Ditching Dialogue and Facial Expressions Opens Up a World of Imagination in 'Sylvio'
"It's an absurd premise, but we wanted to play it very straight."
Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney created a story around a small-town gorilla stuck in a dead-end job. Throughout Sylvio, the man in a gorilla suit never talks or has any changes in his facial expression, but is still able to convey the universal struggles of being an artist. Preposterous? Possibly. Perceptive? Precisely.
Based on the character first made famous through 6-second Vine videos, the burgeoning filmmakers are tuned into the dance between doing what your fans expect you to do and being true to the creative kernel that got you there in the first place. Audley and Birney sat down with No Film School after their SXSW 2017 premiere to talk about creating something reminiscent of movies they grew up on, navigating the path of fame in filmmaking, and pushing against every rational naysayer to get a film made.
"The world is not going to hold your hand to force the movie out of you. In fact, the world was pushing us not to make this movie."
No Film School: You’ve never collaborated before, and the world of Sylvio, a very stylized visualization of pastel colors, retro props, and slow motion, seems different from your previous work. Did morphing your styles together help you create something new?
Kentucker Audley: Well Albert’s The Beast Pageant might seem different mostly because it's in black and white.
NFS: Maybe that's it. I’m like, I can't quite put my finger on what’s so different…
Audley: Yes! See, I imagine that if that movie was in color, it might have been similar to the Sylvio setting, with Birney’s aesthetic as the baseline. I think we were working with that kind of form.
Albert Birney: Kentucker is coming from such a different background. He makes these movies where everyone talks the whole time. I was excited to enter that world a little bit, and have someone who was more familiar with that. I think that's why it was exciting to put them together; it hopefully creates this new, weird hybrid.
We grew up watching similar things as kids, so we have the same cultural reference points. So here, we’re trying to get back to a throwback type film, from the '80s and '90s, where it's just about the excitement of the montages and the slo-mo. It's about the music. It doesn't take itself so seriously, and it goes in different directions.
There's this auteur theory of thinking: "Everything needs to be in one exact line." We're used to this theory that one person should be making all the decisions. I feel like in this movie, there are so many different things going on, and it makes it more interesting rather than less interesting. Putting ideas together is a new package. The more we mix it up, the more interesting it can come out.
NFS: The film touches on the bloating effects of fame and corporate sponsorship, so it's an interesting film to premiere in the middle of the SXSW jamboree. When you and writer/producer Meghan Doherty were working on the story, were you pulling ideas from your own experiences as artists?
Audley: It definitely parallels the experiences we go through. It's more of a question of who we are as artists, and trying to stay true to the purity of where it all started. There is some excitement in chasing bigger things—the idea of popularity and of fan excitement, for instance. It's exciting to chase that, but in chasing it, oftentimes you're going away from what the essential ingredient is.
That's the plot of the film. It's very relatable to my life, and I think yours as well, Albert? It directly relates to the Vine account, too, because of the balance of trying to meet expectations that come when followers come. "How do I get followers? If I post a Vine this, I know people will re-vine it…." You get stuck in that cycle. The point is not to get more followers. But, of course, the followers enable a thing, so it's a tricky balance.
"His face hasn't changed; the audience is either putting themselves into it, or we’re creating something from his subtle movements."
NFS: Having an inanimate face on Sylvio is like using a mask that people can project anything onto. Is that something that played into the filmmaking strategy?
Birney: In the early Vine days, I always loved that people would say, "He looks so sad!" And then a couple months later, "He's so happy!" His face hasn't changed; they're either putting themselves into it or we’re creating something from his subtle movements. Sylvio had to have just the right expression; no expression, like zen.
Audley: I’ve thought about what this film would be with a person in the role. By the end of the movie, it's not a gorilla; it's just Sylvio. It’s an absurd premise, but we wanted to play it very straight. I feel like the sincerity is what we really kept going back to, and making sure that we weren't relying too much on just the visual gag, but trying to find the heart of communicating this struggle.
NFS: What was the biggest challenge throughout the whole project?
Audley: Well, we forgot the little hole in the mouth. Sylvio had to breathe through the mask!
Birney: Yeah, that. We really enjoyed the collaboration of the three of us working together, but just keeping our shit going forward and keeping momentum was probably the most difficult part.
Audley: The world is not going to hold your hand to force the movie out of you. In fact, the world was pushing us not to make this movie. There's no reason to make this movie. It won't make any money, it'll take four years, no one wants to see this movie, at every turn. That's a hard thing to push against. That's a hard thing to keep fighting against.
NFS: What’s your advice for other filmmakers after this successful collaboration?
Birney: You always hear people say, "Oh, you got to make films about what you know." Whatever you're doing, make it come from a real place inside of you.
I always hear one of my film professors in my head. During my sophomore year in film school, I was trying to make five-minute Goodfellas, and there were bags of cocaine. My professor was like, "Albert, have you ever done cocaine?" I wiped my forehead and was like, "Busted!" So even though this is a gorilla, and I'm not a gorilla, you hopefully know we're putting our journey and our feelings and our emotions about the world into this story. Hopefully, it comes through as an honest expression of life.
Birney: The Beast Pageant took three and a half years of shooting and editing and there was no money, no budget. But it was just so much fun to find people that feel the same way you do. It’s important to find those close friends that you love collaborating and working with.
Also, if you've never done cocaine, don't do cocaine in your film.
Audley: Maybe don't do cocaine overall.
Birney: That, too. We all have got stuff inside of us—feelings, emotions. Get those things out any way that you can, whether it's film or singing a song or making a bowl of oatmeal. Find a community, whatever you're doing. It's good to have friends. Download GroupMe and share memes with your group of people.
Audley: Yeah, for our next movie, we're going to make a giant meme. A 90-minute meme. Not sure how yet.
Birney: Can we set that interview up with you now?
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.