With today’s dried-up loan markets and lack of funding for the arts, financing all of their film’s budget through credit-cards, endless bartender shifts and selling internal organs is the norm for independent filmmakers. What you don’t hear about often is someone shedding his identity to dodge debt collectors.
New York-based David Spaltro suffered through this for two years, ever since wrapping his first, largely autobiographical film Around in 2008. Remarkably, he was able to maintain semi-steady work with no proof of existence. After years of healing and self-reflection, Spaltro regained the passion to shoot another film, Things I Don’t Understand, which he is now shopping to distributors and the festival circuit.
Like Noah Baumbach Spaltro is fond of shell-shocked, wisecracking characters who use their acerbic wit to brush aside their deeper emotions. The existential dialogue is sometimes spot-on and sometimes forced (as when the life-affirming yet emotionally-stunted hero of Around threatens to turn a bully’s face into “a paint-by-numbers Picasso.”)
At times, you nod your head in understanding as the characters frantically spell out their plight, remembering what it was like to be a recent college grad with lots of associative thoughts but no sense of purpose; at others, you want to yell at these people to put down the Nietzsche and make a concrete decision. And while the zeal and long hours that Spaltro put into his films are impressive, occasionally the shoestring budget and makeshift sets are noticeable: a Greyhound bus that’s supposed to be moving is not; a hopping restaurant looks like someone’s private loft.
But whatever their flaws, when you watch both Around and Things you become aware of Spaltro’s sharp gift for poking fun at artistic malcontents. Like many of us in the audience, he’s lived among these kids and knows that their artistic projects are rather pointless, and their doom-and-gloom sentiments overstated (even though, in the case of Things, the principal characters are all either dying or coping with the death of loved ones). But he thoroughly enjoys their philosophical journeys, their nonstop quest for answers that leads to the conclusion that there are no answers. David Spaltro’s enthusiasm is contagious: Around (which can be seen on Amazon) was a favorite at festivals and was broadcast on PBS in 2010. Things has already met with a number of glowing reviews. Screen Comment talked with Spaltro about the highs and lows of self-financed film production, his development of Things and some of his future project brainstorms.
Sam Weisberg: I read in interviews that, between shooting, editing and financing Things I Don’t Understand and holding several jobs at once, you often worked seventeen-hour days. How did you sleep, or eat?
David Spaltro: Very lightly. A lot of ramen noodles. You don’t have much of a life. I was living off couches at the time, just bouncing around, trying to save up every penny.
What were some of the jobs you took on while filming Things?
In pre-production, I worked double shifts in construction. I was freelance editing for VBS, VICE Magazine’s video depart-ment, [during] VBS’s merger with MTV and SKY TV. I was re-editing their videos for TV airing. I also worked on behind-the-scenes features for Where the Wild Things Are. I picked up bartending and serving shifts.
What was the shooting budget?
We came in at $175,000 and we had to raise additional funds for post-production. Unlike Around, which was all [financed through] credit-cards, we raised some money, did some crowdsourcing, and used my own savings [for half the budget]. And the other half was pre-selling the tax incentive that New York has. You find investors with a little bit of extra liquid income. You can’t guarantee that the movie is going to succeed, but you tell them, “Whether we sell this movie, whether it ever comes out, we’ll get this money back to you in a year.” Banks are certainly not going to give someone like me, whose credit looks like Dresden after the bombing, a loan, but investors with that kind of capital can put it aside.
Can you elaborate on how you went into such debt? I heard you maxed out forty credit-cards making Around.
We started shooting in September 2007, just when the housing crisis started. A lot of the cards I had were no-interest-for-a-year cards, and that quickly went out the window when all the banks crashed. My goal was to get the film into Tribeca or SXSW by 2008. I knew by that point that the monthly interest alone [for these cards] was going to be a thousand dollars, so there’s no way I could keep that afloat. By the time I got us the sales agent, the bills were too much. I had to protect the movie and not have the banks tear it apart, so I worked out a plan with two producers on the film. I gave them [the rights to the film] for ten dollars.
