[Ed. note: If you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to see it before reading so all is not revealed. FRAUD is now playing in NYC until January 26th , so hurry!]
Amongst a sea of corporate logos, debt collectors, lost pets, iPods and ominous fortune cookies, FRAUD is a mesmerizing portrait of the American dream (alive and well) in the 21st century. Stitched impressively from over 100 hours of YouTube footage, the often hilarious, often heartbreaking non-fictional frame calls into question the nature of mediated reality itself.
At AFI 2016, we spoke with director Dean Fleischer-Camp about transmuting a family's home video archive into a 53-minute joyride that sweeps the audience into frenetic anxiety and A.D.D. hypnosis.
NFS: How did you find the source footage and how did you design the narrative?
Fleischer-Camp: I just found this guy Gary's footage online about five years ago and I was enamored with the way he filmed things. The editing and the pacing, everything interrupting the last thing, I thought was really interesting. I contacted him five years ago and asked him how he edited. And also the way he films textures and things, that's not what you see in the typical home movie, usually it's just a wide shot and let it run. That's what I was initially drawn to. For years, I checked that page and was a casual fan of it.
NFS: Have you read Reality Hunger? Storytelling, for me, seems to be most exciting when a non-fictional frame is used to heighten the fiction. This film succeeded on everything level to do that for me.
Fleischer-Camp: I have read that, and now that I think about it, it was right around the time I started this project. I had this idea to do, not exactly Reality Hunger, but to try to edit super manipulatively a trove of found footage. I liked looking at this guy's footage enough and that there was enough material that's divorced from its context that I thought I could make separate scenes out of these.
"If you establish a pace that's not the same as how we see the world, you enter your audience into a semi-dreamlike state."
The movie wouldn't work if the source wasn't someone who was cutting so quickly. I think a lot of movies function that way. If you establish a pace that's not the same as how we see the world, you enter your audience into a semi-dreamlike state. I think David Lynch does it, Michael Haneke does it, it's like a metronome, it mesmerizes you a little bit. You're not as critical because you're sucked into this new rhythm.
NFS: How did sound editing inform the narrative?
Fleischer-Camp: Initially, I thought I would make a short film or an art installation with it. When we started pairing his little sound bytes with footage that wasn't his and saw how quickly our brains integrated it into their story, we started to realize we could tell a longer form story with this. One of the first things was when my editor John [Rippon] stumbled upon some footage of him saying, "All the way down to the bottom! Down down down!" — he's talking about shoveling snow. We paired it with the footage of the car going into the lake and we were amazed at ourselves.
"It goes to show that if you have enough of anybody's footage you can take any general person and paint a specific portrait of them. Even though that was our idea from the beginning, it was still shocking."
It was over 100 hours of their YouTube clips from 2007-2012, and it was rare when they didn't have something we needed. At one point we needed a clip of them saying, "We need to find some more money." In one of their clips, they were at an amusement park and she said, "I need to go get some money." It goes to show that if you have enough of anybody's footage, you can take any general person and paint a specific portrait of them. Even though that was our idea from the beginning, it was still shocking.
A still from 'FRAUD.' Ed. note: logo obscured by NFS. Credit: Dean Fleischer-Camp
NFS: You're pushing everything under the rug once you introduce it, so all these things just get buried in the audiences' psyche. Did you have the Bonnie & Clyde outline that you wanted to hit from the beginning?
Fleischer-Camp: Not from the beginning. I emailed Gary early on because I was worried about it, and I told him we were going to make a story out of his footage that totally isn't his story at all. Halfway through I emailed him and said, "Hey, it's taking on this Bonnie & Clyde thing, is that okay?" He said, "Sure." The other reason I wanted to diffuse it as soon as the Q&A started is because I really don't want anyone to think they are actual criminals, even though from an artistic point of view, I love it being out there in a way that's mysterious. I had some guy at a screening come up to me afterward saying he was a special investigator at the FBI and he was ready to open a case.
NFS: I was fascinated how angry people would get when they realize what you're doing. "It's not a documentary, it's fiction!" they say. You say documentary is just another genre of film like any other. We've been saying this for 40 years and people still don't get that "documentary" does not mean "truth."
Fleischer-Camp: People discover it every 10 years and they're so angry. People were angry at the jinx because his shirt changes between shots—that's every piece of media you consume! FRAUD is much more of a documentary than the early scripted staged documentaries like Nanook of the North that were the foundation of the genre.
"I had some guy at a screening come up to me afterward saying he was a special investigator at the FBI and he was ready to open a case."
NFS: The lack of context makes the story hit in really visceral way. I thought: how is it possible that this filmmaker stumbled upon the American dream, just lurking online? How do you release a film like this without placing it in context and ruining it in some way?
Fleischer-Camp: I think that we're in this weird transition period, things appear online without context, and that's at least more interesting to me. But then there's the publicity system and the financial concerns of making a movie that requires answers. People want to know they're not going to get sued. When we started I wished that we could just post it online, put it in front of people and not give them any context. I dread putting it out in a format where you can rewind it because then people would [see the seams], they'll notice her shirt is different here or there. I do think we're in a post-credit world though, I don't know why there are still credits on films when people can just look them up. You don't even really need a title card anymore.
NFS: How do you approach the licensing for a film like this?
Fleischer-Camp: It's an ongoing nightmare.
A huge thanks to Dean for speaking with us. FRAUD is now playing in NYC until January 26th .