Mar 7, 2008

Interview - Ronald Bronstein, writer/director of Frownland

Ok NYC cinephiles - I know you're all psyched about Gus Van Sant's truly brilliant new film Paranoid Park finally getting its chance to unwind at the IFC Center this weekend. Yet also finding its way to 6th avenue this weekend is last year's Gotham winner for "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You", Ronald Bronstein's Frownland. Please, do yourself a favor and see these movies as a double feature. I was on the jury for that particular Gotham Award and among some pretty strong films (August The First, Loren Cass among them) Ronald's was clearly on another plane. The insatiably humble, self-deprecating, emotionally honest Bronstein and I talked about his film. Here's what he had to say:

BH: Tell us about the genesis of the project and your preoccupations as a filmmaker.

RB: Yikes. That's a sort of unwieldy question, man. I suppose the project, in it's basest sense, was born out of an attempt to make sense out of – or least capture – my own wretched mindset at the time I started writing. I don't know. Living in a place like NY in your 20's can be a pretty horrifying and debilitating thing. On the one hand, you're surrounded by so many people, so many strangers, and the desire and need to connect to the one's you find attractive can be super overwhelming. You want to be noticed, you want to be liked, you want to be a part of something, you want a girl, you want cool friends with similar tastes. And if you don't feel like you have the power to obtain these things, well, it foments a kind of gross leering bleeding-heart desperate neediness that makes it all the harder to obtain them. On the other hand, in spite of all this naked desire, being crammed in with all these strangers can be sort of nauseating too. I mean, some guy's hairy arm accidentally grazes against yours on the subway and it's just repulsive, right? Like trying to force two magnets together. Weirdly, this knee-jerk hostility directly contradicts that desire to connect and it's all very confusing. In the end, I'd say the two operative traits governing my personality (and ultimately, Frownland) were gross insecurity and abject intolerance, which is a very ugly and self-defeating combination. Nonetheless, this is where I was at, and really it's my personal preoccupations that dictate how I think as a filmmaker.

BH: You've now played the film internationally to some acclaim. What do foreign audience make of the film when you show it to them?

RB: Well, the film has only played once outside of the states. And that was in Munich. Munich is a very conservative city and the response was sort of tepid. Polite to a fault. Hardly what I'd call "acclaim". So I still don't really know what foreign audiences will make of my Yankee slop job. I've lined up distribution for the film in France and it's going to open there this summer on like 12-14 screens. Wtf!?! Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

BH: Where were you when you found out you'd gotten into SXSW last year? How did you react?

RB: Um, well, it'd be far cooler to say that I didn't need the external validation of a festival acceptance letter to buoy my confidence in my own work. But well, after spending 5 long years slaving away on the same film, moored to the same limited pool of ideas, well, I was just a reeking heap of uncertainty and self-doubt. Let's see. I got a call out of the blue from (SxSW programmer) Matt Dentler, I was at home editing, he told me I was to play in competition, and within moments I was magically retransformed into the overweening, vainglorious fucker that you see before you today.

BH: You shot over the course of several years, finding financing as you went. How do you think this affected the finished film? Would you make another film in this manner?

RB: Well, I just mentioned how it affected my self-worth. That wasn't good. But in other ways it helped. See, I paid for most of the film myself. And my job as a projectionist just doesn't pay all that much. Basically, I did the math and figured out that if I worked 6 days a week, I could afford to shoot one scene every 5 weeks. This meant 5 weeks of rehearsals and rewrites, which allowed the ideas to steep. Thankfully, I was blessed with a near pathological level of support from my collaborators. They were all willing to stay in the same hapless creative place for an excruciating period of time. But ultimately, no set of ideas (no matter how strong) can sustain themselves over that kind of time frame and it took a lot of unnecessary psychic energy to keep myself committed (read: from being committed). The next project will be made much more quickly, assuming I can get some kind of budget in place beforehand.

BH: Do you consider yourself a cinephile? What debt does the film owe to the other films or filmmakers provided some influence?

RB: Well, as a projectionist on the museum circuit I see tons of stuff. But as romantic as that job might sound to cinephiles, 'seeing' the movies is about all you do. I 'see' them without really experiencing them. Which is annoying. Now when I'm at work, I don't really pay attention to anything other than the change-over cues at the end of each reel. As for as my being a cinephile, I don't know. There are a few filmmakers who mean a lot to me (mostly that small handful of narrative-based artists who have eschewed heavy plotting for studies in behaviorism) and I've brooded over their work exhaustively over the years. But by the time I went into production I basically stopped watching movies cold turkey. I didn't want Frownland to be some kind of intellectual idea of moviemaking - cut 'n pasted from various cinematic sources - but rather something that was solely born out of the gonzo dynamics of the people I was working with. I mean, Altman, Leigh, Wiseman…my hope is that I've absorbed their vocabulary enough to regurgitate it without conscious steering.

BH: What were your biggest challenges when constructing the film in post-production?

RB: Too much footage for starters. The first cut of the movie was nearly 4hrs long. Haha. Can you imagine? And while the basic structure of the finished cut pretty much remains the same, it took a ton of time for me to pare down and distill the essence of each section. For a while there I was really stuck. Anytime I tried to remove a scene the entire flow of the movie would seemingly collapse. Like dominos. So what I did was organize a public screening, in the hopes that some kind of out-of-bedroom humiliation would knock me out of my rut. Frownland DP Sean Williams enlisted a group of the staunchest, most unforgiving cinephiles in Manhattan to watch and critique it at the Anthology Film Archives one night. And it WAS humiliating. For starters, it looked terrible. Sean and I filmed all 4hrs off my flatbed monitor onto a VHS tape and the quality was just wretched. It looked like a beheading on youtube. Way worse though was that I was willingly showing complete strangers a version of a film that I didn't believe in. Ultimately though, it wasn't really about their reactions. I mean, I KNEW the movie didn't work and I wasn't looking for feedback. I don't know. In a lot of ways, editing is like a continual process of self-deception. You sit alone with your footage and come across parts that fail and you cut and cut, and convince yourself that you've salvaged something. Deep down you can feel that you're bullshiting yourself, but you override that feeling for the sake of your own mental equanimity. Anyway, I find that simply bringing in another person to watch your work has the power to decimate all those flimsy self-deceptions in one fell swoop. The pendulum swings the moment you hit play. So yeah, that night was helpful…and horrible. Of course, now I run into people who were there who claim that the 4hr cut was the "definitive version". Oy ve. You can't win.