Cooper Raiff's film Shithouse got made through a combination of hard work, creativity, and helpful input from Jay Duplass.
Shithouse tells the story of Alex (played by Raiff, also the writer/director/co-editor/producer), who is struggling through his first year of college, far away from his supportive family. When he finally steps out of his comfort zone at party frat "Shithouse," he meets an RA named Maggie (Dylan Gelula), forging what he thinks is his first meaningful connection at school. But then she ignores him the next day, and he has to navigate an entirely new emotional minefield.
It's a heartfelt, intimate micro-budget feature with some great performances, altogether a stellar and relatable debut from a first-time filmmaker.
We spoke with Raiff about the value of drawing from personal experiences, the ways this story grew and developed, and how you might be able to find yourself a mentor like Duplass.
Writing What You Know
It's the tried-and-true writing advice we've all heard before: "Write what you know." What are the stories that resonate with you? What about your own experiences do you want to share with audiences? What kind of story can you tell that is wholly yours?
Raiff took all this to heart as he developed Shithouse.
"The main character, who I play, is very much based on myself," Raiff said. "The movie's called Shithouse, so I think a big part of it is just about college being a shitty home."
His experiences moving away from his childhood home inspired the story. Much like Alex, Raiff came from a "rock-solid" family into a difficult college experience, until he met a girl who became his best friend. He said they opened each other's eyes, in many ways.
"The movie's about how these two people are raised on very different advice, so the tension of the movie lives in that," Raiff said.
Alex is an outsider struggling in an unfamiliar environment while everyone else is apparently having a great time. Most of us can relate to that. Raiff's genuine experiences come to life in the writing and performances, and this gives the film an authenticity that can be difficult to achieve, especially for first-time filmmakers.
Developing the Film
Shithouse took a somewhat unconventional path to completion. Raiff actually made another version of the movie a couple of years ago during one of his spring breaks. It was called Madeline & Cooper at the time, was still based on his college experiences, and starred the real-life female friend who influenced his first year. It was made for essentially nothing and had a free-form plot.
"My best friend, who had never held a camera before, filmed the whole thing," he said.
He put the roughly 90-minute film on YouTube, where it gained some very important attention—but we'll get to that.
Being with these characters for so long over several drafts and basing them on real people gave Shithouse two fully realized, nuanced characters. When Raiff decided to retool the earlier script and make a more serious version of this story, it shifted from a 2-hander to put the focus more on the male lead.
However, he had still done a lot of work on Maggie's character. Raiff asked Gelula to read early drafts that included additional scenes with Maggie, to build on her understanding of the character. Raiff said that these unseen elements are evident to him in Gelula's performance, and he credits her talents as an actor for bringing them into play.
"If I could have [the scenes] in the movie, I would," he said. "I think those are important for Dylan to read. I think we probably rehearsed some of those scenes, even though we didn't film them or put them in the movie."
So, remember that every draft has value, and even simple writing exercises that never make it into your final cut can be helpful in the long run.
During the shoot, Raiff filled roles as the project's director, writer, co-editor, and producer, mostly to save money and time. He said he would prefer to not repeat this process because it was "crazy."
The film was shot on an ARRI Amira using Panavision Ultra Speed lenses. Raiff edited the project with Adobe Premiere Pro.
DP Rachel Klein used DaVinci Resolve for coloring. Kira MacKnight and the One Thousand Birds team utilized Pro Tools for sound, including the plug-ins iZotope RX for dialogue cleanup and Altiverb for reverb.
Working with Jay Duplass
Back when Shithouse was Madeline & Cooper, Raiff did something bold. He tweeted the YouTube link to producer/writer/director/actor Jay Duplass with a dare. Bet you won't click on this link!
Spoiler alert: Duplass did, that very same day. After watching the film, he offered to meet with Raiff and, over the next year, he helped develop the movie into its current iteration.
Before this, Raiff said he had been working on writing a television show and struggling to get someone to read it. Duplass was always a filmmaker whose input he dreamed of getting. He tried official channels, including Duplass' agent, with little success.
"The Duplass brothers are just so supportive and kind to young filmmakers. And so that was the reason why they were always the target for me."
"I think in the back of my head, the whole time, I was going to show it to Jay," Raiff said. "I wasn't banking on him seeing it. I was banking on showing it to someone who shares my sensibilities."
He also purposefully shot parts of the first version in Eagle Rock, where Duplass lives, to forge that visual connection early.
"The Duplass brothers are just so supportive and kind to young filmmakers," Raiff said. "That was the reason why they were always the target for me. Not just, 'Oh, I love them as filmmakers.' I also just know who they are and how generous they are."
Filmmakers seeking mentors of their own should learn from Raiff's approach. Be polite but persistent, and make sure you know your audience and are seeking out advice from someone who shares your particular storytelling or visual approach.
Raiff is still working on his TV series idea, Hal and Harper, which follows two siblings and a single dad who is making them grow up too fast. (Like, seriously too fast—Raiff said the 7- and 9-year-old characters would be played by adult actors.)
Shithouse was originally going to premiere at SXSW on March 14. It is currently seeking distribution.