll probably get a chance to make another film after having played festivals with your $50k project.
NFS: It's starting to look like black filmmakers are finally getting opportunities that have been denied to them by a racist system. Are you optimistic about more honest black stories like this finding their way onto movie screens?
Jetter: I think it's a really exciting time in Hollywood for filmmakers of color. That damn Oscars So White campaign that April Reign pushed really cascaded into a stream of guilt and shame around homogeneity in the larger film industry. Truth be told, I feel encouraged—I've been tracking the film industry since I was 16, and I think there are a lot of people that are interested in hearing from new, diverse voices. I feel really good that people are at least asking questions about why there have been so few women and people of color with access to the most prominent jobs in modern film and television. These questions are good for the progression of our culture.
NFS: What would you say to kids who were like you once upon a time, who want to make films in this economy?
Jetter: Having worked at NYU in the equipment room, I used to have a lot of work-study students working under me, and they'd often get fairly annoyed at all the advice I'd have to offer, but I graduated during the recession, so I had a lot to say.
"This career is not a fucking joke. Doesn't matter whether you went to film school or not—trying to make it as a writer/director is going to eat up your entire psyche."
If I could say anything, I'd say: this career is not a fucking joke, not at all. Doesn't matter whether you went to film school or not—trying to make it as a writer/director is going to eat up your entire psyche, it's going to break you emotionally, it's going to injure you, and you have to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail. If you don't really want to do this, don't waste your time, because it requires a certain ferocity and a love for the craft that will allow you to get over how often your ego will get beaten down.
Practically: Find a day job and/or a skill that allows you the most free time possible while offering you the most money possible so that you can still have the energy to come home and write. Don't buy new clothes unless you absolutely have to. Go to as many film festivals as you can so that you can steal other people's actors and reach out to them for work on your own films. Get Netflix DVD and watch as many movies as possible. Move to a major city that has a community of filmmakers (not LA) and find a group of people that you can trade scripts with, and whose sets you feel comfortable working on. Your community will get you from film to film. Lastly, try to stay in shape, 'cause you're going to have to lug a lot of shit around—more than you ever thought.