I lived off the grid for two years while the movie came out. When the creditors eventually found me, I was working for Vice, making all this money, and it was supposed to be off the books. They did all their banking in Canada. But they decided for some reason to send off the 1099 form to the government, and now the creditors knew where I was and that I made XYZ. The creditors were desperate to settle. I owed about $225,000 and I ended up settling for about $30,000. They knew that if I wanted to disappear again, I could, and they needed something. I couldn’t file for bankruptcy and I couldn’t pay the bills. To this day, I still don’t hypothetically own the movie.
Would you do that again, to finance another film?
Not willingly. I don’t regret it, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. But it was one of the hardest, most exhausting experiences. To this day, I don’t have credit.
Doyle, the lead character in Around has a rough-and-tumble existence, too. He spends most of his film school years sleeping in Penn and Grand Central Station. How autobiographical was that?
From December 2002 through January 2004 I lived at the train station. I worked a bunch of jobs. I took two-hours naps in the library.
Were you hassled while camping out at these stations?
All the time. I think what drives people crazy about not having a place to live is that when you’re exhausted and just want to be left alone, you have to keep moving. Normally if someone asks you to move, you can do it, but every six or seven weeks or so you have mini-nervous breakdowns.
The main actor in the film, Robert W. Evans, wanted to spend two nights in a train station without going home to get the feel for the character. I gave him the rules: you can’t have money and you can’t tell anyone what you’re doing. I told him the hardest part is the second day, when you just can’t take it anymore. Now imagine you can’t go home, because that doesn’t exist. Stay one extra day.
Did he meet that challenge?
No, he went home [laughs].
Was it easy to get a permit to shoot in Grand Central and Penn stations?
We were allowed to shoot at Penn Station overnight. And then for some reason, the producer passed the script on to them, and they said, “What is this about? There’s no homeless people here.” And they said that while stepping over a homeless guy—literally. They wouldn’t let us shoot there. Grand Central, we told them we were making something else about, like, puppies–they gave us four hours.
Beyond telling her son he can’t come home after leaving for film school, the character of Doyle’s mother comes off as quite brutal. When she’s dying, she literally tells her son, “You should be on this deathbed, not me.” Was that similar to your experience with your mother?
It’s based on things very personal to me in my own relationship with my mother. Some of it is downplayed and not as bad as it actually was. My major regret about that film is that the character kind of comes off as a bogeyman. It’s more complicated in real life.
Was she that angry that you went to film school?
Yeah. She created this person who is extremely self-sufficient and able to do or pursue things that she never allowed herself to, so there’s both pride and anger about that. I didn’t understand this until this year, but I believe that someone can tell you, two times in a day, “I love you” and mean it with all their heart, and tell you “I hate you,” and mean it with all their heart.
Was the early scene in the elementary school, where Doyle says racist things to the black kids picking on his sister, just to protect her, also based on your real life?
Yes, and I said things that were far worse. I was nine years-old. I grew up very poor in downtown Jersey City in the eighties, and I felt like I was outnumbered. I saw my sister being bullied and I couldn’t physically protect her, but I thought maybe if I draw their attention away they’ll tear the shit out of me. And they did.
I remember writing that scene and really fighting for it. And then every time we screened the film, I was like, “Oh my God, I have this scene that’s two minutes into the movie. No one knows what the film is about yet, and I have a nine-year-old child screaming these awful things. Everyone is going to hate this.” But luckily, when he comes down and interacts with the other black kid, shaking his head, saying “that’s not what I meant,” luckily they get it.
There is at least one potentially taboo scene in each movie. In Things, I’d say it was the gay and lesbian housemates drunkenly hooking up with each other.
For me it’s the dancing vagina [theater] scene.
Were you just making fun of “The Vagina Monologues”?
I had an actress friend who invited me to an off-off-off-Broadway show, and it was some awful Brechtian thing, and then all of a sudden this giant vagina came out. I decided to [use that in Things.] We had this great meeting with the makeup girl and the wardrobe people about building the vaginas. Then we shot it, and I’m thinking, “Did I just do something really stupid?”
How did you find the cast for these films?
Robert Evans was dating a bartender I knew. I found him one night playing football in a blizzard, really drunk. Molly Ryman [the star of Things, she also appears in Around] was chosen from among thirty girls who auditioned for the role. She’s very pretty but she is also more conflicted, not just a vulnerable Midwest cliché.
You’ve said that Molly underwent not only a character transformation but a physical one to play the role in Things. I’m wondering, besides dying her hair brown, how she transformed?
Her clothing, and the way she carries herself. There’s a lot of Violet that is in Molly, but there’s also a lot she had to allow herself to get into. This was also the first time she had to carry a film. She felt that people might not instinctively see her as that character. It was difficult.
Allison [Ryman’s character in Around] is emotionally available, as a friend and even as a love interest for Doyle, even though they don’t consummate. In Things, she’s physically available in that she sleeps with people she doesn’t care about, but emotionally, she’s severely unavailable. She has a fear of starting something that will have an end at some point.
You wrote the first draft of Things as a one-act play in college and then went back to it. How was it changed?
I was working on my thesis film at SVA. I hadn’t done anything I was proud of. I wrote some scenes between Violet and the girl in hospice. There wasn’t really a story. Then when I went through my dark post-Around time, I found these pages and there was a chance to say everything I wanted to say. I thought it was going to be much darker. It’s about death and a really messed-up character. And it wound up being a lot lighter. Just by writing it, I found out that what I had to say wasn’t as angry or nihilistic as I thought. It was about forgiveness and family, and how when you think you have life figured out and it throws you curveballs, you have to grow up with it.
Did the story develop based on things that happened once you got back to New York from abroad, how your social life developed?
Are you asking me if I slept around a lot? Because I did. [laughs] There’s a lot of Violet in me. At that point I was living in different sublets and constantly moving around, so there was an idea of finding a place that you find comfortable, and then losing that home. Violet’s quest was my quest.
You said you have a “final New York City love letter” to shoot. Can you elaborate?
I have one last movie in the vein of Around and Things. I don’t know if that will be the next thing I do or when that will happen. I don’t sit at a laptop and write. Sometimes I’m walking around listening to music and I write in my head, so that when I actually sit down, that first draft comes out in two days.
How do you stay productive when you feel like the odds are against you, in this industry? How do you get out of a funk?
Scotch really helps, and random debauchery. Those projects each took three years of my life. You can’t second-guess it or regret it after the fact, because you’ll be extremely depressed. I wouldn’t change anything. Right now I need a year of being somewhat normal. Getting back to paying my own bills. I’d be awful at a desk job, but whether I’m editing freelance or bartending, it pays the bills. I’d like to open the film at SXSW or Tribeca. There’s the Seattle festival in June. I’d like to take it to a few international festivals, and have a distribution deal by the spring, and have it out by the fall.
Do you want to make a movie set abroad? I know you went all over Europe and South Korea.
Absolutely. I backpacked through Europe for seven months. I had fifty bucks and a bag and that became thirty-five euros and a train pass. I slept in train stations, I worked in hostels, I bartended, I worked on gondolas. I played cards for money in Ireland. I hitchhiked. When I came back I felt like I’d been gone for ten years. I don’t know about Korea, but I’d love to make the ultimate “Backpacking in Europe” film.
Finally, what was the most stressful moment of shooting, for either film?
On September 11, 2007 one of our production assistants crashed the truck on the Williamsburg Bridge and shut it down for an hour during rush hour. It wasn’t even his fault, another truck hit him. If he’d been on the other side, not only would he have been killed, but all the clothes Molly donated to the film would have been destroyed. The movie would have been over.